Confidence & Mind Games – MK Marathon Weekend

They say a lot of running is done with the head, so it’s a good job mine is massive. This weekend was a reminder of the importance your head and the little voices play in performance.

Sunday

Sunday saw me at the MK Rocket, a quick 5k point to point run as part of the marathon weekend. It’s touted as a PB course as other than a few inclines is net downhill. It’s my PB course but I think as much for the straight run with only a single gentle right hander. I have the turning circle of a super tanker so a straight course is ideal for me.

Having not raced anything short since October, and due to ultra training being at 1300 miles for the year I was doubtful of a good time. I’ve gone sub20 in previous years so had that as an aspirational A-target. To get my head in the right mood I put on my Adidas Adizero lightweight racing shoes that had sat unworn for over a year, with no place in the wardrobe of an ultra runner. There’s a definite element of imposter syndrome strapping on light shoes when I’m still tipping the scales around 84kg. I skipped breakfast and had a slug of coffee before leaving as I run better on shorter stuff if not full of food.

After the countdown I set off surrounded by clubmates, many from the 6m40s paced session by Redway Runners. Surprisingly I felt good, the pace felt quick but I made a conscious decision not to check the pace on my watch and have the confidence to run to feel. Positive thoughts.

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Gradually moving up the pack I fell in beside clubmate Chris and we pounded out a good pace. Confidence was growing. I had this. I had my fast shoes on and seemingly borrowed someone else’s fast legs.

Then we hit the two mile marker. I resisted checking my watch. Chris didn’t “doing well, that’s a 5m55s mile”. Bugger. My best track mile has been 5m54s, so what the hell was I doing hitting that for mid-point in a 5k? As Chris cruised on my brain succumbed to the inner doubts and I slowed. Then my brain decided I couldn’t feel my left leg at all. It was now manufacturing ailments to force me to slow. Bugger. When your mind starts to remind you how much nicer a gentle jog is it’s not easy to disagree despite it being the exact point you need to push and double down.

After some internal struggle I managed to regain my composure and get back on it, realising that with only a mile left I was still on for a good time. Having dragged my sorry bum over the line on multiple ultras it felt churlish to be considering backing off with a mere mile left.

img_2524The crowds built a bit and shouty Gary was bellowing at me as I crossed the line feeling like I had more to give. Official time was 18m42s, my first ever sub19 which was a welcome surprise and I wondered without the mental melt at mile 2 how much faster I could have managed. The other highpoint was a marshal handing me back my car keys that had dropped out my pocked on route without me even realising.

Monday

img_2554Monday morning and I’m back at the stadium for the marathon. This time I’m official pacer for 3h45 and the nerves are not for me but for those that are about to run with me. I’ve already lost one balloon and had to be given a replacement so my care-giving abilities are a little suspect already.

In the start pen and it’s a far cry from the previous day. I have few doubts I can manage the time. The confidence could be viewed as arrogance but it’s based on over 100 marathons. Nothing is given but it would take some pretty unforeseen events to stop me especially after yesterday, and with perfect weather conditions.

I’ve had my traditional pre-marathon McDonalds breakfast (this may explain the 84kg), strapped on my tried and tested Adidas Supernova (not sponsored by Adidas but find them perfect for my odd feet and dodgy running style). The rest of my kit is proven and I’ve got a baby food fruit pouch in my shorts for halfway having found them easier on stomach than gels. My Garmin has signal, I’ve got the mile splits printed out on my wrist so I can check pace to the mile markers rather than rely on GPS distance which is often a little patchy on some points on the course.

Around me people aren’t as confident. If you’re running with a pacer it’s because you have some doubt you can make the time on your own. You can feel the doubts and nerves. As much as you re-assure people the hard work is done, they can’t help thinking of this as a test, the outcome of which will decide in their minds if the months of hard work and training were worthwhile.

img_2538We set off in wave 2 and although the wide roads help spread the runners it’s still a little congested and I balance nipping through gaps to keep pace against losing those around me. After the lap of the city centre we’re approx. 8 secs up on pace due to some downhills and break off onto the redways. Although thinned out we’re in a large clump and I need to warn people about kerbs or bollards. No one wants to miss a PB due to a bollard in the bollocks, or in the words of my clubmate Emma, a ‘nasty minjury’.

Halfway comes and we pass over the mats around 30 secs up on pace, more than I’d like but given the second half has a couple of inclines it’s handy to have some seconds banked. The group around has thinned a little as people have either felt good and gone ahead or sadly dropped off the back. What’s left is a determined bunch who look strong but most are aware now is too early to count their blessings.

The miles tick past and on a couple of occasions the size of the group is such that I can’t make it to the side to get water at aid stations but it’s cool enough not to be an issue and one runner passes me theirs to share (cheers if you read this Vanessa).

Gradually I notice some of the faces go, and when I check over my shoulder the pack is smaller. My group is thinning and I’m constantly checking pace to ensure I’m not speeding up. Each mile marker I’m within a few seconds, so sadly it’s the fatigue kicking in. Mile 18-20 is always where I struggle when going for PBs. You’ve covered so many miles but with a significant distance left, able to remember when 6 miles would be an achievement, not something you’d undertake at pace after a 20 mile warmup. The confidence needed to keep plugging away when your legs ache is not always easy to come by.

img_2535We run through Loughton and the teardrop lakes, bearing down on the mile 23 marker. My group is thinning again and it feels like I’m spending more time looking at my watch than the route. I have a lovely selection of race photos of head bent down checking watch and pace band.

Milton Keynes is predominantly flat but the course does have a couple of inclines and the one here is fairly significant as a little switchback up to the road level. I back off, using up the few seconds of grace but start to lose a few more runners, consoling myself with those that I pick up ahead and spur on. We pass clubmate Brian who despite great training is cramping up and reduced to a shuffle on this, his first marathon. Then comes Warren, back from injury and running well.

The final slope up the side of the college comes and I lose more runners. I resolve to keep on pace, a target they can follow and control their fade. I’ve spent countless marathons languishing in purgatory, fixing on a runner in front and trying to exclude all else. Hopefully they will be able to do this too. I may have lost my runners but I’ve kept my balloon. Moments later a tree takes a fancy to it and it’s gone.

The last two miles of the course are net downhill and potentially fast. I keep to pace, hoping some will make the most of the hill assist and close the gap. If they started behind me they could well still be on for a sub 3h45 time, enough to gain a Good For Age for London for the women. A few do pass and it’s great to see them in full flow on the home stretch, the culmination of months of training.

Finally we reach the stadium and the slope down before the lap of the pitch is such a magic moment you can’t help but pick up the pace a little and I cross in 3h44m34s.

It’s an odd feeling finishing a marathon within yourself and trotting off to collect your medal rather than finishing in a heap on the floor. I spent years failing to break 3h45 now it seems comfortable. A few runners thank me for getting them home, then it’s off to the bar to enjoy a beer or three.

Tuesday

img_2548Back at Redway for the 6m40s paced session. I’ve not been on pace all year but making gradual improvements. Thanks to the Rocket boost I have the confidence to push and make it hurt and get a course PB for the same 4 mile loop I’ve run 47 times before. The next day I run a hilly 9 mile loop for the 150th time and get another PB. All from confidence to push. If I cold bottle confidence I’d be a rich man.

 

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The reverse London marathon – nohtaram eht

img_2440It’s coming up to midnight on Saturday and I’m drinking beer on a train into London much like the few other passengers in the carriage. The only difference is I’m in running kit and off to run an alternative version of the London Marathon. Or at least I hope I am. This whole thing sounds like an elaborate prank.

The reverse London marathon, or nohtaram eht, has been going a number of years, organised by Rich Cranswick and covers the route backwards, so Buckingham Palace to Greenwich.

It’s a social run in the style of the America Fat Ass events – where groups of runners turn up on agreed times to run together on a set course or laps, free of any entry fees, race rules etc.

