Tuesday, 11 June 2013

Endure 24: Chapter 2 - Food Enough and Time

Let us roll all our strength and all
Our sweetness up into one ball,
And tear our pleasures with rough strife
Thorough the iron gates of life:
Thus, though we cannot make our sun
Stand still, yet we will make him run.
(From Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress")

Once upon a time, in a town far, far away, I used to ride 100-mile cycle races.  I also read a lot of westerns as a kid, and had read that in the dim and distant past, one of the tribes of the Great Plains had a “coming of age” trial for its warriors to run what we now know as roughly 100 miles in a single day.  Knowing how short a distance 100 miles actually is from my cycling and believing that running it should be possible, I’ve had a not-very-burning ambition to run 100 miles for about 25 years.  Since that first cycle century, ultra running has become a bit more mainstream, drawing me into its web.  Having enjoyed my Highland Fling experience, I decided to see if I really could move up to 100.  Not too far away from home, Endure 24 offered the chance to see just how far I could go in 24 hours. It also had the bonus of being held on a five mile trail loop, rather than the more traditional track or 1km road loop. Knowing I'm not really in the best shape (perhaps recovering from one race before running the next would help!), I knew the century would be around what I could do on the trails.

I suggested to Nic that she might like to enter with some friends as part of a relay (see how that idea worked out) and before I knew it the entries were in.  Mitch had already entered, as a bit of a fitness test, and I tried to get together a relay team from all the volunteers from our races.  I'm always amazed at how many people are willing to set aside their day to help make a race possible.  Somehow, though, they all had other places to be (several were doing more normal length races).  As it turns out, only Glenn had the combination of no injuries and available time.  Rather than a relay team, we ended up with a team of 4 solo runners.  Mitch aimed to finish at the front, Nic would keep going until she ran out of time or was dragged off the course, I wanted to reach that magic century, and Glenn was going to take his first step into the 30+ mile range.

The run up to the race was a bit odd.  My feet have been bothering me since before the Fling - something to do with repeatedly twisting my ankles, I expect.  Two weeks ago, I decided to do something totally radical and took a full week off running.  A little light hiking around Nic's birthday kept the legs moving, but a bit of recovery goes a long way.  With a few short runs in the final preparation week failing to ease my mind, I headed to Wasing Park wondering if I would be able to make it past the first lap before something snapped.

What are the chances of them ending up like this? (Nic painted hers blue in anticipation)

One of the great aspects of this race is the campground that suddenly appears around the start/finish.  Although the footing in the field was unpleasant, running past all the other competitors meant fantastic support as we wound about the tents.  Nic and I set up our tent just after the finish line, along the route among the other solo runners, where it was easy to create our own miniature aid station.  Being inexperienced at such distances, we had a buffet that was actually longer than the table set aside for all of the solo runners to use.  I think we had at least one of everything we've ever seen in anyone's drop bags and plenty of the stuff we normally eat on shorter ultras.  We both knew that a favourite food can suddenly taste awful on any given run, and wanted plenty of variety available.  After setting everything up on Friday, we relaxed into the evening, ready for Saturday's big event.  When I say relaxed, I talked non-stop and Nic tried womanfully to avoid wringing my neck to get me to shut up.  Glenn and Mitch were due to arrive on Saturday morning so they could set up in plenty of time before the noon start.

When Saturday finally arrived, sunny and warm with a steady northerly breeze, we were ready.  I had finally sunk into a terrified silence while I worked through the last-minute prep list.  It was Glenn's turn to gabble his nerves away for a few hours.  Mitch had a fairly strained look about him, let's politely call it his "game face".  Nic seemed nearly calm, the weeks of waiting were past.  We were all pretty happy to have a dry and sunny start.  Temperature control can be a bit of an issue, but we've seen so little sun  over the winter that it cheered the heart even as we applied the factor 30 and hoped to avoid those painful red stripes that happen when you're a bit slapdash.

Team Cotswold Running - Glenn, Nic, Kurt, and Mitch (Photo: Charmaine Mitchell)

The start area was a bit unusual as the solo runners politely "jostled" for position (who could get furthest to the back).  After the safety briefing which I was too nervous to properly take in (did I correctly hear something along the lines of "relay runners, try not to knock over the solo runners if they're in your way"?), we had the obligatory inspirational music to keep us going for a couple of minutes until noon, and then we strolled off on our way.  I was in such a non-hurry that it took me 20 seconds to get to the timing mat on the start/finish line - and I was towards the front of the solo runners.

