Written by Phil Bradburn - https://untrainingultrarunner.com
With 7 weeks between Grand Union Canal Race and the second race in the Canalslam series – Kennet and Avon Canal Race – it was always going to be a bit of a test to recover and train to be ready.
The KACR covers 145 miles of canals and rivers – from Bristol Temple Meads station to London Paddington – non-stop with an overall time limit of 45 hours and rolling cut-offs at checkpoints along the way. If you stop for more than 45 minutes you’re deemed to have retired.
I was really looking forward to the race. Training had gone well – much better than my injury prone GUCR preparation and I was feeling ready and confident about the distance. My A goal was around 36 hours. My B Goal was 40 hours. My C goal was to finish in 44 hours.
A week of a couple of easy 5km jogs brought me to the race weekend and the inevitable kit shot!
The journey to Bristol
Susie saw me off at our local station for a train to London before going onto Bristol.
I arrived at Paddington Station to find that the train was delayed (grrrr) and that the seat reservations that they insisted on were not going to be honoured (double grrrr). Nevermind…. Gave me time to get Mcdonalds meal and milkshake and some water for the train. Eventually there was a bunfight to get on the train to Bristol Temple Meads and I found a seat. We were on our way. I got a message on twitter from Allan Rumbles saying that he and Fi McNelis were on the train – two carriages further down. I decided to join them for a chit chat…. And so we did!
We made our way to the hotel – Travelodge in Mitchell Road (Pro: It is where registration is held. Con: no air conditioning in the rooms!). We had agreed to all meet up beforehand for a trip to the supermarket for some snacks for the next day and water. On our way we stopped for a coffee and Fi had a moist flapjack. She was convinced the barista girl was eyeing me up – but both me and Allan were convinced that it was Fi that was holding her eye and why we had our drinks brought over to us in a Pret!
Shopping for scooby snacks
Soon finished we were blitzing the tesco express for water and snacks. I grabbed a couple of porridge for breakfast at 4:30am in the room and we headed back. Registration started a little later than planned but it was beautifully smooth. And somehow I had found myself at the start of the queue. I had thought everyone else had already finished!
I picked up my hoody, t-shirts and buffs that I ordered, picked up a diversion map, and said hi to a few friends including Georgina Townend, Roz Glover and Rich Cranswick (who were both volunteering), Keith Godden of course, Lindley Chambers, Maxine Lock and no doubt others I have forgotten to mention.
The pub the night before the race
Off to the pub next. We found it completely empty! Lots of excited chat and new people to meet. We all sat together – about 12 of us.
I had the burger and chips with a couple of lager shandies. Allan Rumbles ordered a HUUUUUGE sharing platter to himself – which was undoubtedly the best value thing on the menu at only a quid more than my burger and chips but with about 20 x the quantity of calories!
Soon it was around 9pm – and already later than I planned to go to bed. Me and Allan headed back to the hotel and I met up with Lee and Susie before going to bed. They were half of my crew for the next day
The (non!) sleep
Didn’t really happen. I swear I got about two hours maximum. The room was hot so i opened the window. Then it was too noisy so I shut it. Then it was too hot so I opened it. Then I shut it because it was too noisy. GRRRRRR annoying AF! I even woke before my alarm so figured there was no point getting another ten minutes sleep and just got up and got my stuff sorted out. The time goes so quickly in the morning it is worth being super prepared. I forced myself to eat two bowls of porridge. Do two visits. Soon it was 5:10am and time to go to reception to meet Lee.
Heading to the Start
We turned up at the amassing runners just down from the railway station. It was good to bump into Alan Rumbles, Fi McNelis, Georgina Townsend and others. I managed to grab a lovely cup of coffee from the volunteers at the start. Soon we were walking up to the station for the briefing. 55 runners lined up at the start line
Dick gave the usual thing which is becoming really familiar to me now and dropped his arm and we were off!
I started my watch and noticed it wanted me to calibrate my compass! ARGH FFS. I had it on a funky setting that was going to last the whole race and more besides. But I forget it always wants calibration first. That’s a lesson already.
Bristol Temple Meads Railway Station – 6am – 0 miles!
Off we went. I was keeping things easy. The pace seemed fast though of the other runners and soon I found myself with a HUGE gap of possibly half a mile between me and the runners in front. I was aware that there was a big group of runners just behind me and while I stayed to the side, no one overtook so I figured I wasn’t holding anyone up.
I was so glad to get running after tapering for the race. Soon my I hit my head on a branch and my hat was knocked clean off! I stopped to get it off another runner who had picked it up for me. Good start
Soon we were on a trail and I bumped into Andy Persson who I had met the night before in the pub. We jogged along for a while chatting to each other. We were around the same pace for quite a few miles just happily jogging and chatting and enjoying the scenery. At one point he pulled his tiny video camera out (link here).
I wasn’t meeting my crew until 13 miles in at the main checkpoint 1 – so I just ran for a couple of hours just settling into my easy pace and drinking little and often. I was running a little with Helen Pike – who looked really strong and she seemed to be adopting a run / walk pattern from the start.
CP1 – Locksbrook Inn – 13.7 miles – 8:04am (2:04 hours)
Soon I came into the first checkpoint. Grabbed some tomatoes and grapes from my crew and a double water bottle change. And off I went once again! I was running on my own once again. I went over the bridge next to the pub and turned left down the path.Soon I spotted Fi McNelis ahead. We had a brief chat and I carried on running.
I had around 10 miles to go before the next time I would see my crew. I figured that this would be fine. I could fill up with water using the water taps (I spotted one a few miles later) and I wanted to make decent inroads into my race without losing too much time with stops and starts.
The heat of the day was rising, but everything was absolutely fine. I had been running in heat in training and I was very much used to it. Before then I had been running in the cold and then being screwed by even moderately warm weather during races. This time I hoped would be different.
According to the map there was due to be a watertap around mile 20. I missed it. Couldn’t see it anywhere. Nevermind I was soon to be with my crew.
Mile 23.5 – Avoncliff Aquaduct – 10:01am (4:01 hours)
I saw Susie and Lee who were part of my crew. As I approached Lee ran into a cafe! I was hoping I was right in what was coming next and I was not disappointed as he turned up with a very posh version of a calippo. LUSH!
They added ice to the top of my hat, and buffs, and changed my water. And off I went once again. I was loving the race. I had already started to incorporate tactical walking breaks into the run so that I wasn’t destroying myself, and especially as the heat was rising. I was coping just fine though.
Not long after this I spotted a sign outside a cafe….. Calippo SLUSH!!!!!!! – WOW – I couldn’t miss this opportunity. I mixed one myself and had coke, orange and strawberry and marched along while enjoying it so much! I knew that my friend Georgina Townsend would be getting one too – and come to think of it – I was wondering when I would bump into my Grandslam and Canalslam running Calippo pal! We usually run around the same pace around 30 odd miles in. But I didn’t know whether she was in front or behind.
CP 2 – Parsons Bridge – mile 27.4 – 10:55am (4:55hours)
Spotted Roz Glover at the aid station – who took a photo of me looking like a simpleton idiot villager with my hat . She said she thought I was having too much fun!
I added more water and a took some orange squash with me. It wasn’t long til my next crew point. But I took the time to soak my hat again and wipe my face over with a cloth at the checkpoint.
Mile 30 – Semington Bridge – 11:45am – (5:45 hours)
Hot now but I was still feeling ok – but commented on the heat to Lee and Susie when I met them. I grabbed some more S-caps (making Lee run back to the car for them). Some watermelon of several varieties. I also drank some of Lee’s coke (sorry Lee!). I left with a goody bag full of strawberries and grapes.
Georgina, Dave and another runner – caught up with me shortly after. Great to see them. We ran together for a few miles until we reached Caen Locks. At least I wasn’t the only one in a silly hat!
Me and Dave walked up that section as it was up hill – and then he jogged the final bit. There was a cafe at the top. In we went. I grabbed a can of Sprite and a blackcurrant posh calippo. Georgina soon appeared and I knew she would do that same.
