Monday, 29 July 2013

LDWA Shotley 50 event review

The Shotley 50 is a 53 mile narrative off-road trail race run by the LDWA as one of their challenge events where runners as well as walkers are allowed to take part. As I’ve said previously, LDWA membership is almost essential for any off-road long distance running fan. In a time where fitness and outdoor sports are big business and race fees are now into hundreds of pounds (and I do realise there are a lot of overheads), the LDWA manage to put on events Like this for £11 where you can pay £60 plus for other events.

On route to the start

 The race itself actually started and finished in a little village called Holbrook which sits a few miles South East of Ipswich on the Shotley Peninsula between the Rivers Stour and Orwell in Suffolk. The event was split between the walkers and the runners and I got to the village hall in time to see the large group of walkers set off and after starting late on the last event I was determined to not make the same mistake so had plenty of time.

I registered early and made a note of the minor course amendments so there would be no surprises but as we’d been sent the route description prior to the event I’d already used my Ordinance Survey mapping software to review the course so I had a rough idea of the major landmarks we’d hit and even tried to memorise some of it. You could argue this takes some of the “fun” out of navigating during the event but nothing can fully prepare you to being on the ground running the event on the day and anything to help can’t be bad.

Kit wise for the event, this was going to be the longest I’d ever run in Luna Sandals. Before today I’d only ever run 30 miles in the minimal footwear and only covered 4 miles in the new Mono’s. Other than the sandals, I opted for my usual Inov-8 12 litre Race pack and I’d planned to battle the heat wave by carrying a spare 2 litre water bladder which I’d frozen. This would act to cool me in the 30 degree heat and also be spare water if required. This didn’t happen though as I’d managed to leave the pack in the freezer (actually it’s still there now) and I was lucky as the day was overcast and only 21 but still warm enough.

Fuelling wise I’d decided to use my two front mounted Inov-8 water bottles (one as a spare) filled with water with Nuun hydration tablets. I chose this combination as it wasn’t mega hot but also there were 10 aid stations so the legs would be short. As for food I’d again left the gels at home and carried a small bag of fig rolls in my back pack just in case and decided to keep my front bum bag empty and fill it as required at each stop as the LWDA events are well known for the amounts of food offered!

I was feeling really relaxed pre-event as I knew I’d prepared well and I was quietly confident that I should at least beat my 50 mile PB of 10hrs and 44 mins (and 9 seconds) as that was set on the South Downs Way in some of the worst weather where this was flat(ish) and near perfect conditions. I said hi to a couple of people I recognised from previous events including Jon Legge and Julian Catnull (SP) who I believe are Striders the same running club as me? As the clock ticked over closer to the runners start I was wondering where my friend Darren Coates had got to but with a few minutes to spare he arrived ready for action. There were a smaller group of runners ready at the start time which was exactly an hour after the walkers and I have to admit I was slightly surprised as there’s normally quite a large running contingent at these events but I guess the extra distance could have put people off?

Soon we were off and as we all jogged away from the hall I briefly wondered exactly how long until I saw the place again? A couple of really fast guys went off but the main group stuck together and it was nice to run for a while with some runners who were obviously in a different class to me. I knew I was going too fast but this normally happens so I thought I’d just enjoy it while I could and within a couple of miles let them go. Well the course took in some of the landmarks that I’d highlighted including running along a large dam next to a reservoir, sports fields, churches and eventually the banks of the massive river Stour. I’d already fallen foul in a classic trail race mistake when I missed a turning but was lucky only to do an extra couple of hundred yards before realising the error.

I was now following Darren and the rest of “the elite” along the beach. I’d pulled ahead of them earlier as they stopped to do a nav check but now normal service was resumed. The route was amazing as we ran with trees on our right and the water right next to our feet on the left. My only issue was that the fine sand didn’t really suit running in sandals as I’d found previously but although uncomfortable wasn’t really too bad.

Following the fast boys (Darren Coates in the blue)

We soon got to the first check point and we had started to pass the first walkers so we briefly stopped to swap pleasantries. I took on a couple of bits of bread with marmite and stuck two pieces of flapjack in the bum bag for later and I was off again. More and more walkers were passed and as usual it did get a little tricky in narrow sections trying to negotiate a route past them. Most of the time they are great and swop greetings but you do get the feeling that a small number of walkers might begrudge sharing the trail sometimes especially with comments of “hurry, hurry, hurry” as you would pass them at speed. I’m sure they struggle to get their heads around why anyone would like choose to punish themselves and miss all the wonders nature has to offer, and they do have a point!

