Wednesday, 8 July 2015

South Downs Way Race Report 2015

Eurgh. Okay, I wasn't really planning on writing anything about this race, but decided to use this post to get my thoughts in order and to record it for posterity. This blog is predominantly for me to look back on after all, and I don't want to introduce a publication bias in my own work! I'll try and keep it short, but I think that we all know that ain't going to happen!

The South Downs Way 100 was the first 100 miler that I ever ran, doing it way back in the heady days of 2011 before it became a Centurion Running event, and was run in the opposite direction. It was a bit longer back then (about 107 miles I think), and started up Beachy Head and along the Seven Sisters (which was a bit of a shock given my lack of hill experience). I did pretty well, and in particular I pushed right the way through despite feeling like crap, and despite having a dodgy knee from about 80 miles in. For about 10 miles over night, limping along, being taken the wrong way by my Dad who met me to pace me, I felt like there was no way that I could I finish. But I pushed on - "one leg in front of the other", "run if you can, walk if you have to, crawl if you must". Pick your cliché. The point was that I bloody wanted it. I was hungry to feel what it would be like to push through the barrier and do something that many others couldn't (or wouldn't). And do you know what? As the sun came up, as I got back into the rhythm, and as I smelled the finish line for the first time (I think the drains had gone...), I suddenly found that I could run after all. In fact, the last 5 miles went bloody well. "It never always gets worse", and as anyone that has done these kinds of races before knows, if you just keep making relentless forward progress you'll likely get a second (or third, or fourth, or fiftieth) wind and suddenly feel great again.

I mean bloody hell, that's the name of this blog!

Anyway, skip forward a year and I was having another crack at the SDW, this time in the other direction under the direction of James Elson from Centurion Running. It went well and I managed to pull off a second place finish. I've never really considered myself to be good at sports, but I seemed to be doing okay at running. I have no allusions to greatness, and get a little self-conscious when people talk about being at the "sharp end" of the field. But on a good day, I should be able to run a good race, and I'm convinced that I can get a sub 16 hour 100 miler. That's the goal one day, along with a sub 3 hour marathon.

The last few years have been a bit difficult for training, with fatherhood pushing running back in my priority list. In addition, a severe lack of sleep had a knock on effect to my ability (and willingness) to wake up early and knock out the long runs that I was doing regularly a few years ago. But I developed a pretty good routine, made possible by the fact that most of my training was integrated with commuting to and from work. A few injuries along the way didn't help matters either. I know it looks as if I'm always injured, but I'm honestly not. It's just that the couple of injuries I've had were badly timed with races, and because my legs are my main source of travel I have to be very careful that I can still run and cycle to and from work on a day to day basis. 99% of the non-racing year, I'm running fine.

But this does have the effect that I'm a bit more selective about which races I'm willing to risk serious repercussions for. I dropped out of the Spine Challenger about 10 miles from the finish as I went over on my ankle. I could have hobbled on to the finish, but I risked turning a niggle into a serious issue. I was happy with what I had got out of the race up to that point - I wanted an adventure, and believe me I had one. I started both the South Downs and North Downs Way 100 mile races with a dodgy knee that was getting better, but both times I stopped as soon as I felt a problem. I was rehabbing, and it was getting better - just not 100 miles better. I skipped out on two Piece of String finishes - once due to slowing considerably from the same knee injury (annoyingly close to the end, but of course I couldn't know that), and once due to poor planning on my part that meant I had to leave on the last train of the first day (which, given that I would have finished in the evening, was a bit annoying).

I know I got a lot of comments from people about the DNFs I was racking up, but I really couldn't give a shit. I'm not a "death before DNF" kind of person. There are more important things in life. Plus I didn't regret any of these. I still don't. They annoy me, sure, but I wouldn't change my decision. On the other hand, I have certainly fought and won some battles out there. I ground out a pretty messy finish at the GUCR last year, going from running really nicely for the first 100 miles to having my broken carcass dragged, half asleep, into Little Venice by my crew. My normal reaction when it gets that bad would be that it's not worth it, but this time I wanted the finish. I wanted to remind myself that if I wanted to I could fight through adversary and come through against the odds, particularly as I had the Spartathlon coming up which was my main focus for the year. I was worried about a twisted ankle just before Sparta, but I pushed through some tough times to make the finish. In that race, the finish was most definitely what I wanted. I had the fire in my heart to kiss the feet of Leonidas whatever happened. Mainly because I was missing my wedding anniversary for it, and my wife had told me that I had better bloody finish... It wasn't pretty, but I bloody did it and making my way towards that statue will remain one of my fondest memories from my years of running.

Anyway, this year I was determined to get some good racing in. My daughter had finally started sleeping (it only took 2 years...), and I felt like I could get back into a good routine of training. I was slightly railroaded on the training front by buying a new house, thus spending most of my evenings and free time on various DIY projects, and getting a new dog resulting in a 5am wake up call every morning for a run. Still, a few extra miles each day couldn't hurt. So whilst I was not quite in the position I had originally hoped (training-wise that is - our new house is lovely!), things were improving and I was starting to feel a bit happier about my fitness.

