Sunday, 26 June 2016

Hills, medals, cakes, hills and bells... oh and more hills!

This is the race I said I'd never do again.  It was the first trail marathon I had ever run and I swore it would be my last.  So why was I back in Sidling St Nicholas?  Because I seem to be suffering a case of runner's amnesia!  I travelled down with my running partner in crime from last year and Husbando.    Husbando had been swayed by the promise of a nice B&B and I had neglected to mention that he would be in a village with virtually no mobile phone coverage and no wifi.

Friday night traffic meant we just made it to the village hall in time for our pre-ordered meals cooked by the lovely ladies from the WI .  One of the ladies came over and chatted to us - she remembered us from last year - and told us that she and her husband would be out on the course to support us in the morning.  We collected our numbers, had a look at the finish area and checked into our B&B at The Grey Hound pub, drank some beer, ate some chips and went to bed.   We were all of 2 minutes' walk from the race HQ, so popping out for a WI breakfast and back for a last minute wee before the race the next morning meant that we could avoid the dreaded portaloos! Husbando had entered the Sydling Hill Run rather than the marathon, so he came down with us to the start and took our jumpers back to the room.  After a race brief we all gathered on the race began.  

I had no real 'plan' for this race. I was still tired from Endure 24, and my legs had felt heavy and sluggish on every run I had done since then.  But, at Giant's Head it really isn't about the time.  No one is going to use this race to get a good for age place in the London Marathon.  As with last year we were all walking within the first mile - that concrete hill has not got any easier!   

The hills were, as always, hugely challenging.  This year however the ground underfoot seemed even more challenging.  We've had more rain this year which meant that the vegetation was much more rampant.  The long grass sapped energy, nettles and brambles attacked bare legs and the stoney paths were ankle twistingly treacherous.  But it was such fun!  As someone who hates meeting new people, it always amazes me how happily I will chat to total strangers when out running.  Between chatting with other runners, looking down to check that my foot wasn't about to go down a rabbit hole the miles ticked by.  We ran past the Cerne Abbas Giant, and I stopped for a few seconds to chat with a friend who had come along to take photos.  We were 8 miles in and, although it was tough, I was feeling good.  I was running the downhill sections and the (very few) flat sections and using the hills as walk breaks.  It was humid and warm, but there was the odd cool breeze to cool us down.  The aid stations were plentiful, well stocked and the marshals running them were so friendly and encouraging.  

Even though I had run the race last year, there were vast sections that I just did not remember having seen before.  There was far more road than I remembered.  It was predominantly downhill which was a blessing, but very hard on the knees in trail shoes.  Some of the off road downhill sections were too steep for me to run down with anything like my normal enthusiasm for a downhill!  Soon my knees were complaining big time, and I began looking forward to hills so that I could walk for a while.  All around me people were adopting the same strategy so I didn't feel bad about it, and by the later stages of the race I would not have been able to run the hills even if I'd wanted to! The views from the tops of the hills were amazing - when I remembered to lift my eyes from the 6' in front of me to have a look.  

The World Famous Love Station was a sight for sore eyes - a chance to have a laugh and a joke, some cider or prosecco as well as the normal aid station fare of coke, squash, water, cake, crisps, sausages, jelly babies and water melon.  The Love Station also meant that we were almost, nearly, there.  Except I could not remember how long the race was.  Yes, I know it was a marathon, but this was a White Star Running marathon, and they do like to make sure you get value for money.  Was it 27 miles or 28?  I had no idea.  I looked at my watch and tried to work out whether I could beat my time from last year or not.  I tried to remember how many hills we had to go - couldn't remember that either!  I chatted with another runner who had run a similar time to me last year - he though that we could do it easily, I wasn't so sure.  

We got an incentive to run faster soon though.  The black, threatening clouds decided to dump their contents on us.  We were running up a slight incline on and exposed ridge.  The wind was blowing and the rain and hail were coming at us sideways.  It hurt when the rain hit my bare skin and rain and hail in my ear was deeply unpleasant!  We got to the last aid station (the one at 26.4 miles!) and they were hanging on to the frame of the gazebo to stop it blowing away!  We played an impromptu game of sardines as we tried to work out how many runners, marshals and food tables we could fit in one small gazebo.  The rain didn't look like it was going to stop and I was getting cold - because I was soaked to the skin and it was very windy - so I decided to plough on.  Just a downhill and an uphill and then another downhill to go.  The rain was very localised and reasonably short lived, other runners had no idea that there had been rain at all!