Well I was still managing to keep with the group as we sped at speed across fields and through forests and within no time we approached check point two. I again ate a couple of snacks, filled my bottle and refilled the pouch. As I walked away from the CP I took out my phone and quickly recorded on Facebook where I was. I try and do this on long races so my supporters know my progress (ok it’s so the wife know where I am really). We were soon running again and we passed the site made famous the painter Constable and continued along some of the most picturesque scenes you could ask for. It must have seemed slightly surreal for many family’s enjoying the scenery as they sat relaxed on a lovely day only for half a dozen sweaty men to sprinted pass (one in flip flops).

Enjoying the race a little too much?

It was around 16 miles and I was feeling the pace now. I’d fallen off the back of the group and could barely see them in the distance. We got to cross over the A12 and they were all long gone. I was really starting to think I’d made a serious mistake starting so fast as I could barely run and I was walking up the hills now where I’d been running up them just a while ago. I was still managing to pass walkers (just) but I was also noticing a number of other runners that I’d not seen at the start so must have started with the walkers but were using a slow run/walk strategy and a few of them were staying with me. I got to the next CP to be greeted by Darren and the gang who were just leaving and I have to admit I was happy just to see them still as I thought they’d be long gone.

The next few miles started to get emotional. Although it wasn’t boiling, the heat was still strong and really humid, I was losing a lot of sweat even though I was drinking continuously. I was now passed by a couple of runners and I just had to keep telling myself to keep shuffling because I knew if I walked anything that wasn’t uphill I’d probably never run again. I passed the next couple of CP’s until I got close to the 25 mile point and halfway. This was a huge milestone as I always tell myself that it’s on the way home now even if home was still 25 miles away in this case. I took my pack off and sat down which is a usual no-no for me but I just felt I need a couple of minutes out of the race to relax the mind. This seemed to work wonders and I chatted to the volunteers swapping walking stories, I also noted a couple of people that looked like they’d dropped so I wasn’t the only person feeling it.

Halfway point

 I trudged out along a field and after another internet update start to jog as fast as I could manage. I was still in damage limitation mode as I approached the CP at the 30 mile point. It was then that I started to see things and I thought I was really starting to lose it. I could see a couple of people way off in the distance and I didn’t think much of it until I saw that one of them was waving in my direction? I looked behind me expecting to see another runner but there was no one in sight? As I got closer I could make out who it was! It was only my running buddy Andy Hind and his partner. I couldn’t believe it and actually felt slightly emotional as I was really at a low point in the race (sad I know). As I got to them Andy said that he’d read my progress on the internet and could tell I wasn’t in a happy place so decided to come down and support! What can I say? This race wasn’t just around the corner from home and he’d also brought me a huge bag of goodies.

I reached the CP over a large reservoir and at the top of a hill and slumped into a chair in the hall. Andy refilled my bottles as one of the young LDWA volunteers brought me a bowl of soup. Once again I’d like to thanks these guys for amazing service on these events. Andy asked how it was going and I explained I was running on empty. I remember telling him I wanted to pull out at this point and I’m sure I even asked him for a lift back to the start but he refused of course and I pulled on my race pack once more which was heavy with sweat now and went to leave. I thanked Andy for making the effort but made him promise he’d  go home as I was sure they had better things to do than follow me around.

Soon I was getting my second wind as the fuel taken in and the moral boast of seeing my friend really kicked in. The miles started to fly past and I was soon approaching the next CP when I saw the familiar figures in the distance. I cursed them jokingly but I have to admit it was awesome seeing the pair again! This time I sprinted past them and into the hall for a quick pit stop. I repeated my request for them to stop following me and as I knew Andy had somewhere to be I guessed he would stick to his word but his work was done and I was a changed man.

