The best laid plans...

Posted on: 11 May 2021

So, was this my goodbye to 100 mile runs?  I wrote the funeral oratory to my dreams many times in the long hard miles between Marlow and Henley.  I phoned my family and crew and told them I was never going to attempt one again; I couldn’t put my body or mind through it again.  So that was it, done.  How and why?  Ah, now that follows.

How far back to I go to trace the seeds of my downfall?  Well, how far do you want me to go?  Does it go all the way back to 2015, when I became a centurion at the first time of asking, and all on my home patch and the beloved, but brutal, Cotswold Way 102.  A sensible man would have thought that he had achieved all that he wanted, there was nothing left to prove.

And you see, in many ways I am sensible.  But it would appear when it comes to 100 milers, I have a number of weaknesses.  The first is a relentless dream of doing another one.  And so it was in 2019 that I toed the line in Chipping Campden again, eager to conquer The Way once again.  That dream failed in the fading light up in the hills of Birdlip; that one failed for blisters, with my feet not having recovered properly from the remorseless heat of a baking August day and my first (and so far only..) running of the summer Green Man.

I licked my wounds, and thought that I could learn from that; the obvious thing that I didn’t learn was to not have another go!  That’s sadly not the way my mindset works – in my warped logic, I deduced that me and The Way were now 1-1, and so it of course made sense to go “best of 3..”

That meant I was entered for 2020’s race.  And then came covid!  I needed something to focus my mind through lockdown and so I trained hard; as the likelihood of the event actually happened grew smaller, so my weekly mileage got bigger.  I resolved to have a personal attempt at the 102 – with a support crew to die for, I had never felt more confident at the start of a run.  The dreams this time died finally at Dursley, 65 miles or so in.  The damage of course had been done way before that, with nausea starting at Cleeve Hill – the resultant lack of energy, with no food being taken on for 40 miles, did for me and my dreams yet again.  We had decided that the nausea had been brought on by too many S-caps and the consequential salt excess in my body.

Surely I would learn now?  Surely I would stop and think I couldn’t put my body or mind through it one more time.  I have quoted often enough Churchill as he growled “those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it..” 

What I did do was change my focus; I announced with that restlessness that comes from a doomed attempt, where all of your being is taken up with the need to scratch the itch of failure and the knowledge that the best scratch is delivered by researching events to enter, that I would have a go at the Thames Path 100.  I said that if I couldn’t manage 100 miles on the flat then I would give up forever on my dream of doing it again in the hills of home.

And so my focus this year became that goal, a flat 100.  As always, I researched all that I could about it; I read blogs, I watched Youtube video experiences of previous runners.  The issue I guess I had was that it’s hard to train for the flat around here – the advantage that I have whenever I head for the Cotswold Way and need to train for hills is that I live on The Cotswold Way; hills are all around – there is most certainly an Upton in Hawkesbury…  Through January and February I trail ran as normal on a Saturday, and then tried to make it flatter with road work on the Sunday.  I even did hill work and threshold work in the weeks.  I felt confident.

Then the dreaded shin splint issues came back, those pesky blighters that I thought I had said goodbye to after the Paris marathon way back in 2013.  That cost me a week of training; for once I was sensible and thought that I would RICE.  Whilst my shins thanked me, the chimp started chatting away in my head – when I should have done big mileage, I did none at all.  I countered with a training run from Reading to Oxford and all seemed OK enough – 12 min miling for 42 miles seemed like a good return.

Fast forward to Saturday and the main event then.  I had got a train to Richmond on the Friday; how strange that felt after over a year of no public transport at all!  I craned my neck every time we were close to the river so that I could see the path in all of its flatness.

A huge fish and chip supper, and then a pasta brekkie followed by toast.  If I was going into battle with nausea, I was going to do it on a full stomach so that I could buy myself some miles before I had to worry.  I was going to be very sparing with the S-caps and make sure that there was no issue on that front.

The weather forecast was depressingly accurate early doors – rain and wind.  Ah well, I think on balance this mudlark would take that ahead of blue skies, sun and heat.  Ultimately, control the controllables – there’s nothing you can do about the weather, but everything you can do about the clothing you wear as a result.  I was happy with my long sleeved Berghaus top and matching red coat.  All of the required kit in my backpack made for quite the size overall – when you’re 6ft 3, however small you try and pack spare tops they still end up taking a lot of space!

A slick check in process and it was time for the rolling start.  Covid protocols meant that there was no fanfare or mass cheering as we all headed off together, rather a slightly anti-climatic check of “which way to Oxford” (never underestimate my ability to end up in Westminster by mistake!) and then I was off.

Before I go any further, I have said the check-in was slick.  Well, that was the word I would use for everything about the event – I could also add professional, trouble-free, amazing and any other number of superlatives.  Yes, we were running in the wind and rain but the volunteers were standing in it – every aid station made me feel as if they had been waiting for me all day, and I know they did that for every runner.  I was sure to be very grateful every time, and they weren’t just words of gratitude but genuine heartfelt thanks.  I was so pleased that I encountered one of the course markers as he returned from Reading to Cookham (so a 42 mile round trip for him!) and was able to pass on my thanks in person.

