Monday, 9 November 2015

Autumn 100

As someone who blogs regularly about races it was a first for me not to write a blog after North Downs Way 100. Why didn’t I? In part because i DNF’d, but more specifically because i had nothing new to say on the subject. I was on for the Centurion Running Grandslam, the day had been relentlessly hot, I stumbled in the dark, turned my anke and DNF’d at 76 miles. Yes there is more substance to the day than that, but in essence that was my race. The DNF was the right call for me, but could it have been avoided? Totally! So rather than write a blog to justify the DNF and how i would learn from it, I wanted to actually reflect, get strong and then comment with substance.

So after NDW i looked closely at my running right through from training to racing. The stress points for me and my family, but further what was i doing wrong? You might consider the fact that I had already finished two 100 hundred milers this year an indication that I wasn’t really doing anything wrong but i knew better than this. I have always gone into races feeling ok or like can scrape through. Stubbornness can get you a long way... A really long way, but for me it was starting to taint my joy of running and in turn my motivation. It was time to try something new and for me that was a running coach.

Firstly let me be clear that I have always been highly sceptical of running coaches. On the way to South Downs Way 100 I had that very conversation with Bryan Webster about how expensive they are and not being sure i could justify the cost. I could not really see what they could input into my running that I could not offer myself. It seemed someone else was going to tell me to run. Well yes i could do that. Granted that is a slightly simplistic summary of my initial thoughts on coaching, but it gives you the idea. After NDW I was a little dejected, but more out of frustration with myself. I had not run enough in the build up to that race. It really was that simple. When push came to shove i was not strong enough. I decided to speak to a few people who I know that have used or use coaches and those who have not and would never. I had a pretty balanced analysis of the option.

Just before North Downs Way 100 I took the decision after speaking to a good friend of mine, Nici Griffin, to have an initial call with Edwina Sutton. I had been following Nici’s running journey and despite her own complaing ;) I was impressed with the support and plans that Eddie would create for her. I was really impressed with Eddie when I spoke to her, but still slightly undecided before NDW. I spoke with her again after the race and I was convinced.

After 5 minutes into my post NDW conversation with Eddie I was sold on the benefit of coaching and that this was something I should definitely try. Eddie was fab and reassured me that really it was just consistency that was the key. She was sympathetic about my DNF, but accepted my own acknowledgement and ownership of this without trying to massage my ego (dont have Eddie as your coach if you want your Ego massaging.) I felt reassured by Eddie and unpressurised: more importantly i felt motivated. There was still part of me that queried whether the novelty of coaching would be a fad, with that said it was something I had not tried before and i figured would be worth a shot.

Fast forward 8 weeks from the conversation and i find myself on the phone to Eddie the night before Autumn 100. This time I am talking to her well and truly as my running coahc. My training up until this point has been consistent for the 8 weeks. I had noted progress in myself and my attitude towards running. Further i felt more able to mentally dial into a run. I had a good understanding of what my comfortable pace felt like and what the messages from my brain were really telling me. It had been stressed to me by Eddie throughout that consistency is key. I have trained with that attitude and even with a 2 week holiday in Florida i had managed to run and more less to a plan during that time. I can confidently say that over 8 weeks i ran the most consistently i have ever run and put some really good sessions together. I had also had some really positive strength sessions and on the whole was feeling stronger. So there i was talking to Eddie about the goals for the race and how best to achieve them. I have to say i love Eddie for this. From a family perspective she is about a year or two on from me and so has a very real understanding of the demands of family life and the balance to be found. My wife i think has also noticed the difference as well. It means my training is realistic, challenging, progressive and consistent. I am no longer sitting on the sofa saying “i should have run” and then spending hours procrastinating over how far I will run later or the following day. The added bonus of Eddie as a coach is I can’t message her and say i haven’t trained without a good reason. You can picture the scene of me texting her and trying to come up with a good excuse, knowing that she has not long had her third child and is still training. I think I would rather make sure I got my run in.

