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Bonkers virtual challenges, and the 2021 Stour Valley Path Trail 50K Ultra.

I was never a fan of virtual races, but now I think there’s a place for them, and I have ran a few over the past couple of years. I completed the Run Around the World Challenge (RATW) last year with Ely Runners team mates, and I took part in the Montane Lakeland Virtual 100 miler also. This year, I did them again, and I think I really needed to, as without a focus or challenge, I am finding I can lack motivation.

The Run Around the World Challenge is the idea of Run Things, who raise funds for Mind, and this year, GoodGym. Local teams are added to UK regional teams to see how far the latter can run around the equator. It is good competitive fun nationally, but also within your own little clubs: Ely Runners got a crew together.

In addition, I decided to repeat the Montane Lakeland Virtual 100, as it fell right in the middle of July, meaning it would give my RATW mileage quite a boost in the middle of the month: they also do quite a good medal and shirt!

I have found that once I get into a routine of running every day, and as long as some of those runs are very steady, it is not so challenging. The RATW Ely Runners team gave each other so much encouragement. What was not so straightforward was the Montane Lakeland challenge right in the middle of it. It is actually 105 miles in total, and if you are at work that week, which I was, it meant getting up early to run, and then doing the same after work: this messed with my head a little. I have no problem with lone running, but the usual suspects put in appearances to provide support.

Lauren of GirlRunningLate fame, one of the regulars providing the usual company and support.

With early and late runs, and a longer one at the weekend, I was able to finish the Lakeland 105 mile challenge in five days instead of seven. I was chuffed to then treat myself to lowering the mileage a bit!

I was able to boost the RATW and Lakeland challenges by joining in on a planned club run from March to Ely. A group of us hopped on the train and ran back via part of the Hereward Way Path. All in all we ran 22 miles together, and it was a tough one, with very hot, sunny and exposed trail, areas of nettles and brambles that were only just accessible, and a lot of humour! For a few of my club friends, this was the furthest that had ever ran, and they did amazingly in challenging conditions! A special mention has to go to friend and club buddy, Michelle Berry, who provided an aid station from her car boot, with water and goodies to keep us going! What a legend!

With RATW and the Lakeland Challenge done, and 255 miles in total ran in July, I dialled things back for a while, enjoyed the return of parkrun, and kept the legs ticking over ready for this year’s Stour Valley Path Trail 50K Ultra. I am not saying I didn’t enjoy the event this year; I did, it was a gorgeous day and a superbly ran event, but to say it didn’t go well for me would be a huge understatement.

The Stour Valley Path (SVP) 50K Ultra

Warning! I always said my blog about distance running would be ‘warts and all’.

I have learned a few lessons from the ultras I have completed over the past three years, and I thought I had nailed my in-race nutrition issues. For this SVP I was also lucky enough to enjoy some support from the amazing Debbie, whose husband James was also running the event: so I had a lift there and back, and a few goodies from the boot of her car at three intervals throughout the race (so I did not use the aid stations). I had eaten and drank well the day before, and I got loads of sleep as we were not starting until just after lunchtime. I had the right food with me and plenty of fluids, and the first 16 miles or so went well, with an initial good pace over stunning Suffolk countryside. I also felt in good shape given the effort I had put in during July: I felt light and comfortable.

Stunning Suffolk countryside, but hot and humid!

But – from about mile 16 I started to feel heavy, the sweat didn’t seem to be going anywhere, perhaps due to the humidity, and as a result of this, the negative thoughts crept in. The voice in my head was telling me I was crazy to carry on: I decided to push these thoughts aside and try to address the practicalities/ problem, which I suspected was dehydration, hunger, imbalanced electrolytes, or, despite my best efforts, any combination of them all. I slowed to a forced walk, ate a couple of mouthfuls of salty buttered new potatoes, an electrolyte tablet and I sipped water. Within minutes I felt a lot better, but when I resumed running I noticed I was not picking my feet up properly. I reached around mile 18. I then began to stagger and…. I was sick: really sick. Despite having eaten OK, what was coming up was only fluid: this was a worrying situation given I was only at mile 18. For the first time ever in any race I seriously entertained calling the event organisers and pulling out – my heart rate was elevated, I was covered in sweat and I had emptied my stomach of fluids. I resumed the forced walk and was amazed at how much better I felt – and feeling better hit me even more quickly than feeling unwell had. I sipped water from my soft bottles and necked another electrolyte tablet. I then broke into a slow run and abandoned any thoughts of a DNF.

More stunning views.

The rest of the race turned into an effort to keep negative thoughts at bay, to enjoy the stunning route, to be grateful for the friendly and encouraging locals and marshals, and to try and gently get fluid and some food down me whilst placing one foot in front of the other. I broke the distances down in my head into emotionally manageable chunks, and as I had just over a half marathon left to complete, I told myself it was a ten miler (a distance which I feel is my sweet spot) and a parkrun left to do.

On reflection, I think my pace was a little too fast in the first half of the race, and I didn’t force myself to slow it down given the humidity. I also whipped up a couple of hills I could and should have power-walked. I am sure these and other variables conspired to make this a tough one. Whilst writing I am also wondering what additional stress was added due to running alone; I have never ran a organised ultra event alone; so, there was no-one to tell me to snap out if, no-one to make me laugh, and no-one to consult when I felt I couldn’t trust my watch navigation.

Despite all of the above, and having been sick again at around mile 28, I managed to get back into a good rhythm, and I completed the race in a considerably better time than I did last year.

I was pleased to see James and Debbie at the finish line. I was less pleased to ask them to pull over during the journey home so I could vomit again at the roadside.

One day I’ll work out why I do this.

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Injury and the 2021 Marriott’s Way Trail Marathon.

In short, I ran a trail marathon with a suspected broken big toe: here’s the longer version…

It wasn’t my intention to run this year’s Marriott’s Way Trail Marathon competitively: for me it’s not that kind of event, and I hadn’t trained for it in any structured way. There has certainly been no tapering, which is evident given I decided to run 20 miles of trail five days before the marathon. I tend to disagree with the strict post-long run recovery periods you often read and hear about: I prefer to recover based on how I feel. That’s just me though, and I would never suggest that good periods of recovery are not essential, I just think the approach can be more personal as you gain experience. But regardless of my views around recovery, my long run before the marathon put paid to any ideas of running Marriott’s Way in anger.

From my house to Wicken Lode along the river and back is about 20 miles, and I fancied a few hours alone in the sun during a week of leave from work.

There’s loads of them along the river in Ely!

Once I got on to the riverbank heading away from Ely, it became evident that there was more cattle than usual; at least, it felt that way, and although there was the usual huge bull on the river bank, my concern was more about the nervous cows with their young. Getting out of their way involved a wide berth and negotiating overgrown banks, so I trotted behind the herd, trying not to move too suddenly or to get too close (the cows can get spooked when they have young). Eventually, the whole gang broke into a trot and ran down a path leading to the side of the riverbank: I made a mental note to keep an eye out for this skittish lot on my return journey.

The run was gorgeous, if a tad too hot and exposed for a long run, I reached Wicken Lode and headed back on the same route. When I encountered the cattle again, I glanced at my watch and noted I had reached 24K in distance, and the herd, including the huge bull, were all below and to the right of the high bank I was running on. I was concentrating on them more than where my feet were landing, and I stubbed my left big toe on a raised part of the bank, which caused me to fall heavily. I had decided on very light road shoes given it was so dry, and this pair afforded hardly any toe protection, and when I got up and carried on, I could feel that something wasn’t right with the toe, but it was not so painful that I had to stop running.

I ran the remaining 8K home, and inspected the toe: it looked terrible. The new nail that had grown to replace the one I lost as a result of running the Peddars Way Ultra had split horizontally, and the end of the toe was a deep purple. Without a trip to the local Minor Injuries (I couldn’t be bothered), I decided that a fracture was likely, maybe a spiral one. My wife disagreed and thought I was making a fuss. Either way, I was pretty sure that Marriott’s Way was not going to happen.

