Monday 26 November 2012

Piece of String Fun Run - November 2012

Piece of String

This weekend I took part in the inaugural Piece of String Fun Run (billed as the "world's most pointless race"), a novel idea for a race from the fevered mind of James Adams and co-organised by James Elson of Centurion Running to run in parallel with the Winter 100. The main concept for this race is that when it starts, none of the runners actually know how far they will be running. The race organisers devised 5 routes of different lengths, ranging anywhere from 100 meters to 1,000 miles, and one would be picked at the start of the race. 

To enter, runners were asked to send in photos of themselves looking as miserable as possible, and the organisers picked the 16 most horrific looking. Whilst I don't have any photos of me looking miserable (at least not running-related photos), I had recently performed a toe-nail-ectomy with a pair of pliers (as you do) and documented the process. If you particularly want to see it, just scroll right down to the bottom of the post - my feet have never been my sexiest feature! The starting list is an amazing "who's who" of ultra-endurance athletes, with world record holders, deca Ironman triathletes, cross channel swimmers (there and back again), and... me. James did say that there was one "sacrifical lamb" in the list - I suspect that I know who that was!

The race route was devised in such a way that we would be given a section to run, head off and run it, then either be given the next section or else be congratulated for finishing. The race itself is held in Streatley at the intersection of the Ridgeway and Thames Path National trails, with access to several other nearby trails including the Chiltern Valley Way. This gives plenty of scope for keeping these loops interesting and varied.

Peace of Mind

The main idea here then is psychological. The only information that we had been given was to be in Streatley at "midnight on Saturday"*. We had no idea what kit we would need, whether we would need provisions, or even whether we need the next week/month/year off of work! And then when we actually start running, how do we pace ourselves? Do we set out fast just in case the distance is short, but risk burning out? Or do we pace for a 100 miler and end up with the slowest 5 km time in history?

Every piece of running kit I own - just in case!
My approach leading up to the race was quite simple; just don't think about it! I figured that mind games don't work if you don't over-think things. So I went into the race with the expectation of running a really, really long way, aiming to run at whatever pace felt comfortable. I didn't use my Garmin, aiming instead to run on feel alone. And I had about 60 hours worth of audio books to keep me entertained - my brain is not a place I want to be for a long period of time with nothing to distract it! In  terms of kit, I had no idea what I would need, so I ended up just taking everything I own to be on the safe side. As it turns out this was not much in comparison to a lot of other runners!

Since we would be starting at 00:01 on Saturday morning, I had originally planned on taking Friday off to spend the day sleeping. Unfortunately I ended up having to go in for a meeting, so instead was up at 6am - 18 hours before we would even make a start. Bugger. I turned up at Streatley and met up with Mimi Anderson and Alex Flynn, two other amazing runners who had signed up for this amazing/stupid race. Alex is an amazing guy who has been diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, and currently works incredibly hard to raise money for research by taking part in endurance events around the world building towards running 10 million meters. He is running in Shanghai in a week, so had decided to pull out of the Piece of String race to make sure that he was fresh.

Mimi and I headed off to the Morrell Rooms, which would be the base of operations for the weekend. We just caught everybody heading out for a curry, and managed to get into the hall to start our prep. I noticed that James had his über secret case containing the race information with him at all times - I'm surprised that he didn't have it handcuffed to his arm!

People gradually started to arrive and we all got ourselves set to go, whilst still not really knowing what we letting ourselves in for. There had been a few people who had pulled out of the race, and in the end there were 10 runners taking part in the first Piece of String race. We wouldn't need drop bags as we would be frequently returning to the main hall, so that kept things simple. The weather had been pretty terrible all week and so the Thames was looking pretty scary and had burst its banks in several locations. Coupled with the fact that even worse weather was expected all day and night on Saturday, the race organisers were desperately adjusting the race routes to limit the time spent along the river for both the Piece of String and Winter 100 races. This caused a few issues, limiting the sections that could safely be run without fear of a runner collapsing into the rushing waters in the middle of the night. 

Not all of this is river... 
As the start time of 00:01 approached, we had our race briefing (basically consisting of "please don't die out there") and were assigned our fate. As the only person to send in their photo late, I was given the "honour" of condemning my fellow runners. I had the choice of 5 envelopes; one with a ball of string, one with a g-string, one with a sciencey string-theory image, and two other string related images that I can't remember. I got a little Derren Brown about this, wondering if they would have put the worst one into the envelope most likely to catch my eye, so avoided the g-string and went for the sciency one. Of course, knowing my geekiness they could have been banking on this... James Elson's little smirk as he opened it didn't do much for my confidence. 

