Centurion Ultramarathon Blog

Robbie Britton's top tips for the NDW100

Jul 30, 2014 (1 week, 6 days ago) | Posted by JamesElson | Tags: 2014

Team CR and Inov8 athlete Robbie Britton shares his top 5 tips for the NDW100. Rob won the inaugural event in 2011. 

1. Walk those hills - Most of the hills on the NDW100, especially in the first half, are shorter, steeper hills that are best walked so don't even try to run them. Use them as a chance to get some food out, get water on board and enjoy some guilt free walking.

2. Eat Drink and Be Merry. The Centurion Events have checkpoints at great distances and they are all really well stocked so get your money's worth and stuff your face at every given opportunity. An extra 30-60 seconds at a check point each time may save you hours at the other end of the race. Eat from the go, cross that start line with a pasty in your mouth.

3. Electrolytes - It's August and may get rather toasty. I use S-caps and have one a hour with water, meaning that however much a bashing I give my tastebuds I don't have to worry about getting my electrolytes in as you might with some of the favoured tabs you can get sick off. Keep at the electrolytes during the night, you'll still be sweating.

4. Talk to people! There will be a great bunch of people racing, with a whole bundle of experience. Not only might you learn what to do (and what not to do) it helps pass the time and lets the race tick through.

5. Get a good head torch. When I did the NDW100 I had a five quid torch (which I had stolen from work) and I fell over about five times and lost time overnight because I was nervous with my footing. Get a decent headtorch, such as a Petzl Tikka RXP, and shine that badger all over the trail. 

La Sportiva Shoe Review: Helios & Bushido

Jul 09, 2014 (1 month ago) | Posted by JamesElson | Tags: 2014, Review

Running and racing year round in the UK, the 'right' trail shoe for me has always been the one which handles the best across the broadest range of underfoot conditions. Training routes almost irrespective of where you are in the UK (outside of the mountains) often combine a mixture of road, track, trail and field. A shoe needs to be able to handle all of those things well. Specificity is great but a utility shoe is important given where I live and run. 

In a similar vein, it's rare to find one's self running an ultra which is all single track, all open grass or all gravel. Quite often, runners at our events often show up if conditions are dry, in road shoes. This isn't necessarily a bad thing. In the non-mountainous areas of the UK where rocks are not an issue, a road shoe will often handle dry trails as well as a trail specific shoe. 

That being said if conditions are either wet or muddy, most runners will turn to a trail shoe and the choice available is mind boggling and greater than ever. 

Our Ultrarunning Team have been working with Lyon Equipment in the Lake District and La Sportiva over the last couple of years, on their range of mountain and trail shoes. At the end of 2012, the La Sportiva range included mainly much heavier duty trail shoes, designed to cope with the underfoot conditions thrown up by running in the Alps and the Dolomites, something that didn't necessarily apply to the majority of our UK trails. 

Then, in 2013, La Sportiva took on board many of the comments from the market and created a couple of more reduced models which retained the key aspects of their light and heavyweight mountain running models. Those things and the things I myself look for in an all round trail shoe are:

- Comfort from short trail runs up to very long days out on the trail or in the mountains.
- Also able to handle road or track
- Lightweight without compromising on protection

The Helios

When Neil Bryant and I were first handed the advance model of this shoe in early 2013, we felt that we were looking at perhaps the perfect answer for an a minimal around trail shoe. La Sportiva had combined their incredibly lightweight Vertical K model with the heavier mountain running designs of the Wildcat and the Raptor. Rather than be a compromise, this shoe held on to the best assets of all three and has subsequently become the go-to utility trail and ultra race shoe for the some of our team. Dan Doherty raced to 3rd overall at the Salomon Zuggspitz 100km just a few weeks ago in them.


Upper: The first thing that strikes you when you pick up this shoe is the weight and that's in large part due to the light weight mesh upper which allows for good drainage of water without letting in excess debris. The lacing system is integrated with the upper and pulls the shoe together really nicely for a close but comfortable fit. The tongue is thick and cushioned, perhaps a confusing aspect of the shoe, until you run in areas with scores of loose rocks (the Lakes/ Snowdonia). It might sound utterly ridiculous but if you've ever really booted a rock with the top of your foot, as I regularly do in the Lakes, some cushioning on the upper is actually incredibly beneficial. 

Mid-Sole: A great balance of cushioning and support. There is some arch support but the LaSpeva plate makes the shoe sit on that middle ground I talked about between being too rigid and too soft. It gives control, adds fluidity to your gait and works on all terrain types, including rocks. 

Out Sole: Here is the best part of the shoe. The sole is made up of La Sportiva's Frixion material, laid out in rubber grips including indents going back and forward on the sole. The level of ground contact is significant enough to offer grip on all trail types including mud and rocks, yet not too broad to turn the shoes in to skates on wet grass/ mud. Non-studded trail shoes often perform very poorly on wet grass but the Helios indents give enough grip to offer confidence. 