So during my conversation with Eddie I was absolutely ready for the race and excited. I had no excuses (apart from jet lag) and felt able to give this race a good crack. In Eddie’s words the plan for this race were “to finish with a big cheesey grin.” In addition i was to eat 500 calories at every aid station and constantly ask myself how i was feeling and adapt wherever required. We agreed that pace was irrelavent and i was absolutelly not to look at pace on my watch. I confess to being one of those historically that can get consumed by minutes per mile. This one would be a challenge but i was prepared to go with it. The final point was all too crucial and that was to remember we do this for fun and enjoy it. I was touched by Eddie informing me that she had been looking into trying to come and run with me for a bit. She couldn’t make the logistics work, but with a young baby i fully appreciate even the consideration. I pointed Eddie in the direction of the Racedrone app that I woudl be using and mentally added her to my list of stalkers for the race.

With a start time of 10am this race has the perfect location for me. I was able to stay at my sister and brother in laws with the family. I got a good night sleep and on the morning of the race my wife drove me over to the start. Registration was its usual smooth Centurion process. Over the years the number or runners I know has grown massively and by the time I had my race number my wife had asked me if i knew every single runner in the room. Of course i didn’t but there times when it feels like this. After dropping of my bag I bid the wife farewell and started mentally preparing for the race. I had agreed to speak to a guy from Radio Five and where a GO Pro for Audio recording. His day had obviously started worse than mine as her forgot the GO Pro’s. In truth I was a little relieved as less worrying about swearing now. I had a chat with him about why I run these types of races and it had the added bonus of getting me even more excited about the race. I really love the 100 mile races and the adrenaline in the atmosphere. I made my way to the start and caught up with friends. Some were going for the Grandslam, others were going for super fast times, whilst others were aiming for their first 100 mile finish. The thing we all had in common was an enjoyment of getting to experience this together. The weather for the race was pretty much perfect. No forecast for rain and the ambient temperature was very pleasant for running in a t-shirt.

So I lined up at the start and knew i would see everyone again at least once. The beauty of this race and something that i think makes it very special is the fact it is four out and backs. This means you get to see the front runners coming back and also encourage runners that you may be ahead of. It was nearly time for the off and I had inadvertently found myself near the start of the race. As good as my training has been I am not yet a front runner. So after a catch up with Sam Robson I stood ready to get going knowing that this would be the only time David Barker would be behind me during the race. I spoke with Sam Clack from Radio Five again and happily agreed to chat to him later. I could see he was being absorbed by the atmosphere of the race and at this moment everyone in Goring was part of the affair. James Elson gave his speach and confirmed who the Race Directors were for this weekend. James had recently confirmed he would be running. There was some speculation as to whether he would be racing for the win or to experience his event. I maintained my view that if he was running he would have to be running to the best of his ability and thus going for the win.

The countdown to the start took place 10...9....8.....................3...2...1 and just like that a flurry of runnners were departing Goring for the very first time. I was absorbed in the atmosphere. Two or three runners said hello and I confess to needing a minute to remind myself of who they were. Paul shortly after introduced himself and we chatted for a bit. Friend old and new this was going to be a very special race. I could that the day was going to be great. Plodding along i felt my leg were moving well and I was in a good rythmn. Running alongside the canal it brought back memories of Thames Path 100 and how much more prepared i felt today. There was a brief moment where I felt it was a shame that it was not for the Grandslam, but I knew i needed to run this race for me. I looked ahead of me a few miles in to see Bryan Webster. I have known Bryan for a few years now and would consider him a good friend. He is normally much faster than me, but I thought it would be fun to share 20 to 30 minutes together, whilst I was feeling good. Of course he would dart off into the distance and finish 5 to 6 hours ahead of me. I think it is fair to say what happened over the rest of the race suprised us both.

Perfect morning on the Thames Path

 Running through the first Aid station and onto the end of the first half of spur 1 the time seemed to be passing really quickly. Bryan and I were running well. We both stuck to our plans and occassionally he would disapppear and then I would catch him up. As I hit about mile 10 the lead runners came blaring past in the other direction. They all looked really comfortable, some in their own world and others giving a cursory “well done” or “keep it up.” This was all except for one, a certain James Elson. In about 8th at this point he screamed “looking great Dan, awesome effort.” He looked ridiculously comfortable, was chasing the win in his own race and yet still found that moment to briefly become engrossed in my race and not his. This is why i love Ultra Running and the Centurion Family. Soon after this I could see a mass of runnners and it suggested to me that the Aid station could not be far. Sure enough there was the Aid station and with a quick grab and run i left armed with food (remembering Eddie’s instruction of 500 calories) and a sense that i was in control. At this point Phil Hall was just ahead of me and seemed to be in a good run/walk strategy of his own. The running conditions were good, i was in a rhythm and had covered this part in a little over 2 hours. A real highlight as to why I was not looking at pace. Previously if i had been on this pace i would have slowed down and convinced myself it was too fast. In truth previously it would have been, but today it felt comfortable so i went with it. I was falling into a run for 15-20 minutes and then walk for 5. This gave me enough time to feel I had a break and also feel like I had a good chunk of running covered. The strategy was certainly eating into the distance.

