Written by John Lovenberry - https://johnlovrunning.wordpress.com
Last year (2016) on a bit of a last minute whim I ran the Hermes North Downs Way marathon. I completed it but the course absolutely broke me. It was by far my worst ever marathon finish (just under 6 ½ hrs) and I vowed that I would go back and get my revenge. So when my email pinged one afternoon telling me that a Waitlist spot had become available for the Centurian North Downs Way 50, I was both excited and very apprehensive at the same time. I had never run further than 31 miles, so 50 was a big step up and I knew how hard the NDW could be. But I thought what the hell let’s do this.
Fast forward 2 months, there I was standing in a school hall in Farnham, listening to James, the race director, telling 250+ very fit looking runners and me that the course was actually just over 50 miles but you can see the finish about a mile before you get to it.
We were then walked down to the glamourous start next to the a31 and the race started at 8am precisely. I stayed at the back where I knew I belonged, plodding along happily. I knew I was in for a long day and had no intention of pushing myself at any point. My race plan was to pretty much use every bit of the 13 hour cut off.
The first few miles went by quickly. I fell into a good groove, walking all the uphills even from the very start. The first half of the race is notoriously much easier than the second so I knew I needed to keep as much in the bank as I could. I rolled into the first aid station at Puttenham (7.8miles) feeling good. I grabbed a couple of jelly babies, high fived Stuart March the race photographer and cracked on, knowing that in a few miles a treat awaited.
The bacon barge has become quite infamous at the Centurian NDW races and as I came down the hill to the river Wey, there they we’re, 2 sumo wrestlers handing out bacon sandwiches and potatoes wedges.
I grabbed a handful of wedges and was handed my sandwich, which I tucked into straight away, knowing that the hills were about to start.
St Martha’s hill and Newlands corner are the first big climbs of the race and both felt good.
I knew that it was relatively flat for a good while after leaving the Newlands corner aid station (14.8 miles) so I took some time to eat a couple of peanut butter sandwiches and the best satsuma I’ve ever eaten. I pushed on.
I actually found the next section quite difficult, it is the longest section between aid stations at 10 miles and it is all through woods, so it actually got a bit boring. I was also starting to get tired and as I descended through Denbies vineyard I actually started getting some pain in my hips, but I pushed on to the Boxhill aid station. My aim was to get there within 5 hours which I did, just. I took about 15 mins rest here and ate as much as I could.
Boxhill steps… 270 steps… After 24 miles… Were actually ok. I know these steps quite well, so I felt quite strong on them, but the next 7 miles hurt. This section between Boxhill and Reigate was definitely the hardest of the race. The course twists and turns. There’s steps and climbs and hard descents on slippery chalk paths and it’s topped off by climbing up Reigate hill. I rolled into the Reigate aid station about 25 minutes behind schedule.
I pushed myself quite hard down the hill from the aid station hoping to make up time and this is where the wheels really fell off. I got to the bottom of the hill, pretty much to exactly where the NDW marathon finished and I felt like giving up. I questioned what the hell I was doing. Was I mad? I’ve given up a whole day with my family to do this! The next few miles dragged. I toyed with idea of dropping at the next aid station. I didn’t even know if I would make the cut offs. The climb up out of Merstham was a very slow plod but it flattened out at the top and I managed to keep some sort of pace for a while.
I rolled into Caterham aid station feeling a bit better. I looked at my watch.
It said 16.59.
What? My plan was to get here at 17.00 how the hell had that happened. I was bang on target pace. Suddenly I felt amazing. I only had 12ish miles left and I had 4 hrs to do it in.
I was going to do it.
I left Caterham with a spring in my step. I knew parts of the next section and the familiarity was comforting. I knew I only had one major climb to go, Botley Hill. I had walked up it a couple of weeks before so I knew what was coming. Just get through Oxted common and I’m good.
I’m sure Botley was twice as long as it was when I walked it. It seemed to go on forever, but as I reached the top I could hear people shouting my name in encouragement which gave me a nice boost. I grabbed some fruit at the aid station and went on my way. 7ish miles to go with 2 ½ hrs to do it in.
I was still running, downhill at least, So I managed to make some good time for a few miles. There were a few sneaky hills to contend with but I still felt ok. The last few miles just seemed like endless field after field and not knowing exactly where the finished was, dampened my spirits somewhat. I had a quick facetime call with my son, to say good night, which gave me a nice little boost.
I watched 50 miles tick over on my watch and I still hadn’t seen the finish line. But then suddenly there it was. Over the field to the left. Brilliant, 1 mile to go. A small loop around the village of Knockholt Pound and there it was, right in front of me. The finish.
I did it 51.2 miles 12hrs 40 mins.
What an amazing experience, if you ever get the chance to do a Centurian race do it.
Huge thank you to the organisers and the amazing volunteers.
Written by Greg Moore
I set off on the 3 hour drive from Cornwall to Dorset straight from work on the Friday afternoon with my bosses words ringing in my ears, “What’s the point in that?” this after I had told him that my plans for the weekend involved running 82 miles along the Jurrassic coast inside a 24 hour time limit. I couldn’t give him a reasonable explanation, at least not one he seemed happy with.
