Wednesday, 30 July 2014

Thunder Run 2014: Trail training at its most fun

We all enter races for different reasons:  to get a PB, to run somewhere new, to test our mettle, because a friend tricked us into it after a few too many drinks (and then somehow found a reason not to run...), for a hard training run, or sometimes just for a bit of fun.  The Cotswold Running trip to Catton Park for the 2014 Thunder Run was certainly designed to be fun, but it also gave an opportunity for some of our regular volunteers to get involved in a long and exhausting run with friends.

We arrived on Friday evening, hoping to enjoy a relaxed evening of camping and scope out the scene.  As it was Friday, the M42 was particularly stationary, so instead we arrived, put up the tent, got everything unloaded, and promptly put our feet up.  The camp site was vast, so wandering around and catching up with people suddenly looked an exhausting venture compared to eating dinner and "planning" our race.  I attempted an early-ish night by hitting the hay at 11:30, but sleep wasn't on the cards.  Camping can be relaxing, but with several hundred people within easy earshot, sleep can be hard to come by even with earplugs.  Still, 4 hours sleep is better than none.

The race-morning mood was a bit of a mixed bag.  I had the first leg, so was quite focused on when/what to eat that would stay down on a very hot 10K run.  In total contrast, Mitch was not running until his graveyard shift, so was trying to keep from going stir crazy.  In between, everyone was somewhere between gearing up and enjoying a relaxed morning with family & friends.

Team Revolution: Jill, Mitch, Nic, Kurt, Linzi, Rohan, Caroline, Paul
The morning started warm and sunny, and made its way quickly to very hot (~28-30C).  Given my problems lately with overheating, I was particularly curious (i.e. concerned, worried, nervous, bricking it just a bit) about how I would cope racing hard in the heat.  I knew it would only be for around 50 minutes, but such trivialities don't really come into it when you've suddenly found yourself doing badly at something you did quite well until recently.  I made sure to get properly hot & sweaty in my warm-up, so that sudden exhaustion that comes when you start exercising in the heat was out of the way before the race.  I arrived at the start line already drenched and ready to race.

Eventually, the race started and I was off and running.  Amazingly, the vast majority of runners actually lined up roughly according to their expected time for the 10K lap.  I had guestimated my lap would take 50 minutes, but was planning to run on feel at something harder than 1/2 marathon effort but slightly easier than if I'd only been doing one 10K that day.  I found myself steadily working through the crowd and maintaining a fairly consistent pace of just under 5 minutes per KM.

The Thunder Run route is a bit hilly, but it's also very twisty-turny.  In some places, I'm sure we ran a mile to move 50 metres along the campsite.  The woody sections have plenty of trip hazards to keep you on your toes (or face), and the occasional tight turn to find a tree in the middle of your path certainly make for added excitement.

The atmosphere as we wound our way in and out of the campsite was electric, and it took a lot of concentration to avoid just blasting off with excitement.  I did occasionally have the chance for a brief chat with other runners, including Steve from our neighbouring club in Pershore.

The early afternoon sun burned hot, and I'm pretty sure the medical crew had plenty of heat-related illness to deal with.  After my first lap, I felt pretty wrecked, and it took about half an hour before people stopped looking at me like I might fall out of my chair at any time.  After a good stretch, a tasty light lunch, and plenty of fluids, though, I felt pretty good and enjoyed my turns as support crew & childminder.  Jill took the second lap, and paced it a bit closer to a full 10K effort, which resulted in an excellent first lap time (50'), but over an hour of everyone giving her that same concerned look.  After that, everyone else wound it back in a bit to avoid being the first in the team to properly pass out.

My race plan continued, with my 4x10K reps concept working much better than I'd expected, with less than a minute difference in the first 3 times.  After my 3rd (finishing at 1am), I neglected my post-lap refuelling in order to crawl into my sleeping bag, which seemed so inviting.  I felt the difference on my morning lap, and started to bonk a bit, which meant I dropped a couple of minutes when I couldn't really speed up through the final 5K as I had in the other laps.  I learned a lot about areas of my post-run recovery that I could improve on in my normal training weeks (like, actually pay attention to it like I did once upon a time).

For the others, the result was equally useful.  Jill and Caroline did their first ever nighttime trail racing.  Linzi got in some good tired-legs effort with a blast in her final lap.  Nic reconnected with racing (as opposed to running in an event), Rohan and Paul did one lap more than they had previously, and Mitch found out that he's still a bit tired after Endure 24 (duh!).

Most importantly, though, we also had a lot of fun.  The kids went home as tired as their parents, having had a weekend of camping, playing, cheering, and generally being a delightful distraction from aching muscles and blisters.  Caroline's husband, Andy, got in some running, and Charmaine seemed to spend most of the weekend walking with camera in hand (you can see her pictures here).  Next year, hopefully we'll be able to get a few more from EVRC to come out and make up some club teams.