Bryan had run ahead about 10 minutes before i hit the checkpoint and i assumed that he was long gone. It was to my surprise that i saw him again at about mile 14. He was approaching the road crossing and just ahead of him I saw Ashley Hurd dart across the road. I half expected the screach of tyres, the pause of Suunto’s and Garmin’s everywhere as we scraped him off the road. Thankfully it must have been my perspective as he had made it across the road fine and was running into the distance. Bryan and I started running again. After about another mile we chatted about training and plans. I noted I was just out to enjoy it and see what happened. We were both feeling good and Bryan acknowledged that i was obviously stronger than at NDW. I really felt it. Yes my legs could tell that at this point I had run 16 or so miles, but I felt like it was a sustainable pace that i could keep going for a good while yet and so I plodded on. I decided this was not a race where i was chasing times so i would take some pictures and send some tweets. It was turning into a bloody beautiful day. At about mile 20 Bryan was a little ahead of me. It seemed my run/walk strategy was working well and I was holding pace with him. This was at least 10 miles further than i would ever have imagined being in contact with Bryan. He was running with Ashley and so i plodded on. Eventually i overtook Phill Hall and gave him some encouraging abuse that i believe included a mild threat of violence if he DNF’d. As we approached a gate that would bring us back on to the bridge into Goring I was back running with Bryan. As surprised as i was he continued with a conversation we had left off about 40 minutes prior and we plodded into Goring together. It was about 4hrs 25 minutes into the race. To put this into context my previous PB for a marathon was 4hrs 35minutes. I definitely felt ok though. I had to run through a mental check to make sure i was not doing anything stupid. I text Zoe to confirm i was ok. I could tell she was a little worried that i was running too fast and that i would be blowing up later in the race. Bryan and i set off on the second leg on the ridgeway. With the woops and cheers of Natasha and Jon Fielden in my ears was feeling confident, but a little apprehensive of the hills that would be awaiting us. “Sod it” i thought. Its all part of the fun and i have nothing to lose.

Bryan had left just before me with the comment “catch me up.” There was no sarcasm in this comment, i think he genuinely expected that I would catch him up. As i left Goring Allan Rumbles and Chris Mills were in flow of conversation to which i heard “ask him go on” and “no i will ask him at the end”. I simply replied “whatever the question the answers yes.” As i ran off i heard Allan say “i should bloody hope so.” Both clearly on the wind up, but these moments of humour all add to the enjoyment of the day. So on to my first experience of the Ridgeway. It was not long before i was back running wiith Bryan. We made good time and were overtaking runners. I started to realise that a big difference between my running now and before is that i was running on some uphills. Those that know me well will know that i am not normally a fan of hills. Normally Bryan would shoot of into the sunset and this time on one occassion when i broke into a walk on a hill i heard Bryan say “thank fuck for that.” It was clear this was affective mutual support as we pulled each other along the Ridgeway at an efficient pace. Moving through the Aid stations we continued to run together, pull away from each other and soon run together again. Entering into the Aid station that would later be the 46 mile aid station i saw Graham Carter. We had a catch up and then just behind was Phil Hall. Another mild threat of violence if he DNF’d and on i carried. Not long after this James Elson came haring down the Ridgeway. Clearly he was in the lead and moving well. Armed ready with congratulations and encouragement i had no chance to furnish any of it as the shouts of “Legend, LEGEND, LEGEND!” Left James’ lips. I am sure as well that he meant it and that he lavished all other runners with the same encouragement; That or he was high on GU. Nevertheless it left me on a high and i powered along the route.

