Thursday 20 December 2012

2012: A Retrospective (or "The Horribly Self-Indulgent End of Year Post")

The 2012 apocalypse will be just like the 2009 John Cusack movie - a result of bad writing, a massive mistake, and entirely unbelievable
As we all know, tomorrow is going to be the end of the world as we know it. After all, why wouldn't an ancient civilisation with no access to the advanced astronomical instrumentation that our own civilisation has developed be able to accurately predict the very day that the apocalypse will hit? Sigh. If you're worried about the end of the world at all, please bear two things in mind:
  1. It's not the end of the world. It's the end of 13th B'ak'tun, a measurement of 144,000 days used by the Mayans in their calendar system. As Tim Minchin points out, worrying about the end of the world based on this is like turning over December on your fluffy kitten calendar, seeing there's nothing else after it, then FREAKING THE HELL OUT. 
  2. Even if it is, what good will stocking up on candles do?
Okay, rant over. Anyway, now seems the perfect time to look back over the last year and take stock of how things have gone. 

It's odd to think that this has really been my first year of proper running. I ran my first ultra (the Northampton Shires and Spires Ultra) in the summer of last year, and ran a couple more throughout the second half of the year (including my first 100 miler at the South Downs Way Race a month later), but this year I really threw myself into things with a rather packed calendar. There have been some ups and there have been some downs, but overall it's been a good and (most importantly) fun year. 


Not much happened in January, but I did head out for my first attempt at recceing a race. Having done relatively well at the SDWR the previous year, I wanted to see what would happen if I actually raced a 100 miler event. I had signed up for the Thames Path 100 at the start of March which looked to be a pretty flat course and should give me a pretty good idea of what sort of time I could do. I went and recced the last 50 miles of the course on a beautiful frosty Monday, parking up at Henley-on-Thames and running through to Oxford, and had a brilliant day out!


At the start of February, I had my first attempt at a multi-day ultra at the XNRG Pilgrim's Challenge. We ran 33 miles from Farnham to Merstham along the North Downs Way, followed by running back again the following day. This race was a lot of fun, for the social aspect as much as for the actual running. Staying over at the school hall in Merstham, I got a chance to meet and chat with a lot of people who I had vaguely met on Facebook, including Mimi Anderson, James Adams and Allan Rumbles. When I started the second day I didn't feel so great, and the foot of snow that had randomly appeared overnight resulted in an hour deficit from the previous day, but most runners had the same problem. In the end I finished 5th which I was very happy with, although I think that I could have done a little better. 

I also had a couple of recces for events that I was planning later in the year, including a 50 mile section of the Viking Way with Jo Kilkenny and Mimi Anderson, and a recce of a couple of legs of the Bob Graham Round (in some pretty cool snowy conditions - shorts weather of course) which I was planning to run with Chris Baynham-Hughes. Both went really well, and between these and a pretty full training regimen I was feeling pretty good about my upcoming racing season.

Then I fell off my bike. It was pretty icy around this time, and I just slipped right over following a winding path. Then I fell off again about 2 minutes up the road. Then I fell off again right after that. All while still only 5 minutes from home! My hip was pretty buggered, with a pretty spectacular bruise from where I landed on my keys. But it turned out that my ankle had taken the worst of it, having gotten stuck in my clip-in pedals as I fell. And only a week and a half before the Thames Path...


March was a bit of a bust unfortunately. Some valiant physiotheraping from my Physio Chelsea at Harding Physiotherapy meant that I made it to the start line of the Thames Path 100, and actually ran surprisingly well. I was in 5th position at the 71 mile checkpoint and was thinking that I might actually make it after all. It was looking like a finish time of about 17 hours might be on the cards, when about 5 miles from the checkpoint my ankle went out. As it was a pre-existing injury, I made the decision to pull out from the race rather than damaging it for the sake of a finish, but it was a very difficult call. But I took a lot of positives from that race. My hydration and equipment were spot on (I was now using a bottle rather than a bladder which I now find much better for racing), and up until that point my legs were feeling good. So I felt happy that a 17 hour finish was doable for me. But running 75 miles on a dodgy ankle didn't do it any favours, and I ended up being unable to run for the next few months. This meant that I missed out on a whole bunch of events...


I missed out on the Viking Way, a crazy new 147 mile race organised by Mark Cockbain, running from the Humber Bridge to Oakham. This was going to be my "how far can I run" race, having missed out on the Grand Union Canal Race lottery for this year. I'm registered again for next year, so hopefully I can make it and crack this bad boy (the finishing rate ended up being pretty low, so it really is a beast).


I missed out on my Bob Graham Round attempt which was very annoying. This typically takes a lot of commitment and planning to do, recceing the route and making sure that you know the terrain like the back of your hand. I was going to just blag my way round by following Chris. This one will have to stay on the bucket list, and I will probably need to put a little more effort in if I want to do it myself. Chris still made the attempt and managed to complete it in 20 hours 44 minutes. Stirling effort!