The nohtaram starts at the end of the marathon route, or as close as the public can get, namely 1 Birdcage Walk (The Institute of Mechanical Engineers) with waves going at 2am, 3am and 4am on the morning of the actual London Marathon, aiming to finish by 8am before the main event final set up and avoid getting in their way.

img_2468There’s no registration, no signup, no fee. Everyone runs under their own supervision as sensible adults just like when you run with your mates around the local streets. A marathon with no medal, no timing and no ill-fitting top? What is this lunacy!?

 So what’s the point?

People could run 26.2 miles on any night around any city but the London Marathon gives focus for the date, a reason for many runners to be in town, the course is marked out, the portaloos are in place and toward the end of the run (start of the marathon) the roads are closed to traffic so safe to run on.

Who runs it?

Some run it as warm-up for the main marathon either to bag miles for ultra training or help increase sponsorship. Others run it to get some miles in before spending the day volunteering or spectating the real thing. Others just run it because they can.

Kit & Food

There’s no aid stations, no compulsory kit list, nothing. You need to bring whatever food or drink you think you’ll need for the run, and for keeping safe and dry afterwards. Some of the shops on route are open but wouldn’t recommend relying on them. There’s a McDonalds just before Cutty Sark that opens at 6am for breakfast on route.

Even on a hot weekend it can get cold at night so I’d recommend double layers for the run and dry top for the end (ideally in a bag to keep dry), a raincoat, hat or buff and gloves. Street lighting in London is good so no real need for headtorches. If you’re planning on spending the day in London after then a battery pack for phone or charger is handy.

Route

As above it starts at Birdcage Walk and follows the route, except for a couple of section like the tunnel where you need to run alongside. It finishes at Greenwich, just before the official start line. Don’t try and run over the start line, looking dishevelled with a heavy rucksack or you might find security want a word – for this reason Rich advises you stop at the red start, by the Andrew Gibb Memorial.

img_2448Essentially runners follow the blue line on the road and the barriers already erected on the course. For the first half you’ll need to run on the pavement and cross roads at crossings. From the Docklands onwards it’s probably quiet enough you can run a lot in the road and follow the blue line better. The mile markers will all be erected to count back down the distance. The extra miles from the slight diversions and road crossings will make up for the short distance missed at either end. Drop me a line if you want the GPX to follow. I was directed by Julius who has run it before so it’s pretty accurate. 

Getting there

If you’re within London this is easy, if not you’re need to drive in and park (good luck) or get the train. From Milton Keynes the last train got me into Euston about 1am, leaving an hour to do a couple of tube stops and wander down. If you book train in advance it was as cheap as £5.

The McDonalds on the Strand, a short walk from start is open all night so is where many meet to get a final bite, use the toilet and grab a coffee. McDs has security on the door and it’s strange mix of drunk clubbers and lycra-clad weirdos. Whilst inside I bumped into Si and Whiffers from Transgrancaria earlier in the year. Whiffers was skating the route with a friend as preparation for the Berlin Skate Marathon.

Start

img_2444Coming up to the hour(s) people wander off in groups to assemble at the Birdcage Walk start, then set off. For 2019 a rival reverse marathon was arranged by Impact Marathons, also free, and setting off at Trafalgar Square. Imitation is sincerest form of flattery, and Impact Marathons raise a lot of money for charity from their other events, but still unsure what the actual point of their rival one is.

During

The run itself is fun, more reminiscent of an ultra as you fall in step with people, chat, and get lost together. Being unofficial you can bring dogs as well if you want, or skate it, or have a mate cycle behind for support and to carry bags. On more than a couple of occasions you bump into other groups coming the wrong way, especially around Docklands where the two mini loops could be run either way by accident. Since there’s no time pressure you can stop for photos, loo breaks, a can of lager from the off licence and all the other fun stuff that you can miss on PB attempts.

img_2455I ran with fellow Bad Boy Running fans Julius, Allie and Ben, and we stuck together throughout, mostly so I could make a fuss of Toby the dog. Allie was down to run the main event after so chastised us for going too quickly when we went through halfway around 2h20. We backed off for the second half, waited for McDonalds at Cutty Sark and finished in about 5h30. Much of the final course setting up and aid station preparation was underway and builds a sense of anticipation as you approach the ‘end’, count down the miles and pass other reverse runners, volunteers and main event runners nervously walking to the start. Finish too early and you’d miss a lot of this.

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 Finish

Take your photos near the finish line and then get on with your day. Some pop to Bills café near Cutty Sark for breakfast around 9am. I grabbed the overland from Blackheath back to central London and home for bed.

Interested?

Best place to check arrangements and make contact with other runners is the Facebook event. Search for nohtaram eht and you should find it. Pick the one organised by Rich Cranswick if multiple results come up. There’s some rumours on FB that they’re merging the Impact one in with this from next year so keep an eye out.

Go along, chat to people, mostly don’t be a dick and get the thing cancelled.

 

Run Like Duck at the Running Awards

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Still in disbelief but this week Run Like Duck won the Running Awards Best Book.

I was on a cruise boat on the Thames, surrounded by the big brands and significant people in the running world (PSH from parkrun was there), walking onto the stage to be handed a trophy the size of a brick by Mike Bushell, that bloke off the telly!

All this just after recounting my unlikely tale from sofa dweller to runner on the stage downstairs to a room of bloggers and writers. Those that have known me pre-running would struggle to pick which was more unlikely, me running marathons or me doing a stint of public speaking without soiling myself or jumping overboard.

The award is based purely on votes, so thanks to all of you who took the time to vote. Up against stiff opposition from the likes of world famous runner Scott Jurek and best selling author Adharanand Finn it was a honour to even make the shortlist.

img_2412Special thanks to my wife Cloë for supporting me throughout and being there to settle my nerves and share the experience. I promised her a romantic dinner cruise on the Thames and she tolerated the slight mis-advertising without setting Trading Standards on me.

 The day itself was great and started with an afternoon organised run tour, sponsored by Runderwear and organised by Secret London Runs. I’ve done a few unusual walking tours in places whilst on holiday and find them the best way to see the real city.

Although I visit London a lot with work it’s typically tube station to generic office block so was eye opening to actually see the img_2413-1unusual sites and hear the history of the ‘Sinful South’ of the river Thames. The run leader was very knowledgeable and we covered a good area over the run before regrouping (we’d been split broadly into three groups based on approximate pace). As with any meet up it’s initially odd to meet twitter and facebook acquaintances in real life and not refer to people by handles. The legendary David Hellard from Bad Boy Running was there as was Allie Bailey from AB runs. Also met Mike Bushell who is a really top bloke and quite happy to get changed in the back of a van without throwing a diva fit.

Being sponsored by Runderwear we’d all received a sample of their undies for the run. Personally I find a lot of technical sportswear over hyped and unnecessary but having suffered far too often from intimate chaffing it’s a literal sore point for me. At my first 100 miler my shorts had rubbed so violently I was worried I’d be left appendage free and smooth like an action man figure. Being mentally and physically attached to certain parts of my anatomy I was keen to try the Runderwear. With a 32” waist I was between small and medium and plumped for small. They looked tiny out the packet but fitted snug once on and were so comfy.

img_2373I don’t like wasting money and wouldn’t encourage others to waste theirs so would happily call them bloody awful if that was the case (there’s an entire blog post on here dedicated to a particularly awful shoe brand that I wouldn’t wear again even if paid to promote) but I can honestly say they’re the comfiest pair of undies I’ve ever worn, for running or otherwise. They’re made on a 360 degree seamless machine and the difference is apparent as they uniformly contour with no seams to rub. I’m genuinely a convert and the fact the staff that attended the run were friendly runners also helps as you know they practice what they preach.

img_2410After a quick pop to collect the wife from work and beg a shower (plus a beer) we assembled back on Tower Bridge to meet the Dixie Queen boat that was the venue for the evening. It’s a big boat and needs Tower Bridge to raise to allow it to pass. It’s a great sight to see the bridge rise from a distance as you wait on the pier and then again as you pass back under it on the boat.