Mile 39.5 – Bridge Inn – Horton – 1:50pm (7:50 hours)
We left together and chatted a while. Did some jogging. It was a hot part of the day. Eventually I met up with my crew who gave me more calippos and they gave Georgina one too – she carried on through – and I caught back up with her a mile down the canal. We jogged together on and off and I ended up at the CP3 just ahead.
Cp3 – Mile 45 – The Barge Inn – Honeystreet – 3:05pm (9:05 hours)
Ginger beer was my abiding memory. It was wonderful! It was here that I saw Lou for the first time. She was in cheery spirits which was great and exactly what you want in a crew. I soon left after topping up my water and a brief sit down. I walked out of the CP for half a mile – that’s how I find it works best for me – means I don’t throw up.
Mile 49 – The Waterfront – Pewsey Wharf – 4:10pm (10:10 hours)
I met Lee and Susie here. More ice. And off I went again. I also grabbed a Longhaul Turmeric Chicken which was lush. It’s always good to have something that is savoury, easy to eat and easy to carry (it has a screw cap on the pouch). I tried them in training and found it to be like a delicious cold spicy curry.
Mile 56 – Freewarren Bridge – 5:50pm (11:50 hours)
I spotted Lou across the bridge. I went over to meet her. I was in good spirits. More water. More milkshake. A lemon french fancy. And a couple of swigs of cold coke. Lush. I had a brief sit down here.
CP4 – Mile 60 – Oakhill Down Bridge – 7:02pm (13:02 hours)
I did some good running into this section and was having a total blast. I was pleased to bump into Rod Viggers here – we remembered each other from the start of the GUCR. He seemed to be supported by some running group called the Shinsplints!
Vanessa was here and she had some lush Oasis citrus drink! Just perfect. I didn’t fancy the cake that she had brought along and I was offered a hot drink or food by my wife. I was happy to wait another 6 miles. I was also making the calculation about whether I would need my headtorch yet but figured that it would act as a motivation to get to the next crew point for me to pick it up there. I said I would change into long sleeves there and put my torch on, and have some warm food.
It was during this section I started to feel a bit tired. I was stumbling along at points. I whacked a caffeine bullet in and 15 minutes later all was good with the world and I was flying along with no issues at all! I managed to bust the zip on my racevest which is annoying since I had only had it for about a month! I had to shift my gear around to leave that pocket free.
Mile 66 – Dundas Arms Kintbury – 8:33pm (14:33 hours)
Soon I was with my crew – Susie and Lee this time. I was feeling pretty hot so I removed my t-shirt I was running in and stayed topless for 5 minutes before putting my long sleeve merino top on (albeit with sleeves rolled up). I stole some of Lee’s drink again!
Susie gave me her leftover chips while she made me some cheesy pasta using the chinese knockoff Jetboil that we got a few weeks ago. It worked well, but I was finding it hard to eat fast enough. Soon I was on my way again. Virtually kicked out by my crew . This next section I loved so much. I was enjoying running and it was quite an urban area so was making a change to have something different to look at. I put in a reasonable amount of running before this aid station and I was pleased to see my crew here.
CP5 – Mile 72.4 – Whitehouse Roving Bridge – 10:28pm (16:28 hours)
I was feeling happy and strong. I had been really fancying a milkshake here. So I asked for some milk. Lou went to the supermarket though Lee had managed to get some from the volunteers for my strawberry Nesquik. I felt good. I was smiling. Off I went.
This next few miles I don’t really remember many details. I was feeling pretty tired. I stumbled along frequently. Sometimes I jogged. I changed positions with a couple of runners on and off and I used a tonne of caffeine bullets. I saw my crew at Thatcham Bridge at 11:33pm (75.5 miles in 17:33 hours) and Aldermaston Wharf at 12:46am (80.4 hours in 18:46 hours). Maybe they will help me fill in the details!
I was close to the next checkpoint. I ran past the Cunning Man pub – and saw no signs of life….. Then i noticed from the maps that the CP was at a bridge – so under the bridge I went and then I saw the beautiful sight of the checkpoint. I had planned to have a brief sleep here. I knew I would have to – I was suffering from feeling really mentally exhausted.
CP6 – Mile 86.5 – Cunning Man Bridge – 2:47am (20:47 hours)
I saw Susie, Lee and Lou here. I gave instructions for a 10 minute sleep. I closed my eyes. But it was a noisy checkpoint and I couldn’t actually doze off. But even a rest was fine and I left fairly refreshed. I walked for the first half mile and then got running again. I got a bit confused with the directions though and got freaked out by being on apparently the wrong side of the canal. I retraced my steps and was still confused. I had to make a decision. I decided on balance I was probably right in the first place. But I must have added an extra mile. Anyway, the next section I would see Lou and Susie in Reading.
As it was getting lighter due to the lighting near Reading, my headtorch started dimming and then it ran out. Dammit! I couldn’t believe it. Hardly any warning at all. I grabbed my emergency headtorch (only 50 lumens though) and held that in my hand to illuminate my way ahead. I would have been screwed without it. I called Susie and told her I needed a replacement battery or torch. I also had to get some reassurance from Lou on the directions (she is a local and apparently as a teenager spent alot of time hanging around the canal in Reading!).
Mile 89.5 – The Oracle – Reading – 4:15am (22:25 hours)
Finally I ran through the Oracle Centre food court and I spotted Lou and Susie. A quick refill, head torch swap and Lou said it was due to rain in 20 minutes time. Great – i would get to try out my new La Sportiva Hail jacket. It was starting to get lighter but was still headtorch time because it was just street lighting and I would soon be in the countryside again.
There were a few groups of lads wandering around – I shouted a greeting at them – and they returned a greeting. I couldn’t say whether it was positive or not. I was beyond caring. I figured if they wanted to cause me any hassle I would outrun them anyway as I was feeling pretty good. Though they would probably catch me within 100 metres in reality.
I finally came to a section I knew from the TP100 (which has some of the route in common – though in reverse) – and ran past the Watersports centre. I was feeling blinking marvellous in contrast to every other time I have been there. I bumped into one of the organisers of the Round Reading Ultra. He pointed me in the right direction along the river Thames.
Soon after it started spitting and then the heavens opened. I dived under a tree (which wasn’t much help in sheltering me) and then I put my waterproof on. It felt great. I pushed on through the rain and even under the tree covered wooded sections it was still heavy. Finally I made it to my crew.
Mile – 94.3 – Sonning Bridge – 5:09am (23:09 hours)
I decided to have 20 minutes sleep here. I wanted to get some sleep while it was still dark and while it was pissing it down. I went in the back of Lee’s car and had a kip. I knew a sleep would help me and it would be time well spent. It was just after 5am. I had been moving for almost 23 hours. I woke up – pondered changing my shoes but decided not to.
I got back on the trail – started running well and soon overtook another runner. It had stopped raining and it was light now and I felt rejuvenated. I ran practically the whole way to the crew point in Shiplake (the instructions were confusing to me though and it was only because I ran TP100 that I could piece together the route). During this section my feet had blistered – i think due to the rain and the trail section I had just done.
Mile 97.5 – Shiplake – 6:28am (24:28 hours)
I had a brief stop with my crew and then got moving again. I had some prawn cocktail crisps and a LongHaul Chicken & Turmeric Pouch of food. I was feeling great! And the Turmeric chicken was bloody lush! Slightly spicy and was so welcome!
This next section went on forever. I remembered the route perfectly – it went through Henley but I was convinced at one point that I had missed the turning to the checkpoint. But both a local and my crew Lee said I was spot on track. After a bit of fast walking due to the bumpy ground and that the heat was rising – I finally made it to the CP7.
CP7 – Mile 102.8 – The Flower Pot – Aston – 8am (26 hours)
My mate Rich Cranswick was here manning the checkpoint. Great to see him. Always so cheery! I grabbed another LongHaul Turmeric Chicken from my crew and I I soon got a shift on. The sun was up. It was 26 hours in and I was slower than at GUCR. I wanted to beat my GUCR time but didn’t know if it would be possible. But 145 miles is a long way and I knew that I could put serious dents into my previous time by jogging when I could. So I did. I ran through a beautiful country estate with lots of sheep and cows. This is truly stunning. I remembered it from TP100 in 2017.
