Sorry folks, this is a long one…grab an aperitif put your feet up and read on (covering 100 miles was never going to be quick).
“You want to run 100 miles?”
“Yes, I want to try.”
“Erm, I don’t think you can. It’s not a good idea…” so the conversations began.
I wanted to run 100 miles; I’d decided that and generally when I decide to do something, I do it, despite what others may say. Pigheaded – definitely – but I had my reasons.
I’d chosen October 2015 as the month in which I would attempt the 100 as I’d done my first half marathon – the Run to the Beat on 5 October, 2008. Seven years to go from half to a hundred. It seemed realistic.
I’d originally opted for the 166km Ultima Frontera in Andalucia, Spain, as the goal (for those struggling with the conversion; it’s just over 100 miles) which also included a significant elevation gain. I’d trained consistently for 18 months, clocked a couple of 100km races, back to backed 30-40kms through Qatar’s hottest summer on record, got myself to Spain and reccy-ed the course; before discovering the race had been cancelled.
Panic! I’d got my heart set on, and head around 100 miles – a race length which isn’t that common, especially in the Middle East, where 5km seems to be the optimum ‘marathon’.
I recalled that Ronnie Staton of Hobo Pace was organising an inaugural, low-key, non-navigational, 100 miler – the Waterways 100 – at the beginning of October…if I got my arse in gear I could just about make the entry list for the race in less than a fortnight.
Thankfully I made the entry; but then had the stress of prepping myself for a very different race. Yup, it would be flat but I was ready for Spain’s warmer climes. I’d run in temps averaging 30C plus for the last six months. When I’d last run in the UK back in March my right hip had gone on strike and I’d yanked a hamstring because it was too cold to limber up.
Literally nabbing the last remaining Ryanair seat of the week out from Malaga airport to East Midlands, I’d arrive on Thursday before the Saturday race date. No time for acclimatisation. Despite lots of reassurances that the weather was set fair and that the UK was enjoying an Indian summer, I rammed my cabin bag with as much cold weather gear as I had to hand. This was to prove a good idea!
As all ultra runners discover, covering an ultra distance is 70 percent mental strength with relatively little of the hard effort actually being physical.
If you stand on the start line without a strong reason to finish the race; you won’t.
My reason for lining up on the start line of the Waterways 100 on 3 October and determination to complete, other than the genuine annoyance at the economic cost of making it to the UK, was that my dad, who sadly died from lymphoma nearly two years ago, was an avid boater. He worked on the pleasure craft cruising the Norfolk Broads in the 60s and had in later life invested in his own narrow boat. This was not a fascination I would ever share but running alongside the Chesterfield Canal, Rivers Idle and Trent, would I hoped be a tribute to his spirit and give me the strength to get the race finished when the going got rough, particularly as he would have celebrated his birthday on 6 October.
Throughout the week preceding the race, Ronnie sent out several briefings – compulsory kit list, checkpoint info, route notes. As a first race, with the entry capped at 40 runners in total across a 30 miler, 50 and 100 miler, we would be thin on the ground. The 100 start list had just 8 runners listed; it would certainly be a lonely one.
I put together my race plan; well as close to a plan as I could do over a previously un-attempted distance and I was ready. The plan was simply to finish. I reckoned on a pace between 6 and 10 min/km. That had been our staple 1am long distance pace in Qatar for the last 8 weeks, where we’d been running 30-40km at 35C minimum temperatures, 60-85% humidity, in heart rate zone 1 or 2. If, I reckoned, I’d sustained this pace without suffering head exhaustion for a shorter distance, I should be good for a much, much longer distance as 30 odd C cooler. My challenge, I decided, would be having to run faster to keep warm.
Gathering in South Wheatley village hall, North Notts, at 7:30am, the atmosphere was tense. Would any of us finish? Laying out my drop bags – we’d return to the hall at 30 and 70 miles – I’d had the inspired idea to borrow a washing basket to keep all my clobber together. My 30 mile kit (including head torch and batteries) bagged on the left of the basket and my 70 mile kit (old Garmin to extend battery life) to the right.