The Oner is an ultra-marathon along stunning coast of Dorset, and a race I have been somewhat transfixed with after first hearing about it 2 years earlier when I was chewed up and spat out by the very same course over 3 days during the Jurrasic Coast challenge. Though I had managed to finish, being one of my first ever races, it was a massive struggle which I had totally underestimated and not something that I was particularly pleased with given the manner I stumbled over the line. My friend Tom, who had introduced me to trail running, then said you could do all 3 days in one go at a race that he, along with his girlfriend Nicky, had done. Bathing in my own self-pity, given what had happened to me over the past 3 days this sounded totally obscene and of course, the seed was sown. My revenge on the Jurrassic coast was to be taken within 24 hours one Saturday in early April, or at least that was the plan……………………….
Off We Trot
Fast forward to April the 9th 2017 I arrived at the race HQ early on the Saturday morning with training having gone really well over the previous 3 months, that is until the final 3 weeks where some quad problems had threatened to curtail all the good work. Once I had decided to start I vowed to run normally and if things flared up then so be it but I’d run on my own terms. Registration went without hitch, the brutal events team who run the race seem a well-oiled machine and with numbers, glow sticks and a plethora of free goodies attained I found a quiet corner to make final preparations. Here I met and began chatting with Jon and Richard, the latter unknowingly to me at the time, I would end up spending the vast majority of the next day with. Boarded onto the minibuses, though fairly relaxed any way, Jon’s laid back banter made the journey seemingly fly by and before we knew it we were at the start and off and running with Jon’s prediction of Richard’s top 10 finish ringing in our ears. Jon went off like a train and up until the first checkpoint I ran at a comfortable pace yo yoing with Richard along the way, albeit not by design. The weather was fantastic, really perfect for running, sunny with a light breeze, though I heard later a lot of people didn’t enjoy the heat, I couldn’t have asked for anything better personally. With some spiteful ascents and descents early on, including golden cap, which is the highest point on the south coast, I decided to take a measured approach knowing there was plenty of flat stuff later to take advantage of and ran well within myself.
Slowly, slowly, catchy monkey
Checkpoint 1 came and went, then it was onto the dreaded pebbles along Chesil beach until Abbotsbury at checkpoint 2, this all passed without incident and I ran for the first time with a great guy over from Finland for the race, or as he was imaginatively christened later, the Flying Finn. Just after checkpoint 2 myself, Jon and Richard found each other again and began running together for a while, before Richard, looking really strong began to pull away and Jon started to fall back. This was the last we saw of Jon for the race but after I caught Richard up a mile or so later, we would end up running together for what was left of the race. A first aid emergency struck at checkpoint 3, much to the amusement of everyone there when the medic had to remove the earbud from my headphones which had got stuck in my ear, some nifty tweezer work and we were away again once more to the sound of Radio 5 Live. From checkpoint 3 onwards it is pretty much all flat until you reach Portland and my rough plan at the start was to get ahead of cut offs early while the going was good, try and get around Portland and off again in daylight, and save some gas for when the race really started at Osmington Mills which was checkpoint 7 and roughly 50 miles. The run around Portland which encompasses checkpoint 4, 5 and 6 was really enjoyable as the sunset, here we caught up to Pete who we’d keep company for the best part of the rest of the race and it was onto Weymouth. This flat tarmac section is fairly long, from the causeway across to Portland until the end of the seafront in Weymouth and here we were to make our only navigation error of the race, this was slightly annoying but only cost us around 10-15 minutes when we missed a right turn into the harbour front in Weymouth. After backtracking we found the right path and with Richard and Pete going well we cruised along until the end of the seafront where we all put our head torches on, Game on! We reached Osmington Mills without further problems and I was feeling fantastic at this stage, I’d kept on top of my nutrition and hydration really well and though my legs and feet were starting to feel it, no more than I could reasonably expect, my quads were not an issue. The night checkpoints are really when the brutal staff come into their own, with most having done the race, they all know what the runners want and are unfailingly helpful and full of enthusiasm which is no mean feat given they too are out on the course for 24 hours or more in some cases. This was the first time I realised a cup of tea at a checkpoint was a possibility, from checkpoint 7 until the end, this was all I was focusing on, breaking the race down to the next cup of tea!
The business end
The race proper starts at Osmington Mills, for the next 20 or so miles we were treated to some undulating terrain to say the least, we were still moving well and were soon to be caught by the flying Finn and his rhythmic walking poles, though we rarely stayed with him for long he was either just in front or just behind us for the rest of the race. Things started to go slowly downhill from about checkpoint 8 at Lulworth for me, I was beginning to notice my legs starting to suffer and the downhills, which are incredibly steep, were really hard on my feet which resulted in a burst blister while walking at one stage. Both Richard and Pete were still going well, Richard had been strong all day and was leading from the front while Pete was quietly moving along, how he was managing those hills living and training in London was truly impressive. Tea consumed at Lulworth and it was over the ranges being a bit careful with the navigation and onto Kimmeridge. These two sections are the toughest on the course so the sooner we could get this done and dusted the better. Another cup of tea at checkpoint 9 and we were off again, I had never done this section of the coastal path as there had been a diversion in place when I had previously tackled it, for the most part it is fairly flat, that is until near the end when there is a huge, steep hill to get up, this was the first time I had stopped on a hill all day and myself, Richard, Pete and even the flying Finn enjoyed a sit down on the well-appointed seat at the top for a couple of minutes. Down and up the steps of doom and it was checkpoint 10 at St Albans head where disaster struck, the cup of tea I had dreamed of since the last checkpoint was unattainable! No milk! Argh, after recovering from this hammer blow with hot chocolate and a sit down for 10 minutes we were off again. I had no concept of time at this stage, we had bags of time until the cut offs so I wasn’t focusing on anything other than trying to keep up with Richard who was like a man possessed once he could smell the finish line, I told him on numerous occasions to go on ahead but he wouldn’t hear of it so we ambled on at an average walking pace while watching an incredible sunrise over the coastline with a completely clear sky until the last checkpoint at Swanage.