Sizing: The shoe comes up slightly small and if you are between sizes it's worth considering going half a size/ a size bigger than you usually would. In fact i'd say the same for all LS models.

Overall the shoe is light, but doesn't feel inadequate. It includes a level of protection through the mid-sole which will handle most all terrain types. The upper is comfortable and can be drawn in as tight as you like. And the out sole is the grippy, responsive and great on all underfoot conditions. The shoe could easily be worn for long periods of time on any terrain including road, making it for me the go to Ultra Trail shoe of the moment. I would describe it as the perfect trail shoe for those looking for the balance of lightweight and comfort with all round terrain handling. 

I asked one or two of the team to let me know what they think of the shoe. I should add that we operate a very honest policy with Lyon and La Sportiva and until now have felt that the majority of their models were simply too much shoe for running here in the UK. 

Craig Holgate:

I have run nearly all my life in Asics shoes and have really struggled to find an off road shoe that works for me.  I have worn shoes by other brands and for various reasons they have not worked for me so I was somewhat sceptical when the Helios arrived.  Before I even tried them on I was impressed with the lightness of the shoe.  After my first run in these shoes I realised I had finally discovered the off road shoe for me, it seemed to stick to the trail, despite of its light weight it is still a sturdy shoe and it even feels on home on the road.  For me its a trail shoe that feels like a road shoe and are perfect for me.  I would happily buy these shoes!

The Bushido

I recently heard an experienced ultra runner refer to the Bushido as 'a mix of the helios and cross-lite on steroids'. The cross lite was La Sportiva's answer to a combination fell & trail running shoe. The studded outsole and rock plate made it ideal for handling mountain terrain as well as open fell/ grass, without being too heavy to be slow. The sole made the handling on wet rock and flatter track / tarmac for long periods just too uncomfortable however. It was a more specific shoe.

The Bushido walks that mid point between the lightweight Helios/ Vertical K and the more specific mountain shoes like the Cross Lite. It is another all round trail shoe with some slightly more enhanced features to the helios and some runners will undoubtedly find greater confidence, handling and support from this model.

Upper: Similar to the helios, a light weight mesh which allows for good drainage of water without letting in excess debris. The lacing system is integrated with the upper and pulls the shoe together really nicely for a close but comfortable fit.

Mid-Sole: 6mm drop and at 278 grams the overall shoe would probably be best described as mid-weight. It's not too light, and it's not too heavy. The rock plate is fantastic, giving a comfortable ride on rougher ground, enhanced by stabilisation plates on either side of the mid foot. This makes for a heavier shoe but a more stable ride and therefore a step up from the Helios on loose/ large rocks for those looking to feel more confidence on that type of ground. 

Out Sole: Here is the significant enhancement on the helios. Again made up of La Sportiva's Frixion material, but this time with rubber indents around the outside of the sole as well as through the middle. The grip is greater than with the helios   with a stickier mid sole, La Sportiva's impact braking system.

Overall the shoe is again a perfect all rounder across all terrain types but being slightly heavier and grippier than the Helios it's better suited to those used to a more stable ride and those looking to spend longer hours on rougher terrain. 

The Bob Graham Round....1

Jun 30, 2014 (1 month, 1 week ago) | Posted by JamesElson | Tags: 2014

This is a very long post. The principle reason for that, is that I'm trying to clear my head a little after this weekend's attempt and working on this 'project' for such a long time. Good luck making it to the end....

Every Bob Graham Round blog post starts with a description of what it is, so I'll keep it simple and just say it's a long distance fell run in the Lake District, originally created, attempted and completed by a guest-house owner from Keswick, Bob Graham, back in 1932. Here is the offical club website if you want to know a bit more. To call it a challenge is to miss the point really. To be successful you need to immerse yourself in the route and to get to know the land, the weather and how those things interact with one another. 

You can't really put numbers on it, because everyone's route is different, the only hard and fast being that you need to make it back to Keswick, having crossed the 42 named peaks within 24hrs. That's how Bob did it so that's how I wanted to do it. Having put together the pieces of the jigsaw over previous recce's and using this weekends data, it's about 68 miles with about 27,000 feet of climb. This doesn't really tell the full story, because the ground underfoot is so hard in places that it really does have to be seen to be believed. Running is a real impossibility for very large parts of the route, some sections closer to climbing. It's much more about fell experience/ speed, which is something which can only really be worked on, on the fells. 

I wanted to run the BGR as an official attempt ie. within the rules of the club, which deem you must have a witness to each summit reached. We had a crack team of 6 for this effort. I was the one doing the running, but the team were going to make it happen. Drew Sheffield, Claire Shelley, Louise Ayling, Paul Navesey and Jason Lewis were along for the ride. 