With a sudden lack of fanfare, we were told to "get going" and headed out into the night along the ridgeway until we found the checkpoint, where we would be given our next instructions. My one and only game plan at this point was to be the first into the first checkpoint, just in case that would be the end of it! I found myself running with Wouter Hamelinck who I had run with previously at the SDW100. We were also caught up by Peter Cusick and kept up a good pace together. I had cheated slightly and had the Winter 100 route on my Garmin which made navigation a bit easier for this section, and I was able to stop Peter and Wouter from missing a pretty abrupt turning. Although after this I dumped the watch and stuck to using the map. 

After crossing under the A34, we saw the lights of a car up ahead. A slightly cheeky little sprint meant that I just made it there first - but this was not the end. Not by a long shot! I quickly topped up my water  and said "hi" to Jennifer Bradley, and we turned around to retread our steps back to Streatley. Wouter and Peter were looking really strong and pushed on, but I decided to hold back a bit now that I knew that we could potentially be in for a long haul. Racing this type of event is odd because on the one hand if you want to win, your only option is to always be in front. But there's no point in being in the lead if you don't finish. It's a toughie. From here on in, I was on my own.

Ready and raring to go! Photo courtesy of James Adams.
Our next section was a nice pleasant run around the Chiltern Valley Way, incorporating a few little hills, some woods, and some trails. The wooded sections were pretty difficult to follow at night, as the "path" was more a case of following the bit straight through the woods with slightly fewer trees. Arrows painted on the trees helped to keep us on track, but it was still easy to lose your bearings in the pitch black. At one point I found myself following what appeared to be the path, but abruptly ended in a clearing with signs of delinquent youths. I could just about make out the road, so simply set my compass to make sure I was going in the right direction, ploughed straight through, then followed the road around to get back on track. As it happens, I was only off by a small amount, so must have just made a small mistake. 

As it turned out, our next task was to run the same section again, so I would have an opportunity to correct my mistake. Well, you would think so anyway. But I actually ended up cocking things up and ended up out on a different road than the one I was expecting. A little backtracking soon sorted the problem. 

I returned to find out that quite a few people had already pulled out. Lee Chamberlain had unfortunately suffered some stomach issues early in the race, and a few others I believe were pushing the cutoff points. People were starting to arrive for the Winter 100 and it was great to catch up with a few friends like Jo Kilkenny, Mark Cockbain, Drew Sheffield, and Allan Rumbles who was out to be one of the first to complete the Centurion Running Grand Slam. The buckle you win for doing that is pretty damn immense, and I'm intrigued to know if it is actually usable on a belt. They would make fantastic plates though.

Next we ran a section incorporating both the Thames Tow path and the eastern side of the Ridgeway. Despite a diversion to avoid the worst of the flooding, there were several sections where getting through involved wading knee deep through the Thames. Wouter and I just ploughed straight through, but some of the other runners chose to find diversions and run whatever sections they were able to. It was around this sort of time that the weather that we had been warned about started. It wasn't too bad, just a little drizzle. But it was only set to get worse as the day progressed. Still, for a race called the "Winter 100" I can't help but think that this is the perfect weather! On the return leg, I caught up with Peter who had injured himself a few weeks earlier and was now having problems getting moving. After checking that he was okay and didn't need anything, I continued back towards Streatley. I was surprised to find that Mimi, Mick Barnes and Chris Ette had gotten in before me, having chosen to not risk being dragged out to sea in the raging flood waters of the Thames. 

Our next little jaunt followed the start of the Chilton Valley Way, before diverting off north east onto the eastern section of the Ridgeway again. This section was good fun, and involved some surprisingly tough hills. Navigation outside of the woods was going well, and I was plodding along quite nicely. I had started the day already feeling quite tired, and felt like I was coming down with a cold. Not a great start to what could end up being the longest distance I have ever run. But so far things were going well. My legs felt great, and whilst my chest ached it did not feel any worse than it had when I started. The Winter 100 was in full swing and as I approached the checkpoint at Wallington I passed Jo. She was looking good, but was having trouble with her knee so was thinking of pulling out if it didn't get any better. I arrived at the aid station to find Ryan Brown (winner of the SDW100) in full Santa Clause regalia. After a quick chat I headed back out for the return leg. As I later found out, we were supposed to have been sent on a different route for the return leg, taking a more direct route along the Thames path. However neither Wouter nor I were told this so ended up doing the full reverse section. Doh!

Winter 100 finishers' buckles (left and middle) and Grand Slam buckles (right). For scale; the normal buckles are bloody huge!

Piece of sh*t

I'm pretty sure that there was another section but I don't remember what it was... In any case, by this point it was starting to get dark and the lack of sleep was starting to catch up to me. I decided to sacrifice a little bit of time and went and laid down for half an hour to recharge. I was also soaking so decided to change my clothes to a fresh set. It's amazing the difference this made, and when I left for the next section I was feeling really positive again. Unfortunately, this section was bloody tough, for several reasons. Firstly, since it didn't follow a particular named path, it was easy to take the wrong footpath and end up off course. Secondly, we were back to running through the woods in the dark, and this time for large periods of time. And finally, the weather was particularly horrendous by this point, turning most of the forest routes into an unrunnable bog. Between having to check and recheck my navigation (using a "waterproof" map case which proved to be anything but), and being constantly stopped dead in my tracks by the sludgy mud, running was almost impossible. This in turn led to me getting colder and colder, and hence more and more miserable. I was not having fun. 