Running into the village and onto the green makes for one of the nicest race finishes ever!  So many people cheering the finishers over the line where we were all presented with our medals, t-shirts and buffs.  I crossed the line in 5hrs and 26 minutes - a 13 minute improvement on last year.  I was thrilled! Husbando was waiting for me - and bought me a small ice cream.  I am glad he didn't go for a medium or large as I think it may well have been bigger than me!  While I'd been running he had done the Sydling Hill Run, marketed as 10-ish km, and had come 11th so he was very pleased with himself.  I think he may even consider doing the marathon next year.   We cheered finishers home for a while before popping back to the pub to grab a shower.  We still managed to get back to the finish area to cheer the very excellent 'sweeper' over the line.  It is a measure of how tough this race is that there was only 1 person who finished in under 4 hours (and I think he only just got under the 4 hour mark).  I remember feeling a bit disappointed with my time last year, but this year I was very happy.

The evening was great fun.  Although drinking three and a half pints of beer after a marathon but before eating anything is probably not the most sensible idea I've ever had!  We ate chilli and rhubarb crumble prepared by the WI, chatted with friends, met new people and drank some more.  Some people did dancing - but I wasn't quite tipsy enough for that!  We had a slight Epipen emergency on the way back to our room.  Not mine, but I recognise an Epipen from about 50 paces and saw a young man at the side of the road with one.  Ambulances take a long time to get to rural Dorset villages - but eventually it got there and I hope he is now OK!  

After a good night's sleep we got up and into our running kit (clean set) again for yet another race.  This one was a short one though.  The Sydling Bell Race was organised to raise money for the village church - a really lovely way to say thank you to the people on the village.  It had a 'Le Mans start' in that we were separated from our running shoes so had to dash to find them as soon as the race started.  We then ran up to the top of a hill, did a task (in my case star jumps and push ups) claimed our cow bell medal  and ran back down the hill to the finish.  Reader, I will be honest - I did not run the whole way!  It may only have been 2.5 miles, but there was no way I was running up the steep bits of the hill!  It took me 27 minutes from the start (including finding my shoes and queueing for my task) and I was quite happy with that!  

It was an amazing running weekend!  I really do feel as though I've had a little holiday away from the real world.  I can't thank Andy from White Star Running and his band of helpers enough for everything that they did to make it such a success.   I just hope I get to do it all again next year.  And if I do, I must try to remember that the marathon is 27.2 miles long!


Monday, 13 June 2016

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.

I entered Endure 24 on a whim.  A friend of a friend had a solo place that he could no longer take up so we organised transferring it to me.  That was in November last year and, other than noting the date in my calendar, I didn't think much about it until a few weeks ago.  Of course I knew what Endure was, I'd seen my friends' Facebook posts about it in previous years and always thought that it looked interesting in a mad, no way would I do that sort of way.  But actually training for a 24 hour endurance race as a solo athlete was so far outside my comfort zone that I couldn't even begin to comprehend what it might involve. 

Pre race info was sketchy in parts.  What were these 'solo wrist bands' that some people were talking about?  How much did they cost?  What did they cover?  I relied on the knowledge of friends who had taken part in previous years for information, without their insight I would have been even more nervous than I already was!  The confusion carried on when I arrived at the site on Friday evening with Husbando to pitch my tent.  There were no marshals to direct us at the entry, so we followed a sign that said 'Solo camping' and found ourselves in a mass of tents, so assumed we had found the correct place, pitched the tent (in high heels and a dress as I had come straight from work) and then discovered we were in the 'small teams area' and a fair walk from the start.  So down came the tent.

Luckily my 'non-specific deities' (NSDs) were out in force this weekend, and just as we were contemplating the move a friend from parkrun came along and carried my airbed so that we didn't have to deflate it to get it in the car.  After pitching the tent again, bending more tent pegs, borrowing better pegs from yet more of my NSD friends and having a gossip with a few people I headed home for a good night's sleep in a proper bed.  At some point in the evening we managed to find out that a wrist band could be purchased (£35) that allowed solo runners to get unlimited food during the 24 hours of the race and to go to the front of the queue in the catering tent.  Husbando decided that this was a good idea, as I was going to be on my own for much of the time without anyone crewing for me.  It took some detective work though as there were no signs up about the band - this meant that I felt guilty every time I made my way to the front of the queue to get a cup of tea and a bacon roll!

