Cockbain Events Track 100 – Did Not Finish. Not unexpectedly.

The Fast & The Furious – and that was just the pre-race Taco Bell

I entered the Track 100 on a whim a number of months back. It was evident we were going to be getting precious few races in for 2020 and at 35 miles my only ultra, the Shires & Spires, was whilst a great day out, not really worthy of the title of ‘my longest run of 2020’ given I’d run at least a 100 miler for the last three or four years. The Track 100 was local, it was flat, it was likely fast and crucially looked like it might go ahead. I entered figuring if I changed my mind the entry was transferable (a very fair policy from the race organiser Mark Cockbain) without lengthy forms or arbitrary transfer fees.

Then summer finished, Autumn arrived and far earlier than expected it was race time. My plans of building on summer mileage, and in particular the 540 mile month I ran as part of Mark Cockbain’s Accumulator challenge in May, had fizzled out through some minor and varied niggles that never allowed me much than a 2 week block of happy running. Some weeks the nearest I got to training were building flat packed furniture and taking stuff down the tip as we got stuck into some DIY projects.

I was hideously undertrained for a 100 miler and had missed the transfer window so resolved to treat it as a long training run. Part of me hoped that a good few years of ultras would have built some residual ability into my legs and I’d do better than I expected, finish and have a good day. A tiny part of me wondered if months of rest and low mileage would be the secret ingredient to an effortless 100 mile personal best. The realistic part of me was wondering what was a good distance to drop. It’s not the ideal mental approach to a race.

In the last few days before the race I also learnt that for obvious safety reasons there were no headphones allowed. For Covid reasons we would also be required to keep respectfully distanced. So it would just be the sound of our feet, some fleeting conversations and our own internal monolog. If you’re in top form, and strong mentally this would not be a huge issue. If you’re already wondering at what point you would drop, remembering you’ve barely run for the last two weeks, and that your recurring knee issue made 35 miles feel hard work a couple of months earlier, this is not ideal.  My mileage the previous week had been a heady 2. Yes 2. The bare minimum number of miles necessary to use the plural. It had been run with the boy as he started to take up running. It had been great to share the joy of the sport I love but was not even enough to stem the decline of my fitness.

Driving to the track on Saturday morning I was reminded of a mate from Uni who rather than study for exams would prepare himself mentally by going for a run and then cramming in a few brief minutes of text books with the inevitable resultant grades. Conversely rather than run, I’d spend much of the previous few months either talking about running whilst recording podcasts, or writing about running whilst finishing off the manuscript of my second book and hoping that I was getting fitter by some form of mental osmosis. A similar level of success beckoned.

For Covid reasons the event required runners to set up their own mini aid station at the side of the track and store their gear and food. It seemed ideal that you would be able to access your food every 400 metres rather than rely on sporadically placed aid stations with a mystery buffet of food that may not cater for everyone’s vegetarian, vegan, glutton, wheat or other food issue, real or imagined. The downside was you had to pack exactly what you needed. Whilst Mark had a basic aid table and water available to supplement there were to be no petrol stations or pubs to call in and top up supplies with at mile 37. I arrived, dumped my chair and box at the side and collect my bib from Karen, in charge of the registration whilst her better half Matt handed out the chips for Timing Monkey. Karen had also been a key figure at my first (and only) track marathon a number of years previously so it seemed fitting she’d be there.

After an amusing race brief by Mark (“Obviously we have safeguards in place as we’ve all got Covid. Hang on, I don’t mean we’ve got it, but it does exist. I do not have Covid!”) we milled about and I ambled to the rear intent on starting sensibly and steady. 

I’d been debating whether to use my Garmin for the race as they are notoriously inaccurate on a track and Timing Monkey website would give us lap splits throughout and be accessible by their web page or depending on how much you wanted to anger them, updated verbally on request. Ultimately I figured a watch would at least give me a gauge of how fast I was going and stop me doing anything stupid.

I borrowed this photo off someone. Don’t know who, sorry!

I made a pros and cons list as I often do at these times.