The bitter end
The last section was only really when I first started to truly believe that I’d finish this thing, I was really struggling to move at a decent pace now though as my left calf had pretty much seized up and my right quad was in a similar state, unknowingly Pete hadn’t followed us out of the checkpoint at Swanage, as we were so used to him quietly getting the job done at the back with little fuss, it wasn’t until we were into Swanage proper I noticed he was no longer there but we’d see him soon enough. I was really pushing to stay with Richard and not to let him down any further by slowing his progress, massive respect, he was strong the whole race and he really pulled me along when I needed it most during the last two sections. Up the last hill out of Swanage, around old harry rocks and then along the never ending beach at Studland, it was here we passed the flying Finn for the last time about 3 miles from the end after going back and forth for the past 30 or so miles. As we clambered onto the wooden walk way at the very end my watch gave up the ghost, 20 meters from the finish! Unbelievable! We dibbed in and following Jon’s earlier prediction, Richard did indeed finish in the top 10, well merited as he was so strong throughout and pulled me along with him at the end. After a cup of tea and a medal it was all done, a quite surreal feeling after missing a whole night’s sleep and after all the ups and downs (figuratively and literally), we’d done it! The flying Finn and Pete were both soon with us at the finish line to complete our night time groups endeavours, a great end to a superb experience!
The Oner is such a great race, the coastline is incredible and extremely challenging in parts, whether you are an experienced ultra-runner or not (in my case). Looking back personally, My race went as well as I could have reasonably have hoped, as my second ultra (my first being a training wheels one at only 44 miles) it was always going to be a case of tiring badly at the end which inevitably happened. I was really lucky on the day to experience no issues with either my stomach or legs or hydration wise and equally to share the course with the people I did, If you had offered me the race I ended up having at the start, I would have taken it without hesitation. Massive thanks to Richard firstly for putting up with me, in his words : “nattering away” for what amounted to a whole day in his life, beast of a man. Both Pete, Jon and the flying Finn were large parts of the day also, so big thanks to them too. Finally, to the brutal crew, all the aid stations were full of encouragement and positivity from the very start, the Tea was good and you can ask for little more! I will be back at some stage for certain, I think I can sneak in under 20 hours as I was haemorrhaging time over the last 10-15 miles. With a little more experience, miles in my legs and IF everything goes right for me again, I think sub 20 hours is a feasible target, you and I are not finished Jurrassic Coast!
Written by Jonathan Strong - https://strongrunning.co.uk
My 3rd running of the SDW50. The South Downs Way 50 (miles) is a point to point course from Worthing to Eastbourne (finishing with a lap of the running track!). This year the race was on Saturday 8th April 2017. I initially ran this as a warm up for the SDW100. I had entered the SDW100 so I could qualify for WS100, I enjoyed the runnable course so much I keep coming back.
The course has 5,700 ft of elevation. However, it isn’t very technical and is mostly very runnable. A good first time 50 miler and it was Sally’s first 50 mile point to point ultra last year when we ran it together. All had gone well last year until just before half way. Her glutes had worn out and led to knee problems on the downhill. So we reversed the common ultra strategy of running the downs and flats, to running the ups and flats and walking down the hills. Last years time was a very painful 11:30:21 and took a long time for Sally to recover from.
This years plan was just to take it easy, have fun and finish in one piece. Although never spoken, I had a secret hope Sally would get in under last year’s time. The main aim though, to finish in one piece! We would run together as I was happy to take it easier and let me recover faster and get back to training for this years SDW100.
My training had been going spot on. For Sally, training had initially gone well, but some ankle pain had forced a rest period, then a lower training block, building back up to this race. Ashby 20 had been a bit of a tester for us both 3 weeks earlier, it went well for both of us.
This year the forecast looked like an almost perfect running day, dry, mild and with a light breeze.
Traveling after work Friday, we passed right by the start and they were open for registration. Whilst we planned on turning up early the next morning, we figured it would help take the pressure off both us and the volunteers at registration.
Top tip for ultra registration. Don’t bother to pack your race vest properly before you have passed kit check. Take it all in a separate bag or box all unpacked. This makes it quick and easy to check off mandatory kit.
I have a Suunto Ambit 3 peak. So I was happy to leave it in the normal 1 second GPS lock. This should last about 20 or more hours. Certainly longer than the 13 hour cut-off. I had uploaded the GPX file of the route to the watch ‘just in case’.
Apart from mandatory kit, food and water, I packed some sunscreen to reapply later on. Whilst I use all day sun cream and I’m sure it is OK without reapplying. If I can, I like to reapply on the move to try and be safe. Also due to the heat, some s-caps to help keep my stomach ok as I tend to drink a lot more than others as I am always hot. I noticed this as we lined up at the start and I was in shorts and a t-shirt. Many others had jackets and leggings on.