The plan was to start out from Moot Hall in Keswick Town Centre at 0100 on Saturday morning. Paul Navesey and I would run Leg 1, then pick up supplies from our sponsors Lyon Equipment in Threlkeld. Or rather Corin who runs the social media side was kind enough to leave a bag of milk, cheese and sausage rolls for us on his back wall.

The Start

We arrived in the Lakes late Friday afternoon and after various failed attempts to get any sleep, I gave up. Drew and Claire drove us down to Keswick and we got straight off at 0043. Paul and I ran up to the car park at the bottom of Skiddaw, and ran/ hiked our way up the first climb of the day, 3000 feet. It was dark, but clear and a few people had messaged saying it was a perfect night and good luck. But as we got to the bottom of the summit ridge, the hill fog (this is called clag in t'north so I'm going to call it that from now on) suddenly blew in on a reasonable wind and brough the visibility down to about 10 metres.

We knew the climb well so found the summit easily enough, 69 minutes gone and a good start, but made our first big error coming off this very first peak. Like a couple of southern lads up trying to mix it on the fells, we navigated ourselves straight off of the wrong side of the mountain. Those who are experienced enough to call themselves fell runners will already have their heads in their hands. After 10 minutes of trying to work out what had gone wrong, we started trying to make our way back across to the path, and found ourselves getting further and further apart in height terms, trying to negotiate a bigger and bigger drop off what was clearly a substantial crag. I looked up a few minutes later and Paul was a long way above me, shouting that he felt we shouldn't go any further. Paul is not normally concerned by considerable drops off of rock clefts, but his words were 'mate it's pretty steep over here' which confirmed what I was finding. We back tracked the way we'd come and made our way back over the top of the crag with the help of the map, and finally found our way back to the fence line we needed.

On to Peak number 2, Great Calva. We found the now well trodden track down to Hare Crag and just as soon as we slapped each other on the back for making right again, we found ourselves in piles of knee deep heather. We should have just gotten on with it, because that path is new anyway and a simple bearing is enough, but instead we zigzagged back and forth all the way down to the bog at the bottom, never finding the path, until we eventually crossed the main track right at the foot of Calva. We'd now wasted two significant chunks of time. Solid.

The next section to Blencathra was good. Finally we got something right. We dropped down and crossed through the thick scratchy heather and over the river before setting up on the mind numbing hike up the steep grassy slope to what we've come to know as Mung Bog (Mungrisdale Common, actually a Wainwright top).

Paul on a recce making it through the heather underneath Blencathra

From there we climbed on to Blencathra hitting our planned split. We'd reached it in 3hrs15 total, so although we'd had a shocker, with a nice descent in to Threlkeld in a generous 30 minutes we'd still be off leg one in good time. Like a couple of total charlie's we started descending Doddick Fell, a good more runnable alternative to Halls Fell which would have been sketchy at best in the greasy rocks and thick fog, and promptly ended up descending Scales Fell instead. 

Paul coming off Hall's Fell in training

This is miles east of where we wanted to be and once we were on that path there was no easy way to cut back over again. So we committed to it and ended up spending 45 minutes getting to threlkeld and shedding another 20 minutes off the plan in the process. The Bob isn't the sort of thing where you have bags of time to throw about, particularly if you have to map read much of it on the fly, but we still had enough to play with.

Leg 2: 

At Threlkeld we picked up some supplies and made our way to the foot of the climb up on to the ridge, Clough Daddy (Head). Clough Daddy is a grunt. We were soon up however and were greeted once again by our old friend, thick clag. Because it was 5am and I'd been up since the previous morning, I started feeling a bit woozey so down went the first couple of Pro Plus of the day.

We couldn't see anything so out came the map and on we made our way to Great Dodd. This section passed uneventfully, but then things started to unravel again. The Dodds, on a clear day, are visibile from one another and it's the best and easiest running of the entire BGR. When you can't see 20 feet in front of you, it's a confusing area of non-distinct open grass. We'd done leg one in the dark, specifically so we could run leg two in daylight and see the lines, but that plan was thwarted. We ran on to Watsons Dodd, going completely the wrong direction at first, then running past it, then running around in a circle trying to locate the summit cairn. 

On to Stybarrow Dodd, standing around with the map trying to orientate ourselves both on to it, and off of it and on to Raise, wasting more time in doing so. The peaks on leg 2 continue to be really runnable and relatively very easy going, and in fact we did well over Helvellyn Lower Man, Helvellyn, Nethermost Pike and Dollywagon Pike, the next run of tops. We dropped down the steep grassy slope to Grisedale Tarn and out of the cloud for the first time since the start of the leg. I was now feeling decidly woozey with general sleepiness and my power on the climbs/ control on the descents showed the first signs of deserting me.

The end of leg 2 is a bit of a kicker, with a short but steep out and back climb up Fairfield, over Seat Sandal and on down to Dunmail Raise.

The Fairfield out and back climb on the shouler of the fell is visible up through the grass and then scree. Taken from Seat Sandal, the next peak in the round and the last on leg 2. 