It was only around 5 miles to my next crew point but it took what was close to 2 hours. Which made me think that given the jogging I had done – it must have been a bit further! There was a diversion to deal with and I had to ask my crew for directions again. I was on the right route but I was having doubts. I soon made it to them but my feet were bloody killing me due to two blisters. One on each foot. OUCH!
A brief stop with them at Marlow – at 9:46am – and off I went again. The next point would be at Cookham in about 4 miles. My feet were hurting with every single step. I manned up and got jogging. The route was getting busy now with joggers and dog walkers. There were lots of steps and steep bridges to go over. ARGH!
It wasn’t long before I approached Cookham – and a toilet! I had been dying for a toilet for ages. While I was in the cubicle I noticed what looked like a spartathlon buff on the floor next to the toilet. I figured it was probably full of shit so I left it. There was no toilet paper but I had packed some in my bag for such an occasion. Top tip that! On leaving the loo, I saw my crew Lee – who directed me to the car.
Mile 112 – Mill Lane Cookham – 11:05am (29:05 hours)
Another milkshake but I couldn’t really take any other food. Didnt fancy anything much. I started off on my way and shortly I felt some rubbing in my compression shorts. Tooo late. My undercarriage was rubbing. The reason was the compression had gone in that area. This was a problem. I tried to arrange so it didn’t rub but I had to walk to the next point. I would have to get a change of shorts. I found the instructions a bit confusing through Maidenhead but I eventually found the Jubilee River.
CP8 – Marsh Lane Car Park – Mile 116.5 – 12:30pm (30:30 hours)
I was so pleased to see this checkpoint. What a great sight. I had to change my shorts. Used Lou’s Dryrobe while I did so because there was nowhere to change, and i slathered a load of sudocrem down my pants. That would sort everything out! I had a milkshake and some ginger beer. I also bumped into Ian who was on the aid station.
I soon got moving. I had around 6 miles to the next point. It was along the Jubilee River and it was bloody hot by now. At least I wasn’t experiencing pain down below – only in my feet. I jogged where I could and walked where I had to. Soon I felt raging hunger! I remembered I didn’t take any food with me! ARGH – that was due to the shorts issue. I found some cashew nuts that I had squirreled away and some sweets. I ate those and that helped abit. Soon I realised I had been walking along in a daze and then panicked that I had missed the turning into Slough. I checked with a cyclist who confirmed I was still ok and soon after I spotted my crew (turns out I was confused because I wasn’t expecting to see them at that point and there was some issue with the crew point postcode). Anyway, more milkshake and food and off I went again. The next bit would be where I would see Lou – around 5 miles on.
Mile 120 ish – So this was Slough!
My feet were hurting whether I jogged, or whether I walked. At least if I jogged, then I would be finished hours earlier. So the choice wasn’t hard for me this time. I had 25 miles to go until I could finally stop and have a proper sleep. That’s the thing that I really hanker for – not having to tell my crew to wake me up in 10 or 20 minutes during the race.
I jog / walked up a slight incline through slough town centre and eventually I turned right onto the slough arm of the Grand Union Canal. I was getting closer to the end, but still had almost 25 miles to go. The canal seemed to be slightly uphill – which is clearly ridiculous – but it felt good to run. I managed to overtake two runners who looked like they were suffering a bit – I chatted as I went by, but I couldn’t slow down – I found it too hard to get going again. I ran all the way until I met Lou at Iver.
Mile 125.8 – Iver – 3:03pm (33:03 hours)
She had a lovely Milkshake ready for me. Had a brief chat and off I went again. I was close to the penultimate checkpoint. I think I walked a bit of the rest of this section to the checkpoint so that I could make sure I was drinking my water and eating. It was a beautiful experience going under the M25 and then over the bridge onto the main Grand Union canal. I remembered this section from the GUCR in May.
CP9 – Mile 128.3 – Yiewsley – 4pm (34 hours)
Mile I finally came under a bridge and into the checkpoint 9 at 4.00pm. I spent ten minutes here – eating 2 calippos and getting ready for the last section. I wanted to run as much as I could – even if only a few minutes at a time – but as soon as I started I ran most of the way to the Bull’s Bridge turning. As I had left the checkpoint a chap had come in and I was determined he would not overtake me so that was extra motivation.
I must have run a solid 4 mile section – and I started feeling hungry. So I ate some sweets for a bit and then jogged on a bit This whole section from Bull’s Bridge is grim. It is usually the slowest section, some of the ground is uneven before it improves significantly before then end, and there is ALL OF THE LITTER AND DETRITUS! It’s like a local dumping ground for unwanted furniture and life.
Mile 136 – Greenford – 6:10pm (36:10 hours)
After what seemed like ages, I met up with my crew – Lee, Susie and a lovely surprise in the shape of Spencer Milbery! I had completely forgotten that he might come along to run the final 9 miles with me. I had done the whole race so far without a buddy runner and it had worked well for me this time now that I had learned so much from more experienced runners like Paul Pickford and Tracey Watson who buddy ran with me on GUCR.
It was great to see Spencer. My pace was slacking. I needed a bit of a change. I had a brief sit down in the pub car park, drank some more milkshake (strawberry) and a melted calippo. Off we went. I did a couple of decent sections of jogging – about half a mile at the start, and another mile or so a little later. I told Spencer I didn’t need to see anyone before the end. I just wanted to get this finished.
The rest of the time I was putting in a good walking pace. We chatted about races – Spencer was doing North Downs 100 shortly after, and training, and my race. It was nice to have some chat after what had been a quiet and well spread out race. We hit “Sainsbury’s Mountain” which is a horrendous “hill” and I goaded Spencer into running up it while I struggled up it. The route was getting more urban now, I was still moving along nicely. Sometimes putting in a jog, but mostly just moving as fast as I could while walking. Spencer made a joke about my next race being a “fun run” because it is only 130 miles rather than 145 miles of these two races I found that pretty funny.
Spencer asked me if I had a time goal. I said I just want to finish. To tell the truth I didn’t want to talk about the time. I thought I was doing well and faster than GUCR but it would have killed me to find at this point that I was slower. So I preferred not to know. That was my thinking anyway, but Spencer mentioned 38 hours something and I was blown out of the water. I couldn’t believe it! Could this be possible? Could I really be near the end and complete it faster than GUCR?
We came into Little Venice. I was dying for a wee….. I briefly thought about stopping at the toilet but carried on.
The finish line I knew was further on from here by perhaps a half mile. The towpath was crowded with people out for a night out – it was still early on. It was light. No headtorch – in contrast to my finish at GUCR.
We ran past some slightly tipsy girls who looked like they were on a hen party and finally came through a tunnel – almost running into Dick Kearn.
“HEY DICK!!!!!” I shouted. A few people turned round – no doubt thinking I was shouting abuse at them for being in the way.
Dick said hi and gave me the thumbs up. I saw the finish line gantry slightly hidden by trees and gave it a little jog in to the end.
I was finished! I couldn’t believe it. It was still light. I could have a proper sit down and not have to be rushed to get up again. I stopped. I gave a bow – i don’t know why… I just did it. I must have looked like a total tosser!
I tried to stop my GPS watch and because my brain wouldnt work and that it was new, I had no idea what I was doing. I finally paused it. 38 hours and 32 minutes. 20th position out of 33 finishers and 59 starters. More than 2 hours faster than GUCR which was only 7 weeks previous! And my watch battery still had battery left! RESULT!
Keith Godden was there to hang my medal around my neck. “Hey, Phil – come on…. This is what you are here for” he said. As he put the medal around my neck, my legs buckled and I shouted “FUCK!!!!! My fucking quads!!!!!!” Susie captured the moment perfectly
And of course the famous plastic results board. Green for the KACR. Yellow for GUCR
I wandered over to find a seat under the gazebo. One of the volunteers made me an amazing cup of coffee. My mate Lee put my hoody on for me and I wrapped up in a blanket to stay warm.