Some of these folks were in a bit of a hurry.  Note the lack of green numbers for the solo runners.
(Photo: Charmaine Mitchell)

Ah, the running bit.  That's what you've been skimming along to get to, isn't it?  Lap 1, nice and easy in the sunshine.  It was fairly chatty, with plenty of "come here often?" kind of exchanges.  I ran the second half of the lap with Glenn, who was keeping half an eye on his heart rate to avoid blowing up.  Thankfully, he then left me behind.  It's very easy to jog along chatting with someone you train with regularly, but it could have been quite dangerous since we were effectively running different events - he would stop and take a break after his ultra and then do the odd lap towards the end with whichever of us needed some company.

Me & Glenn finishing the first lap

At the end of the lap I started what became an amusing trend.  I stopped at the tent to pick up a sandwich that I would eat over the first mile.  Sometimes I had a drink in hand - mostly during the first 5 laps due to the heat.  I only got to the 1km marker once or twice without food in hand.

Eat, run, eat, run, ad nauseum (Photo: Charmaine Mitchell)
After my second lap, I remembered there was a water station at the start line as well as the one at the half way point.  This station was just off the route behind a few ranks of waiting relay runners, so was easy to miss as I concentrated on deciding just what culinary delights would carry me through the next lap.  Mitch's wife Charmaine and daughter Hannah were taking some great pictures, but it seemed like every time I saw them I had my hands (and squirrel cheeks) full of food.

Charmaine had to do some walking to find me without food.
The running from there on, by and large, was uneventful and repetitive.  Jog along the road eating, walk up the hill (still eating), head onto the tracks and jog along to the next hill a few km away, get some water at the half way point, walk the hill eating anything I'd carried from the start, etc.  There were enough people to chat with as we passed and were passed, but very few that were going the same pace as me for any length of time.  So, although I had quite a sociable run with plenty of chit-chat with both relay and solo runners, I spent most of the race in my head.  There wasn't much going on in there, to be fair, so it wasn't a stressful place to be.

Great scenery made for an enjoyable Saturday afternoon

The route had an excellent variety that made it very easy to chunk.  All of my pre-race organisation was broken into 5-lap blocks - roughly marathons, but on the run I tried to think in laps.  I enjoyed one of the early laps (maybe lap 2, possibly 3), chatting with Jim Seaton who had only returned from a long-haul business trip the day before.  For most of the first daylight section after that, we crossed paths as our refueling stops varied.  Eventually he left me behind to finish 2nd, lapping me twice.  I also enjoyed regular exchanges with Janine, who was power walking wearing a duck outfit as part of her fundraising, and had a great chat with a relay runner named Steve (I think, it was late and I was tired) whose team had enjoyed lager and pizza for dinner.  So many runners, so many good chats, so many people whose names I can't remember!  I'd have loved a pepperoni pizza at 2am, but we never could figure out logistics for enjoying it either fresh and hot or properly next-day cold, so it was one food item that never made it into the buffet.

With no watch, it was hard to tell if I was keeping a consistent pace or not.  My stops at the buffet table were fairly short unless I needed a kit change or comfort break.  The longest stop in this first marathon block was a quick chat with Nic after my 5th lap.  It was great to see her, if only to tell her about the water station at the start line.  Being petite, she had only seen the wall of relay runners and was managing her hydration based solely on the half-way water stop.  The half-way "watering hole in the woods" was a real highlight of the route.  The jolly couple who worked it for the entire event kept the cups coming and were a source of cheer at all hours.  It was a welcome oasis, but I saw the inviting stop as a danger to momentum and just grabbed some water and walked up the nice hill around the corner.  It was an ideal spot for eating crisps, as the hill was close enough to the water stop, so I did in fact carry crisps for 2.5 miles just to eat them on that hill (more than once).  It's amazing how concentrating on not smashing your food helps you keep your hands relaxed!

Nic testing out the chairs at the Watering Hole on our pre-race walk

Running only on feel, with a time check every 5 miles, was surprisingly not a problem.  I knew the first lap was going to be a little too fast, and hoped to keep it slower than 45 minutes.  After that, I hoped to be in the 50-55 minute range for a few laps, and to not drop below 70 minute laps until after dark.