The course is easy to follow and even has markings for an extra bonus. So makes navigation a no brainer.
Just before the start at 9am James gives the pre-race briefing. Everyone is silent and listens. A little congested at the start as it was narrow single track for a mile or so. Not a bad thing being near the back as it lets us take it easy as you climb for the first 3 miles.
After that, it is undulating. I normally take a fairly standard approach of hiking up the hills and running the flats and downs. Now there are plenty of relatively flat sections,. There were a few sections that Sally and I had a debate about as it was slightly uphill. I suggested we ran these as it was fairly gentle incline.
I tend to run by feel or heart rate (under zone 2) at the start of an ultra. Only stopping to hike briefly if I felt it was using too much effort early on in the race where I would be trying to conserve energy for later on.
Underfoot the course was mostly very good, this year had been dry before and during the race so no mud. Wide smooth paths for the most part, a lot on grass too. We commented that last year we had been dodging puddles early on as it was much wetter. Today was probably the hottest day of the year so far.
Many people run checkpoint to checkpoint or break a race down in other ways. The first checkpoint (at Botolphs) was 11.2 miles from the start, the longest distance between checkpoints, as they came closer together in the later half. A theme was about to develop, down a big hill to reach a checkpoint, back up a big hill straight after. But meters before the first checkpoint, a bench was spotted and gave Sally a chance to fish out the optimal sized stone that found its way into her shoe. Disaster averted we could refill our bottles, grab some food, thank the volunteers and head off (up the big hill).
SDW 50 leaving CP1, photo credit Stuart March
Not long after getting most of the way up the hill we found a decent sized and well placed rock that Sally could sit on whilst she applied a compeed blister plaster as a preemptive move. I took the chance to reapply the sunscreen. A lot of supporters were at the top of the hills as we passed by the Devils Dyke pub and down the hill to the next checkpoint at Saddlescombe farm only a little over 5 miles from the last checkpoint.
This checkpoint had a familiar face I’m sure I have seen at previous events. The skeleton in the chair holding the sign to beware the chair. So true, I avoid sitting down at all cost unless I need to take a shoe off or similar task that’s pretty difficult unless on your ass.
So avoiding the chair, I put my Hydrapak Speedcup to the test. This year Centurion made a cup part of the mandatory kit in order to save on all the waste of plastic cups at checkpoints. The Hydrapak speedcup is a lightweight collapsible cup that you can fit in an easy to reach pocket or lash it on using the loop. I poured in some Pepsi, sipped on it whilst grazing on some food and grabbing a handful of more food to eat as I left the checkpoint, which was up a big hill!
Although 10 miles to the next checkpoint at Housedean Farm, this passed very quickly. I used to be fine with cows, then after an incident in the Peak District I have taken a much more cautious approach and tend to slow down, give them as much room as possible. I’m happy to say that true to form on the South Downs, the cows were all pretty chilled out. The few in front of a gate we needed to get through shifted on approach. As I got closer I could see that’s where their water trough was and felt bad that on a hot day they kept getting ‘mooved’ out the way of their water from all us runners and other users of the South Downs.
Just before Housedean Farm checkpoint we spotted a couple of guys up ahead walking down hill, I commented this was a bit odd. Sally pointed out that was her last year, fair point. As we approached it became clear one was feeling the effect of the heat or something and was clearing things out with being sick. Not an unusual thing to see on an ultra, or in town on a Friday night. In both cases I’m sure we have all been there and done that. I’d have stopped but it seemed his friend had it under control and they weren’t far from the checkpoint. At the bottom of the hill you go along to a wood and what is probably one of steepest climbs on the course. It’s pretty short and you are soon out of the wood and down the last hill before the farm. It was this downhill last year that Sally had really struggled and was forced to adopt the walk down hill strategy. This year, thankfully, all was well.
The checkpoint at the farm was in a barn, the shade was most welcome at this point and we could see a few others taking some respite from the sun. On the way out (up a hill), we saw the chap we had passed earlier who had been sick, volunteers were attending to him and all seemed well for his pal who was going to keep going. Looking at the watch we were about on the same pace as last year.
By now runners were spreading out and no doubt the front of the field were finishing. We had less than a marathon to go, less than we had already done. At this point I still like to count up the miles until around 40 when I can start counting back down, less than 10 miles seems like a manageable number. Less than 26.22 still seems like a long way. We played some yo-yo with other runners as we passed each other a few times depending on our respective highs and lows. Thinking I recognised one lady from another event I asked if it that was the case. It wasn’t, but she explained this was the start of the grand slam for her as she had signed up for all 8 Centurion races this year, 4 x 50 milers and 4 x 100 milers. And those weren’t the only races on her calendar this year. That would blow the mind of most non-runners, most runners who don’t do Ultras and it’s still pretty high and the ‘nuts’ level of crazy for ultra runners. Finishing that is certainly going to be an achievement to brag about for some time. I sheepishly explained I was only doing one more, the SDW100 this year too and would see her there.