I was surprised at the number of people who recommended that I just strap the injured toe to the next one and get on with it, and if I am honest, this advice appealed to my attitude to running distances: that of overcoming the obstacles and getting it done. So, days later, I found myself back at the start of the Marriott’s Way Trail – a race I have ran before at the marathon and half marathon distance. I met up early with fellow Ely Runner Andrew Scarlett, and we discussed how we wanted to approach the race. Andrew told me his intended pace, I wiggled the strapped up toe and told him he would be running without me; he said we should just ‘see what happens’. I have come to appreciate that Andrew is as tough a runner as they come, and if he had decided on a certain pace and time, that was what was going to happen. I lost sight of him within a mile of us being sent off in covid-safe waves!

Waiting with Andrew Scarlett to start the Marriott’s Way Trail Marathon

The organisation, as is always the case with Positive Steps events, was superb, and even more so while we find ourselves still in the grips of the pandemic. No need to go over the things Kevin Marshall and his team did to mitigate the risks – let’s just say it was all reassuring.

I rather surprised myself in the end. I had water with me, so I did not use any of the aid stations the event laid on. I had also told myself I would treat this as an ultra and walk anything that I found tricky, or to take on a run walk run strategy in general; in the end I just ran it: no walks, no aid stations, and no food. The trail was pretty flooded at various points, with the water ankle deep at times, and there were some very muddy sections, but this added to the fun, and my overall sense of achievement. No sub-4; but then, I think those days are gone for me, but I was happy with 4:22 and having got through it with an injury. Andrew finished in just under 4 hours, and given the conditions on the day, this is amazing.

Home in time for tea and medals!

If you like trail, and you like distance running, do take a look at the events offered by Positive Steps.

During my drive home I thought about two challenges that were next on my list: the ‘Run Around the World Virtual Challenge’, and bang in the middle of this, the ‘Virtual Montane Lakeland 100 Miler’. More on these next time, but for now, I can report that these events seem a little less daunting to me having got through Marriott’s Way in one piece.

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The 2021 Peddars Way Ultra Marathon and the Bury to Clare Cross Country 18 miler.

It has been close to two months since my ‘home from home’ 50 mile ultra. Since then, some organised events have been creeping back onto the scene. Everyone has their own pace when it comes to returning to ‘normal’ during these strange times, and my own approach to races is to case out race organisers’ risk management details before booking any event. In my view, Positive Steps Events are managing transmission risks really well during this stage of the pandemic (I know a little about the subject due to my work); so I have had no hesitation in signing up for their races.

The Peddars Way Ultra Marathon is where distance running started for me a couple of years ago, so it has a special place in my heart. I ran it in 2019 and 2020, and, although I left it a little late, I got in again this year. It was reassuring to know that a group of Ely Runners had already entered, including the amazing Lisa, who I have twice ran the event with. Even better was the news that another two Ely Runners, Michelle and Caroline, were going to provide us with unofficial support on the day, which was allowed, as long as they did not park or set up near where the scaled down official aid stations were scheduled to be situated. If you have read any of my blog entries about ultras, you will know that I really struggle with nutrition during them, and to an extent hydration also: I tend to feel a little nauseous when I have passed the halfway stage, and eating is a huge struggle for me. I am pleased to report that I more or less nailed it for the first time at the 2021 Peddars Way! More on that shortly.

The Peddars Way Ultra – from the Suffolk border to the North Norfolk coast

It has become a tradition that a mate, Steve, takes me to and picks me up from Peddars. Lateral Flow tests all round, open windows and masks, and the tradition was maintained this year! Positive Steps placed runners in safe numbers and waves this time, and at the start I felt safe and comfortable.

Time to rewind and talk about nutrition and hydration. I like a beer – I have always liked a beer (as well as other boozes), but for reasons I won’t go into, I decided months ago that I will only have a beer on Sundays now, after my long runs. As much as I like a dark rum, I have decided that I need to leave spirits behind me. As a result, I am more hydrated most of the time, my head feels clearer and my running has most definitely improved. On the day before Peddars I hydrated well, and I focussed on carb heavy, healthy food. As usual, I decided to take the food I like to the event, no matter how unhealthy: as a fellow Ely Runner always tells me when it comes to nutrition and distance running: ‘train clean, race dirty’. So, I took advantage of the unofficial race support on the day, and Michelle and Caroline carried for me: 1x one flask of leek and potato soup; x 1 bag of new potatoes in salt and butter; x 2 hard boiled eggs; x 5 bottles of Lucozade. In my ultra vest I had more potatoes; some flat Lucozade; Love Hearts; salt and vinegar crisps and x 2 breakfast bars as well as the usual soft bottles of water. Also, this time, and for the first time, I followed the advice of friend and Ely Runner, Emily, and carried salt tablets, which I took x 1 per hour. On the morning of Peddars I drank a pint of tea and ate a large bowl of cereal.

At one of Michelle’s and Caroline’s amazing aid stations.

Running Peddars in April instead of February made a huge difference on many levels: it was simply nicer weather, we started and finished in daylight, and we did not have to run up to our shins in water along that notorious boardwalk near the start. The sunshine definitely helped me in terms of general mood. It was a gorgeous day. Fellow Ely Runners Andy, Allistair and Lisa had already started ahead of me by the time my wave was sent off. I started my race with Ely Runners Tom and Martin (who I have ran a few events with) and his brother in law, Brian.

Utterly gorgeous weather.

Tom is one serious runner at the best of times, so it was not long before he had edged off ahead of the pack, and before long we caught up with Lisa and her friend, Mike. It was nice to run in the group and for the bulk of the the race, I kind of oscillated between Lisa and Mike and Martin and Brian. For the first time, I ran chunks of a longer event alone, with my running buddies in the distance in front and behind me: I enjoyed these periods as much as I did running in their company: I had time to think and to reflect on the fact that this felt better than any Peddars, or in fact any ultra I had ran before in terms of nutrition. Caroline and Michelle were parked up more or less every 7 miles, which was a huge luxury! I didn’t eat too much when we stopped at their cars, but certainly enough to fuel for the miles ahead. I felt so much better for it, and didn’t really start to suffer until around mile 40, which is good going for me!

Physically the terrain was tough. Peddars does have some hills, but nothing too crazy; the main issue was trail that has been muddy and well trodden on, but had baked dry in the sun, making for an uneven and technical run. As a result, by mile 40, the soles of both feet with suffering, my lower back hurt, and I could tell that one big toe nail and both little ones were definitely on the way out. As I type this, the three toenails are black, but they have not fully succumbed and fallen off just yet: they will.

In the latter stages of the race, I found myself alone with Martin. His brother in law had pressed well ahead: highly impressive given his furthest distance to date had been a marathon. Martin is easy and fun company at these times, and we talked about family, food, work, and running. Martin can also be quite motivating, saying the right things just when you are starting to dip mentally.

I finished the race with Martin, and together we took in the slow downhill towards the coast, with the noticeable sea breeze from around mile 45, which disguised what was for me going to be a decent case of sunburn! The final mile involved road running as we entered and ran though Holme-next-the-Sea. As we approached the beach to rip our pages out of ‘the book’, I couldn’t help but feel disappointment mixed with elation. At my past two Peddars, when ripping out the page, it was dark, with the crashing of the sea in my ears: it was a dramatic and exciting way to finish the race. This time, it was a clear, sunny day: no drama, but still the same level of relief.

At the finish, which was this year outside the village hall instead of inside, it was great to see Andy and Alistair along with our support crew! We waited to see Lisa and Kevin come in, and then I made a swift exit with Steve, who handed me a bottle of beer and then tolerated me for the journey home.

Well done, Positive Steps on a safe and well-organised event. I will be back!

In the few weeks in the wake of Peddars I most definitely felt the training effect, and I still am, and whilst runs might not have been faster (although some have) they have all felt easier and more relaxed. Interesting then, that the Bury to Clare trail race, also laid on by Positive Steps felt much harder than Peddars.

Bury to Clare cross country, a tough run wet or dry.