As the second block started, I ticked off the actual marathon (approximately 4:30), and was feeling decidedly knackered.  The heat was taking its toll.  In reality, the weather was stunning and perfect walking and camping weather.  I'd say it got up to all of 23C.  Given the extended cold Spring, though, the effect was as though it was actually a hot day.  I had my first bottle of TORQ Energy on this 6th lap, quite a bit earlier than I'd hoped to.  It was scheduled for morning, when I was likely to be running on sugary things rather than food.  I normally run long races on water and get my salts/sugars through food, because that way I don't have to worry about my pack bladder getting all manky if I forget to clean it out when I get home.  But, with the amount of water I was drinking, I felt it would be a good idea to have some thicker fluids to keep from getting a "sloshy" belly.  It seemed to work well, so I decided to have some salt tablets when I got to the end of the lap.

By this time, I was starting feel pretty rubbish, to be honest.  I started to think about what a good idea giving up would be.  After all, my feet had been sore for so many weeks that I was surely going to end up seriously injured and unable to run for months, so wouldn't crawling into my sleeping bag be the best in the long-term?  During this point in an ultra, as the body reaches the marathon distance, I'm pretty sure most of the muscles are sending messages to the brain along the lines of "we got you through a marathon, now go have a beer and talk about it while we rest, you idiot".  So, with all this whinging from feet, legs, back, hips, etc., the brain starts to justify stopping.  I had just agreed with myself to have an extra little walk when I saw Glenn and Nic about half a mile behind me as we all wound our way around the field.  We cheered each other on, and then I saw the one thing that I'd hoped not to at that point - Mitch.  He was bombing along at a ridiculously fast pace (9:30/mi looks fast when you're doing 12).  We shouted a bit of "encouragement" to each other and I quietly swore.  There would be no walking on the flats with Mitch in view - he would give me some serious grief (deservedly) when he finally caught up to me.  A few salt tablets and yet more food at the tent and I shuffled off.  By the time Mitch caught me I was feeling less bad and settled into a fairly consistent pace that would hold for the next 40ish miles.

Mitch on the move (Photo: Charmaine Mitchell)

The start of lap 8 broke the pattern of several years of racing.  My feet and ankles were killing me, but the rest of my body was feeling pretty good, so I took a couple of paracetemol (Tylenol) and headed out.  I haven't taken painkillers before or during a race of any distance since I recovered from an achilles injury in 2008.  After spending many weeks managing inflammation and pain from that injury,  I generally prefer to know what hurts and work with it or around it.  But, with 17 hours left to go, I figured it was a good time to break that rule.  I washed them down with a cup of instant coffee and proceeded to have two of the best laps of the race - they weren't the fastest, but they felt good compared with the two before.   It was also finally starting to cool down as the sun set, which helped a great deal.

With the foot pain alleviated, I just concentrated on my impending 50mi PB.  Considering my only other 50 was the Highland Fling, and the hills on this course weren't really even big enough to use as hill training, it would have been a travesty for me not to set a new PB.  Finishing 50 in 9:26 was made even better by seeing Nic at the end of the lap.  She was about to start the lap that would take her past her previous furthest run of 41 miles.  From that lap forwards, we would both be enjoying that "wow, I've never run this far before" feeling with every step.  Unfortunately, Glenn's body hadn't been enjoying all the rough underfoot in the field, and he'd had to slowly hobble his 7th lap to get to his minimum target. On the plus side, he stopped before totally ruining himself and has now run an ultra.

My next target was 100km.  To me, that was "just another couple of laps and I'll have a 100km PB".  At some point, I realised that, without a watch, I wouldn't actually know what the time was when I got to 100km.  I also celebrated reaching the milestone twice - once at 2km into the 13th lap (60mi + 2km = 100km, right?) and once when I got half way around and was a bit clearer in my head (60mi + 2.5mi = 62.5mi, 100km~62.5mi).  Running sucks blood away from your brain, making basic arithmetic somewhat difficult.  I'm hopeful that I'm not going to be permanently more stupid than I was last week as a result of this race, but only time (and my next race entry) will tell.  Anyway, I reached 100km in approximately 12:20, so I now have a target for the future.