Bryan and i were running together again. We came past Richard Stewart down one of the hills. Bryan asked him how long until the aid station? The response was 5 minutes. Well i am sorry Rich but even James Elson would not have made it to that Aid Station in 5 minutes . In fact sod that he would not have made it there in 10 minutes. So it was 20 MINUTES later we arrived at the aid station. We got to the turning point... eventually ;) and made our way back to Goring as the light began to fade. Still feeling like there was running in the legs i was happy that as i moved through mile 40 the race was still enjoyable. I kept to the agreed plan i had made with Eddie and kept reassessing where i was at and ensuring i enjoyed myself. I found this section of the Ridgeway the toughest section of the race. Not because of the climb, but the twist and turns in the paths and the narrow trails. Even with that though i was feeling good and pushing forward.

By the time Bryan and i entered mile 46 it was dark and i was hungry. Bryan had been joking about getting a cheese and jam wrap. He had been, safe to say, a little perplexed at the choice of combination on the way out. So on the way back he jokingly asked for one from Graham Carter. As with all Centurion Crew Graham dutifullly obliged whilst also making me a jam wrap. I am still not clear to this day whether Bryan felt obliged to eat the Cheese and Jam wrap. I was grateful for my jam wrap. I find it a real struggle to eat bread whilst running, but wraps seemed to be going down a treat. Bryan and i ushered each other out of the aid station. Necking a couple of cups of coke on i went. I had a quick chat with Sam Clack from Radio 5 as he ran along with me through the church yard. I probably spouted a load of tripe to his questions, but he was clearly engrossed in the magic of the Centurion Race Weekend. We chatted for a few minutes in the dark. Sam thanked me and left me to get back to Goring. After some banta from Bryan about being a celebrity, he then piped up with a really pertinent question about Sam... “Did he have a torch?” my response was something along the line of “I aint going back to help him.” Thankfully i saw Sam later so i know he didnt trip on a gravestone.

Beautiful sunset

Approaching Goring i looked at my watch and realised the time still started with a 9. I turned to Bryan to converse on my surprise at the time. Training had obviously gone well, but given my 50 mile PB to date was 10hrs 45, at TP100 i had left the 50 mile point after over 13 hours, SDW 100 afer about 12 and NDW in around 13hours. So here i was approaching Goring as the elapsed time ticked just over 10hours. I phoned home to have a quick chat with the wife. The comment “what the bloody hell are you doing” was met with the reassurance that i felt fine and was not sprinting off. Given my year to date i could see why my wife had been concerned. Allan Rumbles was at Goring and why my back had turned ‘kindly’ brought me a plate of baked beans. As i sat prepping for the second trip on the Ridgeway i was very polite about the beans.... Ok no i wasn’t, but i was only rude to myself. I fucking hate beans... sorry Allan the plate of beans left behind were mine. With that said what was to come made the beans look delightful. I was ready to kill Bryan for the McDonalds that Jonny had left for him. Burger and Fries (BIG TICK), but then we entred “shit shake gate.” I am not sure if it had curdled or whether Jonny just pranked Bryan and wanted him to drink... well a cup of shit. The shake was very much not appetising and Bryan decided against the drink. So off we set back out on to the Ridgeway. I really enjoyed this section. It was hillier than any of the other spurs, but the terrain was very runnable and Bryan and i were working to an estimated time that we had said to Allan we would be back at Goring. The undulating terrain enjoyed its own mind games as we kept thinking about the fact we were going to be running back up those fricking hills.
The weather remained cool although the wind started to pick up. The aid stations out on this section were all out in the open and i was keen to get to the turnaround point and back off the Ridgeway. The final hill climb on the way back seemed to go on forever. I am left with little choice but to mention very little of that section as i think Bryan and i just called the climb evey expletive under the sun. Still we got to the final section of descent. Earlier in the day we had seen David Barker here and i remember thinking that it would be nice to get to run down. So Bryan and i picked up the pace and ran back into Goring. So 75 miles done in just over 16hours. As i got my bag and started to prep for the final spur i glanced to my right and realised it David Barker talking to me. What do you mean you are bloody finished. An epic run had seen him home in under 16 hours and even more impressive was James’ sub 15 hour run. Spurred on by their achievements i got myself ready to start the final spur. Bryan left Goring with Allan pacing him. I was given the instruction of “catch us up.” Sounds easy, but with 75 miles in your legs those three little words make for an interesting challenge. One that on this occasion would allude me.