I slogged it up and down Fairfield, dragged up Seat Sandal and finally we had some good fortune as we stumbled on to the path off the front side of Seat Sandal giving us the best route off of there possible. I reached the road at the end of Leg 2 in a total time of 8:25, 1hr55 off of my ETA and bang on the money for the 24hr schedule ie. there was now no spare time to lose on any leg. As I knew I would have to map read leg 3 on the fly I was starting to get concerned.

Leg 3

Leg 3 of the BGR is basically a series of three plateaus, each one ascending in height to the heighest point in the country, before the biggest descent of the round, to Wasdale Head. To gain the first plateau, you have to climb Steel Fell. Steel Fell is short and anywhere else but on the BGR would be deemed stupid steep. Jason was now in pacing and he and I grunted our way up there and I did start to feel a little better. Once up Steel Fell it's straight forward running over Calf Crag, before a climb up to plateau number two containing a lot of fairly runnable sections between stunning peaks like Harrison Stickle and Pike O'Stickle, but each peak tends to be a bit of a rocky scramble.

The path up Harrison Stickle from below

You then have a long run around a pretty average bog called Martcrag Moor, before a boulder ascent up to Rossett Pike, roughly the mid way point of leg 3. We took a horrible line to Rossett and lost 20 mins covering ground we needn't have gone over. Looking across at the climb to Bowfell from Rossett Pike, well, I had to face the other way while I had my 2 minute break there. It is one intimidating looking hulk of a mountain from that side. I was moving badly, my legs felt good but I was in that woozey state that now 32 hours without sleep, will induce, and I just had no real power to get moving quickly. Every peak we'd take a slightly roundabout route shedding time like confetti. I was navigating on the fly a lot of the time because of our lack of knowledge, I'd been up there only once and Jason not at all. But we were still in the game and in with a chance, despite things stacking up against us. To make matters worse now we reached Bowfell, I was relying on my studying of the maps/ research in the lead up. To my surprise we nailed the ascent to Bowfell. This was a massive confidence boost, as in my head, this was one of the two final remaining crux points to this leg. We even hit it on the schedule I'd guesstimated from various plans. Bowfell is what I think of as the third plateau. This is now the run of the highest peaks as the BGR takes you up to Esk Pike, Great End then on to two crags - Ill and Broad - before you haul yourself up to the top of Scafell Pike, Englands highest point at 978m.

This section went well. Despite having never seen it before, my research and the good visibility plus clear paths made it straight foward enough. Underfoot, it's another world, it's like someone has picked up all the rocks in England and just thrown them in massive piles. Heading up to the peaks, it's not really running or hiking, it's more jumping. The top of Scafell Pike was teeming with people but we just tagged it and moved on, to the second major crux of leg 3 and the one that held potentially the biggest problem. 

Sca Fell is the very slightly lower sibling of Scafell Pike. As if being slightly lower wasn't enough to tempting visitors not to bother going, it's really difficult to reach. At best it's tricky and off putting scramble including a big drop and a big climb again. There are three options. The first, and by far the fastest, is a rock climb up Broad Stand. The long and short of Broad Stand is that it is actual climbing requiring a level of skill, exposed and the penalty for a fall would most like be fatal. As such, to get up it you really need to be top roped by people that know what they are doing. We didn't have someone top roping. So the other two options present. Firstly, you can drop to the left all the way down to Foxes Tarn and back up again which costs bag loads of time. Or you can negotiate the famous Lord's Rake. A sort of 'middle ground'. We went for option 3.

We descended to Mickledore, the ridge between the two and went for it. 

Mickeldore. Broad Stand is the climb directly ahead. Foxes Tarn drop to the left, Lord's Rake drop to the right

The drop in to Lord's Rake is pretty steep and loose. We took a poor line and made it worse, but we got around and in to the bottom of it ok.

Lord's Rake 

It looks really steep, but it's not quite as bad as it looks. If you pick the right hand side of the gully, you can climb it, ensuring that if you slip on the rocks then you're got two other points of contact. There weren't any points I felt it was safe to let go of the rock wall of the gully however, so needless to say if you don't like heights and or climbing, then don't bother getting in to the rake. At the top is a chock stone, once a pinnacle on Sca Fell, that snapped off in 2001 and lodged itself right above the entrance. It hasn't moved since, about the size of a van, it's being held there by an A4 sized surface connection between it and the rock wall. So whilst it's been there for 13 years, having it looming over you does ensure a certain lack of hesitation in negotiating the gully. The Rake then drops and climbs twice more which we negotiated easily enough before we made our way slowly on to the summit of Sca Fell. The descent off of the other side and down to Wasdale equates to 2900 feet in 2 miles and to be honest, it's just a killer. I was way too slow coming off here again, suffering from prior knowledge of the route and an almost drunken stupour from lack of sleep.

