Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Ultra long blog post

To evaluate true madness, start with the thought process.   There I am, in 2013, thrilled to be running again after 3 years of injury...having done the Roma Maratona in March with Ted and Spencer, and then the Amsterdam Marathon in October.   So all is good, right?   But no.    Despite my times in '13 being identical, and despite the fact that I should be grateful that I'M RUNNING AT ALL, I'm ticked off that my times are slower than my usual plateau.   
So in early '14 I start some speedwork...but then rowing training camps and work and rowing, and more rowing, get in the way, and I'm just too shattered to run quality miles, and I'm phoning in junk mileage and before I know it, it is summer, and I'm looking at the autumn marathon schedule ahead and thinking that I will end up as slow or slower than ever, and this makes me train even less!   
So, do I do what I should do and drop or dial down rowing and focus more on running, and the mile repeats I actually like?  No, I do not.   I hang my head and stretch and whinge and then one day I look up above me at the ads on the London Underground, and what do I see?


And an idea dawns...I love the Thames, I love a Challenge, and ultras are run more slowly than marathons, which means no speed work, more rowing, and Something Different.   

And before I know it, I'm devouring ultrarunning books and magazines and learning some very interesting's like a different world...through the looking glass, down the rabbit hole type of stuff.    Some examples:  
  • Ultrarunning training programmes are just like marathon training programmes, but they unsurprisingly put more emphasis on the long run, and they LOVE the back-to-back, ie a long run and another longish run very soon after it, either same day or next day.    I like this too!
  • Ultrarunning involves eating and drinking pretty well constantly.   Mmmmm.   Big TICK to that.
  • In ultrarunning, hills are your friend.   You WALK them.   Indeed you walk any rise, any bridge, any shady spot, and when there's none of that available, you walk every 25 minutes anyway, to rest your legs for all the more running.    Mmmmmmmmm.   Jeff Galloway times 100.
  • In ultrarunning, you run slow, slow, slow but with a high cadence, even as high as 180, but light light light on your feet.    This is good discipline and involves less jarring...
  • In ultrarunning, you get to wear pillows on your feet.   These were mine:

So I sign up, pledge my sanity to charity. ..  and BOOM!   Suddenly my urge to train is refreshed and just in time too.    The start of the summer sees a family holiday in Greece, where I'm up and finished my run before the scorching heat starts at 8am.   I'm eating more healthily, and while I'm struggling to slow down my running pace, it is coming down and the cadence is coming up.    Tick.

Since the race pace will be kept down in the fat burning zone, I'm practising training with fatty treats like coconut slices and almonds and oils.    I've got a fab new race vest and am testing out compression socks for the first time

Then suddenly it is a month to go and my mileage is skyrocketing but also so is the rowing regatta season, 

and I am running too much and racing too much and suddenly...ow it a metatarsal stress fracture or an extensor tear or what?   All running stops

I'm ordered into the pool for three weeks of aqua jogging while the physio works out what to do, ultrasounding me liberally.

During this time, of course, the seeds of doubt are only getting watered, and I keep telling myself it will be ok, but even if I am allowed to run the 100k, I'm worried the lay off will prove fatal mentally on the day....another thing about ultras: they say the physical part is of course huge, but the mental part is even need to do all the training, and not start with an injury, because even when totally fit, the distance is 90% mental, and mind over matter might work for the last 6 miles of a marathon, but it might not be enough to take you from mile 20 to mile 62 of an ultra.   

Five days and ticking and the physio deems me raceworthy, with the immortal words, 

"I don't think you are going to make the injury any worse, but the race is just going to hurt even more than it should".    

So with that ringing endorsement, and hourly ice bucket challenges for my foot (shades of Spencer in Dublin)  I pack my race kit, register and have my final carb load

 and head to the Start, at Putney.

There are 2500 souls doing a range of 25k runs or walks, or 50k or 100ks, and this can done by teams or relays or whatever you fancy.   Thus it is very moving when the announcer herds the hundred or so of us hard core 100k Runners into the Start pen before everyone else, and asks those of us who are doing it solo to raise their hands and take a round of applause.   Nice touch, that.

And then we're off!    It is 7am and I'm trot trot trotting slowly slowly over Putney Bridge trying to stay calm, and letting the field stretch out way in front of me.    This is the view upriver...just 100K to go!!