It was then that a random tipsy girl wandered up. Couldn’t believe we had run from Bristol and insisted on giving me a bottle of Rose wine to drink. I decided to save it to cool it down and drink the next day. Lovely gesture – but I found it hard to answer her questions because I was so exhausted!
Canalslam 2018 – 2 races down….. 1 to go. Proud moment. I am so grateful to my wife – Susie – and my friends Lee Kelly, Lou Fraser and Vanessa Armond who all crewed me during the race (and mostly getting no sleep!) and also Spencer Milbery for seeing me in by buddy running me for the last 9 miles or so.
Thanks to Mimi Anderson for coaching. Rockstar Sport for their support. Thanks to Keith, Dick and Wayne and all the canal race volunteers and crews for being amazing and putting on an awesome and so beautiful a race.
Strava link – https://www.strava.com/activities/1734729499
Written by Jamie Chaffey - https://mountaintrailrunning.com
The Jurassic Coast 100 follows the historic clifftop trails along England’s southwest coast.
I’m in the process of accumulating points to eventually enter the UTMB one year. The furthest I’ve ever run was last year’s 101km CCC so I figured that a non-mountain trail like the Jurassic Coast 100 might be an easier introduction to the 100 mile distance than some of the Alpine monsters on my doorstep.
Climb South West are a Devon-based organisation who deliver a range of rock climbing and mountaineering activities, but have recently branched out into hosting fully-supported ultra distance trail races including 50km and 100km races along the Jurassic Coast in South West England.
The Jurassic Coast trail covers some of Britain’s most scenic coastline – apparently.
2018 saw the first incarnation of the 100-mile event – taking in the whole of the Jurassic Coast Trail between Studland Beach near Poole, in Dorset, to Exmouth in Devon. The route would also include the 100km and 50km races which would start at later points and follow the same trail, from Chesil Beach and Lyme Regis respectively.
Although not particularly high (the highest point is around 150m), the route is like a row of hacksaw teeth with constant steep ups and downs as the paths trace the cliff edges of the coastal trail and the 100 mile route accumulates 5000m of vertical height gain. Still, that’s half the height gain of the UTMB so I figured this would be manageable within the 36 hour cut-off limit.
Amy and I had spent the week in the UK visiting friends, and luckily we have some good friends who live close to the start line in Poole which meant I could avoid an early start. Mark and Amy accompanied me down to Studland beach where I managed to avoid the rush and get registered quickly and efficiently. That just left some double-checking of kit and rampant abuse of the National Trust toilets before the pre-race briefing, after which we were off at 9am sharp.
Pre-race briefing at Studland Beach in Dorset
The start of the race on Studland Beach. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk
The weather was misty and cool, but this suited me fine as heat has always been my nemesis in ultra marathons. We left Studland beach and ran along the hardpacked sand where the sea meets the shore for a couple of kilometres before making our way up onto the coastal path. In theory the route was easy to follow. Keep the sea on your left and keep going for 100 miles and eventually we should end up in Exmouth. In reality there were many points in the early stages where the route deviated, or where it was easy to miss a turn – especially around the many seaside towns and villages, and at one point about 30km in, where myself and a few others carried on oblivious in the mist until two runners ahead came back towards us having checked with some hikers – we’d managed to add an extra 4-5 miles on top.
Still smiling despite the extra miles after getting lost. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk
Specatators along the route
On the first day the mist obscured a lot of the great views – Old Harry Rocks, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door. However it had the advantage of keeping the temperature down and meant that the running was fairly easy.
Only 63 runners signed up for the 100 miler but in the early stages we stayed bunched together and there was lots of chatting and camaraderie.
The trail was generally easy to follow but sometimes it was all too simple to take a diversion.
The view from the trail
The checkpoints were basic – water, Coke and homemade cakes with a few crisps. However the help and attention was second to none with volunteers falling over themselves to help fill your water bottles. Luckily, being half term in the UK, all of the seaside towns and villages were packed with visitors and full of shops and cafes selling fish and chips, crepes and snacks so it was easy to stock up on other food.
The first main checkpoint was basic but the homemade cakes were delicious.
I’d asked Amy not to join me at the 40 mile mark at Chesil Beach – I would have access to my drop bag and I didn’t want the problem of having to wait for her if the journey took a long time like I did last year at Champex. However she’d been overruled by our friends Mark and Christine who were keen to come out and visit, and it was a pleasant surprise to see their faces after a long day on the trail. I was still feeling fresh (or at least as fresh as you can be after 12 hours and 40 miles of trail) but the run in from Weymouth had been quite a monotonous drag and they were also a big help in getting me fed so I could concentrate on changing into dry clothes and tending to my feet. This was also the start of the 100km route and I’d arrived about an hour before that started so the place was buzzing with dozens of fresh runners.
Fed, watered and into a dry change of clothes I felt quite refreshed on the way out, although the road back towards Weymouth was pretty bleak and on my own it was a little depressing. However after 30 minutes or so I caught up with Dave, Nick and Mathieu who I’d ran with briefly earlier on in the race and settled in with them as we ran into the night.
As night fell, the first 100km runners gained on us and we stood by to let them speed through. The night dew was making the long grass really wet so we stopped to wring out our socks and try our best to keep our feet dry as we were only really just over the halfway point at this stage.
Mathieu mentioned that he was planning to sleep at the next checkpoint which we would get to at around 2am. However when we got there it turned out to be little more than a table of food in a car park with no shelter or anywhere soft to lay apart from the grass. He was ready to give up at that point and the organisers mentioned that he would have to wait for the broom wagon, which would take him to the next checkpoint at Lyme Regis, around 25km away. The rest of the group managed to convince him to keep running, at least until Lyme Regis where there would be hot food, and somewhere to sleep – so off we went.
Thankfully the hours of darkness at the beginning of June in England are pretty short, and by 4am it was starting to get light again which lifted our spirits, and eventually after around 22 hours and 120km of running we made it into Lyme Regis Rugby Club. There were already a few 100 mile runners ahead of us taking a quick sleep on the floor.
No sooner were we through the door and the volunteers were taking our water bottles to refill while we sat down, and fullfilling orders for tea and coffee. Out came the cook who asked how we wanted our chilli and potato wedges which were quickly brought out and despite my initial misgivings that it might not be the best food to have on an ultra, it did the trick.
Dave reminded us that what had once seemed like a generous 36 hour cutoff limit was getting closer and we weren’t moving hugely fast so it would be best not to hang around too long. Mathieu seemed happy to continue running and had given up on abandoning so we all quickly taped up our feet and got back on the trail.
After running through the night, the potato wedges and chilli, washed down with sweet strong tea at Lyme Regis Rugby Club were sublime.
As the sun rose on the Saturday morning it was shaping up to be a beautiful summer’s day.
The descent into Seaton golf club and another checkpoint.
Mathieu, Davem Nick and I had now been running as a tight group for the beset part of 12 hours so we’d pretty much made an unspoken pact to stick with each and see this through.
More checkpoints, more villages and towns as the day wore on. By now as we answered the common question of “Where have you run from?” to passing tourists, the answer of ‘Poole’, 80 or so miles to the east prompted more and more incredulous looks. We also got lots of enthusiastic encouragement not just from tourists, but from other runners on the 100km and 50km trails as they sailed past, and then noticed our red numbers and shuffling gait.
Somebody taking a breather with a view.
Amy texted me to say that Mark and Christine had insisted on coming to offer more encouragement along the way, and would meet me at the Sidmouth checkpoint some 18km before the end, rather than just seeing me at the finish. I was glad of the friendly face at this point because the lack of sleep and general fatigue meant that I was feeling dizzy and disoriented, and the balls of my feet were so sore that I was struggling to keep up with the others.
The peaks in this race aren’t high, but there are lots of them and they’re very steep.