I’d been worried I had too much stuff, but checking out the other 100 milers they generally had the same amount of kit. We’d been advised that we could have crew but I think only one or two of the runners had opted for crew. The checkpoints would have water, cola, biscuits, crisps, peanut butter and jam sandwiches, nuts, bananas, satsumas and hot drinks – I’d carry my own sandwiches, cheese, salami sticks, jelly sweets, chocolate, date bars, malt loaf…you get the idea.
All too soon, it was route briefing – 100 milers run down to the canal and turn left before returning for 30 miles; off around the next loop, down to the canal and turn right, up the River Idle spur before turning and heading back via the Trent flood banks for 70 miles; and a final 30 mile canal loop to finish. The course was expected to run slightly longer. Simple.
Start line, countdown, and we were off heading our way to the canal; a journey of about 3.5 miles. Aiming to keep the pace steady, many of the 30 milers shot off, I just trundled along chatting to some of the other runners. We headed up a stony track (note to self, that will hurt the feet later), down a farm road holding the pace back and spotting the markers indicating the route back from the Trent, across a main road and over recently drilled farmland (note to self, that will be tough later), down a heavily 4X4 rutted track (note to self, that will hurt the feet later), back onto country road and onto the canal. Shouting farewells to the 30 milers heading right, we 50 and 100 milers headed left towards Retford, Osberton and finally Worksop. Keeping my pace to an even-ish 10 min mile, the towpath was reasonably runnable at this stage in the race.
Forty minutes in and I already needed to pee – this was to become a theme! I’m pretty sure it was my body dumping the water it usually loses as sweat while running in the heat but I could have done without having to lurch behind trees, out of sight of buildings, anglers and dog walkers quite so regularly. Plus, it isn’t much fun squatting in nettles in the dark after 80 miles.
Careful to keep my electrolyte intake even, I was to up my isotonic levels through the night by adding Elete water to both 400ml bottles instead of just the one. When I started peeing every 10 minutes after 70 miles I took the decision to increase my salt intake to try to slow my over-enthusiastic kidneys. I wasn’t craving salt and had regular thirst levels – not drinking anywhere near as much as usual in the heat (I am always thirsty!) – the extra isotonic did seem to stem the flow to once every 30 minutes. According to the medics, it was a good thing to be needing to go so much as most 100 milers get dehydrated and stop feeling the need to go at all and that’s when problems occur.
Back to the first 30 miles…strictly keeping to a run 40 min/ then walk/ fuel strategy, the first CP seemed a long time coming. It was supposed to be around 8.5 miles, actually materialising at over 10 miles. Taking note for later it was no worries to me since I’d headed out with more than the 500ml required liquid. I’d overtaken another female runner at around 8 miles. It turned out to be Ellen, who was also doing the 100.
Reaching Osberton Lock, I’d been snapping a few photos on my phone. However, after nearly running through someone’s garden, I decided the route probably wasn’t as obvious as we’d been led to believe (“Stay on the water unless it’s clear you can’t and then the route will be marked,” we’d been told. It wasn’t and I needed to concentrate more) and I should be saving my phone battery.
I’d panicked the night before the race as I’d been unable to print out the compulsory course map and hence downloaded the course map to the Viewranger app (at around midnight). It turned out we’d be given the course map copy at registration, but it was such a large scale it was pretty useless. Viewranger was to prove invaluable.
Trotting on to the Retford turn point, I could hear the tannoy calls from Osberton Horse Trials, as I passed the lead guy, Nick, heading the other way and realising I was up front when I met no other runners. With bottles filled, I headed back reaching the village hall at 31.9miles (distance up 1.9 miles).
Changing my socks – my feet had got wet earlier and I knew I’d feel comfier with fresh socks – picking up more fodder, headtorch and batteries, I headed back out as the first 30 milers finished. Tipped off that the route was tricky to navigate, especially past the Trentport CP, I turned my phone off completely. I was going to need its battery.
Heading back down to the canal to turn right this time, I trotted on at my regular 10 min mile pace. I’d decided to keep my base layer on despite it being mid afternoon. It may have been the warmest part of the day but I was expecting it to get cold again pretty quickly and I certainly wasn’t feeling that Indian summer whatsoever.
After asking for directions from a narrow boater at Drakeholes Tunnel (some helpful person had removed some tape), I was back on the Chesterfield Canal.