Towards the end of the lap, Mitch caught me up again, but wasn't his usual bubbly self.  He'd picked up an injury that was bad enough to make him think seriously of stopping.  He was struggling to the extent that after a short chat he stopped for a walk and started to drop back again.  I knew he was in trouble because he was very quiet, and was walking on a flat.  I've only ever known Mitch to walk anything other than the steepest of hills when he was keeping someone company or was about to pass out, so when we regrouped at the tent I didn't push him to keep going.  As we chatted about his ailing leg, Nic appeared from the tent where she'd been having a short break to stop the ground from wobbling about so much.  I was stopping to add some luke-warm water to dried noodles, and felt pretty wobbly myself, so suggested we walk together for a bit.  As she tried to make a cup of tea, I could see she was shivering pretty badly.  I left Mitch to his own devices and ordered Nic to go put on another top and then to get walking to get her body warm again.  I caught her up once I'd filled my waistband with some more food for the second half of the lap and got her jogging until she was warm again.  By this time, we'd reached my feeding station (the first hill), but my noodles were still rather crunchy, so we kept walking at a reasonable pace and chatting by torchlight.  I eventually got to eat my "dinner" and Nic was again in good spirits, so I carried on jogging and she kept a good speed walk going.

By this time, we were well into the night run.  I quite enjoyed the light being thrown by my head torch, and never really felt like I was running in the dark.  I did, though, struggle to regulate my temperature.  The baking hot field had become cold and windswept, while the woods were sheltered and a gentle cool.  I added a long-sleeve baselayer for the dark hours, and had the sleeves and zip up and down repeatedly in response to the little microclimate changes along the course.

Cool and dark, must be time for some malt loaf (Photo: Charmaine Mitchell)

The wee small hours were, as I expected, a bit of a trial.  I was starting to get tired and by 2am was finding it a little hard to concentrate.  Trail running requires at least a basic constant awareness of the ground ahead, and at night this can be particularly difficult.  I had plenty of light, but my brain wasn't processing images as quickly as it ought to and I tripped on a stone that I had thus far managed to avoid 13 times.  I managed somehow not to face-plant on the rocky path, but the trip jarred my least-good toe, reawakening all of the nerves I had pummelled into submission over the previous 67 miles.  By the time I got back to the start, my feet were again shouting at me.  As the hours wore on, I felt the wheels starting to come off.  In the final dark lap, I finally dropped below 4mph and I took an extended stop before the sunrise lap to add some layers because I had decided that I needed to walk a lap.

The extra rest of a walking lap must have done some good for my body, but the brain was no more useful than it had been before the walk.  When I got back to the start I was ready to start lap 18, I had a quick check with the relay runners who were looking at the computer with live updates on it (I wasn't going to walk an extra 30 feet just for that!), and they kindly informed me that I was about to embark on lap number 17.  In my head, I'd just finished 17, but wasn't too surprised that I'd lost count.  It was 5:30am and I was tired, so I shrugged it off, changed shoes, dropped some layers, and headed out to run lap 17 again.

The shoe change was something I'd been thinking about for a while.  I had been wearing my trusty Inov-8 Roclite 295, but my feet were in mutiny. I'd actually meant to change the lap before, but forgot by the time I got to the tent.  I needed extra cushion and different pressure points.  I changed socks as well, because I had to take them off to check for external damage.  The skin was in pretty good condition, with no significant blistering or tenderness.  It felt nice to put on some cold socks, and the pair of Brooks Cascadia 7 needed to be loosened a bit but overall felt fine - it was only their second run, but they worked out well on their first outing so they got to make the trip as first reserve.

Laps 17-19 were pretty good.  I had switched from food to gels as I got tired of chewing.  At some point in this early morning run, the phrase "world enough and time" popped into my head.  I couldn't remember where it came from, but it seemed to suit the context and it's been on my mind ever since (I now know it was Andrew Marvell, who's literary extension of "life's too short" includes some lovely turns of phrase).  I took my final round of painkillers (2 paracetemol + 2 ibuprofen) at the start of lap 18 and was able to happily knock out a 1:09 (nearly 14min/mi felt like sprinting), my fastest lap for 30 miles.  When I got to the end of lap 19, I thought I would just double-check I hadn't miscounted again and was told I had just completed my 18th lap.