Friday, 25 July 2014

Gear Review: Inov-8 RACE ULTRA 0.25 Soft Flask Handheld

After a few difficult races in the heat, I'm really looking for a good warm-weather alternative to my Salomon race vest.  I love its soft flask bottles, but could really do without the way it seems to prevent me from releasing any heat.  Given that I was born and raised in Texas, struggling in the heat is a bit embarrassing, so I really need to sort it out.  I confirmed at Rocky Raccoon last year that, as anyone with an ounce of intelligence would assume, carrying handheld bottles when you're not used to it will tire you out pretty quick.  But, I also decided they were a good option, so decided to look into some small handhelds to see if I really want to go in that direction.  I spent a bit of time playing on and bought a couple of the Inov-8 RACE ULTRA 0.25 Soft Flask Handhelds.   I've taken these on a few training runs, ranging up to three hours, to get a feel for whether I would want to use them on an ultra.

Free and easy with a couple of small bottles.
The bottle:  it's a simple 250ml Hydrapack soft flask.  So, aside from colour and branding, it's the same construction as the similarly-sized Salomon flasks, or the standard Hydrapack ones you can get on Amazon.  It fills with fluid, you screw on the top, you drink the fluid, and there's no sloshing sound.  So, what do Inov-8 bring to this little party?  Essentially, they bring a couple of mesh pockets and some bits of compression string.  There's nothing complicated.

Nice breathable gel-sized pocket on one side.
The larger of the two pockets will fit Clif, Gu, or Power Bar gel packs (or similar short, wide containers).  It's not great for TORQ or High-5 or other long, thin gels, but it will do. The gel sits reasonably comfortably in the pocket, but I've found I really just prefer to have it empty so it breathes.

Smaller, key/salt-tab sized pocket on the other
I do, on occasion, use the smaller pocket to hold my keys when I go out.  They fit perfectly, and stay quiet since it's a fairly small pocket.  It's not big enough for most gels.  If I am carrying my keys in the small pocket, it gives a bit of rigidity so I can use the pocket as a handle if I get tired of having the bottle against my hand.


As handhelds go, the Race Ultra is a fairly comfortable setup.  The compression string gives some flexibility in sizing.  I find the flask gets a little awkward once it's below half full, because it feels very different to when it is full.  After a bit of time to get used to it, though, it's not really a big deal.  I did notice after a sweaty 3hr run in the mountains last week that I did get a bit of prickly heat on my hand.  With the skin directly against the bottle, I'd suffered a some irritation.  Possibly a slightly looser fit on the day would have helped that, but it's something to consider, since there's no need to constantly re-adjust your hold as you run.


In an event where you're going to be refilling often, these are as useful/problematic as any other soft flask solution.  The aperture is a tad small, so you should expect spills on your hands (not altogether unpleasant, if it's hot out and the spillage is cool water).  Like all other Hydrapack soft flasks, these suffer from a rather cool phenomenon in that when the lid is replaced on a wet bottle, water can leak out through the lid threads when the bottle is squeezed.  It's quite cool to watch, but would be irritating on a cold day.  If you're planning to refill rarely, then none of that's an issue.

With two flasks, it's easy to stay balanced, and they aren't big enough to get in the way much when negotiating gates/stiles or opening gels.  If you have to do something fiddly, it's easy enough to slip off and on without messing about resizing the cords.  With a few gels in my shorts pockets, and possibly a couple in the handhelds, I could quite happily enjoy a 50K with these.


I wouldn't describe the Race Ultra as the most feature-filled handheld solution, but it's certainly a light one.  If you like your race kit stripped-to-the-bone, then these are a good way to go.  They're comfortable enough for at least a few hours, and are a good size to carry.  I'll keep using mine on training runs and they're high on the list if I head back to Rocky next year.

Tuesday, 22 July 2014

Race Volunteers: you ran well because they made it happen

I haven't written any race reports for a while, and I started to wonder if it was because I was tired of blogging, or didn't enjoy the races, or just because I needed a vacation to empty my head enough to process what has actually been a pretty busy summer racing schedule.  In the end, I've realized that it's because as much fun/effort as the past few races have been, I'd come away from the race thinking as much about the race as about my running in it.  I'd spent a lot of time over the month trying to get to grips with what really makes me come home raving about a great event.  The answer: the volunteers.

We all know volunteers make races happen, but how many runners actually show that appreciation during a race?  Race Directors choose the course, set the wheels in motion, and try to steer things in the right direction.  Volunteers do pretty much all the hard work of getting aid stations up, pointing gormless runners in the right direction (yes, I've been both the pointer and the pointee - we all have our witless moments), having water, sweets, crisps, and goodness knows what else spilt all over them.  In nearly all cases, they do it with a smile or a look of incredulous awe, depending on just how crazy your event is.  In nearly all cases, they do it because helping someone achieve their goals is at least as enjoyable as achieving that goal yourself.

Just a small part of our medal collection: it takes more than good running to have a good race.

Here are just a few thoughts about volunteers and volunteering based on my June races.

