Running is life

Running is life. You can read into and over analyse that as much as you want, you won’t get the intended meaning behind it. It was a phrase Nick and I screamed at each other several times during the later stages of the Chilterns Wonderland 50 mile race by Centurion Running. Every time it had us laughing and singing. Its a play on a phrase from a tv show and we’d follow it up with football chants of each other’s names. It is always the simple things that bring most joy. I interpret that to be its meaning in the show too, find joy in what you do. There was plenty of joy on this occasion. It was Nick’s first 50 miler and his longest run to date. We were happy for so many reasons. One thing was clear to me though, he has come a long way!

Transformation. Change. Progress. Development. Whatever word you want to assign to it. It was visible to me. Obviously visible. We judge ourselves constantly. We are hard on ourselves and our own worst critics. But others have that external perspective. As an outsider I can see how Nick has changed when it comes to running. I was there running alongside him when he started running again, for his first marathon, his first ultra and for many runs in between. I’ve seen, and laughed, as he suffered like we all do, hitting the wall, fuelling poorly, struggling up hills, sliding in mud and managing the post race wobbly legs. This time was different though…

After his first ultra, I wrote about ‘Ultra Nick’. I recalled the sadistic joy of watching him go through the pain of discovering himself, I laughed at the grunts and ‘fucks’ he uttered with each change of terrain and slight hill as the race went on and I related it to the different versions of yourself you create each time you push yourself that bit further. That day I said he was now ‘Ultra Nick’. Now he is something else, something more.

So what has changed now? Familiarity for a start. He now has experience. Each run is a learning curve. Each run tells us a little something more about ourselves. We gain a better understanding of how we feel. What are limitations are. What are strengths and weaknesses are. What to expect with each passing mile and each new step into the unknown. We may not feel it, but it shows. I can see Nick running with more freedom. Less fear of the unknown and with greater confidence it what he is capable of. A stronger ability and willingness to adapt as the run goes on. Whether that’s feeling better, recognising the signs the body (and mind) send out, accepting when to stop and rest and when to push on and endure. There’s certainly less encouragement from me and less need for me to share my experiences as he now has plenty of his own to work with.

Above all, he now he runs with freedom and with complete unadulterated joy. Running is life.

Misty start in Goring

How did the day go…? When we arrived at Goring Village Hall for registration, the morning was very overcast with a low mist covering the town. We breezed through registration and were ready to go 10 mins into the rolling start window. The race began with a short trot down the Thames before we took the planned detour due to the path being closed. Nick was already cursing at the realisation he’d somehow recce’d the route in the reverse direct. I was happy, I knew I didn’t want to run along this section after running all day.

As we reached the first climb a friendly runner sped passed, powering up the hill as he wished us a good day. He looked like a competitor, a winner. Nick called it out. Later that day it was confirmed he did indeed win the race in a ridiculously quick time.

It wasn’t long before we reached the first aid station at Tokers Green. It was brilliant. Set up like a 1980s birthday party with cocktail style savoury snacks galore and Ribena. Excitedly I gulped back a few cups whilst tucking into my own bacon sandwich and half a pork pie. This would keep me going for a while and make my pack start to feel a little lighter – the pie was hefty.

As we set back out the mist was well and truly gone. The morning was heating up rapidly and the sun was shinning brightly. We soon found ourselves running into the Country Estate of Crowsley Park. It’s such a beautiful space (ignoring the massive BBC satellite dishes on the grounds) and the tranquillity was momentarily broken by an expletive-ridden squeal from Nick as he jarred his knee and fell to the ground like a sack of potatoes. The family with young kids in front didn’t look too impressed by his choice of words but thankfully he was ok after a few minutes of catching his breath. No lasting damage, just the shock of coming into contact with the ground sooner than the mind expected it.

Another quick stop at Bix where the second aid station saw Nick encounter many familiar faces who he’d met along the Woldingham marathon a few weeks earlier. From here the route took us through another glorious open space – Stonor Deer park. here we were happily chatting away to other runners including a guy from South Africa who told us stories of all his Comrades finishes. We realised how much our pace had increased as we talked to him so had to encourage him carry on and to let us drop back before we passed out trying to maintain it!