Friends and Ely Runners, Emily and Lisa have both told me how lovely the Bury to Clare race is. It was full when I finally looked it up, so I added myself to the waiting list and was chuffed to bits to to be offered a place just days later. I was to run this one alone, as Emily, Lisa and fellow club member Jemma were all in a later wave to me. The stress of transport to a point to point event was removed for me as Jemma’s other half, Geoff, kindly agreed to add me to the car journey (more Lateral Flow tests, masks and open windows).

I am still unsure why, I but as I was ushered into my start pen, I made the decision that I would not be power walking hills and I would not be using the aid stations: I decided that it was a straight 18 mile run with no stopping no matter what. I knew from very early on that this would be tough, for various reasons: it was warm, sunny, exposed and a slightly humid day: there were slight hills, right from the offset; and loads of people, including runners clearly better than me, were walking the hills. On top of this, trail that had been messed up by being walked and driven on in the wet had baked and ordered into a surface that was really hard work. I did this run off the back of breakfast, some water and some salt tablets: I carried no food. I might not be one of the strongest or fastest runners around, but I reckon I am one of the most stubborn, and if I decide on an approach, it’s happening!

Gorgeous open countryside.

Running an event that was new to me, and with no company, was a lovely experience. I didn’t have to worry about navigation, as I had the map on the Suunto and it was well marked-out in terms of signage along the way, so I was able to think, and take in the scenery. I was not familiar with this route, despite this part of Suffolk being close to where I was raised; it is gorgeous open countryside, and it seemed ever changing as I progressed along the route. When I approached the first aid station, the lady with the water and snacks seemed a little surprised that I was not stopping, but I gave her a cheery wave, and as I had water on me, I pressed on with my decision to run the whole thing.

Before long I was passing and being passed by a familiar group of runners, all of whom were faster than me when running, but walked all of the hills. Me constantly passing them on the hills and them repeatedly passing me when they resumed running soon ended when their speed was making more gains than my hill running. I was not bothered by this, because despite being in some physical pain by mile 13, I could tell that I was in better condition that I have been for over a year and I was going to be able to finish this without walks or rests.

Mile 13 is when things really started to hurt, and I could feel what had been a reasonable pace start to ease off. It was at this point that a passing runner told me it was now roughly a 50 foot gentle drop into Clare. This was highly motivating news, but when I could spot Clare in the distance, I could see that the drop was interrupted by a bump in the landscape, which turned out to be a nasty upward slope before the proper drop into Clare Country Park and towards the finish line.

I was pretty done in by the time I crossed the line. I ached all over, my feet hurt, I felt burnt and I was covered in the dry salt I has sweated out. I needed full fat Coke, but there was a queue at the little shop near the finish line. A lady in the queue clearly read my mind and asked if she could get me anything and she added that it would be her treat! What a wonderful person! I was soon sat ‘comfortably’ guzzling my drink and situated so that I could cheer in Jemma, Lisa and Emily as they separately crossed the line. No matter how they felt, they all looked strong when they finished. No mean feat in warm, humid conditions on reasonably hard trail. Well done to Tom, also!

Thank you, Positive Steps. I think this will be a regular one for me, and I will be back for the December event. Hopefully with a fellow Ely Runner who wants to try out the route!

Next stop – the 2021 Marriott’s Way Trail Marathon!

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Home from Home – 50 mile ultra

Whenever I have cause to visit the village of my childhood, I always feel a sense of home and nostalgia; for me, Little Thurlow in Suffolk holds so many memories, and I know the huge estate around it like the back of my hand.  I left Thurlow when I was 18, and I have been settled in Ely, Cambridgeshire for many years, but I often think of Thurlow as home.  Since taking up the madness that is distance running, I have always been taken up with the idea of running from my new to old home, cross country, but I am rubbish at navigation and creating routes.  Of course, I know the route by car, but that would be no fun:  I wanted to know how to do the route whilst encountering hardly any tarmac. This is where Ely Runner buddy Emily comes in!

I have ran a few ultras with Emily, and she knows maps!  She loves them!  She collects them!  She is also brilliant at creating routes and sending them via GPX file.  I decided it was time to ask a favour.  Before I knew it, Emily had messaged me the required file (we both own the same Suunto 9 GPS watch), and after the usual head scratching, I managed to transfer the file into the maps in the Suunto app and onto my watch.  There the file sat, and Sundays went by when I was doing other runs, or just couldn’t pluck up the courage to just do it!  Then, I did it!

I spoke with my wife and children, and got the all clear to be away for the best part of Sunday the 21st March, and the evening before, I did my usual prep.  The kit….

  • Newton Boco AT 4 trail shoes
  • Shorts and technical shirt
  • Merino jumper and socks
  • Buff
  • Ultra vest with soft bottles to carry a litre of water
  • Lightweight power pack with phone charger lead
  • Debit card
  • Bag of wet wipes
  • Head torch
  • One ham and cream cheese sandwich
  • One banana
  • Two packs of chicken fridge raiders
  • Two small Soreen bars
  • One bag of salt and vinegar crisps
  • Two bottles of Lucozade (flattened the previous night)
  • Suunto 9 GPX watch
  • iPhone
  • Foldaway waterproof jacket

This was going to be 50 miles of solitude, and there was a good chance that if anything went wrong it could be ages until I encountered anyone else and there might be black spots in terms of phone reception, so, I ate and hydrated really well the night before, and got a decent night’s sleep, having made sure the watch and phone were both fully charged.  I have told several Ely Runner friends that I needed to do a big run alone, as I feel I am too reliant on the security of company:  emotionally and practically.  This time there would be no-one to share things with, no matter how bad it got.

I was reassured when I studied Emily’s map, as I came to realise that I knew the vast majority of the route.  18 miles or so was Ely to Woodditton (our running club’s annual Christmas run), then there was a small chunk I didn’t know at all, which led to the outskirts of Stetchworth and then onto Great and Little Bradley (where I know the terrain) and then to Little and Great Thurlow (which I know like the back of my hand).  There and back, using the Suunto 9’s breadcrumb navigation, meant 50 miles of trail.

I set off at 0730 having done the usual (bit of breakfast and the application of Vaseline to those areas that can ruin an ultra if they do not receive the preparation they require)!  The trail along the river at that time of morning is beautiful, and I decided to try and stop staring at the ground just ahead of me and actually take things in for once.  I am glad I did, because I encountered no people until close to the Cuckoo Bridge Nature Reserve:  only deer, swans, buzzards and what seemed to be an unusual number of Greylag Geese.  On this route is a section known as Chalk Pit – a wide track, heavily churned up by agricultural vehicles, with huge puddles and very deep mud, often from one side to the other.  Chalk Pit is usually a bit of a laugh, unless you have miles ahead of you after the mud, and you have to encounter it again on the return journey.

Fast forward to Woodditton, where usually I would be pressing straight ahead, or, one can turn left to join the Icknield Way Trail: Emily’s map told me that I should turn right onto the Stour Valley Path and head towards Stetchworth.  The countryside undulates more out this way, and the trail takes you along muddy paths on field headlands and beside woodland before leading onto very narrow paths only as wide as your outstretched arms.  It was on two such paths that I encountered conditions worse than Chalk Pit!  The first was a gentle downward slope of deep well-trodden mud with a hint of horse sewage; there was no way to avoid ‘running’ straight through it.  It occured to me just for a second that Emily had known about this and included it for a laugh;  this was closely followed by the realisation that the return journey would include the same, but uphill!  Nearer into the village were more long stretches of muddy woodland footpath, where at one point a shoe was sucked straight off a foot!  All that was possible at these stages was a gentle trot, or a careful walk.


Could it have been Emily’s idea of a laugh?

Beyond Stetchworth the landscape opened up and I started to get my bearings.  I no longer needed the breadcrumb navigation on the watch and switched over to the distance/ pace/ heart rate display.  A long gravel track lead me to the bottom of Water Lane in Great Bradley, where the gently flowing river crosses a ford, where I played as a child.  I paused here for a moment and tried to eat something (nutrition during ultras is something I still really struggle with).  I then took in the trail around the edges of Great Bradley, which leads into the Hamlet of Little Bradley, where I passed its amazing, tiny, 11th century round house church, before heading along the bank of the Stour towards the Thurlows.

