“It’s not a stress fracture.”
These were the words that I’d been hoping to hear. I’d not run for two weeks, after hobbling in from a club run with a sharp pain at the top of my foot. With a week to go, I’d bitten the bullet and gone to see a physio. An hour of mystical prodding and poking revealed that my pain was caused by a tight glute which was affecting the muscle that extended over the top of the tendons in my foot. All I had to do was some massage and stretching and it should have eased sufficiently for me to get to the start line. I left the physio room with a final word of advice, “Just run until the pain gets too much, then stop.” I wasn’t to know it at the time but it would be my other foot that would cause the most problems in the race.
I booked the White Rose Ultra (WRU) as a way of re-motivating myself to get out running. I’d just helped Meltham AC run the Billy Bland Challenge and although I really enjoyed the recces and the day, I was left quite jaded by the whole process. In the build up to it, I’d worried so much about getting lost and letting the team down. The whole thing consumed my thinking and when it was over, I felt quite empty. I didn’t realise it at the time, but going through these feelings has helped me manage my feelings post WRU. They say running can be great for your mental state, but it can go the other way too. At times, in the run up to the WRU, I did obsess about the run. Maps, recces, nutrition plans, clothing, footwear, feet…..damn feet! You might read this and think “Gosh, he really wanted to run 100 miles, looking at all the planning he’s put in.” That’s not really the case. Having crewed and paced for a few 100 milers, I just knew that’s what you have to do to finish one of these things. Originally, I was only going to sign up for the 60 miler, having only run a slow 50 miles before this. When I saw it was it was only £10 more for the 100 I thought, why not! In hindsight, that was a mistake. To run 100 miles, you really need to want to run that distance. Did I want it enough?
I packed my kit Thursday night and tried to have a good nights sleep, using the old advice that you never get a good kip the night before a race so make sure the one before is a good one too. Apart from around 10,000ft of ascent and a mix of rough trails, boggy paths and feet battering tarmac, the 100 miler starts at 12 midnight. With a bad sleep Friday night and a couple of disjointed hours on Saturday, by the time I stopped running I’d had 2 hours sleep in 41 hours and been awake for 34 hours straight, 24 of them running. Plus an hour or so before that trick or treating with the kids!
Another noteworthy point about the WRU is the event centre toilets. Imagine the toilets in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest after The Chief has launched the sink through the window and then it’s been just left to vandals for 30 years, only for the WRU team to discover it the day of the race and stick a couple of toilet rolls in it. There was an old boiler and large ovens next to the sinks, flickering lights, cobwebs, peeling paint, taps that made crazy noises when you switched them on! It had to be seen to be believed.
Psychologically, the race is made tougher by being made up of 3 x 30 mile loops and an extra 10 mile loop. So some sections you have to run 4 times. At the 40 mile point, you think how far you’ve run and know you’ve got to do most of it again….twice. The loops had an extra significance for me, as it went past my house 3 times. I knew, for the last loop especially, that I’d find it hard to turn down the draw of my home and family.
My wife and kids came out to see me on the second loop and it was lovely to see them. They’re great about my running and the sporadic abandonment that it brings in the run up to races. At 75 miles I was ready to pack in, after stumbling through what is described by the race organisers as, “The Bog of Doom” in thick fog. This was my third time through this muddy mess and my feet were really bad at this point. However, some lovely messages from the family on my phone kept me going. Using an old phone, where you know the battery will last the whole race, is a good idea. Plus you’re not bothered if you drop it in the Bog of Doom.
My feet were the biggest problem now. My old faithful La Sportiva Wildcats had packed in and so I wore an old pair of Gortex trainers with wool socks. Both of which I’d not worn on a long run before. I know this is Running 101 – Never wear something new for a race. I’ve since read that once Gortex trainers get water in, they just retain it. This is the same for wool socks. Having seen how people’s feet get on 100 milers, I knew how important it was to look after them. As it turned out, the extra precautions I took to stop this happening actually exacerbated the problem of blisters. You live and learn.
Some of the things that did work were draining some of the blisters straight away, putting blisters plasters on them and then taping them up. I wore some ankle gaiters and they were excellent at keeping out stones and crap from the shoes.
I’d recced the whole 30 mile route without a single blister, but here I was, 10 miles into the race with raging hotspots. At 20 miles Nick (super crewman) was busy bursting blisters all over my feet.
Another thing that sets the WRU ultra apart is the back to front crewing/pacing/aid station system. No aid stations for the 1st 8 hours and no pacing after the 1st 8 hours. Normally I would have munched my way through my own body weight in bananas and peanuts after 8 hours running. For some reason I forgot to get any and although I was well stocked with food, the lack of salt and potassium really affected my legs. At the 1st stocked aid station I fed up up on both and felt immediately better.
I had some wonderful memories on the run. Although I live in the Colne Valley and know how beautiful it is, watching the sun coming up as I ran over the Wessenden Valley was really lovely. Runners seeing the still calm waters of the reservoirs mirroring the golden autumn colours of heather and bilberry must have been blown away.
The 1st night of running was special too. In parts, the sky was so clear and the moon so bright, that I spent some time running without my head torch. One shooting star was so bright I gave out an audible shout of joy.
One of the other highlights of ultra running is the people you run with. You meet so many people through the night and I’d 100% recommend arranging some of your friends to be pacers. It’s a unique experience to share with people. I learnt a massive amount from crewing and pacing for my friend Nick’s two 100 mile attempts and it brought me so much pleasure seeing him succeed in his 2nd attempt. You can go to some really low places together but when the sun comes up and you know you’re going to finish, the joy that you share is very special.
Nick was a massive help on this 100 attempt and his knowledge and positivity was invaluable. A big thanks must also go to everyone that came to cheer me on, run with me or recce with me. Ally, Alice, James, Steve, Caz, Lisa, Andy, Gill and Robin, plus all the marshals on the day.
In the end my feet and ultimately a lack of willpower finished my race. I just couldn’t take the thought of all those stones on my feet going up Wessenden or stubbling down Green Lane for a 3rd time.
It was just before midnight, I was 18 miles from the finish but ½ a mile from my home. Nick tried to talk me out of it but I think he knew I was done. Booking the 100 miler because it’s only £10 more than the 60 miler is not a good idea. You will not finish. You really have to want to complete a 100 mile run. As Yoda would say “Do or do not, there is not try!”
The next time I run a 100 miler, it will be for the right reasons. Not because it’s close to home, not because it’s cheap and not just to motivate me to run a bit more but because I really, really want to run 100 miles.
In the morning my lad came up to me and gave me a big hug and said “Well done Daddy, I assume you finished it!”
I had to tell him I dropped out with 18 miles to go with an injury. I couldn’t tell him I just stopped. He’s only 7. He said “I’m so sorry Daddy.” and started to cry. I had to explain to him, whilst at the same time trying to convince myself, that it’s ok not to succeed in something and that the lessons you learn from failure can be used to succeed in the future. Hopefully I’ll be able to show him.
Quick thoughts/comments on the WRU race
- Reccing the route is useful but Wane may change it 10 times after that and the GPX, PDF, KML etc will all be different……however it doesn’t matter too much as the route is well marked.
- Don’t bank on there being any hot food at any time, at any aid station. Aid stations are cheerfully staffed but basic.
- If you see a toilet, use it. There aren’t many on route.
- Your head torch batteries will run out.
- £55 is very cheap for what you get.
This is TeamOA’s first 100 miler and yes there are a few things that can be improved but I’d say they do a hell of a lot more right than they get wrong. Thanks for a great few days and a great race. Roll on next year.