Once on board we were split into the corporate awards dinner upstairs and the bloggers forum downstairs. The goody bags were well received and I love free samples as I’m basically a tight wad and like to try before I buy. I was also hungry having forgotten to eat lunch so got into the product testing early.img_2433

  • Prime Protein Snack – either apricot and sage or beef and chilli. I demolished the beef one, very tasty, perhaps a little spicy for some but often on an ultra you need something sharp to cut through the sweetness of coke and energy drinks. I’ve heard a few people eat mustard sachets for this reason but yet to try this as I’m not a bloody idiot.
  • Veloforte Classico – citrus fruits, almonds and honey. A calorie dense (300) bar that tastes like something you’d choose to eat, with a soft texture, and inhaled in seconds in my case.
  • Hala Bar – yet to taste, will be used on next run
  • Kate Percy’s Go Bites – yet to taste, will be used on next run
  • Active Root Green Tea & Ginger powder – designed to calm your stomach on a long run and fuel the miles. Single serving size will be with me on next ultra.
  • Caffeine Bullets – already use these and found the caffeine hit of a chewy sweet ideal. Tend to make a couple of orders a year on these so recommended from experience. At the risk of giving Hellard a big head these are great.
  • A cool hat from Mud & Blood – It looked so good my son stole it and I’ll never see it again.

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The evening was hosted by Claire Maxted from Wild Ginger Runs, who started with a recounting of ultra adventures including photos to get the foot fetish people going. Then Susannah Gill covered her world record 7 marathons in 7 continents, before Eric Keeler explained his coast to coast crossing of the USA, covering 3,646 miles, a lot from someone who confesses to not really liking running.

img_2434The bar had been set high and after a promotion from Enertor on their innersoles (I have a pair and will be testing soon) it was left to me to bring the level back down with the tale of fat bloke who ran a lot of marathons trying to be a bit less fat.

I kept mostly on script but wandered off at times. When you realise members of the rival Milton Keynes running club are in the audience it’s too tempting not to have a dig (I also joined that club eventually so was in jest). The response to the talk seemed positive and even the legendary Danny Bent congratulated me at the bar, I was starstruck and forgot to get a selfie. Bloody amateur.

Talk done I could get back to the beer and relax whilst Runderwear closed the night with a sales talk on history of the company and product then dig into the buffet.

img_2498Full of food we went upstairs for the awards and sat with Girl Running Late, who was eagerly awaiting the result of the blog awards. After the various sportswear awards it was time for best book and for me to walk up on stage and collect the heaviest award I’ve ever seen. I might bench press it at the gym. Celebrating with some liberated wine back at the table, Mike ran through the rest of the awards on the stage. Sadly GRL didn’t win but it was a very closely fought category.

We finished the night off with Clean Coach Katie and James Down before disembarking at Tower Pier back for Milton Keynes, buckling under the weight of the award and two bottles of PB ale. Fair to say it was a top evening as well as a reminder of how much running has changed me, not just physically but also a slow transition from shit-scared introvert to someone who can at least fake being an extrovert and talk on stage after sufficient beer.

NOTE – I’m aware how blogging about attending a blogging event is pretty much inception level. If someone could blog about reading this blog about a blogging event we could go even deeper….

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Rose Of The Shires Ultra 54

Keeping in the theme of 2019, this was another unplanned ultra to go along with Country To Capital (C2C) and Transgrancanaria (TGC).

After getting some speed back post TGC and having a relatively relaxed 3h22 marathon at the end of March I decided to throw away all the pace again because as usual my training plan is mostly non-existent or self-defeating. Having got home from a long Monday on site in Croydon, annoyed at only having glimpsed the beautiful spring weather outside the office or the car window, I saw there were still places for the inaugural Rose Of The Shires and promptly signed up for the Saturday as I needed to be outside enjoying the weather and not cooped up indoors. I also had nothing booked for April (still too slow/too young for London and not entirely sure I want to give Manchester marathon my £ until they get an unbroken period of cock-up free events).

Often Ultras sell out well in advance, but being the first year and sharing the date with SDW50 and a couple of other established events meant there was even entry on the day, although how many people casually sign up for a 54 miler I’m not sure. The preceding week was awash with mates on social media packing/repacking and making final checks for the SDW50 and I could remember how nervous I’d been this time two years ago for my stint on it. Fast forward and it’s Friday night before I’m uploading the GPX file to my watch and wandering around the house wondering where I left my Hokas. Surprising how complacency can creep up on you and a 54 mile event can start to be prefixed with ‘only’ purely based on having been stupid enough to do 100+ milers in the meantime.

img_2279Saturday morning arrives, I shove down my McDonalds breakfast and drive over to Brixworth Country Park just outside Northampton. No I’ve never heard of it either, but it’s a beautiful lake formed by a dam with a large visitor centre that crucially has toilets and a car park, the main requirements for nervous runners (parking is £5 for the day so bring change). The single loop makes logistics easy with none of the ‘I’m finished, now how the hell do I get back to my car?’ issues of point to point races. After registering and getting a coffee (£1 from the organisers) I make final preps and we’re off.

The organisers give a detailed map book which I’ve tucked in my pack as relying on GPX route on Garmin. It worked for the C2C so hoping this will be as easy. As with many ultras there seems to be a wide range of kit choices from shorts, vest and a water bottle to those with full on mountain expedition, waterproof trousers and spare tent in the backpack. I’ve got the mandatory torch which I hope I won’t need and a spare base-layer and raincoat just in case.

img_2282The course is basically one big loop of Northampton, sticking to the countryside and probably a 50/50 mix of footpaths/canal and farm fields with the odd brief road section as you come to checkpoints. I’ve gone for trail Hokas as the preceding couple of days has been wet but you’d be just as happy in road shoes and it’s only really a short section through Salcey forest that has much in the way of mud. It takes in two country parks, the aforementioned Salcey Forest, the Grand Union Canal (flashbacks to the GUCR race) and 21 quaint villages and towns following parts of the Nene Way, the Midshires Way and the Northampton Round. If you’ve run the C2C it’s very similar to the first half of that, with runnable countryside, ploughed fields and lots and lots of cattle gates and stiles. Where you do run on the canal it’s the scenic stretches by Stoke Bruerne and similar, not the rubbish-strewn sections through central London.

The GPX file was refined by the organisers the night before and uploaded for use. For the most part it’s spot on, with just the odd section where you doubt which side of the hedge line you need to be on through fields. You could pull out the maps and check or could run aimlessly on and have to crawl through the hedge when you get it wrong. Again. Four times in total for me.

img_2284There are 6 checkpoints at 6 to 8 mile intervals which is plenty. Each is manned by a local running club fighting to out-do each other. Highpoint was probably checkpoint 2 that had Prosecco, Guinness and WKD (remember that from when you were an underage kid?) along with the usual ultra food and cake. As with C2C timing is done on touch free Etag attached to your wrist with a Velcro strap and also backed up by manual bib recording at each station.

I had a vague goal of 8-9 hours for the course. As we set off it feels relaxed and I consider settling in with the front runners just to see what it feels like but instead hold back to a gentle plod and settle in with the main group. Typically whenever a runner pushes ahead they make a navigation error and are called back or held up by a recalcitrant cattle gate so the group keeps mostly together. The only time I really find myself pulling away is at aid stations where my grab and run approach is at odds to many who seem to hang out. At various times on the route we pass through horse paddocks and farmyards and admire lambs, alpacas (or lamas, who knows?) and young foals.

img_2283A few miles before the second aid station I bump into Jonathan, the local runner who saved my bacon on the TP100, both in terms of company and a lift back home afterwards. We talk about all things running related as we pound out the miles, missing the odd turn as we’re too distracted chatting about his double grand slam success at last years Centurion 100 and 50 mile events. Unfortunately it’s not been without some toll on his body and gradually his hamstrings start to tighten and he begins to struggle. Halfway comes in about 4h30 but neither of us is likely to maintain this pace for the rest of the race. We stick together up to checkpoint 4 but somewhere in the next seven miles the gap widens and I lose him behind, in a role reversal of TP100 when I had a sense of humour failure in the night, slowed to a crawl and had to watch him glide off into the darkness.

img_2299Come checkpoint 5 and I’m surprised to hear the aid station crew refer to the assembled competitors as being near the front. They’re remarking how the “fast runners” like us don’t eat much but as the rest of the pack comes through they’ll soon make a dent on the food. Mostly I’ve been running and chatting, don’t feel like a front runner and have no real idea of where I am in the race. The optimistic finish time of sub 9 hours is now a long way gone but I start to wonder if I could pull a respectable finish out the bag. I leave the aid station and catch up with some runners from Wellingborough & District AC and we stick together for a fair section of the remaining miles, with the same navigation or gate issues tending to keep us grouped. At the final checkpoint one of their group is forced to retire and we press on, now down into single figure miles to finish the event.