Finally I had arrived in the village of my childhood – Little Thurlow, and I ran through it to the end of Emily’s map, which for some reason ended in the middle of the field behind the Village Hall in Great Thurlow.  Curiously, I felt a huge sense of achievement, which is odd, because I have ran trail marathons and ultras, and I have ran further than the 25 miles I had just covered.  I can only assume it had something to do with where I had ran to, and how long it had been a bit of an ambition of mine to do it.  I headed back a short distance and found a spot up against the fence in the huge meadow behind my late Grandparents’ home. I tried to get a banana down me, but again, I couldn’t eat; I just sat there thinking about the contingency plan I had discussed with my wife whereby she would come and get me once I was in Thurlow if I simply couldn’t face the run back.  I couldn’t face the run back, I couldn’t eat, and I was thinking about my Grandparents and how old I was now, whilst back in my childhood village. It was a bit of a dark moment.  An internal pep talk then ensued, where the sensible me told the miserable bastard sat in a field failing to eat a banana that he should not care about distance or pace, and to feel fortunate to be able to take in all this countryside, and to soak up the journey back.  No call was made to my wife.

The gorgeous Little Thurlow

The run out of the village was lovely and my mood lifted.  As I headed out along the Stour again, back towards Little Bradley, I recalled fishing the river, seeing otters, and how us kids made a raft one summer.  All was fine through Great Bradley, but as I headed back towards Stetchworth, the miserable bastard made himself known again: he had worked out that if things were to get really tough, it would likely happen around the 35 mile point, which would be back on Devil’s Dyke, and that would be after the uphill mud had been negotiated in Stetchworth.  Part of the idea of this run was that I was to do it alone, but I decided to message Ely Runner friends Lauren and Emily, to ask them if they would take a video call as I hit the uphill mud section:  I knew they would laugh and in turn this would give me a little lift.  When the time to make the call arrived I noted that the sun had slightly dried and hardened the track, but there was still a really wet, deep, squelchy middle section, which Emily and Lauren found most amusing.  I can’t quite work out why they so wanted me to roll in it though: they didn’t get their wish.  I was really grateful for the quick chat and laugh.

One of the mental milestones.

I was pleased to get off the Stour Valley Path and run from Woodditton onto Devil’s Dyke.  I had decided that this would be a bit of a milestone on the run, but I also knew that, having been depleted by the mud and having not eaten enough, approaching 35 miles meant testing times ahead.  I encountered several people on the narrow top of Devil’s Dyke, and each time I gave way to them and edged slightly down the Dyke edge, not only to socially distance, but if I am honest, to grab 30 second breathers.  All I was interested in was the flat Lucozade in my ultravest; the food was not going to get eaten.  It was necessary to power-walk some of the chalky steep slopes on the Dyke, using the technique of pushing the hands down onto the quads

Chalk Pit on the way back was just as bad, and by now I was at that stage where if I staggered or slipped, correcting myself was harder due to fatigue, and this resulted in me sliding into some of the bigger puddles. My thoughts turned to the long stretch along the drains out at Reach Lode, where it is stunning, but it’s a long bit with no variety! It was here that I spotted two fellow Ely Runners, Lisa and Mark with their little one on the other side of the drain. We discussed my run, and Mark enquired as to whether I was mental: fair enough!

Things were starting to hurt by the time I had passed through the Nature reserve and headed along the river back to Ely. The sun started to set as I passed the Marina, and all was quiet other than the Greylags and the numerous pheasants startling me more than I did them as they flew off to roost.


Close to Ely

Once I reached the Barway Pump House I knew the end was in sight, and it was a matter of one foot in front of the other while keeping the lights of the railway station and the bypass as my focus. I ran towards the railway crossing and stopped, as I had decided that if the 50 mile mark was not near my house; tough – I would be walking the rest as a cool down.

Running 50 miles of trail is always going to be tough, but the terrain and conditions can make things a little easier, or even tougher. Running such a distance alone is so different to doing so with company. Ely to Thurlow through the mud is a run I am glad I completed and I will never forget it. But I think this is one 50 mile route I’ll try just the once.

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Ely Runners RED January 2021, and my battle with Quanea Drove!

Given what we know about the link between building movement into our daily lives and how that supports mental health, every year, RED January inspires many people to get active on a daily basis. At the time of writing, we are still experiencing a global pandemic, so anything that can help people with their mental health has to be a good thing. This year, I decided to try and create a bit of a RED January team from members of my running club, Ely Runners, and at the same time try to raise some funds for RED January’s charity partner, Sport in Mind, the UK’s leading mental health sports charity.

https://www.sportinmind.org/pages/category/who-are-we

Every year, Ely Runners usually manages to get a handful of members to take part in RED January; this time though, and probably due to the fact that the focus is on all kinds of activity, and not just running, we managed to recruit a team of over 40! A JustGiving page was set up for Sport in Mind; a little promotion was created via our Facebook page; a Strava Club was created, and we were good to go!

The Ely Runners Red January 2021 Strava Club logo

I am not sure why, but I decided I would have a crack at a daily 10K, with maybe the odd longer run on Sundays. In the end this worked out just fine, and as is always the case, I was happy to run alone (early in the morning or after work), and I was also pleased if any one fellow Ely Runner joined me (whilst adhering to the pandemic rules).

So, January was quite a journey, with loads of online mutual encouragement, sharing of runs, scrutiny of the weekly Strava League table, and the logging of running; walking; cycling; yoga; HIIT sessions; strength and conditioning; and even outdoor swimming!

The thing that hit me early on was the number of club members who were perhaps in the doldrums in terms of their running: something that happens to the best of us, but perhaps more so in the middle of a depressing global pandemic. People made it clear that they were signing up to ‘get back out there’. One club member, Lizzie, was quite open about how RED January had helped her with her sanity, got her running again, resulted in her finding places near her home she had never seen, and got her some PBs!

Speed and pace is of course all relative; but my personal approach, given I ran 10K every day, was to run what is a slow pace for me, with the occasional run that was close to race pace.

With club member and running buddy, Emily, and some effluent!

As usual, I was able to run, in accordance with the rules, with one other person at a time: so, it was great to see the usual suspects: Shaun, Emily, Jon, Lionel, Andrew S, Natalie, and Lauren. I am so grateful to this bunch, and other Ely runners, who kept each other motivated via Instant Messenger.

With Lauren on the infamous Quanea Loop 10K route!

I tried to mix it up a little for my 10K routes, but for some reason I kept going back to a familiar club route: Quanea Drove. The 10K route takes in some of the City, but also a run along the river and up a hill (Kiln Lane) from Roswell Pits. The Quanea Drove part is made up of long, isolated and exposed farmland roads, with wide views across black Fenland soil. It is rare not to see deer, buzzards, barn owls etc. At this time of year parts of the route are very muddy and icy, and the long empty roads can mess with your mind; especially in rain with a headwind! But, for some reason, I like the route, so, it became a regular for me throughout January!

Watching other club members’ progress on Facebook and Strava became addictive, and it turns out that social media was important in helping people to remain motivated to do RED January; especially when feeling gloomy about the pandemic situation. For those of us whose focus was running only, a club leaderboard on Strava was interesting, and for some, maybe a source of friendly competition (you know who you are)!

I found that, despite not getting proper rest days, I became quickly accustomed to 10K every day, but there were times when I ached a lot, and the odd day when it all came together and I felt like I did a few years ago when all those PBs kept rolling in: I analysed my pace and times and found I was running more challenging routes at a faster and more consistent pace on those rare days. Sundays were devoted to trail, and usually a half marathon.

With Jon. Mud played a huge part in Red January this year!

Due to the kindness of the Ely Runners RED January Team, other Ely Runners, some of their friends and some anonymous donors, we did well on the fundraising front. At the time of writing, Ely Runners has raised £1,538 for Sport in Mind.