High tide was 630am and we are still splash splashing through its remnants as we run alongside the Thames - our companion for the rest of the race - and spy on early morning rowers and scullers from the many clubs lining the river.    It is a glorious sunny morning, and while I have a light sweat on it is not too much.   25 mins comes too soon and I have to task myself to walk for a couple of minutes, which feels good.   I keep this routine up for another hour or so, and just enjoy the views and chuckle as six or seven of us keep exchanging places as we follow our own trot/walk program.   Eventually three of us give in to the inevitable and band together to pass the time.  The pace is good, and another hour goes by as we cruise past Hampton Court Palace.    Eventually the banter starts to feel constricting, so I drop my companions with a friendly wave at the first big 25 k aid station, as we fumble about filling water bottles and scoffing bananas.    I have decided to refill my three 500ml bottles at every station and these come up every 14k or so, which is fortunate since I'm dry by the time I get to each one.   

Bizarrely it is around this time when I start really feeling overwhelmed by it all, and ponder stepping off the towpath for the day...I can't describe why, it isn't the lactic acid talking that's for sure, as there isn't any.   And it isn't an injury or pain pain.   It is - what - fear?    Is that too melodramatic?   That's what it feels like.   I recite some kind words my sponsors sent me    My favourite being from a fellow Antitrust Marathoner   

Break it down into stages... 
like, er, the first marathon, 
the second marathon 
and then there's only 10 miles to go! 
Good luck.”

and I start visualising the Finish, and also visualising the email I would have to write to people if I dropped before getting to the marathon distance, with no injury....yep, that cures me!

By this time I'm nibbling Clif bars and almonds and coconut slices and bananas and an S!Cap once an hour, plus rivers of water, but haven't gone for the gel yet, as I'm sure that as soon as I do, I will start feeling sick.   Cool things are happening - planes are getting lower and lower and bigger and bigger and I realise this is because I'm closing on Heathrow, which is a serious distance from the, I'm doing it!    Then suddenly I see a particular marker that makes me pause for some Quality Reflection can guess why...

Wow, I'm now in PB territory, since although this has been my slowest marathon distance EVER, it also means every step I take from this point on is new ground for me.         I celebrate by plugging in the iPhone, enjoying some tunes, then phoning my family to say I'm closing on the 50k aid station.    They are getting ready to leave home in Oxford to meet me later but they are thrilled to know I'm half way.   I am too, and I'm also amazed that my foot injury hasn't flared up, or my usual burning sides of knees....ITB of steel, not a good thing. 

But so far, just general pain all over and nothing threatening the run.    At the aid station itself I'm directed down a lane away from other runners being handed a glass of champagne, for completing 50k, and for a moment even this teetotaller is nonplussed, but then a terrible smug thought pops in that I'm doing that distance AGAIN...which is just mad, and should be squelched, but it gets me moving and the little crowd gives a wee cheer as I head out, fueled and tucking into more bananas.

Windsor comes and goes, and I chuckle that we have to run through bewildered tourists in the centre of town who refuse to move an inch out of our way.   I'm deep into my music now - Kate Bush, Talking Heads, Chili Peppers - and am just saying over and over that "I can do this" and I must smile - activate some happy feelings just by smiling - and think I will see the Fam soon.    It takes an age to get around the Eton Dorney Olympic Rowing site, which I know so well and at this point I'm passing super cruiser boats and families enjoying pub lunches.   

Fake smiling but it works...

Just north of Bray Lock I see my support crew, and they insist I change into new shoes (Newtons) and shower me with offers of specially baked carb balls, and drinks and all the power bars I'd given them and now don't want.   Too soon I'm gone from their caring embrace and am trotting up some seriously beautiful Thames Path, alone for the most part.    At this stage, some bad patches arise, and I find I'm walking fast but more than I'd like....I tell myself it's ok, when you're going through hell, keep going, and I do.    I see my phone and music batteries are almost done, so I plug in my first charger and go for that Awesome Hits album from Guardians of the Galaxy....perks me up in spirit if not in body.

This is none too soon, because here I come upon another moving marker!

I don't know why this one is such a big deal, maybe it is its roundness but for the first time, I sense that the Finish is within reach.    I meet the Fam again soon after and change back into my Hoka pillowshoes but decline all food and drink.   I'm in a mild nausea phase now, and while I'm worried that not refuelling will see me crash, even the thought of eating, even another bloody  banana, makes me want to puke.   I force down some flat Coke they've given me, and after a while I neck back a Gu gel, and I know this was the right thing to do, even if I almost bring it all back up.    It stays in, I run a bit more than I have been, and focus on something Ted wrote to me the day before: Form > Pace...and I realise that yes I'm not staggering, I'm not lurching, I'm trotting with Form, and this makes me feel good.