We arrived down to the end of Leg 3 in a total time of 16hrs. That leg had taken us 7 hours 30 minutes and we hadn't stopped for more than a couple of minutes anywhere. 90 minutes behind the 'slowest' schedule. It was really a combination of poor navigation, lack of route knowledge and some less than average running from me that took the time away. Each peak, we were losing 10 - 15% on the planned time. The problem with navigating on the fly is that you inevitably start picking up a lot of small chunks of extra climb and descent on route to the next peak. Direct lines are rarely possible and as such you need to know where you are headed, beyond just reading the map. A minute here or 2 minutes there combines over and over again to reach insurmountable levels. 

Arriving at Wasdale, I was now 3hrs down on my schedule, and 40 minutes behind the 24hr schedule. With the way I was moving, I knew it was now out of our hands. I could crack on and finish the round, but not within the 24hrs that Bob originally set as the bench mark. Worse, I wasn't doing it the way I wanted to do it. I'd had a great day and learned so much, the better option than to capitulate at the end of Leg 4, or reach Moot Hall after the 'alloted' time, was to pick myself up and give it another crack with that knowledge gained. 

So that's what we did. I think I'm in a position now to lay down a few things that might help others with attempting the Bob. It's easy for me to blame navigation, but I'd run pretty poorly too. For me, the major learnings were: I should have picked a start time that allowed me to get some sleep before hand. 7hrs in and I'd already been up for 24 hrs, with the prospect of another 16 on the run and simply put you really need to concentrate on the navigation every step of the way. Had I known we would be wrapped up in the clouds for the entire of the first 2 legs, I simply would have delayed the attempt. The forecast didn't match the conditions on the ground and we were out of our depth on the navigation side in those conditions, losing 90 minutes or so in the first 2 legs. Those 90 minutes would have ginve me the time to finish. I also learned that you simply have to know the route better than we did, or rely on pacers who do. To nav this on the fly or with only one or no priod viewing, you need to be better at it than I was.

So, another attempt is scheduled for the near future and I look forward to boring you all to death again with a report from that effort. A massive thank you to the crew of 5 that made this attempt a reality and to my wife for letting me keep heading off to the Lake District to indulge myself in the fells so often. 

Petzl SDW100 Pre Race Preview

Jun 09, 2014 (2 months ago) | Posted by JamesElson | Tags: 2014

The 2014 South Downs Way 100 sponsored by Petzl is just 4 days away. The line up on both the male and female sides looks extremely competitive and exciting. With a prize purse of £1800 courtesy of the title sponsor we're expecting a stellar race to match the deep field who will start their 100 mile journeys this coming Saturday.

As always please feel free to comment below and add your thoughts and corrections as you like. 


Stuart Mills: Has owned most of the South Downs Way events over recent years with wins and course records abound at Beachy Head, the SDW Marathon, Three Forts and the Steyning Stinger. This is his back yard living has he does within sight of the course. Lakeland 100 was his A race in 2013 and he took the win there in trademark fashion going as hard as he could from the gun and hanging on for 21 hours. A niggle picked up at this years Stinger took him out of the SDW50 running and a slower Fellsman than he would perhaps have liked may mean he isn't quite 100%.  The young bucks behind will try to overhaul the grand master but will he continue to show them all how it's done?

Mark Perkins: 2013 SDW50 Champ, 3rd at this years SDW50 in a superb 6:24. 2nd at this years Three Forts in a sub3 time for the 3rd all time fastest there. His first 100 mile race at last years NDW100 didn't go entirely to plan so he will want to combine his first class knowledge of the course with his short speed and longer run endurance. He's my pick for the overall this time.

Robin Houghton: Looks capable of anything after he won this years Three Forts ahead of Mark Perkins in a blazing fast 2:57. 28:20hrs at UTMB in 2013 put him 72nd overall.  Speed and endurance, he is no stranger to either. 

Ed Catmur: Ed has won the last 3 Centurion 100 mile events. Need I say more? Ed's only downside is his love of racing, something he is the first to acknowledge he does a little too much of. If he is rested after Comrades he will be looking for number 4, certainly to continue his assault on the Grand Slam record and this years overall title. 

Richard La Cock: This years NDW50 champion in a superb 2nd fastest all time performance. He will want to apply that to the 100 here, adding to his other tremendous SDW50 race in this years calendar. 

Warwick Gooch: Warwick's run at the TP100 left him short of what he perhaps knew he was capable of but the 2012 Caesars Camp 100 mile winner has plenty of experience now and will want to better that performance significantly here. 

Richard Ashton: A late non-starter due to ongoing injury he will be sorely missed from the front end shake up.


Sharon Law: 2013 Winter 100 champion, regular GB 24hr team member and Scottish 24hr and 200km record holder. IAU European 24hr bronze medalist with 226km. Sharon can run trail, road and track and seeing how close she can get to Jean Beaumonts stunning 2013 record will be fascinating to watch.