On the final leg i was tired. I mean really tired. The jet lag was biting and biting hard. I could barely keep my eyes open. I honestly had not started this race with a goal target in mind, but severall comments on twitter had made sub 24 a real possibility. I felt this fading away fast as i struggled to stay awake. Plus i had forgotten how hilly this section of the Thames Path is. Even the trees may have blushed at some of my language. Anyway its a short stretch to the first aid station. As i arrived to the detour point on the path i made my way to the aid stations. Allan and Bryan were leaving. I was still within touching distance, but knew i was slowing. My legs felt ok, but i was really tired. So i necked a coffee and a couple of glasses of coke and powered out of the hall. I had to reassess what i was going to get out of this race. I needed to work out how i was going to continue enjoying this last section and finish in a manner that i was happy with. So i pushed on and in the darkness Sam Robson came flying past. I have known Sam for 15 years and so even in the darkness was able to discern it was him. Sam was going strong and was probably as surprised as i was that i was 80 odd miles into the race already. The next 8.5 miles of the race were the toughest. I knew this section and what was to come, but kept slowing to a cruel. I would have spells of clarity, feel awake and be able to power on at a good pace. Suddenly the fatigue would hit and i would be all over the place. I sat against a bulding and closed my eyes for two minutes. I rested against a tree for two minutes and on three occasions i rested my head on a gate for a minute. Yes all this time would really help me feel wide awake (sense the sarcasm). Then i would have a lucid period and question what the fuck i was doing. I mean all i really did in this spell was waste probably 15 to 20 minutes on the route to Reading. Worst still my mind warped back to Goring where i could visualise the bottle of Mountain Dew and can of Red Bull in my bag. How the bloody hell had i rushed out and left them behind. It gets better though as when i unpacked my bag a few days after the event i realised i had pro plus still in my pack. So the mind was knackered and i had forgotten about or left behind all my caffeine options. Bryan and Allan soon came past me. I was about 5 or 10 minutes out from the Aid station and so not that far behind at this point. The bridge i had been waiting for appeared and this meant the Aid Station was a matter of two minutes away. Sure enough there it was and success i had not fallen asleep and dropped into the canal. I took the decision at this point to have a 20 minute power nap. I could have drunk a heap of caffeine and hoped it sustained me, but i wanted to be enjoying this race and so chose a sleep. Overall sleep/jet lag i think had impacted on my race by around 45 minutes.

I set an Alarm and also expressed my intentions to David Barker(yes the same David who had finished the race in under 16 hours and was not helping at Reading.) so i knew he would wake me if my phone failed to. Just like those moments at home when you hit snooze and then the alarm speeds time up and goes off just seconds later. Well thats how it felt. I stood up and felt a bit more awake. I was still drowsy, but not to the level of passing out. I grabbed some food and a few cups of coke and departed down the stairs. The cheers as i left Reading was just what i needed. I bounded down the steps... ok i walked down them... and back onto the Thames Path and the last stretch home. I passed Phil Hall on my way back to Goring. Phil looked strong and i felt confident that with Jon Fielden pacing him i knew Phil would be finishing this race. So i plodded on. The race had got in my head a little and i slowed unnecessarily. It took me about the next hour to really pull my head back. It was my wife encouraging me to push on that snapped me out of it. I knew i had lost over an hour now through jet lag and being a bit of a fool. 24 hours was probably gone now, but Zoe was right press on and see what happens. For the first time in a while i ran and got back into a walk/run combo. My brain had not woken soon enough at Reading or i would have realised then that sub 24 was still a realistic goal. With that said the time was not the primary focus of this race. The timing element really sunk home. I was doing everything i had been advised to do and was still feeling like i had running left in my legs. My training had obviously proved more beneficial than i appreciated. I was supposed to be focused on adapting, enjoying and conquering. So i considerd where i was, checked my watch and revised my plan to sub 25hours.