I'm getting a bit grumpy though and start shedding all of the Clif bars and gels that are in my pack, leaving them at aid stations.   At the final station at 86k or so, I drench my legs in ibuprofen gel, and somehow convince myself this helps.   It is getting darker now, a beautiful sunset has come and gone, and I'm feeling very lonely and a bit peculiar.   I plot on, saying "Relentless Forward Progress" over and over, a little madly, if I'm honest, and focus on relaxing anything that is tightening up, mainly my clenched teeth and brow.    I force another smile, and then a crazy grin, and try to hold it for a minute and then another, and gradually I lighten up a bit.

Now I'm into the 90ks and my trotting pace has matched my walking pace.   No matter, I force myself to trot to the next tree, to the next lock, to the next lamppost, anything to keep me moving.    It is dark now, inside and out, and I put my torch on, and am grateful that the mile markers are reflective...I almost get seriously lost a couple of times, but pubwalkers put me right, and it certainly seems the closer I get to the Finish the more that people I pass know what is going on.   I get little ripples of applause and thumbs up as I hobble by and this helps a lot as I'm starting to get weird spasms in my neck and back and need all the help I can get.  I start fantasizing that around the next bend the sky will lighten and this will signal that Henley is coming....but that doesn't happen for a very long time, and when it does, wow, it feels good.    I get to Temple Island...   

... the start of the rowing course and can't believe I'm within sight of the Finish. 

I phone the gang and they've been there for ages waiting, and I let them know I'm coming, slowly, and they laugh and say I'm to take my time.    I get to Henley Bridge and am ecstatic, a race marshal says I'm nearly done and I just need to follow the glow sticks in.   Which I do.   But they're going up a hill, away from the Finish.    I follow them a bit more and a bit more and the hill gets steeper and now I'm deep into a Henley town and the streets are full of people and I'm weaving in and out and trying to jog and the hill gets steeper and steeper and now I'm a teensy bit annoyed.   Suddenly though it flattens out, and I pass some 50k walkers and commiserate with them about the sadist route planner.   

Then it is a sharp and long downhill of ow ow ow ow and a right turn back onto the river and a tunnel of glow sticks and my fam are way ahead clapping generically until they realise it is me and they FREAK OUT and run with me and wham, I'm across, holding champagne, having my chip and number tagged and marked and being directed to burgers and salads and drinks and massage tables and dry clothes and it is HEAVEN!

I do all of that and more and get home and collapse and spend the entire next day in various forms of horizontality, gorging on Chocolate Lasagna (think layers of Oreos and cream, pasta free) and revelling in stories of the majesty of the Thames, and frank self disbelief that I did it and finished smiling too!    I'm also stunned at the weight loss, and for over a week I'm still finding clothes falling of me...the gadget says I burned 8600 calories that day, and I can't imagine I took in more than 4500 before I felt sick...and I drank constantly - 6 aid stations x 1.5 litres per station - and never went to the loo during the entire race, or til the next evening,so I'm guessing some weight has come off that isn't just fluid!   Amazing.   A good it back on.

The denouement: I have to say that during training and OCD'ing about ultrarunning books, I had got it into my head that next year I would do the 100 MILE Thames run from London to my home in Oxford, and then the year after I would do the 152 MILE Spartathlon in Greece...but you know what, I'm not going to do any of that.   And I'm not tempted to do the 100k again and knock some time off the 14 hours it took me!!!   I loved the 100k, I really did, and I'm thrilled I accomplished it, and raised over £3000 for Save the Children, but I'm a runner, and these ultras are just too far for me to have to walk, you have to pace yourself and it is something to endure....but right now, when I recover, I'm a greedy to RUN, and RUN, and RUN, and this means dropping back down to my true home which is marathons and halfs.

Consider doing a 100 sometime though, is awesome, and while words didn't fail me in this blog post, they do fail me, if you know what I is a unique experience!!!


  1. Absolutely amazing Philip!! Congratulations! Great post!! Words fail _me_ and that never happens!!

  2. Really good and inspiring Hoo Ha! Well done!

  3. Many congrats, Philip, and thank you for the tremendous write-up. Felt like I was there watching. Beer in hand, of course.

  4. Magnificent accomplishment beautifully narrated. Congrats.