Anyway, the miles slipped by.  I was desperately trying to go slowly – I had resolved to try and keep it to 12 min mile pace, but was averaging 11.  Not a problem I guess, but did that start the nagging doubts?  What I do know is that, as always, the mental maths kicked in from an early stage and I was thinking about how eminently doable this was.

I was drinking as I needed, an eating a bit every five miles or so.  I felt pretty happy by the time I got to Vicki and Suzie (aka Thelma and Louise) at Staines.  I didn’t want much from them then, some coffee and I was off into the drizzle now (pleasingly, the forecast remained accurate and so that was the last of the rain for the day – although the damage had been done to the underfoot conditions).

I’m not sure where things started to go a bit awry from there, I just know that I started to feel worse.  We have all been in mental fights at some point; now, I increasingly felt as if I were a diving bell, with the pressure on me escalating as the times started slipping as I sunk further into the deep abyss of doubt and fear.  How do you escape when the mind colludes with the stomach in situations like this?  Which one broke first?  Well, I honestly don’t know.  There is certainly something psychosomatic about it I am sure; the head tells the stomach it’ll feel ill soon, and the stomach leaps into action with the sort of pace I could by now only dream of.  There is then the vicious circle of the stomach telling the head that it wants nil by mouth, and so the familiar routine starts all over again.

What started it all this time?  There were no S-caps to blame.  Some research has suggested that it may have been too much pace, with the need then for blood to be at the skin to help with sweating – with it also being needed by muscles, the stomach then didn’t get the blood levels it needed to digest (or even demand) food.  Other articles suggest that it may have been some dehydration  - again, the stomach needs water to help digestion.

Looking at Garmin, I can see how suddenly my pace drops.  At the time, the mental maths kicked in and I knew that I could just death march at 3mph and get it done.  The emergence of blisters gave the mind something else to worry about.  The lack of headphones meant that the miles of flat solitude really pained me, made worse by the fact that I had packed them for just this situation before deciding that I wouldn’t take them on the run and so they were consigned to my finish bag in Oxford – fat lot of good they did there!  There was something else for me to beat myself up with.

I still had some happy miles, and, as always, these were in the company of fellow runners.  There is no problem in this world that couldn’t be solved by some trail runners who have never met before, but who are thrown together by chance and circumstance in a Berkshire riverside field; race, colour, creed, political persuasion and the like?  None of it matters one jot – we are one focussed group in our little bubble of madness.  I have played a lot of team sport, and would never have thought that trail running was a team sport until I experienced it for the first time.  It’s teams within teams; support crew, volunteers, fellow runners, and the words of encouragement that you get from so many dog walkers and amblers.

By now, I was refusing anything that Vicki and Suzie offered; I tried some chips, and they didn’t work (well, didn’t get eaten); everything in my food bag looked like agony to me.  And so the spiral of decline continued.

In honest and brutal terms, one other thing gave up, that thing that has so often been my greatest asset.  I have never been the fastest, I have never looked like a distance runner.  But whatever I lacked in any other department, I knew I made up for in heart and the sheer bloody-mindedness that is needed to push back against the vagaries of distance, weather, tiredness and pain.  This time, that mental strength deserted me.  Deep down, perhaps I finally acknowledged that I just didn’t want it enough.  That’s hard for me to think, let alone type, but it is something to contemplate.  with the pressure that I put on myself, more than once I told the attendant swans and geese "there are cheaper ways to feel shit about yourself than beat yourself up across 13 hours of running."

It was therefore with a sense of bitter and guilty relief that I handed my tracker in at Henley. I didn’t feel disappointed then, I was upbeat enough with my crew (with Vicki and Suzie now having been joined by Dave squared).  I accepted that it wasn’t my day, that there was nothing more I could have done and that fate meant it wasn’t to be.  Already though part of me looks back with the opposite of rose-tinted spectacles and wonders whether I could have dragged more out of myself.  I can counter that with the knowledge that I still can’t really walk for blisters.  But still, but still..!

Have I now finally written the funeral oratory for my 100 milers?  If I am honest, at the moment, as The Beautiful South sang, “I think the answer’s yes..”  I think.  If it is my finish, then I know my family is well represented; my inspirational cousin finished in 26th place with a time I could only ever dream of.  If it is my finish, then I am proud to have finished one of these brutal events, and that on my home turf too.  I am researching short distance runs now, you know the type – 30/40/50 milers!

What I do know is that until I get nutrition right, then I cannot get the head right.  Without that mental resolve, there is no point standing on the start line as the jitters will already be there alongside me.

To my family and my amazing crew; thank you for the support, I could not have asked for more.  To Centurion Running, thank you for one fantastic event – all staff and volunteers were incredible and the organisation second to none.  To my fellow runners, it was a joy to run with you and alongside you; thank you for showing once more that the fellowship of trail running is alive and well, that the human spirit is indomitable.

Who knows when, who knows how far, but at some point it will be “on a yard” I go once more.  Tick follows tock….

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