By now Sally had needed a wee for several hours, always on the look out for a suitable bush to hide her modesty. Unfortunately, we knew too well that the South Downs is generally a very open landscape, made worse by it being the middle of a sunny Saturday and everyman and his dog were out, coming from both directions too. I managed to find a suitable spot for myself to have a sympathy wee, it was still pretty open and so Sally had to hold it for a bit longer. We discussed the merits of a shewee, some sort of plastic funnel from what I understand that turns a lady into a man. I’m not sure after using one I’d like to then carry it round the rest of the way covered in my own piss. I have on several occasion been in a race and had a girl just squat down on the path right in front of me. Whilst I appreciate your situation ladies, at least move off to the side of the path so I don’t have to run through a puddle of your wee.
We slowed down a little on a hill to let a group of runners pass us and make some space. There was a chap not very far back though, but this was the best gap between runners we had had for a while. We turned a corner to go down a hill and saw a little mound off to the side that Sally calculated should allow her enough privacy and time before the chap behind caught us up. I started walking down the hill whilst she nipped off to the side of the path. Whilst the mound covered her from the chap behind, she had to be quick before he caught her up. As I walked down the hill I also realised it allowed her no cover from the front, which was now unfortunate as the group we let pass us earlier, were now nearing the bottom of the hill and turning back up it to take photographs. I suspect when they later post them on Facebook and someone spots a girl squatting in the distance there will be much amusement!
The heat is starting to get to us and as we catch back up to that group and head up the final hill before the checkpoint, everyone is talking about how hot it is, especially out of the breeze we had enjoyed along the tops of the hills. One last down hill and over the railway at Southease (where it turns out there was probably a toilet in the Youth Hostel next door). Leaving this checkpoint, yes you guessed it, up a hill. Rather than straight up the steep bit, the path winds around and then up the hill, a much more gentle and pleasant climb, although one that seemed to go on past the trig point at the top.
Alfreton is a fab location for a checkpoint and is indoors. As I enter I spot a familiar face on the other side of the buffet table. Graham had been helping out at the King Offa’s Dyke Ultra last year. A quick chat to see if we will bump into each other again in September, and we establish we will both be at the Lakeland too, Graham at the 100 and myself at the 50. We thank everyone and head off on what feels a bit like the final straight. Just pay attention as you leave that you follow the marked route back onto the South Downs Way, which of course, is up hill.
On the way to the final checkpoint at Jevington we realise we are likely to finish around the same time as last year. We thought we had been doing much better than last year as Sally was in one piece still. We agree to push on as much as possible with no need to stop for anything at Jevington as it is only about 4 miles from the finish. I suggest I run on ahead to grab a cup of coke for Sally and she should keep going and I would catch her up. After over 10 hours of running my sub 8 minute mile pace to catch up Sally felt like a sprint. As it was just after a checkpoint, there was a hill, which I caught her up on. Last year at this point we had been trying to get up the hill and back down the other side to the road before it got dark and before we needed to get out our head torches. Once at the final summit, the descent is a narrow track down to the road. This can be slippery and tricky in places, I’m not the quickest at descending and so take it easy until we hit the road.
From there, only around 2 miles left of mostly flat tarmac. We pick up the pace as we try and finish quicker than last year. We round the last corner to see the running track just as the light starts to fade. We keep picking up the pace as we hit the track and finish in 11:08:02, 22 mins and 13 seconds quicker than last year, and in one piece. We take a bow to let Mimi Anderson pop those huge medals around our necks. And pose for a photo by Stuart March who had been out on course all day long before heading back for the finish line photos. Always great to see Stuart at Centurion events taking pictures. He offers great support and the price of the quality photographs are in my opinion very reasonable and offer good value for money to capture the memories of the event.
SDW 2017 finish 11:08:02, photo credit Stuart March
We had some food, a shower and then headed back on the bus to the start, where we had left the van in the morning.
Thanks to everyone who made it a great day out. My next ultra is likely to be the Apocalypse 50 on the 20th April 2017, another warm up race before the SDW 100 this year. Sally is likely to be running the 12 Labours of Hercules in July.
Massive medal, SDW50 medal and finishers t-shirt
Written by Tom Wright - http://life.tomwright.me.uk
Written by Andy Brooks - https://www.peakrunning.co.uk
When I originally placed my entry for the Last One Standing Ultra I was thinking ‘yeah, that sounds like a quirky fun way to spend a February weekend in Ulster’. In it’s aftermath, I’m thinking that it may actually be the ultimate test of the human resolve that a member of our species can take.
So, what is it?
Well….. when the gun goes off at high noon, competitors set out on a lovely little trail run of 4.2 undulating miles around the grounds of Castle Ward, on the shores of Strangford Lough. Sounds delightful, eh?
Then, those that have finished in time get to start the whole thing again at 1pm. And of those, the ones that are back in time get to start the whole thing again at 2pm. And then… you guessed it….those that are back get to go again at 3pm, 4pm, 5pm and so on and so forth. The madness goes on until there is only one competitor back in time to go again. He or she then has an hour to complete one last lap to win. Otherwise, like everyone else, it’s a DNF.
‘But, 4.2 miles in an hour isn’t very hard for anyone that runs a bit’, you may be thinking. And you’d be right. However, I would argue that the choice of distance adds to the brutality, as well as the appeal, of the event. Let me explain:
It’s appealing because runners at all levels could identify with doing 4.2 miles within an hour. It’s brutal because it’s relentless. You have to continue to do 4.2 miles within the hour, every hour as the fatigue builds and builds. The only way you get to rest is to run faster to get more time in base camp before the gun goes again.