Emily Gelder: 2011, 2012, 2013 UK 100km champion. 2012 3rd at World 24hr with 238km. 2010 Spartathlon Champ. If this were on the road Emily would be the outstanding favourite. Can she convert it to the trail for this one.

Karen Hathaway: GB 24hr team member and winner of the 2013 Caesars Camp 100, Karen brings some excellent pre season form in to this one with a recent great result in the Crawley 12hr. She can do it on trail and on the track so will undoubtedly be looking for at least a podium here.

Sarah Morwood: This years TP100 champ in sub 20hrs was a late entry before the books closed for the SDW100. If she has hung on to her form then look for her to go hard from the start and push the pace.  

Susie Casebourne: Susie's talent has been lurking in the background and one day soon she is going to nail a long one. She won Caesars Camp 50 last year with a new womens course record and brings an international triathlon career with her to the table. Will this be her breakthrough in the long stuff?

Wendy Shaw: How could a pre race preview be a preview without Wendy? Wendy continues her streak of Centurion events, I have genuinely lost count now but I think I make this number 7 on the trot.... and with podiums at the majority of those she has been looking for that win for a long time and wants it badly. The pace may be a little hot for her in this field but any slip ups and she is guaranteed to be there. 

24 houring

May 21, 2014 (2 months, 3 weeks ago) | Posted by JamesElson | Tags: 2014

When I first started ultra running, I made a bucket list. I think most ultra runners do that. A 24hr race wasn't on it. I originally though the whole idea was pretty stupid. In fact part of me still does. But then I also thought Spartathlon and GUCR were stupid too and they subsequently proved to be two of the most fulfilling experiences I've had. That bucket list has changed over the years, or rather it keeps getting added to.

Bucket List Page 1

Having been lucky enough to experience a few of the races on the list, I found myself stepping in to the strange world of timed races and subsequently I've had a couple of encounters with the 24hr timed format over the past 5 months. What follows is more of a personal log, something I can look back on and pick out the lessons. Perhaps however, there are one or two things worthy of consideration in here too for any others that harbour ambitions of tackling a timed event in the future. 

Timed racing is a very different kettle of fish to distance racing formats. That's pretty obvious, but the ways in which it differ perhaps aren't until you are in the middle of one. 

Over the last couple of years, I've spent time with some of the runners who make up the GB 24hr team. Two of them are on our very own Centurion Ultra Team, Debbie Martin-Consani and Robbie Britton. After a reasonable run at last years GUCR and a finish at Spartathlon, I ended up harbouring an ambition to have a late season throw down at something long, partly because I felt I could hang on to some form from a good season, and primarily because we had a baby due around New Years which would likely wipe training and racing out for the forseeable future.

The 24hr race sprung at me. I was really only interested in one thing with regards the format and that was making the Team GB qualifying standard, whether I was capable or not was another question. It's easy to bandy around stats and numbers and for those things to appear 'reachable' on paper but it's worth describing what it entails. The GB individual men's standard is currently 239km (148.5 miles). The team standard is 235km. Without getting down to the really fine detail, you basically need to run a 16hr 100 miler and then run another 50 at the same pace. Or average 10km per hour for 24hrs, or 9:36 per mile for 148.5 miles.  However you carve that up, that's really do-able for quite a long time for a lot of runners out there. But quite a long time might be 5hrs, or even 10hrs, perhaps 15hrs. After 20hrs of slogging around the track at 10km per hr and well over 100 miles in your legs, to dig out another 4hrs and 40km at that pace is 'kind of a big ask'. 

So what business did I have thinking I could make a go of that? In terms of going 'long', I have built up a reasonable bank of experience. For each of the last 6 years I've finished at least 2 x 100 milers, not a lot compared with some but enough to have learned some. But last year was a bit of a turning point as I began to get a little bit faster. Through the early part of the year I ran a few key races and each was a little better than before. I ran 17:30 for 100 miles on trail twice, the second being on route to the GUCR crown. I got quicker along the way at all distances from 5km up, too including joining the 2:52 club at London. Hell I even threw down an Ironman!!!!

So in mid December, a bunch of us made our way out to Barcelona, to run around a 400m track for 24hrs. It turned out I wasn't in shape, I hadn't hung on to enough residual fitness post Sparta, with the inevitable lay off that followed it. I found the track environment claustrophobic. There were 80 of us on a 427.144466099m loop (lane 6 i think) and as is always the case at any ultra, some guys went off the front at suicide pace, barging around and taking the inside track so you had to keep either moving out of the way or running around people. That's not a big deal but it got pretty annoying after the first 200 laps. I learned one huge lesson there too. Running artificially slowly was not the answer. My plan was to hold on to the 9:30 per mile pace I required, right from the get go. Fading in ultras is largely inevitable, but the best of the best GB 24hr runners are able to sustain a very close average pace throughout the entire duration. What I found however was that I ended up with much more muscle fatigue than I typically would, because I was plodding along with an unnatural running gait. After around 9hrs I started to drift very slightly behind with very sore legs and no energy and knew without doubt that I wasn't going to make the total. So at just under 100km, I dipped out and Paul Navesey my chief crew and I went back the following morning to support Karen Hathaway and Jen Salter to fantastic performances solidifying their respective places in the GB ladies team.