On the plus side, things started to improve slightly towards the end of the month, and I managed to turn up on the start line of the Shires and Spires ultra for a second attempt. I managed to avoid getting turned around this time, but was a little slow (not helped by the heat) as I was nervous of making my ankle worse again. Not a fantastic race (joint 12th), but I had a nice day, particularly running with Simon Darmody towards the end (another Cambridge runner - what are the chances!). I also ran a couple of local short races, and managed to post some pretty good times on these. I managed to win another race (a local 10 km run that I just stumbled across on my cycle home from work), and came 3rd in another. It's definitely worth doing these shorter races to keep the speed up.


June was leading up to my next 100 mile event, the South Downs Way 100. My ankle seemed to be okay, so I ramped up the training to try and get back some of the fitness that I had lost over the previous two months. I was really looking forward to the getting back on the SDW, and had a fantastic day taking second place behind Ryan Brown in 17:23:04 (5 hours faster than the year before). Generally the race went well, but I had a pretty annoying stomach muscle issue that slowed me right down, and I got very sleepy towards the end. When I finished I felt like I had a lot more in me, so this is my main focus race for next year - I want to see if I can go one better and win the thing! I think I have the stomach problem sorted now, and I will try and actually sleep before the race this time, so I should be able to get that time below 17 hours. But we will see what happens on the day.


In July, I was signed up to run the Lakeland 100, but hadn't expected to get a place in the UTMB a few weeks later. I was a little nervous about doing something to cock up my chances of getting to Chamonix given the money that I had payed out on flights and accommodation, so almost didn't turn up to Lakeland. In the end, I went anyway and decided to try and push for a good time, but ended up worrying far too much and not focusing on the race. I twisted my ankle a bit about a third of the way round and ended up just pulling out to stay fresh for UTMB. Pretty rubbish and made me feel pretty pathetic, but in hindsight was probably the right call. One year I'll come back and give this course the respect and focus that it deserves. 


In August, I headed over to Chamonix to take part in my main race for the year, the UTMB. Whilst I had an amazing time over there and met some fantastic people (including Andrew Ferguson, Robbie Britton, Richard Felton, Luke Carmichael, Paul Wells, Steve Skedgell), the weather conspired against us and changes were made to the course meaning that we never got to run the full extent of the world-renowned course. Instead we ran a much less inspiring (although still a hell of a lot more interesting than running around Cambridge) 100 km route through the Chamonix Valley. I had a few issues with fuelling, most likely due to the altitude, and also suffered some pretty severe chaffing towards the end which slowed me right down. I ended up death-marching it in, but was pretty serene about everything. It started well, and with a few tweaks I still think that I can have a good run here in the future. I don't really feel like I have finished the UTMB, so I'll be back one year to do this race properly. 


I didn't really have anything booked in for September as I had decided to use it to recover from UTMB. As it happens, I was recovered pretty quickly so I don't think I will worry about such things in the future. I did go along to a mountain running course organised for people running the Original Mountain Marathon (OMM). This was great fun, and I will have to run a mountain marathon soon. I'm sure Chris can oblige!


I wasn't planning on doing much towards the end of the year as I had originally planned on running so many other events. However, since I had got injured for a couple of these, and not run others to the best of my abilities, I decided that I should get another race in and not waste another month. I ran the Norfolk Ultra 100 km and had a pretty good race, coming in third place. I would have been even quicker had it not been for some little skallywags moving the course markings. Grr. This had the added benefit of giving me a 100 km time to use to enter the Spartathlon next year. Yay!


I headed back again for the Brecon Beacons 47 mile Ultra organised by Sue and Martin at Likeys, more for the social side of things than for the race itself. Despite how crappy the weather was when we arrived, conditions on the day were actually pretty much perfect and it ended up being a lovely day! I decided to only run one loop of the two-loop race (dropping out whilst in 5th position yet again!), since it was the event the next week that I was more focussed on. But meeting up with everybody (Martin, Sue, Mimi, Neil Bryant, Jules Roberts, Darryl Carter, Richard Hill, Karl Zeiner) and failing miserably at the completely rigged quiz was a lot of fun!

The following week I took part in the inaugural running of James Adams' brain-child, the Piece of String Fun Run. The idea here was to run a race without knowing how long it was. 16 of us were hand picked from a bunch of crazies who applied, and were sent off running until we were told to stop. I was very happy with this race as I was one of only two finishers (although it was touch and go at one point).  I again had some issues with sleepiness, so think I need to take a look at my sleeping habits. i.e. I should probably actually get some - should be easy enough with a baby on the way in February! But this was a great way to end the year.


I wasn't planning on doing any races this month, but was offered an entry into the Portsmouth Coastal Marathon by Jen Jackson the weekend before Christmas. Since I will be there visiting my folks for the holidays anyway, it would be rude not to really! I probably won't race it as I will be doing a long run the day before, but we'll see what happens. I've certainly said that before...