The day was now very hot, it didn’t feel like a mid September kind of day! Thankfully though my mind was distracted by the route. Since Bix I was in unchartered territory having never run this section of the Chilterns before. It was delightful and continued to be excellent with plenty of very runnable terrain. There were plenty of hills to break up the running and the route felt like it was a roller coaster – as soon as you were at the top of a climb you would then go straight back down. there was a pleasing symmetry to the terrain and elevation of the climbs and subsequent descents.

A tough climb up Ibstone to the windmill soon greeted us. It was probably the steepest in the route but thankfully short. The garden fire and smoke at the top made it difficult to capture our breathe though. Further on another short climb took us to the school and halfway point aid station.

We planned for a rest here. Nick found a throne and sat down to be treated like Royalty by the volunteers who pandered to his needs. Dimi, with her beaming smile greeted me and whilst we talked Phillip (a veteran of Centurion races) rocked up. After we rested for a little while we then carried on. Ready for the day. More of the same planned, chatting and joking from the moment we left.

After running through another 10km or so of fields and woodlands we arrived at the next aid station. Here everyone was fighting for the shade. It was very bright now and salt was visible on most runners. The coke had run dry and we stayed a little longer as a resupply was imminent. It worked out well as Nick needed fuel and I wanted the Coke. We stayed a little longer than planned but it was very much needed and would set us up for what was to come.

After leaving the aid station we ran with Melanie and Kirsty for a while as we all kept similar pace. I was pushing Nick now though. I was conscious that when he gets chatting there’s no stopping him. He loses focus slightly and gets too comfy. They all joked I ‘wouldn’t let him off the train’. It’s true, the whip was out. We pushed on.

Corn fields as the sun began to set

Before long we were bounding down the long straight to Grim’s Ditch. I knew where we were now having run this section at night many years ago. The train was running free and we made a small bit of time over the many familiar faces we’d been seeing all throughout the day. As we entered the small aid station we knew it would soon be filled with all the other inners immediately behind us. We were in great spirits here and were singing Mr Sandman with the volunteers and laughing to ourselves as we left.

It wasn’t far to go now. The reality has set in with Nick that we were 100% finishing. The cut offs would not be a concern. We were an hour ahead of it with a 12 hour finish looking likely. As always though, the confidence of knowing the end was in sight started to play on Nick. The possible 12 hour finish was soon changed as he suggested 11.5hrs might be possible. Soon after he changed the goal again thinking 11hr could be achievable. It certainly was, but bloody hell I was looking forward to a relaxed finish not a frantic one.

And so we ran. We kept running. The last few km were mostly downhill. We kept going. Kept catching runners. Kept overtaking them. The train was now a runaway. We were still enjoying it. The sun starting to set on the fields. We were thankful that the increase in pace meant we wouldn’t be needing to get the head torches out as we ran through the last of the forests and soon reached Goring for the last few streets.

Into Goring village we ran. The cheer of the finish line now audible. Residents on the street clapping us in as we we to and around the village hall. The excitement and elation as we finished was a great feeling. We’d done it. He’d done it. Nick was a 50mile finisher now!

We immediately changed into the finishers tee so I looked less salty for the finish line photo. Stuart, as always, captured and immortalised the magical moment. What a day. What a run.

Centre of The Universe

In a parallel universe I would be here in April 2021 having run some other 16 official events (in 7 different countries and 12 of which being ultras)… These are the ‘Ones that got away‘ and sadly it is not the case. Those are not the times we live in now. It transpires that we live in a reality to the future we chased not that long ago. Time and Space were warped drastically by science and politics. The running calendars and plans were ripped up and rewritten over and over again. Then, Saturday 17th April 2021 came around and flashed a glimpse of the new future, and for the first time in a long time I ran in an organised event again…

On this day there were many, many running events taking place across the UK. Runners flocking back to their natural habitat of chasing metal souvenirs. Due to further clashes, I could have been at a number of these events myself, but instead I was running towards the ‘Centre of The Universe’ (CoTU) for what would be my first event of 2021.

CoTU was (is!) an original and unique concept from the masterminds of ‘DazNBone’ who are the faces behind the Camino Ultra running event Company. Whilst Race Directors continue to adapt and tweak their processes and protocols to make a “COVID secure” environment for their events to be permitted and granted approval to take place, DazNBone went one step further… They took away some of the more familiar but troublesome aspects of planning a mass participation running event in a COVID-secure way – they removed the start, not just the mass start but the actual start and along with it the defined route and Aid Stations. Bam. Have that!