So Barcelona was a failure, but it wasn't a waste of time. I'd eaten really well, obviously fitness wise I wasn't on top of my game and that was a contributing factor but mostly, I'd learned that I had to pace it differently. I also didn't need months to recover so in that regard stopping short was a good move. In all others, stopping before the end of the race is still pretty much the last thing you should do when you are physically ok to continue.

In January, our baby boy arrived. As any parent will know, that sucked the life out of training in a very distinct way. I found with careful time management and stripping out time wasting activities, I could actually fit in as much training as I did before. I bought a baby jogger, a piece of kit which allowed me to kill three birds with the same stone: Louis got to sleep, Lisa got a break and I got to go running. But throughout the last 4 months, sleep has been missing. With that comes delayed recovery and the cumulative effect over weeks and months is general fatigue. When our own race season began 6 weeks ago with the SDW50, that sleeping time was again reduced. But this is the real world. Clearly it gets in the way sometimes and we can't all expect 8hrs of unbroken sleep every night. So I kept my race schedule in place, and forged on towards the spring target, Steenbergen 24hr....

With January wiped out with the new arrival, I got 6 good weeks of training in between Feb and mid March. I even threw in a half decent run around the Steyning Stinger marathon, I couldn't fit anything else in race-wise but that was ok. I got a long run in at Taby 100 in Sweden, but I was exhausted and got sick almost straight afterwards. The whole family were ill and we were all sharing a room. I bailed out at 90k in 8:35. Speaking openly if my finish time didn't start with a 15:** I wasn't really interested. Walking it out wasn't on the agenda. On the plus side I had run through 50 miles in 7:29 and felt comfy when clearly I wasn't operating at quite 100%. Any DNF is bad for the soul and whilst this one felt justified that was two on the bounce as I'd stopped short in barcelona too. That hadn't happened before so I needed to turn it around.

Through April I got almost no training in. 7 solid days in fact. We then prepared for the TP100 which was a headache from an organisational stand point, it's the hardest race to deliver, that we stage, for many reasons. 

And just 4 days later Paul Navesey and I were winging our way towards the Channel Tunnel!!! It was good to finally be heading out. Motivation was high, training was borderline non-existent but you can always look for cracks in your armoury there and the first 50 at Taby showed me I did have some running legs. I was tired but felt I could work with it. 

Once again the plan was simple. In hindsight too simple. Get to 235km. I always tell runners at our events to have 3 plans when they start an ultra. Plan A: Dream goal but an achievable dream goal, it's not good to set one so high that you come off it very early and give yourself a big negative early on. Plan B: The solid result, finishing in a good time/ place. Plan C: Finishing.

My DNFs at Barcelona and Taby were caused directly by only having a Plan A, and I had accepted going in to each that if Plan A didn't happen, I would be ok with dropping as opposed to Plan B or C. That might sound controversial but walking out 100s for the finish wasn't something I wanted or needed from either. I've run over 24hrs a total of 7 times in the past (Sparta, GUCR, Badwater, CC100, OD100, WS100, LT100)  so I felt the lessons to learn there were small and the physical recovery would be hugely prolonged, outweighing the benefit of pushing on to a 'sub-standard' finish. Say what you like, a DNF however always sucks the fat one and afterwards you just want to make it right.

So I had a pacing plan at Steenbergen. I wanted to start slightly faster than I'd need to average overall, and allow a little slow down towards the end, but not much. I wanted to run a comfy pace but not too slowly like I'd done in Barcelona, and I wanted to continue to eat like a human dustbin to fuel me all the way through. I worked out that an 8:40 average pace for the first 50 miles should feel comfy, seeing me through in 7:15, continuing on to 100k in 9hrs, before backing off very slightly to 9s and 9:20s, to bring me out to 100 miles in 15 to 15.5hrs. That all felt quite do-able. Then the race would actually start and I'd then have 8.5-9hrs to run the final 48.5.