After changing into clean socks, I told the others to go ahead and I would catch them up – it was more of a Captain Oates style way to say there’s no way I’ll see you guys again and I think we all knew it. Amy is quite used to seeing me in ultras now and literally force-fed me salty chips, and then popped out and got me a bottle of Coke and a chocolate milkshake to take out on the next section. She also ran with me on this one – not hard as I wasn’t moving fast. However she made sure I drank and ate regularly, and also badgered me into running the downhills, and just generally having some company meant that just after Budleigh Salterton, where she switched places with Mark as my pacer, we caught up with Dave, Nick and Matthieu.
Grinding out the last few KMs with Amy
I was having a new lease of life but Nick, who had knee trouble for the whole race was struggling on the downhills. However we all stuck together and after the long drag into Exmouth we finally made it over the finish line as a group, with 90 minutes to spare until the cutoff.
Crossing the line as a group after 24 hours together, and 34 hours non-stop running. Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk
Photo courtesy of www.NoLimitsPhotography.co.uk
Finisher’s buckles and very relieved faces
Relaxing the next day while waiting for a coffee and a bacon buttie.
As a first attempt at 100 miles I’m still buzzing from the experience of having made it through, especially when the clocked distance was closer to 110 miles. It was hard, and although I had some very negative patches, not once did I ever feel like giving up or that I couldn’t finish – it was really just a constant re-evaluation of how long it would take.
A large part of the success came down to the other competitors. Everyone along the route was really friendly, and then running with Nick, Dave and Mathieu for the final 24 hours we helped each other through – by encouragement, distraction, or just simply knowing to ignore each other when it was time to retreat into your own personal space.
Obviously my first goal was to complete the race and avoid a DNF. In the back of my mind, based on my CCC time I thought I might be able to complete in 28-30 hours so the 34 hours this took on first glance seems like a bit of a disappointment. However looking at the results, coming in (joint) 26th out of 59 starters the abandon rate seemed quite high, but I think that just underlines how deceptively tough the route was.
Written by Alastair Higgins
My journey to Spartathlon 2018 started in the summer of 2017. I was planning on taking part in the Belfast 24 Hour Open Race which coincided with the World Championships when I was diagnosed with Lyme Disease. A quick two week course of antibiotics was prescribed and fortunately this treatment came to an end the same weekend of the race. Forever the optimist I told myself that everything would be fine and it nearly was. The race went ok and I managed to clock up 130 miles despite lots of cramping which sidelined me for over two hours. Not quite a Spartathlon auto-qualifier but pretty close.
The next few months were far less satisfying. It turned out I had been prescribed the wrong antibiotics by my GP and the Lyme Disease came back with a vengeance. My energy levels dropped drastically and I had horrible headaches. Eventually I managed to skip the queue to see a specialist and I was given more antibiotics but told to take a few months off from running. Yeah right! I did take it a lot more easy and by the end of September I was given a tentative ‘all clear’ and training resumed as normal.
In my head at this point I was more determined than ever to make the most of my running. I told myself that from that day onwards I would be more focused and that I would try to get an auto-qualifier for Spartathlon 2018.
Fast forward to January 2018 and I toed the line at the Flitch Way 100k race in Essex. It was cold and damp and not at all glamorous but after 7hrs 55mins I eventually had my AQ and I was ecstatic. Sparta 2018 was on. Now it was time to really knuckle down and log some serious miles.
For the remainder of the year I ran consistently and frequently, averaging close to 100 miles per week. That was despite having more races than normal and having to include the odd taper and recovery week. I was feeling good about Sparta.
In June I was back in Belfast for the 24 Hour Irish Championships. This was my test run for Spartathlon where I was going to try out a few new nutritional and hydration methods. I also had hopes of getting on to the British 24 Hours Team. A late night gig with my band the night before meant I only got two hours sleep and the race was a bit of a disaster. It could have been the sleep, maybe the nutrition or maybe just a blip but I was puzzled and despondent. Back to the drawing board I suppose.
Leading up to Spartathlon I was able to include some race specific training. This included some treadmill sessions in a new facility called Altipeak, where the gym was heated to 35c and the 02 levels reduced to around 10-15%. I was confident that I was prepared for the inevitable hot temperatures in Greece! A final high volume week of 195 miles gave me an extra boost and then it was just a case of trying not to get injured and trying not to eat too much in the last 3 weeks before the race.
I arrived in Athens on the same flight as four of the other Irish based athletes. Anto, Thomas, Rex and Rolando. Two from the Irish team and two from the Filipino team. We were quietly confident that we could get a 5/5 finish success rate. Fingers crossed! But wait, what about the weather? Was it going to be hot like we’d been told a month or so before the race. Not at all. Instead we had cyclone Zorba which was shortly later classified as a category 1 hurricane, or rather ‘Medicane’. No worries, we’re used to wind, rain and colder temperatures. This could get interesting!
A few very enjoyable days spent in the company of the British Spartathlon team gave me a little more confidence. Chatting with veterans such as Ian Thomas, and Nathan Flear gave me some useful insights. I’d mentioned to Nathan that I planned on starting at about 6 mins/Km and Nathan suggested that I might have difficulty running that slow at that stage of the race! I’d read a few race reports and Eoin Keith’s blog had provided some in depth knowledge. Particularly about pacing this race and trying to save something for the final 80km. Eoin had set out at 6mins/km so I took that as a good yardstick, but do I ever stick to a race plan? Hmmm, mostly never.
So, at 7am on Friday 28th we were lined up at a chilly start line below the Acropolis. The time had finally come and I still couldn’t believe I was rubbing shoulders with so many elite runners from around the world. Let’s do this!
Without much of a fanfare we were off. I was relaxed and laid back about going over the start line. In my head the first 80km were merely a warm up so there was no hurry. The road out through Athens was not hugely inspiring. No ancient monuments. More like the city’s twilight zone with strip malls, concrete factories and car repair workshops. One highlight was a large industrial bakery with the most amazing smells of chocolate pastries being prepared for the coming day. I remarked to one of the US Team runners on the smell and he agreed that it was almost too good for this time in the morning. Other smells were less appealing as we went further down the road. Oil refineries, sewage plants and gas terminals harassed our nostrils and at those points I was starting to wonder what all the fuss was about with this race.
The predicted rain had begun not long after the start and this set the tone for the rest of the race. Although at this stage it was just a bit of drizzle that kept our body temperatures comfortable.
So what about that race plan? Well I was doing alright but I just felt too good. Part of my strategy was to race according to heart rate. I was pleased to see it staying at around 110-115bpm at a pace of between 5mins-5.30mins/km. A faster pace than I had planned but hardly reckless. I figured that my HR was pivotal and if at any point it was to go over 135bpm on the flat then I was definitely over cooking it. I had no idea of my position leading up to Corinth but I was probably somewhere between 50th and 100th- nothing really worth thinking about at this stage. Corinth came and went at around 93km and that was my first mental milestone ticked off. I felt good although the first niggles were hitting my legs. A tightness on my right knee was bothering me. I attributed this to some ITB pain that had worried me before the race. I also had a tight abductor on my left thigh which was probably connected to the ITB issue. Argghh, I could really do without this at such an early stage.
Different challenges lay ahead in the form of the first real hills. I’d prepared myself to get a bit more racy in this section of the race before the mountaintop. I didn’t so much ‘up the pace’, more keep it the same. I knew at this point there would be a lot of runners who had tried to bank time on the flat stages up to Corinth and some of them would start paying for it. Right enough I was able to catch and pass dozens of them. My plan of spending the least time possible at aid stations was also paying off meaning I was able to leapfrog a handful just by being efficient with my drinks and nutrition.
Shortly before 8pm the weather took another turn for the worse and the rain started to get very heavy. I was still in my t-shirt from the start and at this point I counted my blessings that I was 50 minutes ahead of schedule. The next checkpoint had one of my jackets for the race and it was only 500m away. A stroke of luck, but not my last.