I got to the 40 mile mark within almost 10 miles of the finish and it was at this point where I knew I’d finish despite the early hic-up. As I approached the last CP at 45 miles I was starting to feel it again. It was mixed emotions as I walked into very nice little church as I was feeling drained but good as I’d started to catch up runners again and I knew I was close to the finish. I had my card stamped by the support team there and like on many other occasions they asked what it was like to run in the flip flops. I’ve never really discussed these so far in the review and this is probably due to the fact that I wasn’t having any major issues. I guess it might have been different if it had been wet but apart from the small stones and gravel then I’d collect (but normally get rid of just as quickly), no problems.

I was now running along the Stour again and it was starting to get a little darker but this was more due to the clouds getting darker than the evening approaching. I passed another couple of people running and I just put my head down and pushed as hard as I could. I looked at my watch for the first time properly and was slightly surprised it was taking so long and thought that Darren and the others must have finished hours ago. As I passed the 50 mile point in 10 hrs 22 mins and I was happy to get a PB for that distance but wondered how much faster I might have been if I’d started slower?

Some amazing views

 The last few miles seemed to take forever! I knew that I was in Holbrook now and only a matter of minutes away from the finish but the enclosed path I was on just kept going and going. Eventually I was on the main road and took the right turn into the road where the hall was located and I finished. Darren was nowhere to be seen so I assumed the leaders had long gone. I did see a chap called Chris from Ipswich who I’d seen at a few other races. He was in a group who had finished in just a couple of minutes over 10 hrs. This guy was fast and I have to admit I was just as surprised as him that the course had taken so long? I still don’t know why? Anyway, I sat down for a quick bite to eat and other people finished and we swapped a few comments of how hard it was. I was just glad to finish and finish in daylight. It was an emotional journey but a journey left mostly good memories. A great event!

Post run feet

The winner finished in 9 hrs 35 mins, Darren Coates finished in a small group of people in 10 hrs 12 mins, I took 10 hrs 45 mins. Julian Catnul (SP) inished in 12 hrs 59 mins with Jon Legge finishing in 13 hrs 2 mins.

All and all not a bad day at the office really for all!

Friday, 26 July 2013

Decisions, Decisions!

Goodbye to gels, a Barefoot legend, Herts Hobble, Recce’s and VFF’s!

The long and winding road (well trail)


In my last blog entry I was debating the powers of fig rolls as I’d been keen to stop using endless energy gels and find a natural replacement. Well so far so good. I’ve run a trail marathon and several 30 mile plus training runs on nothing but the famous fruit snack without a small silver sachet in sight!

So what has it been like? Actually fine, no withdrawal symptoms and the only real issues I’ve found is they take up more space to store while running, can be prone to crumbling under pressure (just like me!) and on a hot day they can be a little dry in the mouth.

I need to reinforce the above maybe with some other normal food on the longer runs and even carried a bottle of full fat cola when I need that boost at the end. Generally I’m really pleased to have weaned myself off gels and now just need to find someone that needs a load of them as I have stacks.

Next steps? Well as I said the biscuit part of the fig rolls can at times get hard work so I’m looking at just using figs for my next training run? I might need to carry some other “paper based” provisions in case of emergencies!

The fuel station!

 Barefoot Ted and the big decision:

In my hunt for true running nirvana I’d been using Luna Sandals for a year on and off. Despite what most people say, these are not 99p from the beach shop but specifically designed running sandals. Well Luna Sandals boss and “Born to run” star Barefoot Ted was in the UK to promote the launch of his sandals here and I took the opportunity to meet him at an informal gathering hosted by Tracy of Barefoot Britain.

I drove down to Brighton with Katie my daughter which was an adventure itself as she wanted to visit the famous chocolate sweet shop Chockywockydodah (sp) and I can’t say I was against the idea but we eventually found it and I can recommend their products, no idea if there any good for running fuel but probably!

OMG it's only.... Barefoot Ted

Anyway, it was soon time for the event and as we walked up to the shop where it was taking place I could already see Ted on his Laptop Vehicle unicycle “car” riding up and down the main road like something out Back to the future. There were already a crowd gathering and looking at peoples feet, I’d guessed I was in the right place as there wasn’t a “foot coffin” to be seen. Things started informally and Ted just spoke of his reasons for founding Luna Sandals but also how that has snowballed into changing everything in his life. I’ve hinted to this previously, once you go barefoot and see the advantages you can get then you can start to question other things in your life and wonder if you are actually doing what’s best?