At around 50 miles the group slows and they wish me luck as they slow a little. The sun is definitely dropping as is the temperature and I want to finish without headtorch or jacket on. The navigation for the last four miles is very easy but also includes a seemingly massive hill to sap the last strength from your legs. Making the final run into the country park and a passer-by wants to stop for a chat. There simply isn’t a way to say “Sorry I can’t stop, I’m in a race” without sounding like a massive dick.

img_2288After a last turn into the car park I sneak in under 10hrs and a long way off my optimistic goal, having covered a little over 55 miles to get good value for money. Pleased and shocked to finish 9th, I wonder how many places I could have gained with a proper taper and without last weeks marathon in my legs. Closing in on 100 miles for the week is probably not ideal.

Overall –

The event is well priced, a great route and expertly organised. It’s worth 3 UTMB points as well if that’s your goal. At the finish you get a medal and tech tee, shake the RD’s hand and get on your way. It’s definitely one I’d recommend for next year.

http://gobeyondsport.co.uk/

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March – 3x Marathons & return to form

As you might have read here I hammered the miles in January (nearly 360) to condense months of training into a few weeks for Transgrancanaria. My one marathon attempt was a disappointing 3h30m20 which after a couple of years of being able to count on sub3h30 was a reminder that big miles do not make a fast Mark. It also make it very clear that a London GFA time (sub 3h05) was as likely as a successful conclusion to Brexit.

The Garmin greed was kept at bay (mostly) for the rest of February due to tapering and recovery from TGC (it went well and I didn’t die!) and I managed a more sensible 268 miles. I should probably have run less as some of these runs were awful, especially compared to January. I was stuck in the usual ‘more miles = less weight’ and trying to look less like a blimp for the impending 40th Birthday.

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March approached and whilst some clubmates were undertaking the full seven marathons in seven days at the Enigma Week At The Knees event I joined them on Tuesday (day 2) to enjoy all that Storm Freya had to offer. It was a relief to finish and bag 1st place with a 3h28 having held as constant a pace as I could manage in the wind and a steady 8min average feeling relaxed and easy. Hooray, I was good again. My form was back.

Then I wasn’t. Friday I battled the wind again, lost 1st place with half a mile to go and stumbled in at 3h32. Pah. What happened to easy sub 3h30?

img_2166There followed a few weeks of running like arse and mostly being miserable. Even the short 10k relaxed runs in the woods with the dogs felt like effort. I got used to this being the new norm. I was going backwards.

img_2213Tuesday in the run up to my final marathon of the month and my tardiness on arrival at a club run meant I missed the 7m30s paced run and had to join on the 6m40s paced group. Expecting to be dropped like a stone I surprised myself by mostly keeping up and realised maybe I was OK.

Three days later back at an Enigma Running marathon I tried again for steady 8min miles. It felt comfortable and I allowed some creep as my legs wanted to run. I gradually moved up from 4th place, sneaked into 2nd place in the final lap and bagged a very comfortable 3h22m which has now got me wondering if some proper speed work and less miles could get me close to that GFA.

Next month is April. Most runners are doing Manchester (too far) or London (I’m too slow) so nothing much on the schedule.

Transgrancanaria 2019 – when a flat-lander decides to climb several mountains

IMG_2070Ever looked at your neighbour’s rockery and had an overwhelming urge to run up it?  For 3 hours straight? If so then Transgrancanaria is the race for you. The race may ‘only’ be 80 miles long but the terrain makes this far more

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challenging than could be expected. At several points throughout the race the unrelenting monotony of various sections forces you to just accept the situation as the new norm; “I’m running along a river bed, scrabbling over loose rocks the size of bowling balls and stubbing my (ouch) foot (ouch) every few (ouch) steps. This is all perfectly fine. This is now my life.”

Preparation –

On a bit of a whim I’d entered the event just after Christmas as it coincided with a family holiday. Sadly it meant I needed to compress months of training into about 6 weeks.

January, I managed 360 miles due to a silly local challenge on Garmin and the Country to Capital race.

February the plan was one big week (100 miles ticked off including an easy paced 3:30 marathon) followed by two lower weeks. The first of these lower weeks didn’t go well. The marathon and preceding month had taken its toll and my legs were stiff. The nagging hip pain I’d been successfully ignoring for months came back and I just about scraped 30 miles with a slight limp rather than the planned 50 and most were painfully slow.

Getting there –

img_2027Flying out to Gran Canaria on Monday, with the race at 11pm Friday the plan was 2-3 runs of around 6-8 miles each to acclimatise to the 20˚C from the 5˚C we had at home. I managed a painful 4 miles where hip wouldn’t allow me to run faster than 10min pace and a slightly faster 3 miler when I ran down to watch the runners on the Transgrancanaria 360˚ start. Things weren’t looking rosy and I started to wonder if this would be my first DNF.

The expo didn’t help. Spanish people as a rule seem to be in better shape than us Brits, runners even more so. I looked like a fat pasty desk jockey in a sea of toned and tanned locals, with some equally intimidating French and Portuguese thrown in. Not for the first time I started to think that entering a very hilly 80 miler was not the best Christmas whim.

Giving up any thought of running for a while I went for a leg massage from the spa at the hotel which stopped my hip hurting but did give me awful calf cramps that made even walking fun. It was going well so far.

Friday I tried to lay in as long as possible, a disappointing 8am. We spent the day relaxing at the pool and I sneaked back to the hotel room for an unsuccessful attempt at an afternoon nap. 11pm race starts are hard. My body is normally shutting down by then.

52668754_10157372035409416_385001993694871552_nAs a measure of the slightly Spanish mañana laid back approach to organisation, the 8:45pm departure of buses from Maspalomas to the start at Las Palmas was rescheduled for 8pm. They notified this by email at around 6pm. For those near the Expo it meant a slightly rushed dinner. For anyone staying further afield it could have been a lot more problematic.

I managed to share a taxi from the hotel to the expo with another runner. In common with many people I’d talked to at the expo or throughout the holiday, he was returning for unfinished business having been forced to drop the previous attempt when he became so dehydrated, he “pissed the colour of coke”. How hard was this race?

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Hanging around the expo waiting to board the buses I met Simon and Michelle, friends through twitter. We shared the bus ride to the start and a beer as we waited for the race to commence. The downside of the early departure was a full 2 hour wait the other end on a fairly blowy and chilly beach. Las Palmas is in the North of the island and clearly a lot cooler. I wished I’d brought a throw away hoodie to keep me warm. As the hours drew on, I was getting more tired and cold and wishing I was in bed, not about to start an ultra.

Race Start –

img_2048Just before 11pm we assembled on the beach (I hate running on sand) and the organisers introduced Luca Papi, the winner of the 360˚ 264km race who had finished just hours earlier and was now undertaking this as a cool down lap I presume. Finally, the fireworks were set off and we started our little jaunt across the sand.

Stifling a yawn, wishing I’d had a coffee, and wondering if this was the worst idea I’ve had in a long time, I ambled off, keen to keep the pace slow, balancing the opportunity to bag fast miles whilst cool and fresh against burning out early or upsetting my complaining legs, so recently restored to some sort of working order by the hotel masseuse.

My pathetic 7 miles of running since arriving was not enough to acclimatise to the expected heat that tomorrow would bring. I tried to remind myself of the furnace conditions of the Thames Path 100, Milton Keynes Marathon and Grand Union Canal 145 and that I’d run in far hotter weather than I was expecting for this event.

