Wednesday, 14 October 2015

The Cotswold Century - Part 2

If you want to read about my preparations for the Cotswold Century its here.  For the details of the race itself, read on:

The Cotswold Century got underway at 12pm exactly. We filed out of the village of Chipping Campden in the Autumn sunshine and straight up a hill. I slowed to a walk pretty quickly, might as well get used to it. Before long we were heading out across open country and over ploughed fields at a nice easy pace.

We crossed a busy road and then dropped steeply down past Broadway Tower and soon we were in Broadway itself, having run 4 miles or so. Broadway is such a beautiful village, I grew up close to here and come through the village every time I go home to visit my parents who, as it happened, had turned out to wave me on and were eating sandwiches and clapping us on our way. A quick hello and off we went.

For the next few hours the running was good, undulating and varied, the sun was shining and I was moving well. Before long we'd covered 13 miles and arrived at the first checkpoint. A few peanuts and a top up of water and I was away, as I was carrying all the food I needed with me. The afternoon wore on and a few big climbs started to introduce a little fatigue. In fact, the truth be known I was not feeling as good as I'd hoped. Possibly the enormity of the undertaking was weighing down on me a bit. After a particularly gruelling climb I started to asses how I was feeling. 20 miles in and I was hurtung, how was I going to run another 80? I'd made the cardinal error of thinking about the whole thing instead of just concentrating on the next checkpoint. I had a word with myself and got on with it, and was soon feeling better.

As you do in these races I saw people pass me and then passed them later on. I was in a good rhythm and the field had thinned out; those before and after slowly became familiar faces. We nearly got ourselves lost at one point but a quick back track saw us back on course. We crossed over Cleeve common looking out over Cheltenham as the afternoon turned towards evening. Checkpoint 2 came all of a sudden and this was the first chance to access a drop bag, which for me just meant a restocking of my food supplies. I made the mistake of sitting down here and regretted it when I moved on as I'd quickly stiffened up. Still either the brief rest or the cola I'd drank gave me wings and the next section flew by in a rush of high energy.

By now the sun was low in the sky and the drop in temperature was very welcome as the evening took over. I was on my own again; stopping to sort out a stone in my shoe I looked up to see the moon rising big and bright behind me. Still skirting around Cheltenham the terrain below the Cotswold escarpment runs flat Northwards towards the Malverns and the sunset looking west was incredible.

As darkness took over I latched on to a couple of runners who clearly had GPS and tried my best to stay with them. There were some big climbs and a few stretches through woods where I was glad to be following someone who knew the way, although the pace was a bit spicy for me. I knew from my watch we were closing in on the third checkpoint so made a point of keeping up. When we arrived at checkpoint three I got myself a coffee and saw a jar of gherkins. This was another case of discovering food I'd never usually eat but as soon as I saw them I knew that's what I needed. Before I could finish my coffee the group I was with were off and not wanting to be left behind I downed my drink and got going. Four of us left together but we were soon split into two groups as me and a chap from Bristol hung back rather than be drawn into someone else' pace.

Some steep climbs followed and the next ten miles or so went by in a blur, I was tiring, I had a blister on my left toe and the beginnings of some chafing in an unpleasant location. Although it had dropped colder as the night moved on we were moving reasonably well and I didn't feel the need to wrap up. At about 10:30pm we got to Painswick Rugby club, the only indoor checkpoint and a chance to get some hot food, assess the situation and get a change of clothes from my second drop bag. I changed into a long sleeve and whipped off my socks to find a massive blister on my little toe. Stupidly I popped it and then made a bad job of taping it up. A couple of cups of coffee and some veg chili later and I was ready to go. I'd run in with the chap from Bristol and we agreed to leave together. After a mile or so though I was feeling rough. Not wanting to try and stay with him I hung back to sort out a second layer and let him go on. Alone again in the dark and feeling pretty tired I wandered on.

I got my phone out and fired up Back Country Pro and checked my location on the map. folding it up small I oriented the map and got my thumb on the right spot. Now, pay attention and hopefully we won't get lost. It was a good hour before I perked up and found the energy I seemed to have lost in the checkpoint. From then on the overnight section was actually quite good fun. One problem that did cause me concern was the sudden dimming of my head torch around about midnight. My Alpkit Manta torch usually goes all night. Cursing my stupidity for not checking the batteries I changed them, checking the new ones as I did and finding they too only had half charge! How could this be? It would be a terrible way to go out, stranded in the dark with no head torch. Luckily I had a second hand torch - far brighter than the head torch and brought along to help spot the signposts from a distance - but this only has a three hour burn time and I only had a single rechargeable battery for it. From midway through the night as the head torch again started to dim I switched to the hand torch and hoped for the best.

Pretty much everything blurred into one over night. I remember a cup of tea at a checkpoint seemingly in the middle of nowhere, running round a never ending golf course, getting lost on the edge of a maze field and ending up stung and bloodied when the "path" I was on ran out. The section I had run a few years back I actually remembered pretty well, from Kings Stanley to North Nibley I felt almost at home. This was the section where we had been warned about not taking the longer route along the canal. I met some poor runners who, having rightly stayed on the correct path, had turned left instead of right and doubled back on themselves where the two paths rejoined.