Ted referred to many different subjects including how he got into barefoot running in the first place, persistence hunting and their links to long distance running and also his experience of the Tarahumara Indians from the Copper Canyons all of which linked to “the book” but he also spoke on his ambition to bring personal transportation to the masses. The Solo wheel isn’t his invention but his is heavily behind the project of this gyro self-powered mono wheel.

Ted with his "car" (pic off net)

For most of the discussion I just stood there “in awe” but I did manage to ask a couple of questions… The first was “Are Luna working on a product that will work specifically on UK trails i.e. wetter, more mud etc)” and the second was “I’m only running up to 20 miles in Luna’s, should I take the leap and convert fully to the sandals and not ever run in shoes again?”. The first question was answered quickly as Ted just said “yes!” He recognised that no one product would be perfect for everything but products like the Mono and the soon to be launched Oso would help all UK off-roaders.

My second question was more aimed at the whole group as I wanted to get everybody’s opinion on how they converted to sandals and what distances they covered? The main reason I was asking wasn’t actually because I had this huge desire to run barefoot “hippy-like” through the fields but actually because as I switched from sandals to shoes sometimes I was picking up ankle injuries and I starting to think this might be due to the frequent change of running styles (this might be interesting to those who switch between regular and minimal shoes too?). Ted started by saying how impressed with the miles I was covering and simply said “why not!” He discovered barefoot footwear by accident in his search for pain-free running and like how he found Vibram Five Fingers that were being used as boat shoes I would have to take a similar leap of faith and just do it (no pun intended). I’d gone through the initial transition stage so there and then I decided to “try” and never wear trainers again even of the longest ultra marathons.

Herts hobble:

My next race was an LDWA off-road Trail marathon called the Herts Hobble. I can’t sing the praises of this organisation of predominately walkers enough as they put on some of the best events with entry fees that wouldn’t get you into a normal 5k road race. If you like running off-road and not a member, join your local group right now!

This was a key race for me as it would be the longest I’d ever run in sandals and also the longest off-road race in the Luna’s. I got there with time to spare and said hello to a few people including Mr Darren Coates from the same running club as me and then decided to make a couple of last minutes kit changes back in the car. As I walked back I bumped into James from Centurion Running (South / North Downs Way 50/100 ultras etc). James is a high class runner who had just won the Grand Union Canal ultra. We walked to the hall only to realise that everyone had started! We checked in and I started to follow the instructions for the route.

I soon began to pass people that were walking the route and then I got caught up by James. We ran together for a few miles and I was enjoying the opportunity to shadow a running “celebrity” and as I result took my mind off the directions…. This was at the exact point that James said he didn’t do a lot of these “narrative” type of runs as we both realised we weren’t where we were supposed to be. After running around and tracking back, we found the route and we ran again for another few miles before James dropped a gear and effortlessly sailed off into the distance.

I was following the route quite easily now and I got to a road crossing where I met a large group of runners coming from the oopposite direction, turned out they’d followed the instructions exactly and missed a turning. Anyone that runs trail races will know that sometimes you need to read between the lines at times as it isn’t easy writing the directions and these guys had run and extra 2 miles due to this. I was ok as we’d been sent the directions beforehand and I’d roughly traced the route in my head (probably my military training lol) “always follow the three P’s” (I’ll let you google that one!)

Anyway, I was actually finding the sandals fine and I was breezing through the Check Points with a huge grin (it couldn’t last). I got to the last few miles and I suddenly noticed that the legs were feeling like lead again and that spring in my step had “sprung”. I’d latched onto the back of a small group and we switched places a few times as we navigated and I tried to stay with them as long as I could. With a couple of miles to go I could still see them and eventually finished a couple of minutes behind but I definitely ran out of steam at about 20 miles.

The footwear had been ok apart from I’d noticed a couple of twinges in my hips that I’d never had before? They didn’t last so didn’t think it was a massive concern. This also marked the first major event that I didn’t use gels and ate the fig rolls all the way around. I thought that the energy drop might be because of this and thought I should look to also use some other food as well as the rolls, overall a good race as I’d run 27 miles in just over 5 hrs off-road in flip-flops.

