Thursday 14 June 2012

Shires and Spires 2012

This month was a landmark in my life as an ultra runner, as it marked a year since I ran my very first ultra - the Northants Shires and Spires ultra, organised by Go Beyond. It didn't exactly go to plan. But hey, I've never been one to take the easy route with things, so why run just 35 miles through the beautiful Northamptonshire countryside when you can run 42? A slight geographical embarrassment resulted in a wrong turn only a few miles from the finish, and I ended up going in completely the wrong direction before looping back on myself to an earlier point on the route. But not this year! This year I had something to prove, and a year of running ultras has resulted in me now being an expert navigator who never, ever, ever gets lost. No siree. Never.


It was touch and go whether or not I would be able to run this race, as I have been suffering from a problem with my hip and with my ankle since coming off my bike in the winter (not helped by running the Thames Path 100 about a week after the accident). Since the TP100, I had not been able to run more than a few miles, but some expert physiotherapy by my good friend Chelsea Harding seemed to be improving things. The previous week, I had been told that I could begin to increase my mileage, but only by 10%. So that weekend I went out and ran 18 miles on the Saturday and an 8 mile race (coming third which was surprising!) on the Sunday. Well, she didn't say the time period the 10 % increase should be over, so I just increased it every hour until the weekend! Oopsie. But all seemed well, and I was now running with minimal pain. But would I be able to run 35 miles having done no training for 3 months?

I turned up at the start line at Lamport Hall and was waved into a parking space by Drew Sheffield, who I first met at the South Downs Way 100 last year. We had a quick chinwag and I let him get back to his job. I also managed to catch up with James Adams and Gemma Greenwood, who wholly approved of my interpretation of the instructions from my physio. It's good to feel validated in my stupidity.

Me in a stunning neck and neck win against the entire rest of the field. Or alternatively, me leading at the start before being beaten by the real runners. (Photo by Gemma Greenwood)

Despite the fact that this was my first real run back since injury, I decided that I wanted to give this race a good shot. Sub-5 hours was my aim, but given that I was not feeling at my best my secondary goal was to not get horribly lost and to just beat last year's time of 7 hours. I wanted to limit how much I was carrying, so I opted for a single bottle to last me between checkpoints which would be easy to refill, but given how warm it was threatening to be (almost 30 degrees) I took the empty bladder just in case. I had heard that Ian Sharman (holder of the American 100 mile trail record) and Craig Holgate (winner of the Thames Path 100) were both running, so Stuart Mill's course record was looking in danger.

We lined up at the start, and I was a little worried to see that I was standing right at the front with nobody wanting to join me. I must have been giving off a vibe of an elite racer, and nobody wanted to compete with me. Of course this illusion was quickly shattered by James announcing to everybody about my extra 7 miles last year. "Don't follow him!", he shouted. Excellent advice to anybody who ever finds themselves in the same race as me!

Guy Travers got on the PA and counted down to the start. Unfortunately, technical difficulties meant that we were treated to the remix version of the count down. But we got the gist, and we were off! I enjoyed a brief stint at the front (for about 3 seconds), but was quickly overtaken by Ian Sharman and the other real runners. This made me feel much better! I was all set to avoid any navigational misgivings today, but was almost scuppered within 50 feet of the start line as we approached the hall. Thankfully there were other people in front of me by this stage or else I may have ended up running round and round the hall all day.

The route is split roughly fifty-fifty between paths and fields, and other than at the checkpoints along the way there are no way-markers. Instead, we were each given a copy of the map to take with us, and (as I proved last year) you really need to have your wits about you to take the right turns. Many times you would come to the edge of a field, with two equally wrong looking paths to choose from. Sometimes both routes would eventually converge, but other times a wrong turn could mean having to go back and try again. I have to say that it definitely helped having run the route before, although I still made a few errors here and there.

This is about the only photo that I own of me actually running. It was worth the £5 just to prove to people that I do actually run these races... (Photo by Corby Photography)

The first half of the race went pretty well. I was drinking more than I had anticipated, but the checkpoints weren't too far away from each other so it wasn't too much of a problem at this stage. However, I could feel the heat having an effect on me, and it felt harder than it really should have done to run the hills. I'm sure that to some people, high 20s doesn't sound too bad, but it was a hell of a difference to my recent training conditions over the winter. Let's just say that I probably need to get some Bikram yoga in before attempting Badwater...