The section through Nemea and the surrounding countryside was the making of my race. I’d enquired at around CP 36 of my position and was told I was in 41st place. What? That’s rubbish. Time to get a move on. The problem was that it was getting a bit more hilly. No sweat. Fortunately I seemed to be coping better than everyone else. I was getting cold, close to hyperthermic, and decided I had no option but to up my pace to stay warm. Another stroke of luck maybe?
The next time I checked my position I was 20-something and we were heading towards the tough 6km climb up to mountainbase. This could be my opportunity to make up a few more places if I could keep up the same form. I was still feeling strong despite my knee and groin niggles coming back, my energy levels were also good. Bring on the mountain!
A few more quick check point stops and I passed one of the top women runners wrapped in a blanket but still running. I asked how she was and she replied ‘very cold!’. To be honest I thought she was finished but it turned out she was eventual 2nd placed woman Katarina Kasparova. The following steep kilometres were surprisingly easy for me and I think I passed another four runners before reaching to mountain base. They were all walking and I was able to keep a slow run/fast jog all the way with one runner near the top asking despondently if I’d ran the whole ascent? Why yes, of course! I arrived at Mountainbase fresh but cold. Another stroke of luck, or maybe good planning was having a second jacket in my drop bag here. I’d been told by the Irish runners that I might need it for the section after the mountain. There was a freezing fog over the mountain and visibility was down to a few metres so it was a good call. I later found out that mountainbase was the point of no return for a lot of Spartans and hypothermia had become a big factor in these retirements.
That was my longest stop of the race but I was still careful not to hang around too much. Getting cold and risking my legs seizing up was a big concern. I eventually got going after less than 10 minutes and went straight up to the top of the mountain. I say straight because this final kilometre is very steep, off road and pretty hairy. That was fun, probably my highlight of the race because I still felt good! The summit (100 miles done) came at nearly bang on 16hrs, not too shabby but maybe a bit too racy considering there were another 53 miles to go. Still, I was optimistic.
By this point I was up to 16th and I had my sights set on top ten. It’s not unusual for you to start talking to yourself after 16 hours of running and I kept repeating the words ‘top ten!’ out loud and telling myself ‘you’ve done the training’, ‘push, push, push’. My eyes were also starting to play tricks on me. Probably not great timing considering the tricky descent coming down the mountain. In stark contrast to the final climb this was probably the most frustrating point of the race for me. The surface on the track was made up of rocks the size of large marbles and combined with the steepness it was just too tricky to run properly on. Fortunately it was over in a flash and I think I passed another runner coming down so I couldn’t have been doing that bad.
The next 20 miles or so were relatively flat over the plateau towards Tegea. ‘Top Ten’, ‘Top Ten’ was the mantra again and that was exactly were I ended up after a few hiccups. At one point my leg problems worsened and this coincided with my lowest energy levels of the race. For the only point in the entire 153 miles I was reduced to a walk. Time to reset and re-evaluate. There was no option of giving up but how could I get back on pace? I’d been walking about 100 metres when I went into an underpass and saw the welcome oasis of check point 55. Time to recharge with some soup, coke, crisps and whatever else I could get. This was my second longest stop of the race but still under ten minutes. I was happy to get going again and felt a bit more positive. However the reality of the hard slog ahead was starting to form in my mind. This was going to take a lot of effort just to get to the end. Nevermind maintaining a top ten place.
At Tegea Square I was surprised to find Nathan Flear with his wife Tori. Nathan had been struggling with calf and shin problems and wasn’t sure how to proceed. A quick discussion and he joined me for the next few kilometers. I knew he would be able to finish. He’s a tough cookie but I felt for him having to run through the pain. Kudos to him for toughing it out.
I was faster on the uphill sections so it was farewell to Nathan and time to set my sights on another place or two. Eighth place came relatively quickly and I was soon looking at the time ahead to seventh- around 25 minutes. However at that point I decided it was time to count my blessings and make sure I made the finish in good time.
The weather was becoming worse by the minute and it felt like the rain hadn’t stopped since 8pm the night before. Now it was approaching 4am and I had less than a marathon left to run. Just a wee marathon, no problem!
How wrong I was. That last section is made up of long climbs, short climbs and long descents. Overall it is downhill but to me it felt like it was all uphill! My legs were gone, and despite my energy levels being good and my heart rate being at the lowest bpm of the race I just wasn’t able to get the pace up. This was a real slog, miserable, wet, cold, sore and sleepy. Two runners passed me and one of them looked like he was sprinting! Oh well, back down to tenth. Hopefully I could maintain that.
‘Top Ten’, ‘Top Ten’. Somehow I managed to get through the final section of the race and as dawn broke I was making my way down towards Sparta. I couldn’t believe my eyes when I spotted ninth place runner Dan Valitalo from Sweden on one of the final hairpin bends before checkpoint 73. Just over 5km remaining. Before I could close the gap he spotted me and got a new lease of life, flying off into the distance like a rabbit being pursued by an old and arthritic fox!.
Those last 5km were the longest of my life. I’d been told the run into Sparta is amazing with great support from the locals and kids running with you in the final stretch to the finish line. Not in this weather they don’t. To be fair there were dozens of locals out to show their support on every street corner. Each shop doorway and cafe had a gathering of Spartans encouraging me on with shouts of ‘bravo, bravo!” but it was nothing like the videos I’d seen from previous years. I don’t blame them, the weather was getting worse by the minute and the roads were beginning to flood in places.
Finally I turned to the right onto the finishing straight and up in the distance I could see King Leonidas himself. I had a tv car and some photographers following my progress at this point. Embarrassingly my pace was terrible. In my head I was putting in the effort required for a sprint or a tempo run but in reality I looked very much like someone who had just ran 153 miles. I couldn’t believe it was coming to an end. Those final 20 miles required my biggest ever effort in an ultra race but it was all worth it. What a feeling to climb those steps up to the statue, to receive the best tasting water in the world and to get my olive wreath crown. I reached over to touch the king’s foot and gave it a kiss. This is Sparta and I’d made it in 26 hours 9 mins.
Hugely proud and amazed. I discovered that this made me the fourth fastest British runner of all time. Back home in Ireland it was also being claimed as a new Irish record but I had to point out that I was racing for the British team! I was very flattered by the amount of support that had gathered online and on social media during the race. For everyone who stayed up all night and for those who sent me congratulations messages I’d like to send my gratitude and love. Your support really means so much to me. A special message should also go to the British Team for making me feel so welcome. Big ups to Nathan, Tori, Ian Thomas and his crew, to Chris Mills for taking all the great photos in terrible conditions, and to Paul Rowlinson for capturing some excellent footage at the finish line. Thanks also to Paul Ali, James Ellis, Rob Pinington and everyone who put in so much effort towards the organisation of the team. To the team runners who tried so hard, hold your heads up high you all did amazingly well. To the ones who failed to finish and who encountered some really bad luck, I really feel for you. Take the experience and come back next year. You are all great runners and deserve another crack at it.
Finally to my partner and soulmate Sorcha who followed the tacker all night from home in Ireland- Thank you so much for your undying support through the good times and the failures. I am so lucky to have you by my side. Love you babe!
After the race I was whisked off to the medical tent for the usual check-up and to get my feet sorted. Ten minutes passed and cyclone Zorba came back to strike full-on. What I witnessed was some of the worst weather ever: hurricane force winds, driving rain and flash floods. To anyone who was still out there at this time I salute you. The conditions were unbelievable right up to the cutoff time of 7pm. If you ran through those final hours then I have nothing but respect for you. I can count those ten minutes in the medical tent as my final stroke of luck!
‘I shan’t wish you luck because if you have trained properly, you won’t need luck, and if you haven’t trained properly, then luck will be of no use.’
John Foden, Founder of the Spartathlon Race.
Written by Luke Latimer - https://jurarunner.com
I was expecting to find you hunched over your poles, headphones in, grinding through the dark miles with gritted teeth.
Are you sure you’ve just run 85 miles? I don’t think you’re supposed to be smiling.
This was my greeting from Olly as I came into the Southease checkpoint to find him tucking into the huge buffet laid out on the trestle tables. As is now usual I didn’t hang around and within 2 minutes we were hiking up the next steep ascent to pick up the now familiar rolling trails of the South Downs way.