I absolutely loved this. Not as simple as it sounds, and a bold move I’m sure many thought. The concept was that all participants would choose their own start line and devise their own route to the finish line, the “Centre of The Universe”. Whilst this wouldn’t appeal to all runners (many like the security of a well marked route and plenty of support along the way), to those more accustomed and experienced with ultra running it was like music to our ears. Personally I couldn’t give two shits about ‘event villages’ and ‘mass starts’. I’m done with that. I love the finish line feels and hanging around at an event village after I’ve completed my race to absorb all the post-achievement vibes and atmosphere, but, getting to a start line hours ahead of the event and hanging around waiting for it to start then jostling for space with hundreds of other runners, naaa. That can stay in the Pre-COVID world as far as I’m concerned!

Admittedly I am over simplifying things. There was a little more to the event than I suggest and it by no means insinuates that it removes all the work and hassle for them, far from it! So first off, the finish of the CoTU was in Hackney, London. This is the aim, the target for all runners to reach. The chosen start lines however must have been outside a 30km radius from this point. There was a time limit too of 9 hours. Within this period runners needed to get from their chosen start to the CoTU and cover a minimum of 50km (they could do more if they desired!).

You weren’t alone either, Camino provided all runners with a tracker to ensure safety and accountability throughout the run. Big Brother was watching! They also replaced the Aid Stations by supplying all participants with a box of fuel (Not the kind you’ll find from BP!) before the event. So each runner had their own mobile aid station they could carry with them to support and get them to the CoTU.

Without running an organised event for nearly 5 months (after consecutively running in at least one marathon/ultra a month for nearly 3 years!) I was eager to go. I went straight onto the route planners and chose a location I wanted to start from (Caterham) which was easy to get too (for me!) and would provide as much trail and scenic running as I could squeeze into the 50km. I also started roping people in to join me. Paul was, as always, signing up before I’d even finished describing it. Come the weekend there was a group of 5 of others who would run all or part of the route with us. Plus a dog, Nick’s new best mate – Bruce.

Paul & Bruce

The route I plotted was very much a route of two (almost) halves. 30km of trails from Caterham to Beckenham and the final 20km along sealed roads, parks and paths tracing the riversides up to Greenwich before following the canal paths to Hackney. In my mind I knew it would be enjoyable to begin with before becoming a slog into London. The narrow canal paths I expected to be busy with Lockdown easing having begun and decent weather predicted for the weekend.

This is exactly how it turned out. Sort of. Some alarm clock malfunctions meant we were two support runners short at the start as Paul, Nick, Sophie, Bruce and I set off in the crisp and frosty morning from Caterham station. Now, whilst this was where our adventure began, it wasn’t our official ‘start’. You see Caterham train station lies just inside a 30km radius from the CoTU, so it wasn’t until about 2km later and a planned ‘U’ shaped detour on the trails that our race actually began…

The starters!

It was cold, but, with a backpack full of bacon baps and the joys of running in a group again we merrily trotted on. We had no time goals and planned to just enjoy the adventure for what it was. Throughout the first few km I was rearranging where Reka and Carl would meet us. Reka would join Yvette and run with us from Beckenham and Carl was going to get South of Croydon and meet us in the middle of nowhere by tracing the route backwards until we met. I’m so glad they both worked on alternatives as it would have been so easy to turn around and say “next time”…

Those first 20km or so went by so quickly as we enjoyed the tranquillity of the open fields, rolling hills and lush green countryside pretty much all to ourselves. As we started descending from Biggin Hill we found Carl (or he found us?) and we carried on to one of our planned ‘stops’ along the way, a donut shack near Addington that sprung up during the lockdown of 2020 and seems to be incredibly popular with cyclists, hikers and runners alike. We chowed down on some fresh, warm donuts as Nick treated Bruce to a sausage. The fuel of ultra runners!

Donut stop!

We cracked on for the final 10km of trails and weaved our way through to Beckenham where Reka and Yvette were waiting at our next planned stop – A Sainsburys where we could refill our water. Here the memories were tested as individuals tried to remember when was the last time they’d seen each other. Safe to say for most of us it had been a very long time!! Sophie left us here and the now group of 6 (plus Bruce) cracked on. Nick hadn’t intended to run from here but felt good and Bruce was eager to keep going (a quick call to his owner confirmed he was good to lead the way).

The full gang!

