Last weekend I had a first go at running further than a marathon, and just to add a little fun to proceedings I did it off-road. The Weald Challenge is 50km long and 85% of it is pathways, muddy tracks, rutted farm fields (more of these shortly) and climbing over stiles, a lot of stiles…
Here, in random order, is some stuff I learned.
Ultra running is very inclusive. There are lots of skinny people yes, but there are also lots of other shapes, sizes and ages. They are a very friendly and welcoming bunch.
As with all long distance running events, there will be an old guy at the start in plimsolls, worn vest and shorts, with a running style that looks like rapid-onset scoliosis. You will worry about him finishing safely.
When the hooter goes, you will be thinking, “8km really isn’t that much further than a marathon, is it? How bad can this get?” The answers are a) ‘A lot’, and b) ‘Very’.
You will very quickly find out that trail running is not all on nice broad paths like my local North Downs Way. Farm fields with trodden crops over deep ruts are the running equivalent of those Viet Cong pits filled with Bamboo pungi sticks. That, and downhills are not your friend if you don’t have decent downhill running technique.
Compression socks are really great for protecting you from nettle burn. But not if you leave them in the drawer at home.
The best way to run through a marshy riverside field is to have two large cows follow you with menacing intent.
Pacing yeah? I should know this by now, but however slow you start, it’s still too fast. I got to 30k in a respectable 81st position, by 50k I’d dropped to a humbling 110th.
Ultra running aid stations are the best. Fancy a cold slice of water melon in the middle of a forest after 5 hours of running? Not. A. Problem.
There are adders in Sussex. Well, at least one 3ft long one.
About 10k from the end there will be an old guy in plimsolls, worn vest and shorts, with a running style that looks like rapid-onset scoliosis. He will go past you like you are standing still, probably while worrying about you finishing safely.
At the beginning of the race, climbing a stile over a fence will feel like it’s adding character and charm to your day. At around 48.5k into the race, the 81st stile (yes, 81!) you have to climb will feel like that big f*!king wall in Game of Thrones. PTSD actually stands for Post Traumatic Stile Disorder.
That last 8k genuinely feels like 20. But it so worth it when you get a medal at the finish and a specially made pottery mug (and free coffee to go in it). It’s that kind of stuff that makes local races brilliant.
In summary, I recommend this ultra trail-running very highly. It takes a lot of mental stamina, concentration and some serious leg strength as you can’t just zone out like you do on the road. It’s challenging and fun at the same time, as competitive or social as you choose to make it and with tons to learn and improve on. Oh, and the views are awesome! I’m definitely in for more with eyes on the Pilgrim Challenge next February . Here’s hoping it doesn’t snow!
Thanks Carel and Alechia for the ride to and from the race, the support, the hotdog at the finish and the awesome photos. Special thanks to Alechia for ‘intervening assertively’ when I considered dropping to the half marathon about four weeks out from the race. What was I thinking!?
Everyone knows that when it comes to Ironman, it’s the night before the night before the race that is the important one to bank sleep. It’s probably the one bit of solid advice I have to offer when it comes to Ironman planning. Yet here I sit, bolt upright and wide-awake in my hotel bed in Tenby at 3:30am on the 12th of September 2015, rain lashing the window. I’ve got a lump in my throat and my eyes are welling up. I turn on the light and reach for a marker pen. So much for sleep.
Early July. Tooting Bec Lido. The sun is vaguely out and I’m not the only one taking an ‘Elite AG’ morning. I spot a Black Line London bottle at poolside and Troy, Paul B and Nico churning out relentless 91 metre lengths. After a while we end up stopped at the same end between sets and chat briefly.
“How’re you feeling Al?” Troy asks.
“Honestly?” I reply. “I am absolutely crapping myself.”
Fast-forward five days. I’m in the water next to Al Maher and over 1000 other wetsuit- clad lunatics. We’re waiting for the hooter to start The Outlaw. The sun is coming up over the far (very far) end of the rowing lake at Holme Pierrepoint Nottingham. I’m staring down the barrel of a 2.4 mile swim, a 112 mile bike and a marathon. Computer says I’ve done 217.36 hours, 2,419km and 160,104 calories worth of training to get to this point. I reckon I’m the fittest I’ve ever been and the last time I weighed this little was in 1989. I can swim okay, I ride like a fish, and I’ve run one previous marathon where my legs almost exploded.