I had hinted to one or two Ely Runners friends that I was keen to do a longer run on the last day of RED January, and this was going to happen whatever the activities of any of my club mates; but, it was a certain Allistair Berry who motivated me to go that bit further! Allistair is a phenomenally tough runner, who pushes himself hard; and you would never know if he is finding things hard, because he is always smiling, joking and laughing! On the penultimate day of RED January, Allistair knocked out a casual marathon in wet and windy conditions (despite being bitten by a dog en route)! Kudos! But then he ran 10 miles on the final day with his wife, Michelle, and then carried on to make his final run a half marathon! Now, I have never really been bothered about my place on the leaderboard, only having looked at it to see how people were doing, and to keep abreast of their amazing mileage in the final week. On the last day, I decided to push it further than I had at first intended.

With Shaun, who accompanied me on my first Quanea Drove loop on the last day of RED January.

My original plan was to park my car in town, and use the boot as an aid station (Lucozade, sandwich, banana, change of socks and some plasters), and then run the whole loop (10K) four times, so that I would cover about 24 miles, and then would have to go off and do a bit more for the marathon distance. As a fellow club member said just yesterday: just one lap of Quanea Drove can be mentally demanding in the wrong conditions. I wasn’t worried about the mental stuff; I have an ability to switch off from it now: I was worried about my physical ability given the daily 10Ks in the lead up to the 31st January! Allistair’s marathon, and knowing that he was out there running again gave me the final push to decide that more than a marathon was required. I decided to run 5 Quanea Drove loops with a short cool down at the end.

If I was to cover over 30 miles, I decided to be kind to myself (and responsible to others): this meant a very short break at my car to eat and drink after each loop; to take a selfie with any Ely Runners I encountered, and to defer to the public at all times. I can’t pretend I wasn’t happy when I had to stand to one side to allow tractors, other runners and families to pass safely.

The first loop was easy (no biggie as some of my club mates say): I am used to it, and I had the company of the superb Shaun, who kept me chatting about all things covid! The second loop was fine, and made easier by losing some of the gear I was wearing, and getting a banana and some Lucozade down me! Things started to get a little uncomfortable physically at the end of the third loop, but some messages from friends helped: I was running slowly enough to be able to text whilst on the go!

The fourth loop was the one where I switched off mentally; something I have learned from a few ultra marathons: it’s not easy to explain. It involves banishing negative thoughts or any ideas that you can’t achieve your goal, and it seems to be associated with a type of tunnel vision, where looking forward is constant and I shut down from everything going on around me. I remained focussed on getting back to the car, avoiding running near anyone, and remembering to take sips of water.

The dreaded Quanea Drove. 34.2 miles of repeats!

I cannot pretend I was happy at the idea of setting off for the fifth loop, and as I did so, I noticed that even the shortest break resulted in me seizing up, so, I got on with it. I still struggle with nutrition on longer runs, and the usual mixture of nausea and hunger kicked in. This final 10K loop was a challenge physically, and I think I was able to do it because of my efforts in RED January, and yet at the same time I was hurting because of those same efforts. Good humoured banter with club members via messenger pushed me to the end of this loop, and then a final shuffle of around three miles. This marked the end of RED January 2021 for me!

So, today is the 1st of February 2021, and apart from eating, a lot of my time today is being taken up with reflecting on the efforts of my fellow club members, all of whom have things going on in their lives during a stressful and worrying pandemic. RED January 2021 has helped us all, and in the process, helped to raise some money for a superb charity. So here’s to Ely Runners, RED January and Sport in Mind!

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The pandemic and running friends!

Today I completed the annual Ely Runners New Year’s Eve 10K. It is an amazing event, that sells out fast every year: this year it had to be done a little differently as, at the time of writing, the global pandemic is still very much making itself felt, and I live in what is now a tier 4 area. The NYE 10K had to be virtual, and the Government guidelines and laws had to inform how the race would be conducted. I decided to use the same event route used for this race every year, but, I ran it alone, cold, and in a reflective mood. For days now I have been thinking of what theme I should use for new work on my blog; and as I set off on my 10K today, and had covered about 1.5K, I spotted Charlotte in her car at a junction ahead: I was pleased to see her. Charlotte is a major organiser for the event, and all round Ely Runners hero. I approached her car, she shouted a friendly insult at me and drove off. It wasn’t just any old insult, it was a baaaaad one – not one to be documented in my blog. I could not imagine a world without Charlotte’s inappropriateness in it. Then it hit me. My group of running buddies have got to the stage where they share each other’s problems, tragedies, successes, jokes, opinions; and they can shout THAT kind of insult at me, safe in the knowledge that it will not offend, and it genuinely is meant as affectionate (at least I hope so)! This time my blog is about running exploits since August 2020, but with a focus on the characters whose company I shared: people I regard as friends.

The 2020 Virtual Ely Runners NYE 10K

Time to rewind. The last time I blogged I covered the Stour Valley Path Ultra with Ely Runner, Shaun: a man with a quick, dry sense of humour, who I have had the odd socially distanced run with since then. During one of our more recent trail runs, Shaun and I turned into a sweating, slightly out of breath politician/ virologist hybrids. Shaun is a top running buddy.

The legendary Shaun: eco-warrior, politician and virologist.

You will have read about Lauren in my blog, and you might have read hers https://girlrunninglate.com/blog/. To say that Lauren and her family have had a bad year is an understatement; throughout the pandemic and the tough time she has had, she has remained the usual superb running buddy and friend, who has joined me on random runs; the first leg of a duathlon in September; part of Ely Runner, Natalie’s leg of the Virtual Round Norfolk Relay; a Christmas run with Pete, and a weekly cycle with Bethan (more on that in a moment).

The amazing Ely Runner and friend, Natalie, who Lauren and I joined to support her through her leg of the Virtual 2020 Round Norfolk Relay.

Lauren and fellow Ely Runner, Bethan started cycling on Wednesdays after work a while back, and they either invited me, or I muscled my way in – I can’t remember – either way, it’s good cross-training and always a laugh. Bethan is hilarious, not just because she never seems to change gear and struggles to indicate left, but because she laughs a lot and her happiness is infectious. I always look forward to the weekly cycle: pandemic permitting.

One of the Wednesday cycles with the amazing Bethan!

Lauren had planned with fellow running buddy, Pete, to complete their own Club Christmas run, given they did not participate in the annual festive Ely Runners jaunt from Woodditton to Ely this time round. Vodka has become a bit of a tradition on this run, and determined not to miss out, Pete made some and stuck it in his back pack! I have given up all spirits, but did treat myself to one bottle of Guinness, carefully decanted into one of my ultra-vest soft bottles. I loved spending time with Pete and Lauren on some muddy trail, punctuated with their regular Rolo Vodka stops (over a half marathon distance)!

With the awesome Pete: Ely Runner and Rolo Vodka pusher!

As previously mentioned, our club organises an annual cross-country Christmas run from Woodditton back to Ely. It involves hilarity; festive costumes; food stops; mud (lots of it) and that now famous Rolo Vodka! This year, we had to run in small groups, which was allowed at that time, and I found myself in a superb group of Ely Runners. Among them was Andrew Scarlett, legendary for the miles he puts in, and his general enthusiasm. I have shared some tough events with Andrew: a couple of ultras, the Marriott’s Way Trail Marathon, The Surrey London Ride 100 as well as many other races and parkruns. I will say though, that Andrew let us down this year, as it is tradition that he falls flat on his backside in the mud on this run. Despite me at times begging him to fall, it was not to be. Thanks for hanging on at times on the Christmas run, Andrew, and allowing me to catch up!

Andrew ‘failed to fall’ Scarlett

This leads me to Emily – top nerd (in a good way) and something of an enigma. Emily clearly loves trail, and the muddier and rougher the better – but, she also swears a lot about such activities, and gives the impression that she partly resents them. Emily and I only run trails, and she loves planning them. One of the best things about Emily is her amazing humour, which came to the fore when she joined our small pod on the recent Club Christmas run: her anecdote about thistle injuries, a camera and Boots the Chemist had me laughing so much that my face hurt: she’s brilliant.