And so the second part of the adventure began. The route from Beckenham to Greenwich was something I’d only recently discovered was possible via public paths, walking routes and cycle tracks. Essentially the cycle route 21 – the Waterlink Way – connects Beckenham to Greenwich via a series of parks and green spaces which avoids many km of otherwise horrifically busy main roads. It surprised me how nice it was the first time I ran this route back in January.

Finally reached Greenwich

With the route being incredibly flat from Beckenham onwards, it wasn’t long before we arrived in Greenwich where, no surprise, it was very, very busy. With the population regaining its freedom and the sun starting to shine longer and brighter, people were inevitably out enjoying themselves. The Greenwich foot tunnel, which is a novelty the first few times you go through it, was so busy it was like a blocked drain. We weaved our way through as quickly as we could before tracing the river round to Limehouse. This was where I hit my low point. I’ve run the Limehouse section too many times. I don’t think this part of the Thames path is particularly enjoyable nor interesting. Some decent views for sure, but you can get good views of London from so many places. From here, we’d follow the canal path via Poplar to Hackney. This was what I referred to as the “10km of shit stuff”, it too is far from interesting and somewhere I’ve run more than enough times to enjoy anymore. It’s very narrow in places and is a pain to navigate when there are groups of walkers, buggies and prams and cyclists all jostling for space.

I was slowing down as quickly as the kms ticking by. With a few km to go I kept reminding myself that this was excellent training. 30km of pleasurable trails followed by a long run on hard packed surfaces would be good mental and physical conditioning for the adventures to come.

Eventually we reached Hackney. Noticeable not only for the sheer chaos of the area with people everywhere drinking and ‘partying’ with the now unfamiliar sounds of enjoyment all around, but also because of the big landmarks like the City Stadium, the Helter Skelter whatsit and the massive ‘Here East’ sign which marked our CoTU destination. As we approached the finish line a small group began cheering and clapping, the familiar smiles of ‘DazNBone’ beaming at us and the group filtered off leaving me and Paul to enter the finishers area and cross that first finish line of 2021… We are back baby!! We are back!

I can’t thank my friends enough for this weekend. Its a recurring theme from my running life and adventures. I’ve met so many incredible people and many stick around and comeback for more and more adventures with me. I’m so grateful for these friendships. That friends give up their time to support you is an amazing feeling and I really am appreciative to Sophie, Nick, Carl, Reka and Yvette for sharing it with us and getting us to the finish line. Huge ‘kudos’ to Nick and Bruce for completing the whole ultra with us too! It goes without saying that Paul is a top fella and this is a small adventure compared to the many we’ve already shared and have planned to share in the future together. It’s no surprise he is at the top of my list when an idea creeps into my head. I’m always certain he’ll agree and help me realise that dream before the idea finds a way to escape my clutches!

Of course there is then’ DazNBone’. David and Darren. I met these fellas briefly during the carnage of the NDW100 last year and there has been nothing but encouragement and support from them ever since. A remarkable pair who have such an upbeat and positive outlook on life and approach to running. It was great to cross one of their finish lines and I’m excited to make may way to that finish line in Hackney again later in the year (only coming from the North this time!) for their Lea Valley Ultra (go sign up and join me!!). Huge thanks to Gigi for the awesome finish line photos too! Go check out his photos on Instagram – @gigigiannella_photo / @everyday.runner

What a decent bunch. Thanks for capturing the moment Gigi!

The Ones That Got Away

The Covid-19 pandemic. From a purely selfish running perspective will be remembered, by me, for the absence of 16 events I would have completed. Yes, would have – despite the challenges they pose, I believe you have to attack them with confidence. That’s a fair few events and the ones I’m classing as the ones that ‘got away’, the ones that, someday sooner or later, I will conquer….

Each one of these events represented a different challenge, different reasons why I’d signed up to them and also different reasons why they eventually didn’t happen. One day I’m sure I’ll want to remember these details, so here’s a summary…

Hardmoors 55 – An adventure with mates. Instigated by Jon, as this was to be one of his races in preparation for his maiden 100 mile run (the SDW100). A group of 6 of us agreed to go north to Yorkshire and tackle this 55 mile, unmarked ultra by one of the well renown and respected event organisers in the running world. Scheduled for the end of March 2020, it was inevitably the first of my scheduled races to bite the dust as the UK was plunged into lockdown two weeks beforehand. Rescheduled for November it was once again cancelled when the second lockdown was implemented. I’m now deferred to race in March 2022. Third time lucky…