I ran much of the route on my own, and was only overtaken by one other runner. We said a quick hello as he caught up with me, but he was motoring and took off without me. A missed turn made me lose some time as I tried to get back on track with a daring death defying leap over a river. Alright fine, it was a very narrow stream - tomato, tomato (wow, that really doesn't work in writing, does it?). I caught up with a couple of other runners who had used the opportunity to pass me by, including Tony Whitehouse who was telling me about his life as an ultra runner, as well as all the other amazing adventures he and his wife have around the world (unfortunately it looks as if Tony had to retire towards the end of the race, so I hope that he was okay). As we came up to the checkpoint at about 20 miles, I was running with Thomas Liddell (I think), and we stopped briefly to restock. I was feeling a little dehydrated, so decided to add some water to my bladder as a backup. I was surprised to see the runner who had passed me earlier, Simon Darmody, turn up at the checkpoint. He had apparently gotten lost and ended up just behind us a few miles back.

He and Tom took off up the hill, and I headed out chomping on my cake. I eventually caught them up and we ran a few miles together, sharing the job of navigation. We kept coming across sections that I remember having issues with last year, and I have to say it was encouraging to see other people being unsure at these same points. Not that I wanted people to get lost, but it felt better knowing that it wasn't just me! Eventually Tom took off, and Simon and I got to chatting. In a bizarre coincidence, Simon was also from Cambridge. We also both appeared to be looking for a Salomon contract, since we were both decked out head to toe in their gear. Both of us had gone out with the aim of running a sub-5 hour race, but we were both feeling pretty trashed by that point. We made the decision to just chill out and enjoy the rest of the run, rather than risk blowing up by pushing at this stage.

I have to say, I really enjoyed the last 10 miles of the race. We chatted away about upcoming races, what got us into running, hill training in one of the flattest places in the country, the usual. We kept an eye out behind us to make sure that we weren't in danger of losing our positions, but other than that we ran to how we felt, slowing down and walking when we felt that we needed to. By this point, navigation was easy as we had reached the point where I had rejoined the route last year after my directional snaffoo, so I had already run it all twice. I pointed out the place where I went wrong, and we were both a little confused how I could have possibly gotten it wrong. But not this year!

Team Salomon looking great! (Not shown; us slowing down and walking up a big hill about 2 seconds later) (Photo by Corby Photography)

With only a couple of miles remaining, we discussed what was going to happen at the finish. Would our partnership deteriorate as the finish line loomed? Given that we had already wimped out of racing, I suggested that we run it on home together. Simon was more than willing to go along with that! We soon came out onto the first field that we had run earlier in the day, and knew that we were on the home stretch. We dodged around the grazing sheep, and made one final push towards Lamport Hall. With the finishing chute in view, we picked up the pace in the hope that people would assume that we had been running like that all day. There was a tense moment were I'm sure that we were both wondering if the other was going to break the pact and push ahead to steal the finish, but ultimately good sportsmanship won out! But I'm certain we were both tempted...

We came through the line in 5:41:14 for a joint 10th place finish. Much slower than either of us had hoped, but it looked as if everyone was having a similarly slower day today. Well, I say everybody...

Craig Holgate and Duncan Harris stormed through the race to get a joint win in 4:16:07, 4 minutes off Stuart Mills course record from last year. Ian Sharman came through the line in 3rd only a couple of minutes behind (and still within the course record), having had to stop briefly at the final checkpoint to refuel. By all accounts, all three had never run the route before and had run into problems with navigation along the way, so that course record could well be smashed next year if any of them returns. The first lady in was Philippa Taylor in a fantastic time of 5:06:16, only 8 minutes outside of her winning time from last year (that damn sun again). Helen Skelton came in second only a few minutes before us in 5:38:33, and Claire Akin-Smith took third in 5:49:49.

Waiting at the finish line were Drew, Gemma, and Mark Cockbain (race director of the Viking Way, and an incredible runner in his own right). They had been helping out all day and were enjoying a well earned sunbathe while waiting for James to finish. After munching on a Peparami and a warm scotch egg, I sat down to join them. James came through the line looking sweaty but happy in 6:24:32, hand in hand with fellow Serpentine runner Robert Westaway. I said my goodbyes, and climbed into my stinking hot car (which just ended up stinking) to head off home.

Driving home was a very different experience to last year. As I drove away from Lamport Hall a year ago, the weather matched my mood perfectly as we were hit with torrential rain and grey sky. But this year? This year there was not a cloud in the sky, and I felt great! I may not have broken the 5 hour mark like I wanted (far from it in fact), but I had met up with some great people, had a fantastic morning running in some beautiful countryside, and most importantly my ankle wasn't screaming in pain. Roll on the South Downs Way 100 later this month!


  1. I trusted you 100% Sam ;-)

    Great write up, look forward to seeing in Coniston on the 28th July.

    Simon Darmody

  2. I'm considering my first ultra (having an endorphin high after a cross country 10k today and never having run more than 1/2 marathon) and came across your blog. Jolly good read!

    1. Awesome, do it! It's a great experience. You'll never regret it! Well, maybe the day afterwards... But once the DOMS dies off you'll be signing up to your next one, guaranteed!


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