But all that crapping myself in the weeks leading up to this point seems to have worked. There is no more crapping to be done. I’m about to start my first ironman (™ issues aside) and I feel utterly, weirdly calm.
Jamie, (who kindly took the time to give a little structure to my training leading up to the race) sent me a final text message on the Saturday. It ended with the words, “Don’t talk to Al Maher until you see him on the run or bike!”
This went back to that marathon, where I’d got a little over-inspired by chatting to Al pre-start (he’d just run across a DESERT damnit!!) and landed up starting a touch too fast, melting down spectacularly in the second half after a half-mara PB in the first!
So, I bump into Al while we sort out our bikes early on race day. We chat. Obviously within seconds I change my mind and decide I’ll start the swim where Al is going to start the swim. Somewhere in SW London, Jamie shakes his head in despair….
There are four swim pens at Outlaw, going from fastest to slowest and I’d decided a conservative spot towards the back of Pen 2 would give me the best chance of early clear water to get the diesel ticking over. Now, post Al Chat, I’m at the pointier end of Pen 2 with just the jetty separating us from the seriously fast boats in Pen 1.
Cue a few comedy seconds of doing motorboat-face to get used to the water and Al turns to me to say somethi…. The hooter interrupts. It’s go time.
My swimming style is not a thing of elegance in the first two hundred meters. I think of it as ‘Gorilla Swim’ – hard as I can, high stroke count and a little choppy with wide arms to block any potential kicks to the head. I can see Al to my left and a little behind me every time I breathe. In my head I’m whooping and shouting “ironmaaaaaan!” all at the same time. Finish line aside, it’s always my favourite part of a race, that adrenaline rush as you realise you’re finally DOING it!
After 200 metres of full gas, a brief snag. Everyone has to get over to the left side of the lake within 500 metres, so I find myself in a bit of a vice, being squeezed from left and right. There’s some slowing with the result that those behind are swimming up my legs. I get a hint of claustrophobia, so go again as hard as I can until I find space and settle into a good rhythm.
A third of the way in and things are going well. Apart from a crack on the back of the head from what feels like a grandfather clock on someone’s wrist, I’m drafting feet and even get some pro arrowhead action going with a few other swimmers. If anything, I’m swimming too damn straight as I keep hitting the lane markers they have in the water for kayak racing.
I reach the turn buoy and do a roll-turn so I can get a quick time-check on the Garmin. FFS! I’ve forgotten to press start. No surprises there as, in all the races I have done, I have never managed to actually use the multisport function successfully.
One more turn buoy and then it’s straight back down the lake. Unbelievably, this far into the race with everyone spread out, people are still swimming all over me on occasion, which is ridiculous (my wettie has two sizable gouge marks by way of evidence). I’m not a particularly aggro swimmer but when someone thinks draft = raft about 50 metres from Swim Out, they get a proper facial shoeing for their troubles. Justice delivered, I swim hard all the way to the very end.
I was expecting 1:10 on the clock. I see 1:09 as I run to T1. The part of the day I do best at is already done. I tell the guy next to me I’d happily do 5 times the swim in exchange for doing half the bike.
I’m a big believer in doing the distance before doing the race, so I had ridden 112 miles in training. Once. And by the end, I was making weird moaning noises like the guy who got hit by a leaping antelope.
After a world record attempt at slow transitioning (10 minutes caused mainly by forgetting to put Vaseline on my feet and having to do shoes and socks twice as a result) and laden with rice cakes, salty baby potatoes and an ‘angel sandwich’ in a cheese packet stuffed down my top (no space on the bike!), I tottered out to Stimela (the ‘Coal Train’, from a Hugh Masekela song about the train that tore conscripted miners away from their families in Apartheid South Africa).
The plan was simple. Find an easy gear, slot it one easier and keep pedalling, all while drinking plenty and eating a rice cake or a potato every half hour. The Outlaw bike course comprises two loops. You head out to the Southern one, ride it once, cross to the Northern one, ride it once. Then it’s back to the Southern one for another go-round before heading back to Nottingham. Although hot, this was a day and a course made for über-Bikers: flat with one short hill and absolutely no wind. I however am not an über-Biker.