On my way to my revised target i had run a little with Martin Bushell. He had ruled out 24 hours for himself but pressed on into the difference after a nice conversation about holidays and Disney. I later found out that Martin got unnervingly close to sub 24. Running through the fields the sun was back up and i was nearing the end. I knew i would be finishing and that helped ease things back. Then diving in front of me like a slightly strange photo bomber was Paul Ali. It was great to see him and he turned and ran with me for a little while. The catch up was a great distraction from the task at hand. Paul reminded me that no running was a waste, even if it was only 15 seconds. So i started running from a tree to a tree and then walking the same. This really improved my pace and sense of enjoying the finale of the race and my races for the year in general.

Birds of prey hovering
As i was approaching the end a few people had passed me. I could see them in the distance and decided i would try to reel them in. I was still loving the race and the journey i had been on during this adventure. Sure i knew i was going to have “what ifs?” floating around my head after the race, but i had to consider everyone in context. I had kept to race plan and the actions i had agreed with Eddie. I was adapting and enjoying. I had run faster to this point than i sincerely thought i was ever capable of and for the first 75 miles kept pace with a good friend of mine who had this year become a far quicker more competent runner than i. Best of all that 75 miles had been some of the most fun i have had on the trails. With all that in mind nothing about this race was going to be a failure regardless of time.

There of course comes the catch. 25 hours was now in my head. I wanted a time starting with 24. This became my new motivation and on i went. Then it happened i started to recognise the pathway and knew i was approaching the last mile of the race. Dog walkers were cheering and other runners were encouraging me as i passed them. I had one parting obscenity for the climbs and then glanced at my watch..... 6 minutes to go! I saw the distinct overhanging tree that my brain had mentally logged as the start of the trail on the way out. Conversely this meant i was about to hit pavement. So i ran and promised myself i would not stop until the finish. Then i saw the bridge in the distance... 4 minutes to go. So i picked up the pace again. I could feel i had a sprint in me, but time it wrong and i would be blowing up before the finish line. I could hear my little boy in my mind. Before he starts running he will always shout “booster feet on.” So i picked my moment and “booster feet on.” I started to sprint and sprint hard... 2 minutes left. I veered right at the bridge and pegged it. I could see my sun in the distance on his uncle’s shoulders. Normally i would stop and take him to the finish, but... 1 minute left. I legged it past them and turned through the door and stopped my watch. YES! I did it. Well according to my watch i had. I was relieved when Natasha Fielden and Gemma Greenwood confirmed that i had finished the A100 in 24hours 59 minutes and 40 seconds.

After the finish i was so tired, but elated. A massive hug with Nici and then my family and i was done. At the end of the race Nici and Natasha both shared that there had been some conversations about me running. Nothing negative but just a realisation that i was choosing to run only 48 hours after landing from Florida. I was running despite no longer contending for the Grandslam. Bryan had earlier said to me that he possibly would not have run. It crossed my mind after NDW100 not to run this race, but i felt i needed the finish and i wanted to see where i was now at going into winter training. The race gave me back more than i could ever have anticipated. I am not talking about the Centurion organisation and the brilliance of their volunteers, as that goes without saying. This race somehow has been a huge factor in changing my thinking in relation to running. Before i would look at other people’s finishing times and think that their pace was just unattainable and only gifted runners could achieve such times. During this race i felt strong and i felt capable. I realised that this was off the back of 8 weeks of consistent training. I was then left wondering what i can achieve with a consistent few months of training. I now saw the quality times of the fastest runners as something to work towards rather than be frightened of. No more glass ceiling in my mind of what i (or anyone) could achieve.

I spoke with James Elson at the end and he completely got why i felt the need to run and the outcomes justified that. So my finishing time was 2 hours 8 minutes off my 100 miler PB. It was also 2hrs 46min faster than any 100 miler i had done this year.

Nope not tired... Not one bit

So my Race calendar was concluded for the year. I didn’t quite make the Centurion Grandslam. 376 miles out of 400 was my final total. Its easy to lose sight of the achievements made. This year i have set a PB and completed 3 out of 4 100 milers. I am now being trained by Eddie Sutton and am inspired to see what we can achieve by May next year. I attribute substantial amounts of my progress to Eddie’s plans. I have a coach who cares about my running and my enjoys seeing me improve. Being the best you can be is her mantra and i truly believe this. With her help i am finding the balance of family and dedicated training. So next I will be running GUCR in 2016 and revisiting the Centurion Grandslam in 2017. With consistency to my training who knows what will happen at these races? But, maybe... just maybe........

Not a bad years haul

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