Pros – 

  • This would be my 7th go at 100 mile or greater and I had never failed in an attempt yet, even the arduous Lakeland 100.
  • I managed to finish the GUCR145 event, nearly 50% further and was even wearing the hoody to remind myself (and others) that I could once run.
  • I’ve only ever DNFd a race once, and that was through a knee issue so severe I couldn’t walk to the start line but tried anyway.
  • Any distance achieved today would be a decent long run.
  • I’d managed to secure a pair of the discontinued Adidas Supernova, my shoe of choice for many years, and had these strapped on and ready.
  • The surface would be flat and smooth – no tripping over roots or sudden inclines to tweak my niggles
  • My mileage for the last few months had been so low I was the most rested I had ever been. Probably since birth.
  • I’m never fast at ultras but I’m pretty good at sucking it up and pushing on.

Cons –

  • It was a track.
  • 400+ laps of a track.
  • I would see everything 400 times…..
  • I hadn’t run over 35 miles since July. July 2019 at the Lakeland 100. That seemed a long time ago.
  • I wasn’t sure I had packed enough food.
  • It was forecast to rain. I don’t like running in the rain.
  • As I’d packed the night before I couldn’t find my decent taped seam rain jacket, just a couple of cheaper ‘shower proof’ jackets.
  • No headphones, no podcasts, no zoning out.
  • No shelter. No trees. No inviting church hall every 10 miles.
  • My knee was still not fully back to normal and a couple of times a day would remind me that the physio exercises only work if you actually do them.
  • I’d had Taco Bell for dinner and my stomach was suggesting this may not be ideal.
  • I was driving so I couldn’t even get inebriated to dull the senses like I had on GUCR145.
  • I’d had the sort of work issues in the prior couple of days that make you want to run until you puke, not pace at a steady zen-like Buddhist level of self-control.

Mark started the race off and we jogged into the first corner. My knee felt amazing. My new shoes felt amazing. The track felt amazing. Running was actually amazing.

Have you seen the movie ‘Talladega Nights’ where Ricky Bobby, a Nascar racer often shouts “I want to go fast”? Yeah that was me. So I did. Passing a few runners it felt great to be moving like I used to be able to. I closed the gap and ‘won’ the first lap, much to the admonishment of Karen. It all felt so effortless on the smooth track.

The race instructions allowed for faster runners to keep to the inside so it was easier to keep running at this pace than slow and deal with lane changes so I just kept it up and clocked a sub 7 minute first mile. Perfect pacing if I was going for a sub12 hour 100 miler and see me close to the 100 mile track world record pace set by Zach Bitter. Even by my standards this is ‘ambitious’ pacing.

I did reign myself in. A little. 

5k came in 23m40s, I was leading everyone by 2 minutes. No need to stop yet, I’ll get something to drink later, just glide around.

10k came in 46m49s, I was leading everyone by 4 minutes. Maybe I should grab a water but it had been so long since I had a decent run where it all felt effortless that I didn’t want it to end.

At 8 miles my stomach lurched. 

At 9 miles it happened again and I felt bloated and pained. Something was coming.

At 10 miles I dived for the portaloo and the Taco Bell made a sudden and violent reappearance. Of the few running skills I have, a cast-iron stomach is one of them. A mid-run poop stop is something I’ve only done once, at mile 75 of the Lakeland 100. I have never needed to stop at mile 10. 

I emerged from the toilet feeling clammy but lighter, grabbed some drink and a protein bar (yes I’d washed my hands) and mentally told myself this was a one off and I shouldn’t draw parallels between Lakeland 100, my worst race performance and this one today. 

It sort of worked for a bit. I took a couple of walk breaks and chatted to a few people. The Half Marathon came in 1h47m12 even with the pit stop and breaks.

I was still leading everyone by 3 minutes but the tide (along with the Taco Bell) had already turned. My knee was complaining a little and the quad above was introducing itself to the mix. It all started to feel a bit stiff and awkward on one leg. Not painful and certainly something you’d run through for the final section of an ultra.

I was on course for 20 miles in 3 hours, to give a marathon of just over 4 hours which is what I typically do for the first 25/26 of a 100 miler. Eventually that passed in a little over 3 hours. Anyone looking to do the whole event had another 22 hours to go. Mentally I wasn’t including myself in that group.

The rain came in earlier than predicted and we all got a bit wet and a bit cold. I debated getting a rain coat but knowing both of mine was useless I left them in the box.

At this point I realised my biggest issue was boredom. Could I really handle another 80 miles of this? Or even another 20? I wasn’t panting for breath just yawning.

I resolved to push on for the marathon, probably the 50 miles and then make a decision.