Saturday morning, nervous and panicking, I arrived back at Wasing Park.  I faffed around with my kit in the tent, I chatted with friends - who made me cups of tea, I ate breakfast with another friend who was marshalling the event, and then I sat outside my tent and read my book.  I don't really remember much of what I read at all!  I was too anxious to get on with running.  Waiting until 12 noon seemed like torture, but there were more people arriving all the time. 

EDITED 14/06/16:  A brief explanation of 'non-specific deities!'  About a week or two before Endure I had a bit of a flap on Facebook as I realised that I was going to be a 'solo solo!'  Husbando was not able to be there for long at all as he had work, school fete and child care responsibilities (the children have a negligent mother who dashes off to run silly distances at the weekend!) so I was on my own.  One of my friends, part of last year's winning team, said I would need to trust to my non-specific deities to get me through.  Turns out there are a lot of very lovely people out there who all deserve the title.

The start of the race was well worth waiting for.  Simply the best race start I have ever experienced.  The first runner for each team assembled on the start line with all the solo runners, but every single runner from all the teams seemed to be at the start, along with all the supporters.  The first 300m was an absolute wall of noise, quite an emotional experience really.  I really had to struggle not to get carried away by the support and stick to a slow pace.

Laps 1 to 3 (each 5 miles) were fairly fast and great fun.  My lap splits on the results page include the time I spent between each lap grabbing a drink, changing shoes (trail shoes were not necessary) and sorting out underwear malfunctions, so are not really representative of my pace at all.  Lap 4 was run with my lovely, bubbly friend.  I had told myself that, if I bumped into a friend who ran at a slower pace than I did then I would run at their pace, so we walked and ran and chatted - generally putting the World to rights.  I completed lap 4 just as 4 hours of the race had gone, and went to the catering tent to grab a cup of tea and a sausage baguette.  Lap 5 was great, had a chat with another of my NSDs after that - poor lady had to watch while I cleaned off my disgustingly dusty feet so that I could put compeed on a blister and I think it was at the end of this lap that I ran an 8.50 minute/mile with my airbed carrying friend.  Lap 6 was run with the husband of my lovely, bubbly friend from lap 4 -  started that lap before him, as he was waiting for a team mate to come in,  and said that I would walk until he caught me up.  2 years ago he thought he would never run again due to knee problems, but now he is running Endure!  Well done.  A quick change of clothing (sleeves needed as getting chilly and head torch needed)  before setting off for lap 8 with a much speedier friend who has been so kind and supportive this weekend.  I told him that we were walking all hills and just running the flats and the down hills.  We ran and chatted, walked and chatted and still managed a lap in 59 minutes.  I loved that lap.  At that point I thought I could go on forever.

Then lap 9.  Properly dark.  Running with a head torch makes me feel as though I am running in a jiggly tunnel.  It is isolating and disorientating.  I thought I had adopted the same strategy as in the previous lap, but obviously the fairies in the Fairy Wood and the glitter distracted me and it took me an hour and 25 minutes.  I knew I didn't want to run in the dark again, in fact I wasn't sure I wanted to run again all weekend.  As I finished lap 9 I saw Husbando waiting near the solo support tent.  He, blinded by the head torch, didn't see me!  We grabbed some food and chatted.  I decided that I was going to get a massage and then go to bed for a few hours.  I had run 10 miles further than I had ever run before, it was little wonder I was tired.  It didn't make sense for him to hang around - we only had a single air mattress and I was in no mood for sharing - so he went back to a friend's house in Basingstoke where he could sleep comfortably but still be close enough to get back in a hurry if I needed him.

My massage was lovely, my shoulders had become really tight and my legs very heavy.  The massage loosened all that up.  Layers of dust and insect repellent had to be removed from my legs, which was just as well as otherwise they would have been transferred to my sleeping bag!  Retiring to my tent I was convinced I wouldn't sleep at all.  But after a few minutes of listening to other people's conversations I nodded off, to be awoken at 4 by my alarm.  I felt surprisingly good for having had 3.5 hrs in bed and having notched up 45 miles the day before.  I grabbed my head torch, ate a cereal bar, drank some water, laced up my shoes and went out for a dawn run!