I would have been smiling if I knew I was in Cocking
Apart from the blistering heat, and a recurring, searing, breathtaking pain in my left knee, it had been a nice and easy day. Plenty of friendly people to chat to, some cyclists to banter with (I kept overtaking the same ones on every uphill), and lots of well stocked aid stations to break up the miles.
It wasn’t as hot as it had been on the Thames Path, but there were still plenty of people falling by the vomit streaked wayside. There was less shade perhaps, the bulk of the route follows a high ridge without much tree cover. Also we weren’t far off the longest day of the year so the delicious cool of the night took an age to finally arrive.
Even then it wasn’t actually cold, apart from a brief chilly moment when I changed my vest for a t-shirt, and that was mostly because I’d been walking for a while as a concession to my complaining knee.
Just making it harder by keeping my eyes shut
I’d never had a pacer before, and this was Ollys first time pacing someone, so I think both of us were a little bit apprehensive about how it would work out. There was always work to fall back on; he recruits data scientists for a living, I am an aspiring one. So we could always bluff about how much statistics we knew and trade mutual acquaintance related gossip.
Thank goodness it didn’t come to that.
The nicest thing about having someone join me for the last 20 odd miles, was that I could pretty much turn my brain off and let them navigate and remind me to eat and drink. Also having someone to talk to was great. I might be a bit quiet at work sometimes (it’s called being focused, actually), but stick a pair of running shoes on me and I’ll talk the arse off a donkey (not that that’s a thing, but you get my point).
This was Ollys first proper night run too, so it was actually a proper adventure for him, not just an exercise in keeping me moving fast enough so he didn’t get too cold.
My knee pain was a mystery, it really had come out of nowhere and was ridiculously painful. Not the deep, sharp stabs of the red-hot needle of a stress fracture, nor the instantly disabling agony of a torn muscle.
I’d kept it under control for 15 hours with a mixture of friendly and understanding chatter and easy walking when it really made a fuss.
The talking aspect was bolstering my budding theory that one can strengthen the neural pathways involved in sorting out attention-seeking body parts without cadging drugs off strangers (how could I think that was a good idea?).
No, I reckon that by just thinking hard about the sore parts, and speaking to them out loud, you can encourage your brain to send whatever the rights things are needed to sort things out.
It certainly provides a form of distraction and can pass for a twisted sort of entertainment on very long runs.
Having a deep conversation with myself
I was patiently explaining this to Olly while we were on another pain induced walking break, when he just looked at me with his head tilted sideways (as anyone would look at a dusty simpleton, in a field, in the middle of the night) and interrupted with:
Mate, stop talking bollocks.
Your hamstring is tight, and it’s pulling that stretchy thing on the side of your leg, and that’s pulling some other thing which is making some knee bone-but-not-bone pieces rub together.
Which hurt like hell.
Stop and stretch, you’ll be fine, I promise you.
(It may have been more anatomically accurate, but that’s how I remember it).
No no no, I patiently admonished, you’re missing the point, it can’t be my hamstring, because…
Actually, he was right, of course he was right.
I might have found a way of dulling the pain to ignorable levels, but the cause was indeed my hamstring. I was too sleep deprived to be anything other than sheepishly grateful, and after a really long stretch at Alfriston (91 miles) we picked up the pace and flew along, banging out 11 minute miles to the finish line (they felt like 7 minute miles in my defence).
In terms of kit and food, I’m very happy with splashing out on a very fancy Salomon rucksack (“It’s not a bag, it’s a carrying solution”), which was really comfortable, could fit loads of food in the front pockets and after some initial fiddly faffing had easily refillable soft flasks.
Again, like the Thames Path 100, I didn’t eat very much, and again nothing from the aid stations apart from the hot food at the half way point. I’d rather carry more weight than risk eating what was on someones hands while they’d rummaged through the crisps, but then again I can be a bit OCD about that sort of thing.
I did get a bit bored of saucisson and flapjacks, so finding a bag of crunchy M&Ms in my final drop bag probably made my race.
Massive shout out to the Centurion crew for superb organisation, there were a lot of runners out on the trails, and keeping everyone safe and on course for (just under!) a hundred miles is a truly impressive achievement.
Written by Will Rivera - https://willrivera-ultra.tumblr.com
“Pushing your body past what you thought it was capable of is easy; the hard part is pushing yourself even further … past what your mind wants to let you. That’s what ultrarunning is all about; introducing you to a self you’ve never known.”
– Rex Pace
So here we are back in Greece for the 2018 Spartathlon!! It takes a very special place or race for me to come back but having completed this race last year and knowing that I left so much out on this iconic course (guided PR teammate Jason Romero) it was important for me to return, to really see how I would perform running at my full potential supported by the best crew I could have, my lovely wife Madeline.
Last year having the opportunity to represent my beautiful island of Puerto Rico, was very important to me especially after what had just happened with Hurricane Maria just weeks before. It made it even more special to dedicate my run to all of the people of Puerto Rico. This year I was once again honored and privileged to follow in the footsteps of Pheidippides from Athens to Sparta as part of the United States Spartathlon Team! Having served in the U.S. military this meant so much to me and I knew I had to be in the best shape of my life to represent well not only my country but all of those that have supported me along the way this year.
Training: Going into 2018, I knew I had to make a decision on which race would be my “A” race. I was on the fence between Tahoe 200 or going back to Greece for a second round. So typical of me I went ahead and put my name on the waiting list for Tahoe 200 since the race had sold out before applying for Spartathlon and not knowing I still had a auto-qualifier from my 2016 Badwater performance that is good for 2 years. Fast-forward a couple of months and here I was signed up for both Tahoe 200 and Spartathlon….could I have done both? probably, but with only 3 weeks to recover it was a “no brainer” I had to choose which race was more important to me. So I contacted Candice Burt RD of Tahoe 200 and she helped me defer my entry for 2019. (so I know now what my “A” race is for 2019). So all my focus this year was towards Sparta! I knew exactly what I needed to do to be ready. Last year my goal of sub 30 finish was sacrificed when at a last minute PR teammate Jason (legally blind) asked if I could guide him on his third attempt (DNF’d previous two years) since his official guide didn’t make it out of the Island due to the hurricane. It was a hard decision to make since I had trained so hard all year round for this race and I knew that running someone else’s pace/race/guiding would affect my personal goals/performance. Fast-forward recap; we ran together for over 112 miles, he got his first finish and I ran a strong last 40 miles to the finish with a time of 31 hours and 19 minutes.
So early every year for the past 4 years my entire focus has been on the Boston Marathon and little I knew with this year’s horrible wet, windy and cold conditions it would become perfect training conditions for this year’s Spartathlon (more on that later…) After Boston, my entire focus shift to Spartathlon, 3 key priorities were my focus on training; Volume, Strength (to run all the uphills) and a solid nutrition and hydration plan. I looked at the calendar at what races I needed to do as “Training Runs” that could simulate both the heat and type (point to point races). Lots of shorter Ultras/marathons were on my calendar this year; Lovin the Hills, Derby, Strolling Jim, Flying Pig, RUTS… just to name a few but my main two were War Hammer 100 (1st OA) and Burning River 100 (3rd OA). Both point to point ultras offering everything from heat and humidity with a nice mixture of trails and roads sections that served as excellent training races for Spartathlon. My nutrition for both was identical focusing more on a OFM (Fat Adaptive) approach using minimal calories keeping focus mainly on hydration and efficiency off the aid stations. Volume weekly miles from June to mid September (14 consecutive weeks) were an average of 100-120 miles. I knew that for my sub 28 goal this year I would need to be both ready for the heat and run ALL of the elevation (except for the grueling mountain climb) so I added lots of elevation training on the weekends to really simulate the late climbs at Spartathlon that begin after mile 80-90 mark right before the mountain base. Luckily this summer was of record high temperatures which helped on training to be ready for what a traditional Spartathlon race would be, hot and humid conditions.