When I arrived at the checkpoint at Wooton Under Edge it was just before sunrise. Commenting with another runner about how we were craving fresh fruit we were both humbled and forever grateful when one of the marshals produced and selflessly handed over his own supply of fresh pineapple. Just one of many acts of kindness throughout that made our journey that little bit more bearable.

As the sun came up I waited for a boost in my energy levels but none came. What did arrive were more hills. By now my feet were really achy, my toe a world of pain, the chafing a constant nagging irritation. Since about 60 miles my quads were really complaining on the downhills. Throughout it all though I was still motivated, still somehow moving forwards. Occasional bursts of energy came and went and I surprised myself on more than one occasion with a good block of running. I found I could move downhill more efficiently by changing my gait and rolling my feet from heel to toe, legs fairly straight I felt more like one of those Olympic walkers waddling along but it helped and raised my pace considerably.

Its all a bit of a blur from here. At about 80 miles we passed an  impressive tower, the map reliably informing me we were approaching the village of Horton and another checkpoint, I remember lovely homemade quiche, helpful marshalls buzzing around us and politely suggesting we'd sat down for long enough. This was our last drop bag location and I was in surplus so donated what I didn't need and made my way onwards.

Somewhere in the next leg, while moving well and pulling away from the group behind me, my right knee suddenly started to hurt on the inside of the kneecap. After several aborted attempts I realised I woudn't be running downhill anymore. The day wore on. By now it was warm again, lovely in fact, but I just wanted it done. The knee pain graduated from the downhills to any kind of running and I was consigned to walking. With more than 10  miles still to go I hobbled into the checkpoint at Cold Ashton. the marshalls here, as everywhere were extremely welcoming. I dined out on biscuits and gherkins, drank coke and agreed with the other runners that despite the assertions of the marshals that we were looking good, we certainly didn't feel it!

Leaving Cold Ashton the medics noticed I was limping and offered to bandage my leg. I agreed gratefully but a quarter of a mile later things seemed to be worse. Reasoning, rightly or wrongly, that the bandage was not helping I removed it and carried on. Shortly after this was the mother of all downhills, steep tarmac for a good half mile. It was here that things took a turn for the worse, my knee now becoming painful even walking downhill. For the first time I considered the possibility of dropping - and immediately discounted that as an option. I'd come too far and hurt too much to stop now. Over the next few miles time stretched out to the infinite and on I walked. I'd managed to find a way of hobbling downhill that limited the pain in my knee but must have looked bloody ridiculous.

Luckily there was a long section up on a kind of plateau - and another golf course - which went quite well, but the final miles towards Bath were very hard work, being all downhill. I'd also got it into my mind for a couple of hours that I had an hour less than I actually did so was seriously concerned I woudn't get in within the cut offs. When I realised my mistake I relaxed considerably and my mood lifted.

My Garmin was already reading well over 100 miles as we neared Weston and finally, arriving at the final check point I felt like the end was in sight. I also felt like I had nothing left. I sat on the steps by the side of the road while a marhsal filled my water bottles and considered what was left. Two miles or thereabouts. But what a couple of miles! Two huge hills followed, the railings on the walkway the only blessing, allowing me to drag myself up. Still it was the downhills that hurt the most. Coming down into a park near the center of Bath I actually turned around and walked backwards for a bit which was blessed relief but not too practical. My biggest worry now was getting lost, though with the map and an occasional pink arrow - this was the only signed section of the course - I made my way into the town center. Even knackered as I was I couldn't fail to appreciate the beauty of the architecture here. Then all of a sudden I was in amongst the throngs of shoppers and touists. Now Bath has a few buildings that look like they might be a Cathedral and, after nearly ending up at the doors of the wrong one, I asked for directions from a big issue seller. Lo and behold, minutes later I was crossing the square. Running in front of a busker who sang me in to the finish line with Bobby McFerrin's "Don't worry be happy" was a bit surreal. Somehow I managed some semblance of a run and then it was over. Kurt shook my hand and presented me with my medal and I said some rude words to him and that was it. I'd done it.

Finishing a 100 mile race in the center of Bath without any friends or family present made the next few hours a bit of a challenge to be honest. The YMCA was the next destination where showers and drop bags awaited; five minutes up the road to any normal human being but a world away to me. On arrival I was confronted with a steep set of steps. At the top the man in reception apologetically told me my kit was in another building at the bottom of said stairs. Bummer. I returned sometime later with my kit and a belly full of soup from another pair of amazing volunteers. Of course the showers were on the first floor! Removing my socks I found that all the skin had parted company with my little toe - well almost. Comical scenes ensued as I tried to reach my feet in the confines of the shower cubicle so I could finish the job and clean up the mess. Eventually, all washed and clean I left with instructions on how to get some food and a bus to the YHA. The 15 inch pizza I ordered was the finest meal I'd ever eaten, though people walking past were clearly perplexed by the homeless man in an expensive gortex jacket who looked as if he'd not eaten in a week. Finally giving up on the bus that never came I called a taxi. As it happened I wasn't the only one staying in the youth hostel and we made a pretty pair hobbling around the halls that evening.