I made my way around the better part of the first two loops, as people who I had beaten out of the swim returned the favour on the bike. I drank, I ate, I stopped for a pee or two. I focused on riding flats and uphills as smoothly as I could and went at any downhills like a three-legged dog on lino.
But the best-laid plans don’t change the fact that 112 miles is a bloody long way, even if you are riding easy. Around the 60-70 mile mark, my hamstrings started to complain. Shortly afterwards my big toe felt like it was blistering. Not too long after that, a few of my toenails started to feel like they were coming off. Worst of all, my glorious bacon, egg and maple syrup rice cakes were not appealing to me in the heat. As Macca says, it was time to ‘Embrace the Suck.’
Speed dropped. I had to stand to stretch the cramps out of my hamstrings, managing to neatly transfer the pain to my calves. All the standing and stretching put paid to any consistency. I started struggling to find a gear I was comfortable in. Soon, I was out the back of the field, with nobody else around. There was crazy-man shouting. ‘Stop Thinking! Just Pedal!’
It became a simple battle to get to the end of the bike. The reasonable part of me tried to turn the remaining distance into digestible chunks. The other part resisted.
“Come on! It’s just five laps of Richmond Park. That’s easy”
“F*!k you easy! Not after 85 miles it isn’t!”
“Come on! Just keep pedalling, you’re going faster than you think!”
Cue low ‘just been hit by a leaping antelope’ moaning sound…
At about 90 miles I played my last card, my ham and cheese ‘angel sandwich’. So-named after the sandwich a competitor gave Troy in his first Ironman (incidentally the race that made a very different me think “Hey, I wonder if I could do a triathlon…’). Troy’s race report said that sandwich saved his race, so I’d bought one along just in case I needed similar.
It seemed to do at least half the trick. I even mustered the energy to have a little sprint with a fellow straggler down one of the final stretches, both of us whooping like maniacs as we ‘popped’ the Slow Down message on one of those traffic monitors.
Still, the last few miles dragged interminably. To make matters worse, my Garmin called the bike course a little longer than 112 miles. I finally teetered off at the dismount line and handed my bike to one of the volunteers. I may have told her to keep it.
I’d expected 7hrs, it had taken 7:07. My legs, feet, shoulders and neck felt like they were being beaten with a baseball bat wrapped in barbed wire.
It’s hard to explain what happened next. I was off the bike. I’d beaten the bit I feared the most. Two words popped into my head and, by all that is sane in the world, they should have been terrifying. But they were the opposite. Suddenly I was grinning like a madman.
Transition this time was a bit quicker. Sit. Bike shoes off. Do an amazed double-take that my toenails were still attached and I had no blisters. Drink the last of the water from the bike. Change into running shirt. Shoes. Visor. Two caffeine gels in the pocket for insurance. Out the tent. Get slathered with sun cream by volunteers. Go!
The Outlaw run course is two laps of the rowing lake, an out-and-back along the River Trent into Nottingham, another lap of the rowing lake, another out and back and then a final lap of the rowing lake.
The first thing to cut through the utter euphoria of getting off the bike was the realisation that it was hot. Not just plain hot, but Satan’s arse-crack after a vindaloo hot. Reports have put it somewhere between 29 and 34 degrees
First lap of the lake and I’m feeling good. Plan is to run between aid stations and then have a brisk walk while drinking and/ or eating. I check the Garmin early. Whoa! Too fast. Slow down. Somewhere in SW London, Jamie nods his approval…
First aid station and I pour water over myself and take a sip of Nuun Zero to get some salt in. Don’t feel like eating yet. Halfway back around the lake and I get the first indication that shit is going to get real on this run. A guy in front of me is plodding slowly along when he pretty much keels over onto the tarmac. I stop to help him up.
“You okay mate?”
“Yeah,” he says wiping bloody hands all over his white top. “I just forgot what I was doing for a moment”
Welcome to running a marathon in a frying pan.
I hit 10km in about an hour which I reckoned was about right, bearing in mind I run about 50 min/ 10km normally without having ridden 180km/ 112 miles beforehand and not having 32kms to run after. Third aid station at the start of the out and back and I decide to eat some stuff. I have a few sections of orange, some crisps and some coke.
Not. A. Good. Idea.