In late evening gloaming, I headed off down the River Idle spur meeting a couple of the back running 50 milers coming the other way. I was chuffed I did as I’d have been switching the phone app on quicker than I had to. Finding my way to the Idlestop CP, I filled up, grabbed my headtorch from my pack, nabbed a pack of crisps and turned back from the 50 mile point.
The running was now trickier, gone was the runnable tow path, the route was now on flood levee, in long wet grass.
Heading back to the Waterfront Inn CP in the dark, I was briefed on the next part of the course to Trentport. Head down the road for about half a mile before picking up the River Trent flood bank via a marked footpath.
Picking up the track, I was in the dark, all alone, and walking. The levee was compacted ruts with mole hills hidden under long grass. Bouncing from rolled ankle to rolled ankle, I decided to walk. Yes, I wanted to clock an under 24 hours run, but more importantly I wanted to complete with all bones intact.
Probably runnable in daylight, on a dark, cloudy night the track was pretty much walk only. Without a moon, the river was barely visible let alone the trail’s hollows. Thankfully still warm, I was okay walking, having to check the phone app to find the correct way over the flood bank in construction work, before rolling into the next CP.
Manned by a runner who had completed the 30 miler earlier in the day, he advised that I’d cross a concrete bridge, a metal bridge and two wooden bridges before hitting the power station. Okay, check, got that, fuelled up on peanut butter and jam sarnies, with a banana for luck, I was on my way.
More un-runnable flood bank. Argh! Lots of load swearing, I was annoyed. This was hard, with Viewranger pretty much running non stop, I struggled to navigate the correct way over the concrete bridge and under the metal bridge (I never did find the wooden bridges!). If were any route markings, they were impossible to find in the pitch black.
Finally, making my way towards the power station, the levee was now compacted molehill, rutted track, under mown grass. More joy – not! Aside from the ankle rolling, my shoes were filling with trimmed thistles. And…my iPhone was running out of juice…20 percent, 15 percent…crap, was I going to make it off the Trent before it went flat? I switched onto power save mode.
Hitting the power station I simply had no idea where to go, I could see flashing orange lights out of the darkness – enter the site’s security team and their Land Rover. It seems they weren’t too happy to see a random runner wandering around a secure site on a Saturday night (9.30pm).
“Over the hump-backed bridge behind the pump house,” they shouted grumpily. I never did find the bloody hump-backed bridge but did somehow find my way back onto the track – thanks Viewranger.
Ten percent, 8 percent battery…how much longer would I be on the flood levees, now accompanied by a flock of sheep…1 percent battery. Double crap! And then out of the darkness I saw some ‘Caution Runner’ signs and I was off the flood bank and onto a marked track, which I had also been given course notes for. No word of a lie; my phone battery went flat within seconds as I sent a little prayer up to the bountiful running gods for looking out for a lonely ultra runner. That was a close call.
On track, able to trot, we were back up and running. Next problem – my headtorch was getting mightily dull. I’d put fresh batteries in before the race, I had fresh batteries in my pack. Giving me 7 hours each that was supposed to be 14 hours, plenty to see me through an autumnal night – unfortunately the current set had been in for just under 3.5 hours. Bugger, I wouldn’t have enough light to get me through the dark.
Running into the next CP, I gabbled to the crew about desperately needing batteries. Putting in my final fresh set, by their torch light, and panicking as they didn’t work before one of the crew fiddled around to get the light shining bright, the team promised to telephone ahead to race HQ at the village hall to get me some more triple AAAs sorted. I’d taped the batteries in the correct orientation ready to go in advance, so have no idea why they didn’t work immediately. Restocked with light, water, brandishing a salami stick (grabbed from my back back), and forgetting to ask how England had fared in the rugby, I headed out towards the village hall another 5 miles away.
Heading into a village a very friendly collie, being taken for a late night walk, decided to jump up me. Cheers! “It’s okay, he likes runners,” his merry owner shouted. Yep, and I like dogs, but after 70 miles I don’t want a snail climbing up my legs let alone a buoyant dog.
Rolling back into the village hall at 75 miles (yes, it was supposed to be 70), I was ready for a sit down, mug of sugary coffee and big bowl of piping soup. Changing my socks, shoes (exactly the same model as I’d been wearing before), and baselayer, I sympathised with fellow 100 miler, James, who had had to drop due to blisters (probably making him feel even worse by the perfect condition of my own feet). Catching up with Marie, who has also decided to pull from the 100. She’d recently completed the North West Downs 100 so didn’t have anything to prove, while supping a chocolate milk, I didn’t feel that excited about getting back out there myself.