Emily ‘no filter/ trail legend’ Knight!

There are others I would loved to have said a few words about, but for various reasons our paths simply haven’t crossed much during these difficult months. But regular check ins with Lionel; Jon; Lisa; Andy T; the Berries and others, has made the pandemic that more tolerable. Instant messenger runner groups with names like ‘The Hash Brown Appreciation Society’ and ‘The Red Face Gang’ have also provided humour and support!

Back to today. That loud, embarrassing insult, yelled from Charlotte’s car – it reminded me that being part of a running community brings with it great friends, laughter and camaraderie: much needed during these strange times.

ultra running

The 2020 Stour Valley Path 50K Ultra Marathon.

At some point during every ultra marathon I have completed, I have thought to myself, ‘that’s it now, focus on your 5K times’, but, it keeps happening:  I found myself at the 2020 Stour Valley Path 50K.  I heard a few others were up for it, so I signed up – again!  We are still in the Covid-19 pandemic, so this race had to be planned very carefully; and it was.

I heard that fellow Ely Runner, Shaun, had signed up, and we agreed to complete it together, and during the event I confided in him that I have a bit of a fear of running ultras alone.  I told him that one day I must combat this fear and go out without a buddy, but it will have to be one I have completed before, and most likely this one or Peddars Way.

The Stour Valley Path is a stunning 100km (62 mile) long footpath, which starts in Newmarket (Suffolk) and ends in Cattawade (Essex).  Parts of the rolling countryside are associated with the art of Constable and Gainsborough.  Small, closed-in woodland tracks open up to sudden, wide, sweeping views of fields, woodland, rivers, and distant villages with unusual Churches.  It’s a demanding course, which I have ran before, but wow, do I have some respect for the 100K runners, as they covered that distance whilst contending with the rolling trail, but also with considerable warmth and bonkers humidity!

With Shaun, Charlotte and Adrian.

Shaun and I had the logistics of transport to think of, as we had to get to the start, and then get home from the finish;  luckily, running nutter and fellow Ely Runner Charlotte offered to help.  Charlotte is one of those people who, even if she can’t run an event, will get involved one way or another, even if it is to rock up and shout insults/ support her mates. Charlotte and her other half, Adrian (who ran the 50K), made sure Shaun and I got to the start line once I had dumped my car at the finish. Naturally, Charlotte made sure we had the obligatory dose of inappropriate observations and humour throughout our car journey.

At the start we were expected to leave in waves of six, with circles painted in the grass to ensure were all stood well-distanced from one another.  Our temperatures were taken and we were sent on our way.  Throughout the event we were struck by the mutual respect between runners when it came to overtaking and maintaining that safe distance.  The aid stations were well organised, with penned off areas that runners were expected to funnel through in order to apply gel and to don face coverings.  Wearing a face covering in the warm, humid conditions was no fun, but a sensible precaution in order to protect volunteers and fellow runners until we were able to spread out again.

Shaun and I completed the first ten miles to aid station one way too quickly: Charlotte was waiting for us, and warned that we might like to slow it down: wise words, as after this brief respite, things started to get tough.  The sun was threatening to break through the clouds, and the temperature and humidity was increasing:  it was the humidity that was causing the problem for us and many other runners as heart rates were rising, respiration was speeding up, but the sweat wasn’t evaporating!  We were alarmed at how out of breath were were getting just power walking the more serious hills (and there were a few of those).  I was also struggling with my own familiar battle around hydration and nutrition.  I don’t do well with solutions that help with maintaining the electrolyte balance, so I carry water along with some sweet and salty foods.  To date I have never got this quite right and I always get quite dehydrated and hungry: I still can’t eat much when I am completing an ultra.  I ate and hydrated well the day before, but yet again it caught me out.

Part of the trail sweeping downhill.

Shaun and I kept checking in on each other and our niggles and issues; Shaun suffered mainly with a painful back and sore legs, whilst my only issue was waves of nausea and the dark places that feeling that way sends me mentally.  Despite this we pressed on, and we were really quite disciplined with making use of the flats and downhills (running) and power-walking the hills.  All the while we were speculating about how far back our Ely Runners buddies Andy, Caroline and Lisa were:  they had started in a later wave, but we knew they would be covering ground a bit quicker than us, and we calculated that they would all cross the finish line very close to our finish time.

A couple of fellow racers ahead of us, taking in a view, which is not done justice by this photo.

On the way to the next, bigger aid station we noted a number of marshals helping with points where the navigation was less obvious, and this was appreciated.  Shaun and I realised that the navigation on my new Suunto 9 watch was only as good as the attention span of the wearer!  During this part of the race we encountered hills;  horrible ones that then rewarded you with amazing views:  it was confusing.  We kept going, one foot in front of the other, reminding each other that moving forward is all that mattered, that and not dropping down with heat stroke.  We agreed that dropping out was out of the question.

Socially distanced snacks and runners. I am binge-drinking flattened coke.

There was another aid station to reach, and things got tougher. We were soaked with sweat, totally out of breath, exhausted, with Shaun’s back playing up and me feeling like I wanted to vomit (but couldn’t). We were both alarmed at how infrequently we had needed to urinate, and distressed at what happened when we did (let’s not get into it).

Shaun turned out to be an especially calming running buddy when it got tough:  he’s a pretty laid back chap at the best of times, and even his complaints seemed calm;  he has a great sense of humour too, which helped!  The final station was a blur to me:  I couldn’t see for sweat, my mask was broken (luckily the marshals provided me with a new one and also sprayed my face with cold water), and I felt even more sick.  Shaun looked a bit all over the place trying to keep away from people, fill his water bottles and grab snacks whilst looking like a had had enough.  We had zipped through the aid stations up to this final one, but we perhaps left this one a little later than we should, because we felt that familiar stiffness that comes from huge effort followed by stopping for too long.

At some point Shaun was injured by a turnip.  Not at all funny, apparently.

The field where Shaun was injured by a turnip! Who gets injured by a turnip? Look at his injured by a turnip face!

The fact that it was just a few miles to the end lifted our spirits, a bit;  but now the nausea was really kicking in, so feeling terrible and yet knowing the end was near was messing with my head.  The old ‘not talking much but being there for each other’ routine kicked in.  Fast forward to the final 300 meters or so: it was only just getting dark, and the course was marked with glow sticks. I announced to Shaun that the time had come and I went to the bushes to vomit, loudly and spectacularly.  Shaun pressed on, I thought because he wanted to give me privacy whilst I puked, but no; later it transpired he didn’t want me to make him feel sick!

Two more episodes of quickly darting to the edge and then the finale: vomiting in such a way that made me think I would faint as there was nothing left.  Shaun called over to say that we were close and we could walk the last bit if I liked.  I just recall wiping my mouth and saying, ‘no, let’s go’, and we ran.  As we turned onto the field with the finish line ahead I said to Shaun, ‘don’t let those fellas behind overtake us’, at which point we increased the pace, with Shaun actually executing a sprint finish, and me running just slightly faster whilst looking like sweaty Casper the Ghost.

Medals were given to us and we saw that Adrian and Charlotte were watching from the side. Adrian had finished ahead of us, having joined us for a short while to share that he too felt terrible.  Impressive stuff.

We got the news that fellow Ely Runner, Rob was having a hard time, but was pressing on (he finished with an impressive time despite the struggle), and we learned that just a short while later, Andy, Lisa and Caroline had crossed the line, closing in on us with a faster time despite the wave they left in. Amazing.

All that remains to be said is that Shaun is a great running buddy, Charlotte and Adrian are stars for helping us out, the Stour Valley Path Ultra lays on a great race, and a safe one given the situation we all find ourselves in at the time of writing; and finally, I am not signing up for more ultras.  Probably.

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The Montane Lakeland 100 and some other stuff.