If you’re stood on the start line with intentions of a competitive finish then you need to get to the front of the pack as the route alternates from sandy beach to paved beachfront for the first few miles, each time bunching up as 600-700 runners try to squeeze through narrow steps.

Finally, we leave the sea front and start to climb on some rather unimpressive paved roads around warehouses. The road is gradually replaced by broken concrete and rocks, then mostly rocks and dusty trails. We’ve left the lights of the town now and up ahead all that can be seen are headtorches snaking up into the sky, the hill behind them as black as the night sky and indistinguishable. There are a lot of people ahead of me. Looking back there are far fewer behind.

coursemapLater the path breaks out onto a dried river bed. It sounds picturesque. It isn’t. We’re passing along the bottom of a ravine, balancing on rocks and seemingly seconds from sustaining broken ankles at any point. Hope that this is just a short section soon fades as the river bed meanders on, the monotony only broken by the odd puddle that makes the rocks slippery and even more exciting. So early into the race we are still quite packed so last minute course alterations to avoid the worst of the route are trickier than expected and I’m constantly adjusting route to account for catching slower runners or being passed by quicker ones. Mostly I’m wondering how the hell I could have trained for this terrain without breaking into a local quarry and running hill repeats on their stockpiles.

We reach the first aid station in a local town of Arucas Santidad Alta (295 metres elevation, 10 miles), set up in a playground. The area is huge but the tables are jammed together in the middle causing a crush of bodies as people fight to get to the food or water, turn away and find their escape blocked by a sea of ultra runners. The melee is worsened by most swinging their trekking poles around wildly with points either at groin or eye level. Food is mostly orange segments, bananas and some cereal bars.

Keen not to hang around and cool down I top up bottles with a 50/50 coke and water mix and head on with a handful of oranges. Constant forward momentum is the goal. Judging by how many runners are seeking medical attention to cuts and grazes staying vertical may be a more important target. I’ve covered the easiest and flattest part of the course but it still seems hilly.

The first big climb comes after we leave the town and I finally pull out my cheat sticks (trekking poles). Other than a quick go in the local woods I’ve not used them before and have little idea what to do. Judging by the swooshing noises as points whisk past ears, I’m not sure anyone else does either.

As the gradient climbs I start to rely on the sticks. Not only are they taking the load off my dodgy hip and hopefully extending the period before it gives in, I’m also overtaking people. A lot of people. I’ve suddenly become great at ascending hills. I’m going to smash this race. Then we go back down a steep switchback path and I realise I monumentally suck at descending slopes. The pattern continues for much of the race, regaining any lost places on the climbs but losing again on the downs. Using the sticks to aid my cautious steps is little help and mostly I’m glad I can’t see the enormous drops and falls I’m narrowly avoiding. Darkness is a handy coping strategy for vertigo it seems.

The second checkpoint at Teror (588 metres, 17 miles) is again in a town and despite the lateness of the hour there is a full disco going for the runners, with thumping music and lights. The locals are loving it and join in, leaning from balconies to cheer us on. It’s a stark comparison to UK ultras where marshals are on route to (quietly) ask you to keep the noise down as you filter into and out of the church halls in the sombre silence reserved for funerals or impending root canal surgery.

I sustain only minor cheat stick injuries from half-witted runners and head out, sucking on more oranges. Pace so far is pretty good. I had goals of 20 and 24 hours at the start and currently ahead of 20 hour target and feeling good.

Coming around a corner on the trail I see two blokes ahead rummaging in the bushes. It appears they’ve found a competitor who’s left the path at some speed leaving only a leg and pole protruding. With a combined grunt of effort they release him from his botanical bindings to much delight and declarations of “now please go, no waste time” from the horticultural hostage.

The path breaks out onto a road and we enjoy a long section of smooth downhill tarmac before disappearing into the undergrowth and down into a valley. The route marking is excellent with large arrows, reflective tape and flashing markers throughout which have been essential in the darkness.

Aid stop three at Fontanales (996 metres, 24 miles) is in an underground parking garage. Food in, drinks topped and I’m off with a handful of sweets and chocolate again. There’s some more fast road sections and I’m coaxing life into legs and trying to make a decent time before we again drop off onto trails towards El Sao and a challenging descent during which I’m forced to step aside several times and let the locals thunder past. My brain just can’t compute how it’s possible to go that fast on terrain like this.

img_2052 Towards the bottom of the valley the first glimpses of sunrise are seen and worth taking in. The sides of the gorge are steep and tower ahead, resembling a scaled up Cheddar Gorge from Somerset. Except with more cactuses. And some bamboo. The altitude gives the area a climate unlike you’d expect from the relatively barren and arid coast.

 

There’s a hint of Jurassic Park opening scene where the chopper drops through the valley before everyone gets eaten by disappointingly animated dinosaurs. Also disappointing is the next section of the race as it cruelly twists and starts to climb straight back up the other side of the valley with barely a metre of flat as reward. I’ve fallen into step with a couple of Spaniards. He’s old and wiry with a determined pole use. She’s younger and one of the few competitors I’ve seen to attempt this without poles. On the downhills she’s lighter and faster but severely hampered on the climb. Finally, we reach some semblance of civilisation and pass a pub, still closed from the previous night. We pass it, only to return 10 minutes later when it appears some runners ahead have gone wrong and I’m one of 20 people to blindly follow. This may be fate reminding me the futility of running past rather than to a pub.

img_2054The route follows a road down to a dam and the first checkpoint I’ve reached in daylight at Presa Perez (832 metre, 31 miles). There’s a row of chairs with runners huddled under the sort of blankets reserved for disaster relief efforts and make you itch just looking at them. Given we’re still relatively early in the race it seems foolhardy to be sat getting cold. “Beware the chair” is the mantra of ultra-runners who want to finish an event with a medal not a lift back to their dropbag. It’s 8am now (2.5hrs ahead of cutoff) so time for a power march out and a call to check on the wife and re-assure her I’m not dead. My pace is dropping but I feel like I’m keeping up with the general herd and looking back at results see I’ve gained 100 places since the first checkpoint.

We’re at 800m and as the elevation increases the views are amazing and the camera phone simply can’t do it justice. If I was every silly enough to return (why am I even contemplating this?) I’d be tempted to bring a decent camera.

img_2055Gradually the scenery shifts to pine trees and it resembles an alpine forest. Or Wales with sunshine and without the Welsh. These are the sections featured heavily in the advertising for the event. It was this that kept me going through the endless boulder strewn night section where every attempt at pace was thwarted. Sadly 30+ miles have taken the shine from my legs and I can’t muster the youthful abandon to skip gaily through the sun dappled paths as img_2059I’d have liked. It’s more of a consistent trudge with the occasional swear word whenever a drainage ditch cuts across the path, lined either side with vertical rocks to create trip hazards for unsuspecting runners.

The morning coolness has been replaced with strong sunshine and the shady path is needed. Buff is swapped for a cap and runners gradually pull up along the zig-zag climbs to shed clothing and apply sun cream. The mandatory kit included a breathable jacket which has stayed safely in my pack and probably will for the rest of the race.

 

We come into Artenara aid station (1232 metres, 40 miles) after navigating some roaming dogs. They looked friendly but given I didn’t know Spanish for “Who’s a good boy then?” or even “Please take your teeth out my leg!” it seemed sensible to give them a wide birth. Barking dogs have been a constant soundtrack throughout the night as the preferred local security device.

img_2057This aid station has hot food as well and I delight in a plate of plain pasta with some cheese squares on top. I’ve had more appetising pot noodles but it’s infinitely more appealing than the alternative ‘soup’ which resembles used brake fluid and smells similar. There are abandoned cups of it littered across the hall as even ultra-runners have standards.

Once again there seems to be general reluctance for runners to get moving, many are resting on chairs and one is fully asleep. We’re nearly three hours ahead of cut off but I don’t feel ready for a nap.