Last month, I had the chance to return to one of my favourite local races, the Cleeve Cloud Cuckoo.  This year, it was 5.5mi of driving rain, cloud, and generally miserable weather.  I mostly had an absolute ball, and was quite thankful I was running.  It's daft enough to go out and race in that, but how crazy do you have to be to simply stand still?  Volunteering takes stamina and a warped sense of humour sometimes.

Ten days later, I headed out for another hard training run at Humph's Hilly Half, in Bourton-on-the-Water.  It was a glorious evening for racing, and perfect for volunteering.  When you sign up to help out, you hope for balmy weather, some nice sunshine, and beautiful surroundings like we had on the day.  On my way around the gently undulating course, I enjoyed a few low-fives with the younger volunteers, made one lad's day by stooping down to take water from him instead of his mum, and managed to knock over about 6 cups trying to get 1 off the table, rather than the bottles that were being handed out (I only needed a sip).  I was all smiles for the first two stations, and mortified when I cleverly tried to grab the final cup (to avoid knocking any over) and missed with superb malcoordination.  Still, all handled with friendly conversation and a smile.  Even when you're running hard, it's not much effort to grunt or gasp "thanks" or "sorry", or give a smile or a thumbs up as you pass.  That little bit of interaction lets the volunteers know they aren't taken for granted, and it generally gives the runner a boost, too.

A few days later, it was time for our club's annual fell race, the Bredon Bash.  It's a simple one-hill course. Run a bit, cross a field, run up the hill, run along the top, retrace your steps to the finish.  It's my turn to do a bit of payback, so I was stationed on top of the hill, encouraging everyone up to the turnaround point and then back down.  Since it's a pretty small local field, I knew about half the runners already, so I had a jovial time cheering, cajoling, and just occasionally shouting good-hearted abuse to help them on their way.  Having a friendly face on the route cheering you on is great. Apparently, though, when it's your coach it might not always seem like fun at the time, as you try to look great even though you really just want to decorate your shoes with your lunch.

The next weekend, I headed up and down Cleeve Hill again, in the Cheltenham Circular Challenge.  I rather arrogantly entered the ultra (48mi), deciding that it was just silly to go for the marathon when I could do an extra 22.  After all, it's only another lap of up & down the hill plus a flat 10K and a flat 5K.  As it turned out, it was also incredibly warm, and I got more than a bit stupid as I got tired. I enjoyed chatting with volunteers, they enjoyed encouraging me on, and we had lots of pleasant interactions (the joys of a lapped route) as I kept passing them.  Unfortunately, what I didn't have, until I'd gotten particularly dim, was an experienced ultra runner looking at me and telling me to stop, have some crisps, and cool down for 10 minutes.  After 39mi, Nic was waiting for me (having done the marathon, and looking quite happy and relaxed).  She asked me questions about what I wanted, shook her head in despair when I refused any sensible intervention and insisted on carrying on, and ended up having a fairly pathetic wreck of a husband for a few hours after I DNF'd. We've now adjusted my personal crew instructions - when I've been going for more than 20 miles, don't ask me questions, tell me what to do.  Otherwise, I'll probably insist everything is perfect and refuse all sensible support.  Friendly volunteers are amazing and will carry you through most races.  Bossy ones will get you to the end of an ultra.

Then came the big event of the summer: Endure24.  Nic and I spent so long trying to decide if we wanted to enter as a pair, enter as solos, or not enter at all, that we ended up defaulting to the 3rd option when the race filled up.  In reality, we didn't really mind, because it meant we would be happily crewing our friend Mitch as he attempted to win it and wipe last year's agony out of his mind.  Another friend, Matt, had sneakily entered so we crewed him as well.  We sat and cheered or clapped as runners passed again and again on their 5mi laps.  We dolled out drinks, food, encouragement, and instructions for hours on end.  When it got dark, I tried to cheer or clap less loudly.  To all those trying to sleep nearby, sorry about that, as it seems I wasn't as successful as I'd thought at keeping the noise down.  I couldn't accept just sitting and watching and not encouraging, so after setting Mitch on his laps, I tried to walk around a bit to keep from having all those trying to get some rest come out and throttle me. Encouraging is addictive.

In the end, Mitch did win the race.  He set a new course record. Once it was over, we all hugged and congratulated him and rumour has it I might even have shed a tear or two.  He was elated, we were overjoyed for him, his wife and daughter were full of emotion (and probably relief!), and all of that happiness could not have happened without a small army of people willing to sit in the woods for hours at a time, watching mud-covered runners pass by lap, after lap, after lap.  Nobody achieves a race goal on their own.

If you're not in the habit of somehow thanking marshals during the race with a nod, smile, cheery word, wave, or some other friendly gesture, change your habit.  Give them something back to help them continue to enjoy helping you.  If you haven't volunteered at a race, look at all those medals and t-shirts you've collected.  Then get in touch with a local running club or race director and find out how you can help someone else achieve something special.  Helping someone surpass their own expectations will certainly give you some tools to use when it's your turn to push past your known limits.  I guarantee you'll gain something from helping out, and if you help at a race or distance you'd like to step up to, you'll learn a lot as well.