This lap was magical.  There were far fewer runners now than on my previous laps and it was dawn.  The music had gone and, while the VDUB bar/disco had cranked out some great tunes at the bottom of Heartbreak Hill, listening to the dawn chorus was magical.  I was amazed at how easy I found it to walk and run.  I was convinced at this point that  I would exceed my 'stretch target' of 70 miles with ease.  I sent Husbando a text to say that I was up and running and suggested breakfast might be a good idea after lap 11 (my next lap) and merrily set off for my next lap.

Such bravado was short lived.  Before I got to the 2k marker I was convinced that if I didn't get a cup of tea and a slice of millionaire's shortbread soon I would actually die.  Not a metaphorical death, an actual death.  Trouble was that the laps are 8km long.  Even in the state I was in, I knew that I had a fair way to go before I could get my hand on a cup of tea.  It wasn't until later that I realised that I had probably hit the wall.  This had never happened to me.  All I knew was that a) I needed tea and millionaire's shortbread and b) if I stopped moving for an instant it would be impossible for me to start moving again.  I plodded on, repeating the phrase 'relentless forward progress' in my head - at least I hope it was in my head!  Just after the 7k marker, or just before I'm not sure, another solo runner asked me if I was OK.  I said yes, but he was wise to me.  The fact that I was swaying and actually closing my eyes much in the same way you sometimes do on a long motor way drive only to jerk awake seconds later may have been a clue.  He walked with me and talked at me to get me back to the race village.  I don't know his name, but if anyone does, please pass on my heartfelt thanks.  I know that, if the St John's Ambulance people had picked me up instead of him, there would have been a very real possibility of them stopping me running altogether.  He was running to raise money for Royal Star and Garter Homes and had walking poles with him - so if you know him please tell him that I say thank you!  It says something about how out of it I was that I struggled to recognise my best friend at the end of this lap!  She was waiting for a team mate to finish so she could go out on her lap but called out to me as I finished... I sort of waved at her (to be polite) but the person I recognised was standing behind her - Mr K - who has  run Comrades twice (back to back years) and who is one of my running inspirations.

Tea and millionaire's shortbread with Husbando followed.  These accompanied by a handful of salt and vinegar crisps and a banana seemed to do the trick.  I had completed 11 laps, 13 laps would mean I had run over 100km (65 miles).  But I don't like uneven numbers, so I was determined to push on to do 14 laps and 70 miles.  That meant 3 more laps and I had nearly 5 hours left on the clock. I walked lap 12 with a friend, only running a couple of the downhill sections, walk ran lap 13 - this lap was followed with a quick second (or was it third or fourth?) breakfast with Husbando and the friend I now recognised, before setting out to walk run, the last lap.  It was simultaneously sad and a relief to think that this was the last time I would run through Faraway Forest and Shotgun City, Little Steep and Heartbreak Hill would no longer be something to anticipate with dread.  I made a point of thanking all the marshals who had supported us throughout the 24 hours.  I crossed the line about 10 minutes before the 24 hours up.  Technically I could have gone out for a 15th lap, but I'd achieved what I wanted to do, as Husbando said, 75 would be a tougher target to beat next time.  The finish was great, but not as great as the start, although it did have the distinct advantage that it meant I didn't have to spend the next day running!

And, talking about next time.... On Friday evening when Husbando suggested we got together with friends and entered a team I thought this was a brilliant idea.  By Sunday lunchtime I was convinced that the only way I would want to do this event was as a solo runner.  It was incredibly tough, mentally more than physically, at times, but I really enjoyed the feeling of camaraderie amongst the runners and the ability to run (or walk) when I wanted to rather than to a schedule.  Hopefully we'll sort out a team for him and I enter as a solo.  I've tried to sell this to him on the basis that we can run some laps together this way... we shall see...

A HUGE thank you to all the people who helped me out.  Looking back it all seems to have happened a long time ago, and it felt like a real break from the world.  I don't think I heard the 'R' work mentioned once, although the football did intrude somewhat with a massive screen showing the England:Russia match!  I've learnt so many lessons that should, hopefully, ensure I enjoy any future 24 hour race even more than this one.