On the climb back out (it’s always a climb it seems) I can look back and appreciate quite how far we’ve come. Surrounded by mountains the very idea of a coast, lapped by a warm sea seems a million miles away. Given the way my pace is dropping it might as well be. I’ve got ice cubes liberated from the banana bucket under my hat and one on each wrist, held in place by a rolled down arm sleeve.

I fall in with an American runner called Greg and we chat for a while. I’m shocked he’s not only heard of Milton Keynes, but also popped in a few times for work. This seems incongruous. We lose each other before the next aid station and it’s several hours before I realise nobody had been around to corroborate my story and I may well have imagined the whole meeting in a Fight Club style. I’m left with Milli and Vanilli (my cheat sticks), and Jordan (my cheap plastic cup).

Coming into town of Cruz de Tejeda are the first pubs I’ve found open on route but both are heaving under the weight of tourists. The street is pack with stalls and locals offering donkey rides. Unsure if that would count as cheating? There are also many chickens on the loose, wandering into traffic and generally having no fear for their own lives. The alpine feel is reminiscent of the Troodus mountains in Cyprus where my Dad loved to take us. He’d have been keen for a hike in the woods but back then I was a lazy salad dodger who would have needed paying to exert himself that much. Fast forward a couple of decades and now I’m a dad, paying for the privilege to run so far my legs give out, in some sort of weird self-flagellation.

img_2072Some of the later climbs are deceptive as peaks glimpsed through the trees that promise to be just around the corner never get closer or suddenly side step to reveal their even bigger sister behind. The top of most of the hills are marked with little more than a view point and some rocks. Whilst not keen on rampant commercialisation would it kill them to have a pub on just one of them? A McDonalds? I’d settle for an ice cream van. The next hill has a definite structure at the top which brings a glimmer of hope only to be dashed when it’s found to be a mobile phone mast and base station. Bastards.

Finally I reach Tejeda town itself and the checkpoint (1034 metres, 46 miles). This one is outside in the courtyard of a hall. It’s now baking and what little shaded seating is available is occupied by families and well-wishers. I’m sorely tempted to demand they move but instead trudge up the steps to a petrol station and notice some toilets so douse myself in water before the climb to Roque Noblo, the iconic rocks on top of the mountain that features on the race logo. Oddly this is the first wee I’ve taken inside all day. The rest have all been overlooking breath-taking views across the valley, equipment in one hand and phone in the other to capture the sights (the mountains not the contents of my other hand).  I’ve never had such inspiring urination vistas before and may start a blog of best places to water the undergrowth.

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There are a lot of other hikers in town, either making the ascent to the peak or returning from the top. Some are fully kitted with hiking gear, others appear to have taken it upon themselves to march their family up a mountain in little more than flip flops and vests. The competitors stand out from the hikers, mostly because we all smell so bad they’re giving us a wide berth.

After a lot more climbing, I’m finally near the summit at 1718 metres. The pinnacle of the race. There is a small out and back from the route to reach the rock itself, with an extra checkpoint to ensure people undertake the full course. The views are once again indescribable and worth spending some time to appreciate. I’m convinced this is the highest point of the race and it’s largely downhill from here. I’m wrong on both counts.

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There follows more sections through the woods and it’s relatively fast running for those that still have the legs. We climb again (more climbing eh!) and break into a camp site of wooden lodges reminiscent of something from a Yogi Bear film. The profile puts this lower than the Roque Noblo but it feels higher.

img_2073Although there is barrier tape making a strict route through the park I can see vending machines to one side and risk the wrath of marshals to duck under the tape and purchase an off-brand version of that running essential – a Calippo ice lolly. It’s as good as imagined and I wander forward to the main hut on site and aid station Garañón (unknown elevation, 53 miles).

 

 

Just a marathon left –

Garañón marks a landmark point in the race. It’s the start point for the marathon race and follows the same route. Other than two short climbs the marathon is downhill throughout. It’s also where we finally get our drop bags so can approach the home straight with fresh kit and whatever treats we packed away.  I stick my Garmin on charge. My optimistic plan was to reach my charger pack and cable before it went flat. I nearly made it but have a disappointing couple of mile gap in my Strava trace.

The food is pasta, sauce and spuds. It’s sort of appetising. I sit down to eat then immediately switch tables as next to me is a bowl of warm sick regurgitated back up by a previous runner. I try to pretend it’s not sick but unless they’ve been serving chilli with grapes and chopped up Haribo there’s no other option. It did have a fork in the bowl but I suspect that is coincidental. Ultras are really classy aren’t they?

img_2071Mostly I feel pretty good, tired but no chaffing or other issues. A small blister on my foot was dealt with earlier so I mostly eat and run. Lets do this!

Leaving the aid station it’s beautiful and flat. We start a small climb which I’d been expecting. It doesn’t stop. Three bloody hours later we’ve climbed the last massive peak and my sense of humour has gone. This would be a horrendous marathon course.

img_2076They’ve thrown in a switchback descent that could have been beautifully fast had it not been cobbled by a blind man. It’s like running on lumpy concrete. There have been better laid ornamental arrangements around garden ponds. I’m running with my imaginary friend Greg again and he’s ringing his father for some motivation “You got this son, you got this!”, “Thanks Dad I’m gonna get it done.”, “Damn right son, do it!”.

At the bottom of the hill we take a left turn and start to climb again. This is becoming depressingly familiar. For a while I run with Greg and some others. I hope they can see him too. A couple of Korean runners have fashioned cheat sticks from bamboo poles they found on route. It seems very fitting and they make a more pleasing sound than the ping-ping of Milli and Vanilli. Although even their namesakes couldn’t make a good sound. Greg is stopping to collect litter as we run. This confirms my thoughts he probably exists, otherwise I’m also imagining litter and that would be a low point in mental health.

Gradually we split up as the path continues. I’ve had to stop to put my headtorch back on, which whilst expected is still demoralising. I’ve run all last night. I’ve run all day. It’s night again. I’m still running. It sucks. This is meant to be an easy downhill marathon section. It’s horrendous and my feelings are rapidly shifting towards dropping out, going home for a shower and a beer.

Eventually I hit Hierbahuerto aid station (1226m, 63 miles). It’s dark and bleak on the summit of the millionth bloody mountain I’ve climbed today. Even the supplies have been carried up due to it’s remoteness. This would be a shitty place to drop. There is only 17 miles left and 9 hours before cut off. I could pretty much crawl to the end.

Salvation Arrives –

Coming down from the checkpoint my ears catch the dulcet tones of two Irish competitors, deep in conversation as only those with the gift of the Blarney stone can manage. They gradually reel me in and catch me as I stop to check route on a tricky section.

I fall in behind them and the company after so long with just my imaginary litter picking American is welcome. They introduce themselves as Tom and Joe and we chat about everything from sport to family and work as is the way of trail runners. They’re alternating run and walk sections faster than I have been and it’s a struggle to keep up at times.

There’s a moment of panic as Tom slips on a loose rock and nearly disappears off the edge of the path. He’s made of strong stuff and is back on his feet instantly whilst I’m still midway through attempting to bend and help him up. We’re joined by a fellow Brit, Francis, and have accidentally assembled a group of English speakers alone on the mountainside. Our clan of dusty and sweaty travellers is reminiscent of The Lord of The Rings only with less Orcs and hopefully no extended directors cut. After 20 hours of running we’re hoping not to destroy our rings.

Sticking together the group begins the descent down to Ayagaures and the prospect of seeing my wife and Zaid who have come out to support me. I’ve fallen way off pace so the planned 7pm arrival is likely to be closer to 10pm. We are still at a high altitude with only around 14 miles left before the coast so need to drop quickly. And we do. The next section is so steep and sketchy it has extra warning signs in places advising that whilst the previous deadly drops were merely having a laugh, these ones are properly going to kill you. They use slightly less dramatic wording such as “Danger Very Technical Trail, Take Caution!” but it’s obviously a suggestion to check your life insurance is up to date.

The group of four initially check back with each other as sounds of slipping and tripping are released. Eventually it becomes evident that almost falling to your death is pretty much the standard state of affairs and presume any serious issues will be accompanied by a plummeting scream or snap of bone so continue on in silence punctuated only with swear words. I fall flat on my arse at one point and it feels good to rest.