Boredom led me to walk a bit more.

The face of sheer commitment.

I had a banana and contemplated the small fixing holes on the infield of the track where they bolt down the metal guard rail that denotes the inside of lane 1 and wondered what dictated whether these were or weren’t in place on any given day. Did 400 metre events have them and not 100 milers? Are they labelled to ensure they go back in the right place? Why take them off and risk losing them? Were they taken off for the winter to prevent corrosion? That wouldn’t be a problem if they were aluminium. When I’d seen them at the Milton Keynes athletic track they looking aluminium. They probably were aluminium as that would make lifting easier from a manual handling aspect. This is the level of monotony my mind was at already. I won’t bore you with my thoughts on adjustable height hurdles and possible improvements I was considering nor whether I judged the track to have adequate fall and drainage for heavy rain.

The timing set up beeped as I ambled over it, tucking into some sweets. That beep was the nearest I’d had to music or entertainment for some hours. It wasn’t hugely melodic.

My walk break extended as I couldn’t be bothered to run. At a normal ultra you run until a fixed point, or the next aid station, maybe just until you reach an incline. There was none of that. No reason to run and no reason to walk. Given my pace was dropping and my fitness was well off was there even a reason to be here? I was unlikely to secure a PB for any distance from here until the 100 mile finish. Did I want to spend the rest of the day in boredom with no real goal?

I’ve learnt not to make snap decisions so resolved to complete the marathon distance. At 23 miles I planned to run 3 decent miles, get the marathon in just over 4hrs, and have a break before I made any rash decision.

Even that didn’t work and I walked a lot. Occasionally breaking into weaving sections of running where I veered across the lanes like a Formula 1 car keeping it’s tyres warm except I was trying to keep my brain in the game. Grabbing my phone I checked the timing system and ambled in the official marathon distance and sat down.

This. For 25 hours.

The marathon had taken me 4h51m09s. The leader at that time, James Parsons passed the distance in 3h42m41s. So a mere hour and a bit ahead, all made up in the last 13 miles.

I tucked into a Greggs sausage roll and poured a coffee. This was my first big aid stop and I was going to do it like a Centurion event. Maybe I could visualise the four out and back legs of the Autumn 100? I’d done Little Wittenham and back. Next would be Swyncombe Farm on the Ridgeway, a beautiful leg with some picturesque views. Of course that would leave the awful Chain Hill and the depressing Reading legs. Maybe this wasn’t the best visualisation after all.

I’ll just eat this and go run another marathon. Or three. Maybe.

I watched the runners go past and most looked very ‘in the zone’, pounding away in pursuit of everything from a Spartathlon Qualifier, to a 100 mile PB or even a world record attempt. I was in the ‘I fancy going home zone’.

What tipped me over the edge was a runner who’d been sat at the side finally stand up, grab their box and walk off in the light sprinkle of rain that indicated an approaching storm. I realised I was more envious of them going home than I was of those on the track.  

Decision made. 

I jogged over the mat one last time, dropped my chip in the reject bucket and thanked Mark, Karen and Matt for the event. It was great it just wasn’t for me on this day.

I went home, had a shower and spent the evening with the family in front of the fire. The storm raged intermittently throughout the night and over half the field dropped all told, including many more capable runners than me. I felt no remorse as it wasn’t my day. It isn’t even my year based on my largely lacklustre performance and injury woes.

DNF, in the car going home!

This all sounds depressing doesn’t it? It’s a reflection on me not Mark or the rest of the team. The event was handled completely safely and professionally. It is ideal for first timers wanting to get 100 done in a safe environment, or anyone in good form looking to hit a time goal. For me, lacking in fitness, nursing niggles and with no huge pressing desire to notch off my 7th 100 mile finish it just wasn’t quite right. That being said, I’m already wondering if I should train properly for another go….

It’s worth noting the eventual winner Mike Bisson was 23 minutes behind the race leader at marathon distance and the gap stayed in the 20-30 minute range up until 100km (62mile) where after he activated his turbo boost to close the gap and eventually finish 35 minutes ahead. Taking an hour out of the leader in the final 38 miles and running 100 miles in 15h19m is quite frankly ridiculous. He was nowhere near world record pace for the first mile like I was though so it’s clear for everyone to see who did better. It was him obviously.

If you want to hear his story check out the podcast –

Winner, winner, chicken dinner!

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