I decided to focus this year on 100 milers as I wanted to see if I could run a good time and get a PB that I was happy with. So instead of arranging any adventures away in the mountains as I had in previous years, I kept closer to home and entered the Centurion Running Grand Slam of 100 milers. Statistically, one of them had to go well for me, surely?! Unfortunately I kind of fell at the first hurdle, pulling out of the Thames Path after only 50 miles due to a stomach bug that had hit me right before the race. The race started well, but ended rather... unpleasantly. I tried to grind it out, but after not eating or drinking for most of the day I called it a day. And boom, I was a failure right off the bat, with the Grand Slam over before it had even begun.

Right. That's quite a lot of preamble to a race report (I've failed at keeping it short...), and sounds like I'm setting up an excuse. Quite the opposite really. I failed at the South Downs, and it was entirely down to me.

I drove down the morning of the race with my dad, who kindly woke up at about 4am after 3 hours sleep to drive me to Winchester. As is the case with all Centurion races, the start line was buzzing with anticipation, with hundreds of runners set to head off on the trail towards Eastbourne. It is always great to catch up with friends and other runners that I have met through the wonders of social media. Unfortunately my DNF at the Thames Path was a common topic of conversation, but I was feeling determined that even though the Grand Slam was now off, I was still going to have a good crack at the race. My training had been back on track (if only for a few weeks), and I was feeling good. No niggles, no recent injuries, I had slept well, and most importantly I wasn't suffering from dysentery. The weather was looking pretty darn good as well, with rain overnight dissipating and making way for a warm and cloudy morning. Add to that a tailwind blowing all the way to Eastbourne, and the stars were aligning for a fast day out there.

The race always starts with a run around the field at the sports ground, which is fun for a bit of showboating. With a final sprint finish I was able to take the lead as we entered onto the SDW proper. 200 yards down and it was looking good! Just under 100 miles to go...

The first 20 miles to Queen Elizabeth Country Park went well, running a quick but comfortable pace along trails that I know very well having grown up in the area. I was trying not to think too much about position or time at this early stage of the race, as there was still a long way left to go. But I figured that as long as I could stay comfortable and my stomach didn't play up I could just run my own race and hopefully do okay in the rankings. As I was heading along the new SDW trail through QECP, I saw a runner heading towards me. Unfortunately he had been at the front but had somehow missed the checkpoint. Ah, bonus miles. I know them well!

I struggled a bit with my stomach over the next 20 miles or so, but it wasn't anywhere near as bad as at the TP100. But it slowed me down, and wasn't helped by the rising temperature and increasing humidity of the day. I was getting through water much quicker than usual, but at least this time I was carrying plenty with me (having learnt from last time).

But ultimately I got into a rhythm and was just enjoying my time out on the Downs. And I really was - I love the South Downs, I had relaxed a little bit about the "racing" side of things (having realised I just don't have the endurance that I had when I was doing high mileage regularly), and was chatting to people along the way.

As I came into Washington, the halfway checkpoint, I was feeling a bit resigned about things but was ultimately happy plodding along. Now here's the thing - I wasn't doing badly by any stretch of the imagination. In fact, as I have only just noticed, I made it to Washington faster than I did in my 2012 second place finish. I was in the top 10, and wasn't even that far behind first place (about half an hour). But at the time I felt like I was failing at what I set out to do, which combined with having already failed at the Grand Slam with my TP100 performance, put me into a bit of a funk.

At this point I should have just pulled my finger out, cracked on, and pulled it back in the second half of the race. But instead I just felt sorry for myself and struggled to get going properly. The last half was less fun, mainly because I was struggling to pick up the pace between my negative attitude and continuing stomach issues. Then I got annoyed at myself because usually the mental aspect of things is where I do quite well - usually because I'm too stupid to worry about things.

I guess the proverbial straw that broke the camel's back was my choice of head torch. I had brought a torch that I have used for plenty of night runs, so it wasn't crap or anything, but it wasn't my slightly heavier über powered Petzl Nao. So with the high levels of mist up on the Downs out of Southease, I simply couldn't see where I was going. I could just about make out the track, and followed the route on my Garmin, but it was a lot tougher than the other sections. This slowed me down even further and fed into my negative attitude.

And then I realised - I was just looking for an excuse to stop. What's the point in doing something like this if I was just going to look for excuses? Nobody was forcing me to run - I was supposed to be enjoying it. So when I came across Gary Dalton out marking the course, I decided there and then to jack it in. I honestly didn't feel like I deserved to finish. There were so many people out on the course who deserved their buckle, working their arses off following months of blood, sweat and tears, and forging memories that will last a lifetime. And here's me half-arsing my way through it, whinging that I wasn't doing better, but not bloody doing anything about it! I decided that I didn't deserve a buckle that day, and wanted to take a step back and take a real look at myself before I come back for another go. I wasn't injured, I wasn't ill, I could have just walked the last 9 miles - but I just didn't want to. What a pussy!