53030508_10157374937909416_5468258499051913216_nFinally hitting the road into town I’m met by my support crew, more than a little concerned how late I am, and by the seemingly impenetrable darkness to heaven that we’ve zig-zagged down. Standing at the bottom I can share their concern. It looks more like a sheer cliff than anything even a mountain goat should attempt. We’ve dropped nearly a kilometre of elevation in just six miles since the last checkpoint.

The aid station at Ayagaures (313 metres, 69 miles) is a rushed affair. Tom and Joe are keen to push on and I’m certain I’ll be better with them than alone so have to keep my time with Cloë and Zaid short. We set up in the extra tent for support crew (just in case they do something unseemly in the main tent worse than vomiting in a bowl) and top up bottles, dumping any unnecessary gear with Cloë (I ran out of pockets so the battery pack for my Garmin has been stored someplace even a wife shouldn’t have to deal with). I’m presented with the beer I’ve been craving since the sun came up, kiss everyone goodbye and march after the Irish.

Cloë has said the road route from Maspalomas took them up and over a huge hill. I’m confident we’re mostly downhill from here so must be going a different route. We are. It’s up and over a completely different huge hill. Bastards. The climb is on a wide dusty and level road so we make good progress. The descent is more lumpy and slower. Finally we hit the dried up river bed that will lead us all the way into town. It’s as rock strewn and evil as the first river bed at the start of the race.

Tom and Joe have the knack and make incredible time, catching up many that have overtaken us. By a combination of luck, scrabbling and short runs I keep up and we power through. Each time the rocks run out and the route turns to dusty path I’m hopeful it’s the end. It isn’t. At one point I drift off into a daydream and find myself nearly crashing into the back of Joe who has changed his entire outfit, grown a few inches and also become Spanish. It’s not Joe. He’s ahead with Tom as we’ve caught up a group of stragglers and I’ve just blindly followed a random runner for a period whilst my mind was off someplace else dreaming of warm baths and cold beer. I scrabble to catch up, noting that’s a further four people we’ve passed.

Eventually the river bed ends and we’re on a wide dusty section. Tom and Joe have decided it is time to push it for home. I’ll happily admit they had the run on me and I resolved to stick with them as long as I could. Gradually the ‘oh god I can’t sustain this’ changed to ‘ok this feels fast but I can manage this’ and we drop down onto the canal that runs through the town. It’s dry and lined in a Spanish version of crazy paving. After the bastard rock sections this feels like nirvana in comparison.

We continue to push the pace and past the walking dead of ultra-events the world over, all marching with blank faces, dragging limp legs and smelling like decay and blind hope.

There’s a checkpoint on the footpath of the canal so all runners walk/run/climb the steps up and back down to pass through. This is the final checkpoint, Parque Sur at 28 metre elevation and 78 miles. We run down the steps back to the crazy paved canal and I can’t help but feel sympathy for one forlorn guy attempting to climb back down without his knees or legs co-operating. He might still be there as you read this. If only he knew I was completely broken as well but just too desperate to keep up that I couldn’t give in to it.

After a little more canal we divert onto the road and can just about see the Expo hall and finish line.  Tom is still pushing and we receive confused looks on competitors faces as we whip past either side, breaking their inner daydream. One runner manages to regain composure and pass us back, it’s Francis from the deadly cliff section.

Rounding the final corner Tom grabs all our hiking poles and launches them into the grass so as not to ruin the finishers photo. He’s a pro. We’re passed an Irish flag by their families and we cross the line together. I’m holding hands with two fellas I didn’t even know 20 miles ago but who have saved my race and kept me sane.

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It’s taken over 26 hours to finish. I’ve gained position throughout, especially since meeting the Irish greyhounds, which shows quite how laughable my original 20-24 hour goal was.

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After collecting medals (and hiking poles) we share a complimentary beer before retrieving drop bags and bidding farewells. I feel great, a bit stiff maybe so decide to jog the short distance back to the hotel, cheering on the finishing runners as they pass.

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Transgrancanaria is properly brutal but epic. The beginning and end can be soul destroying, but the middle makes it worth it. Like a sandwich of the finest cheese and ham made with stale wholemeal bread. Sipping champagne at breakfast the next day, replete in my finishers top I feel amazing even though I waddle like someone who’s pooped his pants.

Next time I decide to run across a volcanic island I’m going to the Maldives.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Transgrancanaria 128km- Hints & Tips

Whilst some races seem to have a plethora of hints, tips and advice pages, there seemed to be little about the Transgrancanaria 128km race so I thought I’d pass on what I discovered.

Registration –

Pretty easy, all done online. If staying on the South of the island it’s worth paying the extra 10 Euro for the bus from the finish (Maspalomas) to the start (Las Palmas) as it’s about an hours drive and would be an expensive cab ride.

Unlike a lot of UK races the entry stays open very late, around 2/3rd Feb before it’s closed for the race around the 22nd Feb.

Medical Cert – 

They need a medical cert to allow you to run. There is a pro-forma one on the website that’s best to use. It’s similar to the one used by Paris Marathon etc and just a check that your doctor doesn’t mind you going for a little jog. Get it signed by your doctor and upload before the deadline of 2/3rd Feb. It needs to be checked and verified by the organisers. I got no update that this had happened, but logged back into account about a week later and found it marked as approved.

Communications –

Don’t expect anything else to follow. UK races tend to update you on last minute items, reminders etc. This has none of that. As long as your medical cert shows as approved you’re good to go.

Hotels – 

Personally I’d get a hotel at Maspalomas for great beaches, quick access to expo and easy walk /taxi back from the finish. Also mentally I’m sure it helps knowing you’re running home.

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Bib Collection –

This is done from ExpoMeloneras (the expo hall) in Maspalomas from Wednesday onwards. They’ll update the timetable nearer the date but typically a morning (10am-1pm) and afternoon (4pm-8pm) window. To collect your bib you need photo ID matching your registration name (UK driving licence is fine). You’ll get bib with timing chip, a backup chip on a tag to affix to rucksack/pack and some goodies (in 2019 I got shoe gaiters, arm sleeves, and compression top). They don’t give safety pins as most runners seem to use bib-belts so if wanting to pin on your top bring some with you.

There are enough stalls at the expo to buy pretty much anything you’ve forgotten.

Kit Inspection –

img_2027There is a mandatory kit list as to be expected. I presumed this would be checked at bib collection so carried it all down. It wasn’t. They didn’t kit check before the race itself either, seemingly preferring to trust runners to have the right gear. Probably still worth bringing it with you just in case they change the approach in future to avoid a lot detour back to hotel to grab stuff.

Drop Bags –

At registration you’ll also get two plastic bags. One is for your end gear (warm hoody, flip flops, shower items (there are showers on site) etc), the other is for your drop bag for Garañón at approx 53 miles (I’d recommend spare socks, dry clothes, plasters, vaseline, any desired food or drinks, battery pack for charging phone or Garmin). The drop bag is relatively late in the race after some big climbs so don’t be surprised if it takes 16+hrs to get to it. Your Garmin may not last until here so may need to carry a battery pack anyway. Both bags will be waiting for you at the end of the race. I had all my gear in a drawstring rucksack within the plastic bag to make it easier to carry home after a long day of running.

All drop bags need to be given in by 1pm on Friday so you can take them back to hotel and pack at leisure assuming you don’t mind make a further trip out, or come to bib collection with all the gear you wish to fit in the bags. I’ve given suggestions of what to pack further down the page.