To say I was distraught would be an understatement.  I had time to get in 2 more laps, but the analgesia was hardly touching the pain in my feet now, and I wasn't about to take any more pills.  I got back to the tent and saw that both Glenn and Mitch had decamped and headed home.  Considering neither could walk particularly well enough to stay warm and that the campsite was now cold, windy and not the place to be with injuries, I could understand the decision (to be honest, I was amazed they hadn't packed off earlier), but it meant that the debate I'd been having in my head when feeling good an hour before was easily decided.  I was not about to have Nic finish her race with nobody at the line to cheer her in, there would be no extra lap.

I swore all the way up the hill back into the woods, venting my frustration at my inability to tell time and count while running, as well as berating my fickle feet and pretty much everything else that had been bothering me in recent weeks.  After about a mile, I finally accepted that I had everything I needed to do yet another lap if I wanted to except for willpower.  This would be the last one, and I would have to settle for 95 miles.  I was broken, and that was that.

As I continued with lap 19 (again!) I chatted with other soloists and the volunteers on my farewell lap of the route I had come to know better than some of my regular training routes.  By the time I got back to the field, the relay teams were all up and about, taking down tents, and cheering everyone who came through.  Donnington Way 105 winner Peter Heald and his friends had staked out a vantage point at the end of the field and had been cheering and doing the wave and goodness knows what else to keep spirits high, so I stopped very briefly for a final chat.  I carried on along the campsite and thanked all the people who had been encouraging me through every lap, and tried not to cry - I really didn't need to lose a contact lens at this stage.  With about half a mile to go, I saw Nic enter the field.  I cheered her on and as soon as she was out of sight promptly slapped myself to stop the tears running down my face (it worked).  Then I got a bit of a shuffle on so I could get to the car in time to get my phone out and get back to the finish to take a picture of her crossing the line.  Race training kicked in and I noticed another soloist not far behind me, and I broke into a proper run.  I had no idea how many laps he'd done, but I knew I wasn't going to lose a place just 200m from the finish.  It felt great to put on some speed, and even better to know I was nearly finished.

I crossed the finish line with plenty of time to start another lap if I wanted to, and promptly exchanged my timing chip for a finisher's medal.  I expect I had quite a happy if somewhat shattered look on my face.  I managed to get some pictures of Nic and gave her a big hug and we were both hugely relieved to have made it to the end.  In hindsight (you know, when the pain is less and the beer has kicked in), we thought it would have been great to do one last slow walking lap together to get me that 100 miles.  I spend much of the afternoon and evening wondering how I'd screwed up the time calculations even more badly than usual, and chalked it up to being tired.

On Monday, when the official results came out (I'd checked Nic's results on-site but stupidly didn't check mine), I found out that I had, in fact, only miscounted the first time and had completed the 100 miles.  I also learned I'd finished in 8th place - and that doing another lap would have still had me in 8th place, so stopping when I did was just fine and dandy.

Having started the race just hoping to complete (Plan C), I am pleased to have achieved Plan B (100mi).  Plan A will just have to wait for another day.  Now, it's time for the first planned non-running week since 2011.  If I can cope, I may even make it 2 weeks.

3 out of 4 ain't bad, and the 4th will recover in a day or two.

Food and Drink (that I can remember):
2.5 turkey & mustard sandwiches
1.5 peanut butter & banana sandwich
1 houmus sandwich
1/2 a malt loaf (with butter)
handful of pretzels
3 lunch-sized bags of Squares (a particular kind of salt and vinegar potato chips for the non-UK readers)
1 pot of strawberry rice pudding (if only I'd remembered it earlier!!)
2 homemade oatmeal raisin cookies
3 fig rolls (aka fig Newtons for the US readers)
1 luke-warm spicy chicken mug-shot
handful of breaded chicken nuggets
3 small cups of coffee
5 TORQ Ginger & Pineapple bars
2 TORQ Energy uncaffeinated gels
2 TORQ Energy caffeinated gels
1.5 litres TORQ Energy Lemon-Lime flavoured drink
.5 litre TORQ Recovery Strawberry & Cream flavoured drink
.5 litre chocolate milk
gallons of water
3 salt tablets
2 ibuprofen
6 paracetemol


  1. Well done both, and great article too.

  2. Nice article Kurt and well done. It was a pleasure running with you. Jim