I was going to say that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, but are we in the middle?  I was hoping we might be nearer the end, but I am sure that’s wishful thinking. One thing is certain though:  running buddies have made the whole dreadful experience that bit easier.  I am the kind of person who is happy to be alone and to run alone, in fact, at times I really need the solitude, but running with a club member once in a while is a serious tonic.  So far I have ran with Lauren, Emily, Shaun, Andrew, and Jon: all amazing Ely Runners.  On top of this, Lauren organises a weekly strength and conditioning session via zoom (my attendance could be better), and fellow Ely Runner, Charlotte uses the same technology to deliver to her club colleagues a weekly training run.  As a result of plenty of lone runs, socially distant miles with club members, and the odd zoom session, I can feel myself getting fitter at last!

In the lead up to July, I signed up for the Run Around The World Challenge, in aid of the mental health charity, Mind.  A few other Ely Runners signed up also, so we have been stacking up the miles for Team East.  It has been fun to have bit of a challenge, and to compare mileage with club members:  we will also get some bling at the end.

A challenge doesn’t alway equal fun, as I found out when I signed up for and completed the Montane Lakeland Virtual 100. When pandemics aren’t spoiling things, The Lakeland 100 is understood to be incredibly demanding, with a high drop out rate: all set in the stunning Lake District.  So, let’s get one thing out of the way, signing up for a 100 mile event, to be completed at your own pace in seven days, and probably somewhere flatter than the Lake District is not going to be as tough as the real thing.  But, if you have never completed a 100 mile training week, or a virtual event expecting you to stack up that many miles in seven days, please do not underestimate it;  it is demanding in its own special way.

I signed up for the Lakeland 100 (actually 105 miles) as I had upped my mileage in July, and I wanted to give myself a little confidence boost for The Stour Valley Path Ultra (in August).  Right away I looked at my work schedule; compared mine to that of my wife, and then thought about childcare.  I worked out that I would mainly run 10 milers, twice a day.  In the end I planned it this way..

Monday early in the morning – 10 miles

Monday evening – 20 miles

Tuesday early in the morning – 10 miles.

Wednesday to Friday – an early and late 10 miles each day

Saturday morning – 5 miles

On the Monday, I rolled out of bed at 0500, did the essentials and was out of the door swiftly.  As I had eaten and hydrated well the day before, I did not bother with breakfast but did swig back some squash.  This first run made me realise how much many of us miss out on by not seeing the Fens at this stunning time of day, as at just after 0500hrs I saw the flat landscape in a different light (literally).  In one ten mile run I saw hundreds of Greylag Geese take off from the black Fen soil in the fields to my left and swoop into the Great Ouse River; I spied a Barn Owl flying low below the raised bank I was running on; a pair of Roe Deer scared the life out of me when I surprised them as I passed a pump house; I saw a huge buzzard, and all kinds of dragonfly; it was a joy.  At the 5 mile point I ran back at a bit slower than my marathon pace.  All in all, no problems.  That same evening, and I have no idea why, I thought I would have a crack at 20 miles along the same route, but this time out 10 miles before heading back the way I came.  I was sensible enough to hydrate well after the morning run, and to eat well but not too close to the actual run.  I took an ultra vest, which carries a litre of water, a sandwich and some wet wipes (you don’t need an explanation).

Stunning Fens

10 miles in the morning and 20 later the same day was tough, and I was berating myself during the final 5 miles. But the way I saw it, I had eaten away a sizeable chunk of the event on the first day.

On the Tuesday, due to work commitments I was not able to run 10 miles in the evening, which made me all the more pleased that I had churned out 30 miles the day before.  I got up at a silly hour and ran 10 miles on the same route.

There’s plenty of company on my preferred route.

The Wednesday, Thursday and Friday were all 10 miles in the morning and the same in the evening, but during these runs, I had that company I mentioned earlier from various Ely Runners.  Running with people seemed to prevent the dark thoughts; it even sped me up a little!

The views are stunning on the Great Ouse. Ely Cathedral can be seen on the horizon to the right.

By the Friday evening I had ran 100 miles in five days.  As mentioned earlier, the actual Lakeland event is 105 miles, so I had a 5 miler to do on the Saturday morning.  I was chuffed when fellow Ely Runners Charlotte and Emily offered to run this with me:  Emily chose a trail route in the utterly gorgeous Wicken.

 

Just a few distractions on the Wicken 5 miler.

There’s something worth mentioning about Emily and Charlotte, don’t ever think you can ‘out inappropriate’ them when it comes to conversations: these two are experts at covering forbidden areas: I think I sail close to the wind at times, but these two…

Once the 5 miler was done and Charlotte handed me a beer (fair enough, it was 0800hrs), I went home and reflected on what it is that’s tough about a 100 mile week: for me it is the fact that if you really want to do it, having a break isn’t an option, as it will add miles to another day.  Also, you hurt all of the time: I found I hardly slept for a week as my legs kept me awake, trying to repair themselves, but never getting a decent enough window to do so.  My amazing Ely Runners friends helped no end, as did monitoring the Strava entries of another local runner, David Mould, who ran the same virtual event with the ease that is expected of such an experienced distance runner.  Finally, I should mention that there is an amazing Lakeland100 group on Facebook:  reading their stories and following the progress of a huge number of runners was so motivating.

I enjoyed it in a weird way, and during the whole of July I stacked up 186.4 miles.   Would I do it again?  Maybe.  I will be back to report on the Stour Valley Path Ultra in mid-August!

 

parkrun

Moaning about stuff.

When running is important to you, and you can’t run, it messes with your head: well, it does mine!  At the time of writing, while we find ourselves in the Covid-19 pandemic, we are allowed out for one daily exercise, and although I am not running every day, I am running more often that I have been:  for a couple of reasons…

At the end of February, I needed to have an operation, I won’t go into details, but I will say that although it was not major surgery, it was serious enough to put me out of action for weeks.  I was told by the surgeon that I was not allowed to run, and I soon discovered that I couldn’t run, even if I had been given the all clear to do so.  I was also unable to cycle or swim, so, it wasn’t long before I started to suffer mentally.  Running has done absolute wonders for my mental health; I am not ready to talk about this in any detail, but let’s just say I can end up in some dark places if I don’t remain active.

So, I did stuff that involves other people’s running instead.  I lead the (Ely Runners) 10-week beginners’ course, so I was able to take on static roles, and as a Coach in Running Fitness (CiRF), I can say with some authority that you can learn as much about someone else’s running by standing and watching, as you can running with them: maybe more.  So, being static was a positive thing, as was keeping in touch with fellow coaches and seeing the impressive progress of the course participants.

I also volunteered at Soham Village College parkrun , an event that is really important to me, as is parkrun in general.  As part of the core team of Run Directors, nothing gives me more pleasure than to help set up in the morning and have a laugh with the amazing volunteers.

Sadly, parkrun, and the beginners course had to stop due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the subsequent Government response to it.  On top of this, as a key worker, I was able to carry on working, until I started to feel really unwell.  I went from someone who was able to run a half decent 5K or an ultra marathon, to a coughing wreck in just a few days.  Even a walk in the garden caused alarming breathlessness.  A call to NHS 111 resulted in what I dreaded and expected, self-isolation at home. My wife is also a key worker:  she and our twin boys had to self-isolate for 14 days.  Once that was over, and I eventually went for a run, I could really feel what fitness and endurance I had lost as a result of illness, self-isolation and my break due to surgery.

I have a somewhat mercurial mood at the best of times, which can be great, but it can also be problematic: running really helps, but until recently, the release running gives me was removed.  My wonderful wife, as understanding as she is, has had to put up with a grumpy and obsessional prat:  I love her for her patience.  Friends have helped; all friends, but as my blog is about running, it must be said that keeping up with running buddies via social media, Zoom, Messenger etc has been invaluable.  I believe the pandemic might even have strengthened friendships that were already pretty solid, which is often the case among running club members.  Thank you to my close running buddies.  You know who you are.

My running is slowly improving again.  I am slowing things down, worrying less about times and PBs and focussing on being able to run around Ely and the surrounding countryside: long may it continue.