When I came into Nuney Wood, I was finding it difficult to work out my precise location. I had my iPhone with me, so used the Maps app to try and pinpoint my location. Unfortunately, the app does not automatically orientate itself to North as I expected, as I found out after running in the wrong direction trying to find the path that I should have been on. By this point I was cold, tired, pissed off, wet, and generally not having fun. Annoyingly my legs were really not tired at all - I just felt like I couldn't use them. I phoned James Adams to let him know that I was having issues and was thinking of pulling out, and he told me that Mimi, Mick and Chris had gotten off course and so this section was going to be a bit of a write off. He said that if I wanted to carry on, I could head back along the roads. Two of the aid station crew, Jany and Matt, were kind enough to drive along with me to make sure that I wasn't taken out by a car along the way. 

Once I got going I started to feel good again. I was still wet and tired, but I was able to move and keep my body temperature up. In fact, I was moving way better than someone who had just run over 80 miles had any right to, with a nice fast pace that got me back into Streatley in no time. There was only one small moment where I very nearly fell asleep on my feet, but luckily the oncoming traffic woke me up...

Piece of cake

I arrived back into Streatley, walked back into the Morrell Rooms, and saw Wouter sitting there with his shoes off. This was it! I had made it to the end. And not a moment too soon as the lack of sleep was really taking its toll and I wasn't sure that I could go on for another loop. 

Yeah right! 

As if it would be that easy. Wouter was just taking a breather before heading back out again back along the Ridgeway. I decided to have some soup and try and psych myself back up again to get back out there, and saw Jo had decided to pull out to avoid damaging her leg further. It was a shame for her, but no doubt she will come back stronger for it. She's aiming to take on the Viking Way again next year and give it a right good pillaging! She saw me fall asleep and nearly fall off my chair, and gave me a good kick up the arse to get moving.

So off I went, back along the Ridgeway, with a disturbing sense of dejá vu having run this exact route more than 24 hours ago. But now the weather was much worse. I have never encountered winds as strong as those that had built up around the Ridgeway, and found later that it had resulted in a few missing gazebos throughout the day (I like the idea of the gazebos running free along the plains...). Annoyingly it was well and truly a head wind, making running into it very tough going. It was also very rainy, but as long as I could keep moving and avoid cooling down it was fine. Unfortunately, between the wind and the churned up bog that had resulted from runners going backwards and forwards along the route, and my increasing inability to ignore the fact that I had not slept in 48 hours, I was finding it difficult to do anything more than something of a zombie shuffle towards the next checkpoint. One problem with being able to see the checkpoint from a distance is that you never feel like you're getting any closer to it! As I approached the checkpoint I passed Wouter, who was still going at a hell of a pace and heading back towards Streatley. Obviously this wouldn't be the final section then.

I arrived at the mini checkpoint to find Luke Carmichael and Paul Rushden waiting for me. I noticed that I had stupidly left my water bottle back at the Morrell Rooms, so Paul very kindly leant me one of his own. My next task was to run a little 10 km loop down through the village of Compton to make up for the discrepancy in mine and Wouter's distances. But before I did, I had to rest briefly, and was kindly accommodated in the car for another quick half hour break. Once again, this had a huge benefit, and I set off down the hill at quite a lick (although this was mostly because it was bloody freezing otherwise). Whilst only a small village, finding my way along the exact footpaths was difficult with the scale of the map, but I just made my way out to the outskirts and went from there. I came back to Luke and Paul expecting to be told to make my way back to Streatley, but instead was told to continue along the Ridgeway for 2 miles to the next checkpoint. Okay then, I obviously need to do 2 miles and then head back to Streatley. As I ran under the A34 again, and saw the lights in the distance (more than 2 miles away I might add!), I again had that weird dejá vu feeling. Running towards the checkpoint was tough going, as the wind and slight incline made it feel as if I was getting nowhere!

The wind was so loud that I couldn't hear a thing, and with all of the headtorches I couldn't see anything either. I ran right up to the van to get out of the wind and was finally able to take in my surroundings. James Adams was there.

"I guess you know what this means, don't you?"

Actually no! Since I had started falling asleep on my feet, I had arrived into every checkpoint hoping it was the end. But this was the one checkpoint where I knew it wasn't (having seen Wouter earlier). Shows what I know.