Top 5 Highlights of 2012:

  1. Finding out that we are expecting our first child. It's not exactly running related, but it's definitely been the highlight of my year! It will certainly make training next year interesting...
  2. Finding the end of the Piece of String. I was very glad that James convinced me to carry on and that I managed to get to the end. Annoyingly, I stopped and had a half hour nap just before the end (unbeknownst to me), and actually felt really good when I finished and was ready for more! It makes me feel confident for Viking Way and Spartathlon though - I was back running again the next day!
  3. Second place at the SDW100. It was a great day out and I was really pleased, although hopefully I can do even better next year.
  4. Running into Chamonix at the end of the UTMB. I was hours behind my predicted time, had been walking like John Wayne for the last 20 km due to a chaffed undercarriage, was annoyed that I wasn't running the real race, and was having real issues with fuelling. But heading throw the cheering crowds on a beautiful day in a lovely town in the Alps, high-fiving children as I passed, was an amazing feeling. 
  5. Winning the Swavesy Fun Run (a race I came across by accident following my 16 mile cycle home from work) in a neck-and-neck sprint finish after being off running for two months. It was that totally free feeling of being able to push my legs and run free without worrying about my ankle that felt so great.

Top 5 Lowlights of 2012:

  1. Falling off my bike. It was just an accident and not much could be done to prevent it, but it threw off quite a few of my events for the year which was very annoying.
  2. Having to pull out from the Thames Path 100. Making this decision was so difficult for me, as I just wanted to drag my broken carcass around whatever the cost. It was especially tough considering how well I was doing. I ended up making the right call and pulled to avoid making things worse, but man I felt like a wimp!
  3. Another DNF, this time at Lakeland. I could have just not turned up at all, but at least I got a nice training run in and got a chance to run in some fantastic terrain in the Lake District. 
  4. "Running" for 20 km with chafed testicles is no joke.
  5. A couple of podium finishes this year, but still no trophy. I just want one small trophy for a race so that I can look back in the future and say, "Yep. I won that!". Pretty petit I know, but it would be nice.

What have I learnt?

This year has been a very good learning experience for me. I have definitely improved over the year, although still feel like I have yet to have a really great race. But even the bad races have had positive sides, as I have taken a lot away from them to apply for next year. I have also gotten more and more involved with the ultrarunning community, and have found that I really enjoy following this crazy sport of ours and being a part of it. Here are some of the things that I have learnt in 2012:
  1. You really don't need to drink much when you run. After reading Tim Noakes' book Waterlogged, I started being more aware of how much I drink and just drinking to thirst. I now don't take anything with me for anything less than 2 hours, and drink only a couple of 100 mls on longer 30ish mile runs. By not drinking so much, you don't need to be so concerned with electrolyte replacement, which makes it easier to maintain levels when running long distances.
  2. I don't need to fuel much on longer runs. I have hit the wall once in my life, but now I never eat when I train, even on longer 30+ mile runs, and have no issues with energy stores. In ultra-running, glycogen stores won't get you very far so you need to be efficient at burning fat. Having said that, I believe that my nutrition is one area of my running that it wouldn't hurt to take a look at. But for now it seems to be working quite well. 
  3. Fuelling is different at altitude. I may be able to get through a 100 mile race in England on 7 gels and a couple of Jaffa Cakes, but trying this in the Alps just ends up with me trying to cram every bit of cheese and sausage I can find into my mouth ("oo er missus"). 
  4. Alternating long runs with cycling works really well at preventing fatigue and over-training. I rarely run less than 15 miles at a time, but never have issues with feeling wiped out and my legs usually feel pretty fresh. I believe that this is due to the amount of cycling that I do.
  5. My training schedule works very well for me. It is pretty packed (my rest day is the day that I only cycle 20 miles), but it fits in pretty nicely. It's a combination of running, cycling, weights and swimming, but it mostly fits in either with early morning sessions or with commuting so doesn't impact too much on my home life. I am also quite flexible in that I don't worry too much if I miss a day.
  6. Mud is awesome! I love running in crappy weather. 
  7. Shorts are awesome! It's always shorts weather. 
  8. I like being as unencumbered as possible when I run. If I'm not going to die of exposure, I won't bother with a waterproof. Hell, if I can help it I won't bother with a top at all. I'm also loving using my New Balance MT110s which are so minimalist (without actually being minimalist shoes) that they feel like slippers. 
  9. I do pretty well with cheap kit. I'm pretty stingy so I try and get away with kit that's as cheap as possible, and it works fine for me. I can't comment on how much better the more expensive gear might work, but I would be surprised if it improved much on the stuff I use. Of course, feel free to send me some to prove me wrong!
  10. I bloody love running! Whatever the weather. Whatever the distance. Whatever the conditions.  Whatever the time. I jump out of bed at 4am on the weekends excited to get out there. I love exploring and taking different trails to see where they go. I love the opportunity to go see new places, to meet new people, to get outside in the elements. There's only been a few times this year when I have been unhappy while running, and I always feel better for getting out there. I am a runner!
So now roll on 2013. It's going to be an interesting time with the new addition to our family, but rest assured that there are plenty of events lined up, and more incredibly interesting (ahem) analyses to come. But they can wait until another time. For now, I hope that you all enjoy the holidays and have a fantastic New Year! Well, as long as the world doesn't end of course.

Happy trails!

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