But, there’s something in the genetic build of the human species that attracts many of its members to brutality. For that reason, LOS is perfect.
In more orthodox ultra-marathons the goal, for the vast majority, is to complete rather than compete. The satisfaction comes from achieving the distance not winning the race, which, with few exceptions, is achieved by a naturally gifted athlete who can cover the distance quicker than anyone else. However, Last One Standing throws this paradigm out of the window. After each hour everyone who made the cut-off is equal again, and has a whole hour to complete another 4.2 miles and stay in the hunt for victory. So literally anyone can win. All they need to do is emulate our primal ancestors; just keeping their prey in sight until it drops exhausted.
The design concept is all important though. If the laps were longer, it would flip back in favour of those that naturally run faster. If they were shorter, competitors could just walk, so that wouldn’t be as big a challenge. But, as it is, it’s far enough to mean everyone has to run but short enough to make it doable for pretty much anyone that can run. So the genius of the event is that it’s the person who can best combine the power of mind and body working together is most likely to win. The right strategy and sufficient tenacity are key.
But what is the right strategy?
That’s a question I can’t guarantee a completely assured answer to; because I didn’t win. But I can tell you about mine, which eventually saw off 97% of the opposition. Plus, what I learned from observing all the gladiators around me during the race; something else only afforded by the unique format of the event.
It may just be a personal opinion, but I believe that any strategy worth its salt, needs to start with a goal to work towards. For LOS working out what the goal should be was hard though. In a ‘normal’ race, you’d consider the distance and the terrain, and figure out what kind of finishing time you’d be happy with. But, the finish line at LOS isn’t defined, it’s infinite; other than the fact it’s capped at 48 hours (presumably because that’s when the organiser’s rent money for the venue runs out).
In the end, I decided on 3 goals:
24-laps was non-negotiable, so I would treat those as compulsory working hours. That works out at 100 miles and, having run 100 miles in the past, I knew I’d be bitterly disappointed not to reach at least that point.
Achieving a distance PB (personal best) was highly desirable, so I would treat that as optional overtime. That would require 26 laps, my previous best standing at 106 miles – in a 102-mile race (less said about my night time navigation the better).
Continuing on to try and win would be the ultimate dream. I knew this had taken 30 laps in the inaugural race last year, and that it would almost certainly take a lot more this time. Word on the street was that there were some crazy b&stards who were actually prepared to go to the death - well, the full 48 hours anyway. So without a massive amount of help from lady luck (or more likely bad luck on the part of my adversaries), this could be no more than a dream.
With goals defined, I needed to work out how to go about achieving them. Again something that was not easy given the format of the event and the fact that I usually hate running multiple laps. So I decided to keep it simple and base things on past experience of ‘normal’ races as much as possible.
Before the event I’d try and run weekly mileage similar to the build up to any ultra, i.e. increasing from 50odd to 70odd miles per week for a few weeks.
During the event I would run slow and even-paced but go fast enough to make the cut-off time for each lap with about 5 minutes to spare. Thus giving myself time to grab sustenance and sort out any kit or bodily issues before the gun goes for the next lap at the top of the hour.
Did my strategy work?
I guess I already gave the game away earlier, but I can let you know more about how the whole thing panned out.
I’m not going to give a blow by blow account of every lap. Partly because I couldn’t: the laps quickly started to blur together, and it would have been easy to loose count had it not been for the fact that the time of day at the top of each hour coincided with the number completed (for the first 12 hours anyway). And partly because you’d be bored shitless after a couple of laps, if not less. So, here are the highlights and lowlights from what I can remember.
My main priorities when I arrived at the venue was to figure out where to set up my paraphernalia to ensure easy access after each lap, and how to interact with my support crew (in the form of wife, Angela, and dog, Phoebe, who’d kindly come along to help). Luckily I found a spot just inside the barn, only 20 steps from the start line, ideal!
And the strategy for the support crew was for them to leave after the first few hours, assuming everything was going okay, have a good night’s sleep and return the next morning for the remainder of the event. We figured there was no point having a tired and grumpy crew as well as a tired and grumpy runner!
The start line
Unlike the usual race start scenario, where there is a lot of jostling for position to get close to the line, the density of the 141 souls taking part was less the closer to the line you looked. There was the usual nervous excitement as the organisers counted down the seconds but, once underway, nobody was in a rush to set the pace. We all just set off on what seemed like a training session warm up jog along the shore of the Lough.
The first few laps
My objective for the first lap was, with the aid of my Garmin, to make a mental note of where the ¼, ½ and ¾ points in the loop roughly were. This would give me an idea later on as to where I stood against my schedule in order to get round in about 55 mins. In reality, it took me a few laps to do this, because I was too busy gassing with other runners. Eventually I worked it out though. I needed to be at the ‘road crossing’ by 13 minutes past, the ‘main house’ by half past and the ‘tape on muddy patch’ by twenty to the hour.
Being able to chat to others was a great aspect of these early stages. Re-grouping every hour meant there was opportunity to talk to people with a wide range goals for the event, many of which involved doing something beyond what they’d achieved before. It was a truly eclectic crowd that I had the pleasure of getting to know. To name but a few, these included Gordon, a farmer from Armagh who’d come straight form dealing with a livestock emergency that morning; Janet, originally of Nova Scotia and training for the Stirling Marathon; and Allan from Manchester who I suspected was in it for the long haul.