Race Week: Compared to last year, our trip to Greece was much better. We did not have any delays but we did encounter baggage problems not arriving with us. Luckily the airline arrange to have all our luggage delivered to our hotel by the next day. Weather was perfect that week but looking at the forecast for race day it was looking like something was brewing off the Mediterranean with lots of rain, high winds expected for the weekend. Next day, Wednesday, I checked in early to ensure I’ll be able to relax and go sightseeing around near Athens before the race.
Thursday was the main day for everyone else to register and take part of safety briefings conducted in many different languages. The English briefing was scheduled for 5pm and our team decided to meet beforehand for team photo and to accommodate team member Dean Karnazes which had a very busy agenda with local interviews. He is like a rock star among all the runners and locals evident by how many want it to take photos and autograph his most recent book “Road to Sparta”. I was one of the 15 lucky runners representing the USA Spartathlon team and meeting all of them was awesome as everyone seemed so relaxed and confident about the race. There were a few veterans, rookies and some that had DNF before and were back for redemption including world class 24 HR runner Jon Olsen. Race morning came pretty quickly with a quick trip from our hotel to Athens for the scheduled 7am start. The energy at the base of the Acropolis start was electric with competitors from all around the world mingled and going through their pre-race routines. I then met with our team for a quick team photo and to wish everyone a great race. My plan was very simple, trust my training, run my race and to let the course and conditions dictate my pace. On a traditional day, Spartathlon is a hot race during the day with harsh fast cut-offs early forcing a runner to run smart and conservative early to be able to finish strong at the end.
Being that this year was going to be different with the much cooler temperatures, I made a decision to run by “Feel” using my heart rate sensor as the indicator keeping all my effort at Zone 3 (121-137 BPM). My Hydration and Nutrition plan were also very simple, one cocktail serving (8-10 ounces) of Ucan Protein mixed with Vespa and Right Stuff every 3 to 4 hours with UCAN bars in between. This approach was used for both Warhammer and Burning River allowing me to run to my full potential keeping me relaxed at an aerobic and metabolic state allowing my body to slowly burn fats for energy. Well, as the day went on I felt incredibly strong. Maddie was spot on meeting along the way at designated checkpoints keeping me fueled and hydrated according to game plan. I was so proud of her for being at CP’s on time and a huge boost to see her for moral support as well since I knew that was a concern for her.
Compared to last year I was cruising along making it to the following checkpoints in personal best times:
C/P# / Km / Mile / 2017 / 2018
C/P No 11: 42.2 / 26.22 / 4:04:34 / 3:28:46
C/P No 22: 81.0 / 50.33 / 8:03:39 / 6:48:34 (PR)
C/P No 28: 100.0 / 62.13 / 10:11:03 / 8:46:11 (PR)
C/P No 47: 159.5 / 99.10 / 18:34:02 / 15:58:08 (PR)
C/P No 60: 195.0 / 121.16 / 24:27:28 / 18:41:08 (PR)
C/P No 69: 227.0 / 141.05 / 28:57:48 / 24:56:59 (PR)
Even though I was moving faster that last year the weather was a the big elephant in the room this year with occasional rain and wind along the way early but I knew things would start to get worse through the night and the next day with Medicane Zorba (Mediterranean Cyclone) forecasted to be making landfall during the race. It wasn’t until the sun was settling after CP 35 (Mile 78) that things started to get nasty. To top it off, that’s when the early climbing of the race begins so I was mentally getting ready for the worst. U.S. teammate Jon Olsen soon gained on me on the climbs which to my surprise I didn’t know at that point I was the first American leading the race. It was great having Jon run together for many miles but eventually he was stronger on the climbs and saw him fade away right before CP 47 Mountain base. Last year the climb to mountain was brutal with high and cold winds taking Jason and I almost 3 hours up and over so we took no chances on dressing up warmer this time. Other than the rain the temperature were much warmer with the clouds over the mountain this year helping me make it up and over the mountain to CP 52 in 1 hr and 49 minutes. I felt pretty good knowing I just ran my fastest 100 mile split ever at sub 16 hours and to have survived the hardest part of the race healthy and feeling good was a great sign.
I still had a LONG ways to go and the weather was just now beginning to get wicked. Lot of the CP’s were flooded as rain was now coming down hard. I felt very lonely running and started to feel the lowest point of the race between CP’s 52 and 60 (Mile 107-121) which I typically tend to do late at night with sleep deprivation and the accumulation of been out on cold, windy rain for hours was taking a toll on my brain and body. I started to now use coca cola at CP’s to give me quick energy and the caffeine to help me wake-up. All I kept thinking was daylight will come and we are going to run strong to Sparta! Shortly after I started feeling alive again when I saw Jon Olsen coming out of a CP on the last climbs which are brutal right before CP 69 (Mile marker 141). I quickly checked on him as I past by him, high winds, rain and the effects of Zorba were now been felt but I was still riding the wave of feeling great off my low just a few hours later and I want it to take full advantage of it. All I could think off was Boston Marathon conditions this year and what a great preparation training run that was for this race. I picked up a few positions along this stretch making up what I had lost before and was very much looking forward to the last descent down to Sparta. I kept fueling mainly on coke for the last part of the race as it kept me moving strong. Once I made it to the bottom of the long and grueling downhill (6-8 mile downhill) the CP confirmed I only had a 5K to go to Sparta. The problem was the streets were now flooded, I had water at times to halfway to my calves. So running was now difficult but I knew the Statue was just ahead and I could see runners ahead. I picked up a few more positions to include the first place female Hungarian runner that I had met earlier in the race when she flew by me on a descent.
Taking the last right turn to King Leonidas was the moment I had dreamed most for the entire race and here making the last turn when suddenly I looked to my right and I see U.S. teammate Bob Hearns also making the right turn and blowing pass me!!!! I was in shock first but then so happy to see another American at this point of the race! Before that I had only shared many miles with Jon but knew that Bob would be making his usual Spartathlon assault as he has done his previous two finishes. I quickly caught up to him and told him he was looking great, he quickly replied he wanted to achieve a sub 27 and that we were very close. I told him lets run it together!!! From that point we only had a half mile or so to go and I was running strong thinking Bob was right next to me the entire time. When I made it to the steps right before the statue I looked back and Bob was a block back, he had fallen back since he had pushed so hard on his final assault that simply didn’t have anything left on his legs.
This year’s finish didn’t have the glorious atmosphere I had last year with hundreds of supporters, locals and kids screaming following me on bikes down the stretch to the finish. Instead it was empty flooded streets, with heavy rain coming down and with no announcer calling your name repeated times. At the end I was once again touching King Leonidas feet four hours faster that I had done last year at 27:02:02 (31:19:49 last year). I was honored to be the first American to finish placing 15th Overall on a very deep international field with Bob Hearns only 41 seconds behind me. What an incredible performance!
This run would not had been possible to achieve without the incredible support of my Madeline driving all over Greece meeting me at every checkpoint keeping me fed, hydrated, dry and warm making this finish more special than any other race I’ve ever done in my life! Love you baby!!!
Thank you to all the U.S. runners and their families and crews! You all made it a fantastic experience and I was proud to be part of the U.S. Spartathlon Team. I have made some friends for life and I hope to see you all at some races in the future.
Finally a massive thank you to all of those who sent positive messages, comments and supported before leaving home and social media both for the race and my birthday. All of your positive vibes and motivation kept me going strong all through the 27 hours of this race! Thanks and much love to all of you!
Congrats to all finishers and everyone that made it to the start line. We are all winners for taking part of this iconic ultra race. I feel truly privileged and honored to have participated and I am profoundly grateful to everyone involved in staging and organizing what is without doubt the greatest and most historic ultra race in the world!
Photo credits: Sparta Photography Club
Strava link (128 miles before battery died)
Average pace 10:36 per mile (7:32 fastest pace), Average HR 125 BPM with 82% at Zone 2/3, overall average cadence at 166 (182 running)
With Auto-Qualifier hope to be back for a third round in 2020.
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