Okay, fuelled up, grabbing my Samsung (fresh battery and also Viewrangered up – yes, I know I was running the same route again, but I wasn’t taking any chances), I was ready for the final push.
Thank you, thank you, for the spare head torch batteries, fully fuelled, and reminding myself I was just another 30 (well 31.9) I was back out feeling mightily perkier.
Heading back from the 70 my feet had felt like they had been via the blacksmiths – beaten by many hammers – they had been shot, but in fresh shoes I was back up and running. As I headed up the first hill however, I suddenly felt really cold. It was something like midnight and I needed to wrap up. Donning my waterproof jacket, hat, buff and gloves, and stuffing even more food down my neck, I quickly felt warmer. Close hypothermia shave averted, I trekked on, power marching with purpose where I couldn’t run. Needing to pee, as mentioned earlier, progress was of a moderate pace.
It was damp and slightly foggy on hitting the canal. I was still running steadily (in between my compulsory 10 minute stops), progress was at a fair pace.
Giving myself regular body checks, my right hip had been nagging earlier, until I focused on left leg forward, and back grumbling until I reminded myself to keep my shoulders back and core strong; we were still trucking. Leaping a toad, hedgehog, and as many slugs and snails as I could, the path was getting increasingly wet. Directing my torchlight down, I tried to keep my eyes away from the dank and misty canal. A sudden splash from the bank certainly made me quick foot it.
Hitting my final visit to the Retford Road CP, I’d already passed Nick heading the other way. We were both death marching at the time. We were near Osberton Lock, a track we’d managed to run in daylight but under nightfall, with over 80 miles on our legs, the uneven towpath was annoyingly walk only, it was slow progress.
The Retford Road CP was a site to behold. The crew were having a rave. Music playing, fire burning, and fairy lights blazing (I’m pretty sure I didn’t imagine it).
Anyways, with just over 16 mile to go, I couldn’t stay to party. More trudging, before suddenly my headtorch went out. No warning. Using my phone for light, I fished out the gratefully received batteries I’d picked up at the village hall and got it going again. To be fair the previous set of batteries had lasted their allotted 7 hours.
More trudging and I meet Ellen heading the other way. Some run/ crawling/ eating/ peeing and I hit the final CP. The crew, Marie (who’d started the 100) and Lorrel (a 30 mile runner) had nodded off, bless them. It’s a thankless task volunteering on a checkpoint, on a lonely canal bank, in the middle of the night, for runners now a good 40 minutes or so apart. I tried to stock up silently but woke them and they thanked me with a brew. Not wanting to stop for an unplanned tea break, I headed out polystrene cup in hand. I got onto what had been more runnable track earlier in the race, however it was now a run 10 minutes/ walk 5 minutes/ pee (darn tea!) strategy. Meeting 100-miler Matthew trudging the other way somewhere near Retford, I was to pee some more as dawn broke at 7am.
Leaving the canal, I just had to trundle back up the hill, down the rutted track and across the field before hitting the main road and heading uphill again before dropping down into the village. I was bored, tired, and bored. Deciding to kick on and get it finished, I ran the last couple of miles home, entering the village hall to a: “Why don’t you look more tired?”
I’d done it – 100 miles (well 108 by my reckoning) – completed in 23 hours 33 minutes.
First things first, I texted long suffering Steve, who was stressed before I started the 100, stressed during the 100, and to be stressed after the 100. Following this, I rounded up my lift home, got my compression tights on, changed my top, cleaned my teeth and wrenched a very sticky pair of contact lenses out, before posing for my prize-winning photo and getting some fuel in.
How did I feel? Okay, I was still standing, compus mentus, and in one piece. Although, I do now realise why it’s against race rules to drive yourself home…you quickly fall asleep once you sit down and get warm.
The next day I had to catch my flight at early o’clock back to Spain. Moving surprisingly easily, I was fine aside from my right big toe (the famously cursed arthritic appendage) and swollen feet, I boarded my plane and left the UK.
A few final words… I did it Dad, but why the heck did you like canals? Sorry but I just don’t get it! Far too wet and cold for me.