It isn’t long before I discover the fine line between pushing along nicely and hanging on by a thread. I start feeling nauseous. No idea why. Maybe it’s the heat; maybe I just ate too much or too many different things. I walk until it passes. Then run until it comes back. Then walk until it passes. This is the deal for the next three hours or so. Time becomes irrelevant. Keeping moving no matter how slowly is all that matters. When I look at my pace on the computer later, there’s a huge chunk that’s as spiky as a Politician’s polygraph test.
Worst of all, I can’t get my head into that ‘don’t think, just run’ space. I want to go faster, but I’m constantly pulling myself back. I go into conservative mode. In my head I’d thought any finish time with a 13 at the front would be awesome. I let it go. Just finish. And if there’s one small regret I have had about the day it is this. I didn’t go to the edge and look into the abyss. I never got to beat the fear of not finishing because not for a single second did I doubt that I would get it done. It’s a silly regret, but a common one I believe. And it’s also a remarkable one. If you’d told me four years ago that I’d be beating myself up a little about not pushing hard enough in an ironman marathon, I would have laughed at you through a mouthful of beer and pie while my double chin did a mirthful wobble.
On my way back to the lake I chat to a guy (Wee Ren) who it turns out I have spoken to on the TriTalk forums. He’d walked miles of the bike because his rear cassette had broken. His legs are shot as a result but he’s going to try and run. I try and join him but soon run out of gas. He leaves me behind. In Tim Noakes terms, my central governor is bossing the show.
I collect the last of the four lap bands you need to finish. I can see the line just across the water, I can hear people being called home with “You! Are! An! Outlaw!”. But I still have to run a long way around the top of the lake. I think of my Girl Team at home and everything they’ve done to help me get to this point. Their voices are in my head cheering me on. I think of my Mom and Dad. I look at the mantra I had written on my arm that morning.
Strong like Oupi. Mighty like Granny. Never give up.
It pushes me over the edge. There are some tears, but there is also something else. I am running. As hard as I can. Finally!
Around the top of the lake and into the last stretch. I catch Wee Ren who’d left me behind kilometres before and pass him. He is broken but he finds the energy to bellow encouragement after me. If you want to know what camaraderie is, the last 10km of an ironman marathon is made of the stuff.
Into the finish chute and I’m high-fiving anyone who’ll have it. I get to the tape and punch a hole in the sky. The horror maths that is my run time doesn’t matter.
14 hours and 28 minutes after I that hooter sounded, I! Am! An! Outlaw!
Some things The Outlaw taught me
I love swimming even more than I realised. I may even get someone to teach me how to do it properly.
Ironman is all about the bike. Bad Bike = Bad Run. This report will be the last time I bitch and moan about my two-wheeled shortcomings. The way I see it now, while everyone else is looking for marginal gains, I still have the whole heady rush of falling in love with cycling to look forward to.
The upside of beating myself up about that ‘run’ is that I have something to put right. Just not next year, because it wouldn’t be fair on the Girl Team.
The Outlaw is an incredible race. With that course and support it has the potential to be the UK’s Roth (probably the only thing stopping it is that it clashes with the big European races). For a rookie, it’s perfect. Everything has been thought of and the marshals and volunteers are beyond brilliant. If you’re thinking of giving ironman a crack, seriously consider this race.
Ironman is a whole different level of awesome. Stepping up in distances from Sprint to Oympic to Half IM felt like what it was; doing double each time, but this was a quantum leap. It sounds overblown, but those who know (and I still can’t quite believe I’m one of them) will understand when I say it is a profound experience. I got the bug, something bad.
To my wonderful wife who put up with her bumbling husband waking her up at 5 in the morning on more than a few occasions and held the fort so brilliantly while I was off swimming or biking or running. And to my little champions who often woke up without Daddy there.
To all the Black Line London crew for the inspiration, support and advice, especially Jamie without whom I wouldn’t have had a clue how to train for this.
To Hammy for tolerating a business partner preparing for an ironman while we were getting a business off the ground. And for turning a blind eye to the overwhelming evidence that ‘working from home’ actually meant ‘smashing myself for six hours on the bike’.
And to my folks. Mighty Granny and Oupi, who sent me a message just before the race saying how brave I was. Brave is not choosing to enter an ironman, brave is staring down the challenges that life enters you into whether you like it or not, and doing it with inspirational positivity, humour and all-round awesomeness. More than anything else, this one was for you two.