Yes indeed, after over 30 hours of running, I had survived the inaugural Piece of String Fun Run. In fact, of the 10 runners who started, only Wouter and I hung on till the bitter end. A lot of people have called this race the "Barkley" of the UK (and the low completion rate might add to that comparison), but this isn't really fair. Firstly, despite the effects of the rain, the Piece of String race is run over what, in Barkley terms at least, are several orders of magnitude easier than candyass trails. And secondly, whilst Laz (the race director at Barkley) actively wants people to fail against the course, James genuinely wanted everybody to finish. It must have been really difficult to remain silent about the length, either when trying to convince someone in pain to carry on (whilst knowing there were another 200 miles to go), or when pulling somebody out (knowing that there are only 2 more miles until they are finished). 

But realistically, that's the game. The main thing that kept me going no matter how I felt is the knowledge that, if I pulled out only to find there were only 5 miles to go, I would be really pissed off. More to the point, my wife Jen would be pissed off because I wouldn't be able to shut up about it!

Surprised to find James at the end! It's probably best that you can't see me at this stage. Photo courtesy of Jany

Piece of piss?

So what did I do right and what did I do wrong? 

First the right stuff. Well I guess the most important thing is that I ran until I was told to stop. That's somewhat important. All the way leading up to the race, I think that I had the right mental attitude; just run! I wasn't thinking about times or distances, and was planning on it being stupidly long so that if it was short it would be a nice surprise. I think that this is probably the most important mental aspect. Also, the weekend before I had held off on my usual competitive nature and pulled out of the Likeys Brecon Beacons ultra after the first lap to make sure I came into the Piece of String nice and fresh. Finally, it helps having people who can give you that swift kick up the arse that you need if you start moaning.

But it certainly wasn't my best race ever. Wouter stonked through like the running machine that he is, but there were times when I was hanging on by my finger nails. Whilst James has decided to not publish times and positions, merely saying that there were 2 finishers, I can safely say that Wouter won! I started the race with a lack of sleep which proved to be my major downfall, and annoyingly I have also been coming down with a cold for the past few days. If you had asked me how I felt about the race a week ago I would have said that I felt great. If you had asked me on Friday, I was worried. In that regard I am glad that I managed to push through the bitter end despite this, but I would prefer to have started feeling fresh. After about 60 miles, I started hoping that each loop was the last one.

And this is not the way to run this race. If you start thinking about the finish, you might never get there. Get comfortable and run until somebody says stop. In some regards I might even say that this is the most pure form of race. No pacing strategies. No timings. No GPS. Just running to the best of your abilities for as long as you can.

All things considered I had a lot of fun. I got through an entire volume of Stephen King's Dark Tower series, got to run through some nice trails in a different part of the country, got to meet some great people, and got to take part in and complete a race that is the first of its kind. I feel a lot better today than I have any right to. I've still only slept for about 4 hours in the last 74, yet don't feel particularly tired. My legs are a little stiff, but only as bad as they feel after my usual 30 miler. And I have one small blister to show for my troubles. But hey, you'll get no complaints from me!  Would I do it again? Yes, of course! The weather couldn't be crappier, and barring some kind of injury I don't think I could start off feeling any worse. Plus, there should be some great pictures of me looking miserable now for next year's application!

So how long is a piece of string? That's going to remain a secret I'm afraid, but needless to say that this year it was a really, really long way. Next year? Who can say! You'll just have to enter and find out.

And finally...

It was a shame that I didn't get a chance to see more of the Winter 100, but it seemed like it was going well despite the tough weather. There was certainly a large dropout rate which was unfortunate, with only 32 finishers out of about 100 starters. The men's race was won by Richie Cunningham in 17:14:10 (walking away with one of the spanky new Centurion Running trophies - I want one!), with Nick Weston coming in second in 18:01:17 and Martin Bacon taking third in 19:04:39. The ladies race was won by Jean Beaumont in 20:23:46, with Wendy Shaw in second with 22:58:25, and Nichola Newton in third with 27:40:00. Congratulations to everybody that raced this weekend - I hope that you're nice and dry now. And a huge thank you to James and James for organising the event, and to everybody that volunteered their time to make the event so awesome!


* This in itself was a psychological minefield - is "midnight Saturday" the midnight between Friday and Saturday, or between Saturday and Sunday? This is another example of the Gremlins paradox - when the hell can you feed a mogwai?!

The picture that I sent in to enter this mad race! I lost my nail years ago through doing Tae Kwon Do, and this monstrosity grew back in its place. I finally got sick of it and yanked it off!


  1. Awesome - very well done to you and everyone that ran in spectacularly grim conditions. Inspirational stuff.

  2. Brilliant report, Sam, and congrats on the completion. You and Wouter have earned a place in history.

  3. Great report Sam, in all honesty I am amazed that you are even awake to have written a report so soon after the event. It sounds like a truely awesome event - Inspirational! :-)


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