This is the first time that I have pulled out of a race for no good reason, and it's not like I didn't know at the time that it was a shitty thing to do. I don't regret it - I gretted it plenty at the time! I've had some time to reflect since then, which wasn't hurt by a week's holiday straight after the race. So here's where I think I'm going wrong:
  1. I'm thinking too much, which is never normally something I'm accused of! But this post is evidence of just giving too much of a crap about what other people think rather than just getting out there and doing what I love. The irony is of course that people probably think less of me now than if I'd rallied and just got it done. I'll be honest, I really did not want to see anybody when I went to pick up my bag from the finish line.
  2. I need to stop looking for excuses and MAN THE FUCK UP!!! I never used to have a problem with this, but I seem to be getting soft in my old age. Nobody is forcing me to do this after all, but the incessant whining is annoying me - never mind everybody else. Whatever happened to the incessantly cheerful guy who smiled while everybody else was in hell? I don't think I've seen him since Sparta.
  3. I need to get back into my old routine to rebuild my endurance, as I think that the last two years of sporadic training (and even more sporadic sleep) have taken their toll. Don't get me wrong, my speed and endurance are pretty good, they could just be a lot better with some hard work. I'm probably faster than I've ever been (with some pretty good times at shorter races recently), but without the endurance to keep on going, that's not going to help. Some people will disagree, but I don't think I'm going out too fast at the start. I like to run on my own and at a certain comfort level, so that's what I do. I think I just need to get some nice long hard runs under my belt to hold it for longer. The last few weeks have been really good in that regard and I am back in a good routine with a good combination of speed and endurance work mixed in.
  4. I need to decide what I'm trying to do when I race - do I want to get to the end or do I want to try and get a good time? With the SDW100, I have already finished a couple of times so there is less of an incentive to get to the finish just for the sake of it. I was there to push hard for a good time, but haven't put the work in to do what I had in my mind. Setting hard goals is a very good way to push yourself, but if they're too unrealistic you run the risk of getting into a negative mindset when you fall off the pace (which is why I never normally set pacing goals). If I can put a bit more work in, it may not be such an unrealistic goal, but it will take some commitment.
  5. I need to stop DNFing. I'm absolutely not a "death before DNF" kind of person - I do this for fun, and breaking myself has serious repercussions on my home life. Apart from this one, all of my DNFs up until now have been calculated decisions to avoid making things worse. That said, I think that it is getting a bit ridiculous now. 
  6. I need to respect the distance and not just try and half-arse my way to the finish. I shouldn't be going in thinking "it's only 100 miles". It's never easy. 
  7. I need to find the fire again. I feel like Rocky III (only without the wins under his belt). I need the eye of the tiger man.
I was a bit worried at first that maybe I just didn't enjoy it like I used to, but a week of R&R and a few weeks of awesome running have convinced me that this simply is not the case. I still love every minute that I spend out running! I just need to not forget that. Training is back on track, and I'm hoping to run a good 10K PB in a couple of weeks on my birthday. The only thing I'm missing at the moment is the use of my gym, having replaced my morning weights session with running with the dog. Their simply aren't enough hours in the day, and I already wake up at 5am every day so I think I just have to accept that I can't do everything! 

Right, anyway, no more feeling sorry for myself. MTFU, pull your socks up, and just get it done! Sorry for being shit, I'll try not to let it happen again. Normal service will now resume, and I'm going to work hard over the next few weeks to make sure that I hit the start line of the NDW100 with a positive attitude. Rather than forget that TP100 and SDW100 ever happened, I'm going to use those failures in a positive way to fuel a great run at the NDW100. And by great run, I mean one where I cherish every minute - from the euphoric highs to the crippling lows, and everything in between. Whether I get in in 16 hours or 29:59:59, I want to know that I have fought for it and earned it so that I can hold my head up high with the other fighters at the finish. I have never finished the NDW100 which is a good incentive to finish, but goddamn it after the SDW100 I bloody well want this finish!

As ever, the SDW100 was a fantastic event and the volunteers really make these events what they are.  They genuinely can't do enough to help. Thank you so much to everybody that helped the runners along their way (even though I may have been a little sullen as I came through... Sorry!). Also thanks as ever to the Centurion Crew who, as ever, put on a slick event that did everything it could to get runners through to Eastbourne as efficiently as possible. The men's race was won by Peter Kaminsky in 16:50:36, with Luke Ashton in second and Graham O'laughlin in third. The women's race was won by Sally Ford in 17:28:49, with Annabelle Stearns in second and Kate Whitfield in third. Also, well done to my best friend Dan Park on finishing the second race in the Centurion Grand Slam, putting him one step closer to his goal this year! 

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