In lap 3 I started to experience the first signs of wear and tear, in the form of a hotspot on my fourth toe of the left foot. One of the prime rules of ultra running is to nip any such problems in the bud, so the priority for the next return to basecamp was to apply Vaseline to the offending digit.
The next few laps
There’s not much to report about the next few laps. I was getting into a regular routine: seat, eat, run, repeat, seat, eat, run, repeat, seat……
It got dark.
It rained a bit.
My support crew, who were becoming quite a hit at ‘the bridge’ half way round with people fussing over Phoebe the dog, left for the night.
My toe was still bugging me. Kicking myself because not cleaning my shoes and socks well enough beforehand hadn’t helped. Pillock!!
116 of the 141 competitors were still in the game until the end of lap 7, having exceeded a marathon distance and officially completed an ultra.
Into the night (for the first time)
As darkness consumed us, numbers started to dwindle. By the midnight hour over half of the marathon exceeders had fallen by the wayside, some by choice and some being forced out by the clock. But those remaining had now exceeded the 50-mile point.
I’d like to say I was still going strong but, if truth be known, I was worried that it may be all over during lap 10 – and all down to my stupid freekin’ toe! Approaching the top of the ‘long climb’ to the highest part of the course, I felt something give, immediately followed by excruciating pain. Realising that the skin had given out allowing salty sweat and grit into the wound, I hobbled along the next section of the track thinking how embarrassing it would be to succumb to one poxy little toe. I was wincing with every step but knew I had no choice but to continue on to the finish line, so I could investigate further and [hopefully] take some mitigating action.
Tape carefully applied around the offending toe (harder to do than you think when the seconds are counting down to the next start time), I gingerly set out on lap 11. And within a couple of minutes was feeling a big sense of relief as it now felt much better, with the pain manageable – for now at least.
The wee small hours
The clock struck midnight and it became Sunday. Over a hundred of the starters had now vanished into the night. Well….into their nice warm beds if they’d got any sense. And for those of us remaining, the socialising had largely drawn to a close. We just got on with it, just grunting the odd word of encouragement to each other in passing.
Everyone now was making the most of their time in base camp. I could tell that because one time I misread my watch and came out to the start line with more than a minute to go, and found it completely deserted. For a fleeting second I thought, ‘shit, I’ve missed the start’, and then I thought ‘wow, surely there can’t just be me left standing’. And then, with less than 30 seconds to go, they all reappeared from all angles, like rats from a sewer!
Physically I still felt pretty strong, but the first hour of Sunday was perhaps my lowest mentally. I think this was because I let thoughts about the magnitude of what was still to come into my mind for the first time, which started to create doubts. And it was getting lonely, running for long periods alone in the little tunnel of light created by my head-torch, and with no support crew to cheer me on. ‘Have a word with yourself Brooks’, I thought. And, helped by the mantra of a good friend of mine that ‘smiles eat miles’, I forced myself to literally grin (and bear it) until the feelings went away. (I’m glad it was dark and nobody could see!).
Another thing that turned out to be key to maintaining a positive mood, was actually the power of modern technology. Taking a moment in each lap, usually when I was moving slowly up a steep hill, to post an update and read messages from friends and club-mates back home, turned out to be quite therapeutic. As I started out on lap 14, I was assuming everyone would had turned into the night, so I was quite touched to see a message simply checking whether I was still okay?
The only other thing to report about from those small hours was an experience midway around lap 17, as I climbed the hill to the ‘main house’, an experience that was new to me during a race. I found myself falling asleep. A bit like that dreaded feeling when you’re driving down a monotonous road late at night and your eyes start to droop. But on my feet. ‘Time for coffee next time round’ I thought!
Crossing the finish line at 07:50 and 52 seconds, I was surprised that lap 21 had been my fastest so far. Surprised, because I hadn’t made any special effort, I’d just got into the groove and done my usual thing. Then I realised it was probably down to the daybreak. Not just being able to see the path better, but my body-clock coming around too. And, the knowledge that my support crew would be back soon. I’d already sent my order to bring rice pudding for breakfast ;-)
18 of us had made it through the night and were still in the game. This number stayed pretty stable over the next few hours, as the remaining gladiators sensed that 100 miles was now within reach. Some had publically declared their intention to ‘just do 100’. Others, including me, were keeping their powder dry. However, I was becoming increasingly focused now on just getting to that point. I was seriously doubting whether I had the resolve to continue beyond it.
Lap 23 felt really tough, the toughest since number 13 for me. But 24 was much better, lifted physiologically by the approaching 100-mile mark. And there was a really positive buzz around base camp this time round as competitors and their supporters celebrated a sub 24 hour 100 mile, some for the first time.
It’s actually worth reflecting for a moment on that, as the sub-24 is an ultra running benchmark, just like sub-3 is for marathon runners. Also, as I mentioned at the start, 4.2 miles in an hour doesn’t sound very hard but bear in mind that the time limit for most 100-mile races is 30 hours or more, even on courses flatter than LOS.
This is where the race really starts
With goal number one ticked off, and mood now lifted, stopping now wasn’t an option. I only had to do two more laps for a distance PB, so it was a no brainer.