Start – 

img_2044The race starts 11pm on Friday. Yes – 11PM. If you’re on the coaches they leave from the Expo centre at 8:45pm, although for 2019 they were moved to 8pm with only a couple of hours notice via email so worth checking for updates. If you’ve paid for the coach it will be marked on your race bib so have it to hand to get on the coach. The journey is around the perimeter of island on the fast roads, not a twisty vomit inducing path through the hills.

img_2046All being well this should get you to the start on the beach at 9pm for a 2hr wait. Even on a warm day it is likely to be breezy and chilly so worth having a spare throw-away top, bin liner or putting on your raincoat for warmth. There isn’t much to do for the 2hrs so try and find a cafe/pub and sit and rest, listen to the warm up band. May be worth bringing some snacks and drinks for the wait. I went to the pub with some twitter chums. We got some odd looks.

img_2048The runners assemble on the sand about 10:40pm, into numbered pens as denoted by your bib. The race starts with fanfare and fireworks. It’s a great atmosphere but likely your body is wanting sleep not an 80 mile run.

First few miles is on sand, alternating between beach and boardwalk. If you get sand in shoes then wait until you leave the beach the second time and start to climb the mountain before emptying your shoes.

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Emergencies – 

Your bib has an emergency number on it, and a mobile is mandatory.

Loved ones / support crew & timings – 

It is likely you will be far slower in the race than expected. I consistently run 100 milers in the UK in sub 23hrs, so had a very optimistic 20hr goal and a more realistic 24hr plan. On the day I managed 26hr despite gaining places all race. I found it difficult technically and struggled but no more than most. It is hard and unless you’re used to running up and down loose rock and endless climbs it will be out of your comfort zone.

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There are only limited checkpoints on route which although updated regularly to website and the app, can still give concern to followers when you’ve not appeared at the next checkpoint for many hours after your planned arrival. Also worth noting some of the electronic checkpoints are on the exit to the aid stations so even if arriving broadly on time, you could well show up as very late if you hang around eating.

Cut off and DNFs –

The cut off is 30hrs which for ‘only’ 80 miles sounds ridiculously easy until you see the course (incidentally I made a very short mistake on course but otherwise ran the route as marked and clocked 83.87 miles so think overall you should assume approx 83 miles).

For 2019 there were 772 starters and 527 finishers, so approx 68% success rate with 32% dropping out. 76 finished in the final two hours. The average finish time is circa 24hrs but given this is an Ultra Trail World Cup event and attracts world class, corporate sponsored runners they skew the results somewhat. It’s also worth noting you may get a big mental slump when the sun drops on Saturday and you realise it’s night again, you’ve been running all through the previous night and day and still not finished.

Checkpoint Miles Cut Off (time of day)
Arucas – Santidad Alta 10.25 02:30:00
Teror 16.96 04:50:00
Moya – Fontanales 24.36 07:40:00
Los Pérez 31.5 10:35:00
Artenara 39.39 13:45:00
Tejeda 46.48 16:25:00
Garañón DROP BAG 53.13 19:00:00
Hierbahuerto 62.76 22:45:00
Ayagaures 68.85 01:00:00
Parque Sur 77.55 04:15:00
Meta (end) 79.54 05:00:00

Kit –

Mandatory kit is likely to be unchanged as below.

  • ID, passport or driving license (with photo)
  • Plastic cup
  • Emergency blanket (minimum 100 cm x 200 cm).
  • Headlamp, flashlight or front light (spare batteries required).
  • Red rear light (runners shall wear it on their rear side and keep it on throughout the race).
  • Mobile phone with enough credit and properly charged battery.
  • 1.5 l water bottle.
  • Plenty of food to eat throughout the race.
  • Race number, worn in the front so that it is easily visible.
  • Breathable waterproof jacket.
  • Cap, bandana, etc.
  • Cash (euros)

Personally I’d say bring a decent sized plastic cup not the stupid speed cups.

There is no requirement for backup headtorch but given you’d be completely lost without lights I’d suggest an emergency headtorch like the Petzl E+Lite Headlamp. You could have this in your mid-race pack as a backup if you trust yourself not to break your main lamp before then. I used a Unilite PS-CL1 cliplight for my rear light as it also features a bright torch mode, enough to hopefully get you to safety if needed.

Other kit I’d suggest in addition to mandatory kit would be as below:

Carrying at Start Wearing at Start Drop Bag 50 miles
Race vest / rucksack Buff for head Dry top
Caffeine tablets / shot blocks Arm sleeves Dry arm sleeves
Emergency torch Gloves Dry buff
Emergency whistle Bib belt or safety pins Dry hat
Peaked cap for daytime Calf guards Dry socks
Sunglasses for daytime Shorts Battery pack USB
Suncream for daytime Compression base layer Garmin charger lead
Emergency base layer or top Vest/Tee Phone charger lead
Tissues (for loo stops) Shoes More salt tablets
Vaseline Socks Bag for sweaty gear
Plasters/tape End Drop Bag Sports drink
Salt tablets Flip flops Energy drink
Aid station list / timings Hoodie Beer
Zip lock bag for food Shower gear / wet wipes Extra Food
Food/gels
Hiking poles
Paracetamol

Temperatures / kit – 

This will vary a lot throughout the race, expect 8/10degC up to 25degC. The early stages can be a little chilly so I found the use of arm sleeves and gloves to easily regulate temperature helped a lot. For much of the heat of the day you’re in the dense woods so protected from worst of the sun. That being said it is bright so suncream is sensible.

The wind can come suddenly and be gone almost as quickly so don’t be surprised to be baked for a few miles only to be chilled for the next few. For cooling I borrowed ice from aid stations to go under hat and in arm sleeves (rolled down like sweatbands).

For 2019 the temperature rose towards the end as Maspolamas had been basking in 29degC heat compared to 20degC on the hills so was still hot even at 1am.

Poles / cheat sticks –

I’ve never used before but found to be a god-send both climbing and descending. I saw possibly two people without, and two more who had fashioned poles from bamboo canes on route. You can get cheat sticks as cheap as £20 on ebay so worth buying. I pulled mine out around 15-20 mile in and never put them away again. If flying in consider if they’ll fit in suitcase or if you’ll be allowed in hand luggage (unlikely) if not checking a bag into hold.

Shoes –

Definitely a trail shoe event but get something with a little cushioning if able as there are a lot of fast descents on hard surfaces that pound the knees

Aid stations – 

img_2057These are pretty manic affairs at the start. Most have isotonic drink, coke and water in vats. I typically prefer a 50/50 coke and water mix.

Food is mostly oranges, bananas, cheese, meat cubes, energy bars, chocolate, fruit and nuts. There is hot food at Artenara at 40 miles and Garañón at 53 miles. It’s typically pasta or potatoes. It’s hot and fills a hole.

Training –

img_2055For most UK runners, specific training for the race will be hard. There are climbs that go on for hours, stressing your calf muscles from endless “toe steps”. The descents can be equally long and on rocks or hard surfaces, pounding your quads. Even the flat sections may be along dried river beds, tripping and balancing on bowling balls of rock. Whilst none of these are exceptionally taxing on their own for short periods, the sheer duration of the sections is hard mentally and physically. There is a downhill path on uneven cobbles that appears to go on for so long you begin to pray for an uphill just to save your legs.

img_2076Ultimately unless you live in the Lake District or regularly trespass in your local quarry for hill repeats you will find the course taxing. Accept that it is hard. Enjoy the sections through the woods where you can gain some speed and try not to fall off a ravine to your death. You will likely get some miles as slow as 30-40 minutes.

 

Route marking –

It’s very well marked, with marker tape and flashing lights throughout, with arrows for changes of direction. There is one final descent into Ayagaures that is especially marked as ‘technical and dangerous’ as you drop hundreds of meters down a seemingly sheer cliff.

Your race bib has a course profile on it but so zoomed out it can be deceptive. The final 27 miles of the course is the same as the marathon and in theory an easy downhill run. In reality you may find yourself climbing for hours at times during this downhill section as sneaky uphills are hidden in the profile.

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End – 

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The final section is along a dried up river bed over yet more rocks, before changing to the dry canal bed through town. At two points you have to climb up and back down the canal to go through a checkpoint or avoid road crossings. Climbing stairs after 80 hard miles is comedic.

At the finish in front of the Expo you’ll get a finishers body warmer/zip up gillet thing. They have beer at the end if you ask for it! Don’t forget to collect any drop bags from back inside the expo hall.