Since this selfie was taken, I have had a shave and sorted the eye brow hair.

trail running, ultra running

Peddars Way 48 Mile Ultra Marathon revisited!

A year has passed since I ran The Peddars Way 48 Mile Trail for the first time.  A lot has happened on the running front since January 2019, a year in which I got 6 ultras under my belt.  The number of ultras in 2019, excessive sounding to some, might be part of the reason why the 2020 Peddars Way felt a little easier to me.  Don’t get me wrong, it was tough, but this year I crossed the line in better condition:  I felt generally happier and more relaxed throughout.

This time I had prepared fish paste and tomato sandwiches with white bread; two bottles of flattened Lucozade; a huge bag of dry roasted peanuts; Fruit Pastils and a banana.  Breakfast was porridge, some berries and a pint of tea.

Once again I ran the race with the amazing Lisa, and we were joined by fellow Ely Runner, Martin, who has now ran a couple of ultras: Peddars was about to be his furthest distance to date. We and some other Ely Runners gathered nice and early at Knettishall Heath.

Ely Runners at Knettishall Heath.

Among our group were speedy types, and people who just wanted to do their own thing, which is of course fine.  Martin, Lisa and I decided to stick together.

After Kevin (Positive Steps) had delivered the race brief, we were sent on our way.  It would be fair to say that we did not adopt as much of a run/ walk/ run strategy as we could have before the first checkpoint; but we were more disciplined than last year in that we had the odd 1 minute walk so that we could eat, and power walk up the slopes.  As I said earlier, I felt generally more confident from the outset:  the great company and gorgeous countryside definitely helped.

The Peddars Way Trail is stunning.

It was during the run after the first checkpoint that our Peddars Instant Messenger chat pinged on our phones, and we got news from fellow Ely Runner, Charlotte that she had felt the need to pull out of the race.  Charlotte is an amazing distance runner, who is training for a 100 miler!  Peddars was for her, a training run, but, when things go and feel wrong, it takes courage and discipline to know when to cut your losses.  I have always found Charlotte to be the voice of common sense; she can clearly apply her calm and logical approach to herself when necessary. We were gutted for her, but she did the right thing.

The checkpoint at Castle Acre is a confidence booster for me.  At this stage you have put about 27 miles behind you: it feels good!  There is soup at this stage!  We decided we would not spend too much time at any of the checkpoints: we agreed that we would enter, refill water bottles, grab food, say thank you and power-walk out before resuming running.  It is hard to leave the Castle Acre checkpoint, but we really didn’t hang about!  The soup was amazing!

It was on leaving this checkpoint that we took stock of how we were all feeling.  As we ran, Lisa told me that an old ankle issue had resurfaced. I asked her how painful it was on a scale of 1 to 10.  Lisa said it was about an 8!  This says all you need to know about Lisa!  Ever smiling, she will not allow something like serious pain to stop her running a further 21 miles having already ran over the marathon distance on muddy, uneven trail!  Martin had little to report on the problems front other than some stiffness in his legs.  My problems were to make themselves known at around mile 32, at which point we found ourselves at the bottom of a long hill.  I had eaten and hydrated very well the day before, and, having recalled the issues I had experienced last year, I snacked well in the early stages of this race.  At the checkpoint we had just left, I took full advantage of the amazing soup on offer, I dipped a jam sandwich into mine!  It was OK!  For whatever reason , as we climbed the hill, I developed tunnel vision, and broke into a serious sweat that seemed unrelated to the effort at hand.  I had to eat some fish paste sarnies (don’t judge me), as well as some dry roasted peanuts, and I necked some flat Lucozade.  It is hard to tell which of these medicines sorted me out: maybe it was all three, but I recovered swiftly and soon we were on our way again.

Lisa. One of the most calm and positive people to run a long way with!

It would be fair to to say that after 30 miles, things start to get a bit tougher!  My feet started to hurt and I had those tell tale bruised and aching feelings under several toenails.  My right hamstring started to tighten, no doubt compensating for a very old injury in my left leg.  Lisa’s ankle issue persisted, and Martin, still ailment-free until this point, reported feeling some pain in his feet.  We pressed on.

Things got a bit trickier here and there from about mile 32 onwards, with the running getting more technical, the tracks muddier and more uneven, and the gloom of the fading daylight making it a bit more of a challenge.  The three of us just kept pressing on.  We got chatting to several runners, mainly due to the odd thing that happens whereby you keep passing people, only for them to catch you up, and for this to be constantly repeated.  One chap we were passing overheard me talking about how much I would love a Snickers Bar (Marathon to those of us old enough to resent the change in name), he went on to produce a bag of chocolate from his pack, which he happily shared with us!  Among the selection was the chocolate I wanted! Never has a Snickers/ Marathon tasted better!  This chap was anxious about the cut off time; we reassured him that he would make it (he did).  Not sure if you will ever read this, Brian, but thank you.

With Martin, a tough and relaxed distance runner.

Checkpoint 3 is at about 34.25 miles in.  It is hosted by Bungay Black Dog Running Club.  As we approached this point I remembered with fondness the tea, coffee and hot sausage rolls the group of volunteers provides.  Enough said – they are amazing!  Talking of the Black Dog Crew, we encountered two of them again having not seen them since the June 2019 Norfolk 100K ultra.  Jules and Rachel!  It was great to see them again!

Great to bump into Jules and Rachel from Bungay Black Dog Runners.

So, the final approximate 14 miles from checkpoint 3: this is where things got tough.  Martin, Lisa and I made quite a team by giving each other loads of encouragement.  Poor light to pitch black set in very quickly, and with head torches, we pressed on with the tough bit.  In order to make sure we kept covering ground, and given the muddy, unstable trail and pitch black conditions, we agreed to bursts of 90 seconds of running, punctuated with power-walks.  This worked well.  About 5 miles from the coast we hooked up with a lady who was running alone, who decided to stick with our regime until about a mile from the coast.

Before we knew it, we were running the familiar downhill trail with hedges claustrophobically hemming us in from both sides.  At this stage you can easily touch the hedges on other side by raising your outstretched arms.  Lisa shouted out that she had seen a pair of orange eyes peering back at her through a gap in the hedge; whatever the creature was, if it had given chase, we could not have ran any faster!

When we finished the long narrow path towards Holme-next-the-Sea, we were greeted by glow sticks throughout the village, guiding us to the part of the the race we had been longing for: the run up to the beach.

There was a lovely moment as we headed towards the sea.  Martin’s young son, Thomas was running alongside us:  his family had travelled via train and bus to be there.  It was clear that Martin was elated by this, as it was unexpected!  Suddenly we hit sand, and just like last year, we could hear the roar of the sea, and feels its spray, but we couldn’t see it.  We all ripped a page each from the book hanging from the post, and took a selfie.  It is necessary in this race to remove a page from a book, hanging from a post on the beach; this is presented to race officials back at the Village Hall as proof that you have completed Peddars!

Pages from ripped from the book!  We were joined by Martin’s son, Thomas!

The run back to the Village Hall seemed to take forever!  We were all hurting, but adrenaline and pure joy had kicked in, blocking out anything that might have stopped us from running.

Eventually we could see the Village Hall ahead and on our left.  It was quite a moment when we ran inside and over the chip timing mat on the floor.  Just like last year, we were greeted with cheers from the volunteers, and from the runners who had already finished.  My mate, Steve was there with our change of clothes, and Ely Runner, Allistair Berry was there volunteering!  Steve commented that I was in a much better state than I was at the end of the race last year!  I was really pleased to hear this!  Medals were presented to us, and then we attacked the beans on toast!  The hot mug of tea was amazing.  I didn’t care about modesty at this point, I just changed into my track suit there and then (poor people).

At the time of writing, it is the Monday after Peddars.  My legs hurt more than they did the day after the race, and my feet and toenails are in a sorry state!  I have eaten tons and the hunger is only just easing off!  It has all been worth it!  See you in 2021, Peddars Way!