100 mile TG recce

Next up in the training for me was a series of trips down to Kent to look at the route for the Thames Gateway 100 I was planning to do in August. On the first trip I planned to cover 30 miles from Rochester, around to Gravesend and then along the coast back to Rochester. The first section was ok as I left the car park in Upnor and made my way to the Rochester bridge (past two castles and a nuclear submarine!). Then the next 5 miles were through dark alley’s on industrial estates ending up under the M20 motorway. This is the point where I’d pick up the North Downs Way.

Rochester Castle with the sub in the foreground

I was now in the countryside and as I’d taken the day off it was like I had the whole of the place to myself! Eventually I left the downs and after a couple of minutes looking around the route manage to find the Weldway path which would take me all the way to Gravesend and the Thames. The paths were less defined and more overgrown now and in places in flip flops and shorts was hard going. After what seemed like an age I passed over the landmark of the M2 Motorway and pass the Cyclopark into Gravesend town. Here I left the Weldway and picked up the Saxon Way. Initially passing through some very suspect back streets that looked like a scene from Oliver, I was soon jogging along the river Thames passing old military defences dating back to Napoleon times (very surreal) again I was feeling ok but now as it had begun to rain the mud on the sea wall was making the sandals hard work. Soon I started to struggle and I could barely keep the Luna’s on! It was at this point that I decided that I would need a plan B on race day “just incase”.

The Toesox held up well (so I thought)

Soon I was at the familiar 20 mile low point and as I write this I’m realising that this isn’t a coincidence that this was happening every time at the same point. I don’t think this will ever go but I need to recognise this and push through as it doesn’t last. I plodded on and got to just over the 30 mile point after fighting my way through some of the most overgrown paths I’d ever seen and narrowly avoiding serious injury as I fell knee deep into a badger hole decided enough was enough and this would be where the recce would end. I left the path and walked to the nearest main road. I was still a few miles from the car so decided to try and get a bus back. After waiting a while it didn’t look promising so I walked along the main road back to the car park.

I’d covered approx.. 34 miles (longest ever run in Luna’s at that time) and I was shattered. The tough going really got to me as well as the drizzle which just seemed to kick me just as I was low. But job done and I’d reviewed a large chunk of the route for the race, I just pray someone cuts those trails or it’s going to be a long race! And as for the sandals? They were good but poor in mud, also my hips were quite tender.

Didn't even notiwerehis till the end... oops

Next time out I returned to Rochester as I planned to cover the 20 so miles to a tiny village called Swale (right under the Isle of Sheppey bridge). I parked the car near the train station and after a short struggle managed to find the Saxon Way path through the town. I didn’t realise beforehand but Rochester soon becomes Gillingham as one large town and the route passes back alleys and council estates (not very picturesque). Finally after a while I once again hit the river and some amazing views of the waterfront and I think it’s a shame that this 20 miles will be covered in darkness come race day.
Great views!

The day was absolutely boiling and I was lucky that I was so close to the coast as I always seemed to have a light breeze cooling me slightly and it would have been torture without it. I passed some really nice locations and the route was mostly better going than my last recce so at least come the big day by the 70 mile point the going would be ok. The route had country lanes fields and sea walls and a couple of times the recce paid for itself as the path led to dead-ends and in the dark could be an issue. Finally I got to the coast again and I could see the huge Sheppey bridge towering into the distance which represented my finish point for the day. I got to the end just as my water ran out and next time I really should plan better and as I stood on the isolated platform in the middle of nowhere I hid in to shadow like a small animal trying anything to cool myself down. Luckily the train arrived right on time and I took the simple ride back to the car.

New Rubber:

Due to my comments above I was getting a little nervous on what could happen on a long race if the sandals just got too much? Because of this I’d planned to leave some “normal” minimal shoes in my various drop bags just in case but I had the idea of also carrying a pair of VFF’s in my pack as a back-up at anytime. Well my slick tread VFF’s would be hard work so I did some reading and decided Vibram’s toughest shoe the Spyridon might do the trick? I searched for a pair and luckily my local specialist running shop Run Active Chelmsford had some in stock! (say “Barefoot Ian sent you for special service” lol). Well I gave them a test run on a couple of local short trails and apart from corn fields and toes, no big issues.

Next time:

It’s been a while since my last entry and since all of the above, I’ve now run my first ultra race in sandals and picked up a new set of Luna Monos! I promise I won’t leave it so long!