10 men and 1 lady, who now just need to complete one more lap within the hour to win the ladies’ category, lined up as high noon struck for the second time to mark the start of lap 25. And while the camaraderie remained, I sensed that everyone was also now trying weigh one another up, trying to judge what they had left.
As lap 26 started we were in single figures. I was in a positive mood because this one would see me reach goal number 2 for that distance PB, but with so many around me still looking strong, wondering whether I had the metal to go on beyond that.
But when push came to shove, I shoved myself out of the barn again for number 27. I figured I was still making the cut-offs fairly comfortably and was still coherent, so would feel disappointed in myself if I didn’t at least try.
Ditto for number 28, in the knowledge this time that last year’s champion, Bobby, had decided to call it a day.
Ditto for number 29. I was now certainly just taking it one lap at a time now.
And then I thought I could hardly stop at the end of 29. It would be such an odd number. Just one more would get me to a round 30 and a distance of 200 kilometres.
Allan from Manchester, who I’d been chatting with intermittently all through the event, stopped after 30, highly satisfied with his massive distance PB of 125 miles. Which left just five of us heading out into the impending darkness of the lap 31.
I was weighing up the other four, and I’m sure they were weighing me up. My assessment was that two of them weren’t in any mood, or state, to drop anytime soon – they could go for many more hours if necessary. The other two were, I felt, starting to get close to their end point.
The pattern that had been established over previous laps was that I’d be at the back early on and loose sight of all of them by the end of the first mile. But as the climbing started I would regain some ground and be close to a couple of them by the end.
But in lap 31 that didn’t happen. When I reached ‘the bridge’ I’d lost a couple of minutes on my usual schedule already. And the darkness of the second night wasn’t helping me. I forced myself to run up the climb to the ‘main house’ (which I’d seen NOBODY run up all day incidentally) to try and regain a bit of time. This worked, as I made it round, but my spirit was gone…. It was just going to get harder and harder to make the cut-offs as the night progressed. And I realised that this was another part of the event’s brutality.
In a normal ultra-marathon competitors tend to walk more and run less in the latter stages when they’re tired. Here, the relentlessness of the cut-offs, meant you actually had to run more and walk less to stay in the game. A friend, who sent me a message during the event, summed it up well: ‘Carlsberg don't do the 'Beep' test, but if they did....................’
Unless I stood a chance of winning, I really wanted to finish on my own terms and not wait to be timed out or be pulled out as a jabbering incoherent wreck. So, as I trotted through the woods in the last mile, my decision was made. I was done this time round.
But then I thought ‘what if my assessment of the others is wrong?’. What if I hand in my chip, only to find the ones I perceived to be still strong not lining up again? I could throw away a chance of winning. So okay, revise decision. Wait until I see who’s on the start line; and if anyone else has dropped, go one more time and give myself a chance of a top 3 finish at least.
With 10 seconds to go, there were only 3 on the line, so I was in a quandary. Should I? Shouldn’t I? But then, at the very last second, Pat (last year’s runner up) reappeared and lined up to start.
'That’s me done' I declared, congratulating the others and wishing them luck for the rest of the race. The clock struck 7pm, and they were gone. For me, it was game over.
The right decision?
Did I make the right decision to stop? Well, it was certainly a tough one, and had it been a normal race format, probably not one I would have made. I’d have just kept plodding on to the finish line. But, when the the finish line is infinite, it’s a different ball game.
Could I have gone further? Yes!
Could I have continued to make it round in under an hour? Probably not for more than another lap or two at the most!
Could I have continued on to win? Almost certainly not.
It turned out that my assessment was pretty accurate. Two of the four remaining were done within two more laps, and the other two continued on, running together through to lap 36. And I’m pretty sure they would have gone on further if any other challengers had remained in the game.
Yes, it’s quirky and it’s fun. But if you ever give it a go (and you should) you may well find that it is the most brutal challenge you’ve ever taken part in. I’ve been around the block a few times in ultra-marathons, and I did!
Many thanks are due to:
Adrian and Sammy Daye, and their team at Atlas Running, for putting on such a great and unique event.
All the other competitors that made it such a great, but brutal, event.
The Tailwind guys for quite a few of the calories consumed.
Everyone out around the course, cheering and supporting at various times of the day and night.
All the friends who provided support and encouragement via the world wide web - you'd be amazed how much that helped.
And last, but certainly not least, my own trusty support crew, Angela and Phoebe.
The bloopers and other interesting facts
Seeing a large crowd of Game of Thrones fans dressed in full costume on a tour of Winterfell as we passed by and thinking ‘why the hell would you want to do that’. And then thinking ‘why the hell would you want to do THIS!’.
Being asked by some dog walkers, late on Sunday afternoon, what time the race started. And seeing the looks on their faces when being told 12 o’clock, yesterday!
Seeing more eggs and Guinness consumed by competitors than energy gels. In fact, I never saw a single gel consumed throughout. Overpriced, over marketed, junk food IMHO.
The guy behind me in the barn enjoying a pint of Guinness before every lap. He still did pretty well BTW.
The winning lady, Louise, being the only person in the whole event not to DNF. And then, after 105 miles competing, setting out on a celebratory victory lap with her friends, drinking beer on the way round.
There’s not many races where you get a medal for completing a 100-miles and one for a DNF.
They give you a cycling shirt as a souvenir. Perhaps they presume you’re not going to be running for a while after taking part.