It was good to finally get home on the train the following day though, especially as my youngest daughter had prepared a welcome home banner and Hannah had a bottle of fizz chilling in the fridge.

Two weeks later and the scars have healed. Of course now I only remember the good bits and am already thinking about how much room for improvement there is next time.

Tuesday, 13 October 2015

The Cotswold Century - part 1

On the weekend of the 26th September I completed the Cotswold Century, my first 100 mile event. This, even for me, has turned into a bit of a massive post so I've split it into 2. First my preparations for the event and then the race itself, so if you just want to skip to the good bit its here. Otherwise read on:

After running Lakeland 50 and with planning permission granted for our house (re)build next year effectively cutting out any chance of long distance racing in 2016 I was keen for a last big race. Looking through the list of events that took my fancy in Autumn I came up with a list , containing several more Lake district races, the VOTWO Atlantic Coastal Challenge and the Cotswold Century. Hannah wasn't keen on my travelling to the Lakes again and the associated costs so we narrowed it down quickly to the ACC or the Cotswold century. The former is a 3 day 3 marathon affair on the North Cornwall coast path. I've never run a multi stage event so that would be a challenge in its own right; the latter a 100 mile race along the Cotswold Way. The Cotswold Way had piqued my interest when I was lucky to run a section of it a few years back and has been on my wish list ever since.

Hannah asked which I'd prefer to do and, without hesitation I said the Cotswold Century. Not wanting a change of heart from either of us to scupper my plans I signed up for the race, boooked the youth hostel and the train tickets all before bed that night. Now I was committed.

I had 9 weeks from completing Lakeland 50 to race day at the Cotswold Century. Here's how that broke down in training:

Week 1 : no running
Week 2 : 21 miles - no running for the first 4 days then 3 runs over the weekend
Week 3 : 32 miles - build up week, no hard workouts and a long run of 16 miles
week 4 : 50 miles including 20 mile long run
Week 5 : 54 miles with a (not quite) 20 mile long run
Week 6 : 56 miles and a 29 mile long run
Week 7 : 35 miles - starting to taper - 16 mile long run
Week 8 : 20 miles - tapering right off; no long run
Week 9 : Race week, no running in the 5 days prior to the race

This was as good a lead up as could be expected for me. I needed a goood rest after Lakeland and reverse tapered back up to peak mileage. In the three peak weeks I ran a hard workout each Tuesday - hill sprints or speed work. On the Thursdays I ran to and from work as well as my normal lunchtime run - this would make a 20+ mile day and, combined with running home with my laptop in my rucksack, gave me some good mental preparation for running on tired legs. My weekend long runs as usual were done at a very slow pace carrying all manadatory kit and fuelling as per race day.

The Coswold Century is a self navigation event following the Cotswold Way National Trail. Previous competitors have reported that route finding can be difficult in places; there are no additional course markings bar the existing National trail signs and with 12 hours of darkness to contend with this was a real concern. I'd got myself a copy of the Harvey map that accompanies the trail. With it being such a long course I'd have needed numerous OS maps whereas the Harvey map covers the entire trail all condensed onto one double sided map. Of course the downside to this is that the map, at 1:40,000 would not offer too much detail such as field boundaries, etc. So at the last minute I downloaded an app for my phone called back country pro (Android, £8.99). This allowed me to download all the relevant OS maps I needed and I was also able to overlay the route gpx. Although it wouldn't allow me to folllow a track with appropriate warnings it would at least serve as a backup to verify my location on the map if needed.

The usual tapering unpleasantness of achy legs and lethargy accompanied the build up to race day, plus I was panicking about travelling to and from the event since I would be alone and at the mercy of public transport. While travelling by train isn't my normal form of transport I arrived at Bath YHA  in good time and well rested.

Bedding down in the YHA I noticed another bloke in my dorm was sporting a Plague t shirt and introduced myself. It was Paul Reeve, from Portreath, just up the road from home! Turned out he and Sharon Sullivan were up from Cornwall and staying there. We've never really met before but all recognised each other from around about the various events we've been at. We met at breakfast and they kindly gave me a lift up to the park and ride where we would catch the bus to the start line at Chipping Campden. There's nothing like an hour in a bus to press home exactly how long you will be running! Chatting on the bus to those around me took my mind off the impending race but soon we were there and piling through regsitration at the school.

Kurt's briefing left is in illusions about the challenge that lay ahead. There was nothing left now but to run the race; 102 miles or there abouts of rolling British countryside awaited us. We were escorted into the center of the village and hung around nervously in the market place waiting for the off.

In part 2 I'll describe the race itself.....