I began well. The Steenbergen loop was 1.4 miles, paved, totally flat and without any sharp turns. A perfect 24hr course. The weather was crap, windy and wet on and off, but you can't have it all. The start/ finish had a big gantry and a screen which told you laps completed and previous lap time. That was really useful. I knew I had to hit 12:27 average lap pace for 100k to start. The laps reeled off and I held back from runnning too fast. My effort level was comfy and I ran on plan, making it through the marathon in 3:42 and 50 miles in 7:15. Paul Navesey crewed me like clockwork with my standard ultra nutrition plan of cookies, cheese, tomatoes and S! Caps. I forged on to 100k feeling good, lost a couple of minutes in the portaloo but went through that marker in around 9:06, just 6 minutes down on schedule. As I pushed on towards 10hrs, I began to get hit by a wall of fatigue and nausea that I couldn't or didn't want to fight. My legs felt good so I was able to hold the pace pretty well but the overwhelming urge to go to sleep was massive. I don't know how I could expect to feel any differently with everything leading up to the race, particularly working 38 stressful hrs straight at the TP100 the weekend before. However it was hugely disappointing. The problem with the 235km target/ my only goal was that any drop off is going to make it unachievable. You can't walk an hour and then pick back up and still make it. A better athlete than I, could, however it was always going to be at the upper limit of my current spectrum at a flawless race. At 109km I was walking around the loop like a zombie. I'd taken the lead, I had been on track and the wheels had come off really in a similar place to the previous 2 long races. Paul tried to keep me motivated but as the target slipped away, so did the point of being there. 

What happened?

Well I jumped in the car and fell asleep for 3hrs. That's a shocking thing to do in the middle of any race and frankly it's over at that point. When I woke up I realised that I was going to go home with another failure on the books. 3 in a row. I could accept that I'd fallen short of 235km. I had entered 3 looped events each with an extremely ambitious goal, purposefully no Plan B and then binning it as and when it went wrong. I didn't need to prove to myself that I could go for that long, perhaps it would have helped if I did. After some consideration, I thought the best option given the current status was in fact just to get out of the car and start going around again. The weather was pretty awful, windy, raining between drizzle and pelting and dark. Night time at a 24hr and everyone seems to just stop. The odd runner flashed past but it looked pretty unappealing. I did however manage to haul my ass outside and start up again. So for another 7 or 8 hours I walked and shuffled around the loop adding bit by bit to my total. Rather than 12:30's I was logging 19:00 laps. Psychologically it was a real mind game. I had nothing to gain now apart from a small amount of pride, my overall distance was going to be so woefully short of what I needed that from that respect it was utterly pointless and physically I was digging myself in to a hole where recovery time was going to get longer and longer. But I knew also if I could get to 100 miles or 24hrs then I would go home feeling 3/10 happy with the outcome as opposed to 1/10. In the end it took a couple more breaks in the car to warm up, but I did eventually make it past the 100 mile mark in 21:30. I had really and truly had enough by that point. Robbie and Debbie were on the line to Paul telling me to keep going to 24hr to learn, but honestly, that 8hr shuffle in the wind and rain on a tarmac loop had taken any will away and then dug a little deeper than that even. It was a proper misery fest. Paul didn't even bother getting out of the car for a while as I relieved him of crewing duties to get some sleep. I could have added another few miles to the total but I wouldn't have learned anything I didn't already know and every hour was just prolonging the lay off I'd need afterwards. So I call it quits at 162km and 21:33 and we headed home. 

What did I learn? 24hr races are way more difficult mentally than point to point. The big problem is that in all likelehood you aren't going to do anything significant for the first 15hrs of the race. You aren't going to set any PBs, you aren't going to set any records, you simply need to be patient and lay the foundations on which to build the meaningful part of the race. BUT the start is as important as the end, even though I haven't gotten there yet, they have to be. The last few hours are the most crucial, but if you get the first few wrong, you won't be in a position to reach your target.

I learned that I need to go in to a 24hr totally fresh to reach that target. Bagging sleep is crucial. You need to be able to fight the sleep monsters and come back around past your crew/ car/ start finish aid station each lap feeling strong and motivated to continue. 

If you want to finish at any cost, have a Plan B and Plan C. You need to be able to continue to push even when you've lost sight of your A and B goals. Getting out of the car and continuing for another 8hrs was good for me from a psychological stand point which outweighted the phsyical/ recovery down side. I feel better going in to some longer stuff this summer, for having showed a glimmer of grit. Not a lot, but a glimmer. Ironically I think if/ once you find yourself running for a team/ your country, you have no place to hide, no opportunity to quit. If it's just for yourself and you miss your target, well it's a selfish sport and who else really cares? If I went to sleep in the middle of a 24hr wearing a team vest? Well management wouldn't let you do it and frankly I wouldn't be able to look my team mates in the eye.

Where to from here? Well obviously I need some time out. I am shattered and I need to rest and recover. We are still in the thick of our race season at Centurion so that's still where the focus did and still lies. But race wise in the medium term it's back to the trails and the hills. This little foray in to the world of 24hr racing is over for now. Quite frankly as a format, it sucks mentally and it's hard. It's the challenge that's the appeal, but running 'in the natures' is obviously way more gratifying than this format. But you are probably going to learn more about yourself at a 24hr race. And I am still intrigued by the challenge and will be until i 'get it right'. 

For those who haven't run a 24hr race before and were considering it, I hope this gives you some pointers as to what to do to not get it wrong! I will be back for another attempt and proabably within the next 12 months.... Maybe see you there.

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