Boston Marathon – This one hurt. One of the World Marathon Majors. Everyone knows about Boston Marathon, the history and the prestige but also the difficulties in qualifying. My sub 3hour marathon (at Berlin 2018) gained me that Boston Qualifying time. In 2019 it still wasn’t enough and I didn’t have enough of a buffer with all the BQ applicants. 2020 I was a year older, my BQ time flattered by an extra 5 mins for my new age group, I was in. Then I wasn’t. Patriots day was mid-April and countries all around the world were deep into lockdown. Just a few weeks before the event it was all called off. It was a pain to cancel all the flights and hotels and try to recuperate expenses for what is a very financially demanding race! The organisers later rescheduled the event for September but this too was also cancelled and made into a virtual event. I ran the virtual Boston race purely for the finshers items. 2021 was postponed from patriots day (which landed on my Birthday) and is now planned for October. I shall roll the dice again and hope my BQ time is good enough for the reduced field size proposed for the 125th Boston Marathon. It won’t be the same, but it will still happen….one day.

Maverick Snowdon X Series – I’d planned to do the Snowdon X Series ultra with a group of friends from the Wild Trail Runners. May was too soon and it was inevitable that this event was cancelled. Sadly it’s not scheduled for 2021 either so I will have to wait patiently. Thankfully I was able to move my entry to their Peak District X Series Ultra which DID go ahead in 2020….

Maverick Original Sussex – A short one at a mere 20km, I signed up to this for the joy and atmosphere of Maverick Races. Another early summer race that was quickly cancelled. I’m deferred onto the 2021 event in a few weeks which IS going ahead. I can’t wait to run with the Maverick lot again!

Edinburgh Marathon – This one I never really wanted to do, but I agreed to run it with someone else. Nothing against Edinburgh, just it seems a bit of a pain in terms of logistics. Still, it was postponed, then it was cancelled and became another virtual event which I did. I took the voucher option after it was cancelled and recently it was announced that the 2021 event has also been cancelled. I don’t know when, but this one will be near the bottom of the list of events I rearrange to conquer…

Strandja Fjord – A big trip to Norway was planned for August. Over ten of us were venturing to the Fjords for what felt like it would be a real adventure. The 100km race has over 7,000m of elevation and some quite brutal looking terrain. Sadly none of us were surprised when this one was also cancelled and we immediately deferred to 2022. I did partake in the virtual event (with just 2 other participants on the 100km virtual!!) they held for this as I had a back up race planned – After signing up to the NDW100 I then went and booked this event on the same day. I never cancelled my place on the NDW100 and it did happen. So I submitted the run for the virtual event and claimed my “Corona Edition” tee shirt as a bonus.

Wild Boar (Persenk) Ultra – This race in Bulgaria was another one I never wanted to do. I’d never even heard of it. After failing to get their place in the CCC ballot, Jon and Ged hatched a plan and came across this little known race in the mountains of Bulgaria. Before I knew it I too was tagging along. And then I wasn’t. After not wanting to do it, now I REALLY want to do it. The race did go ahead towards the end of August, however the travel restrictions meant that, one by one, everyone else planning to go had to pull out. I came so close to going by myself. The flights and accommodation were booked, the quarantine was arranged, the mandatory bear bell was purchased, work even signed me off to work remotely from Bulgaria. Ultimately it came down to the fact it wouldn’t quite be the same without everyone else and it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do – suddenly jump on a plan and travel during a pandemic. I bailed. Other commitments mean this isn’t going to happen in 2021, but who knows for 2022….

Chicago Marathon – We knew fairly early on that this one also wouldn’t happen. Another World Major Marathon, there was no way that an event of this scale would take place in October. A blessing at first as I’d booked two massive ultras and a marathon in America in the same month. But then the whole month was cancelled…. Chicago Marathon have been great with their refund policies and I have the option to run the race in either 2021, 2022 or 2023. I won’t be doing it in 2021 due to other deferrals and the crossed fingers for Boston! 2022 we will see…

Cappadocia Ultra Trail – This has been on the wish list for a few years. I’ve heard so many fantastic things about the Urgup region and the Cappadocia Trail. Sadly it wasn’t meant to be and I’m really hoping it does get to go ahead in 2021. The benefit of the deferral has been that there is now an even bigger group of us booked to go this year!

13 Valleys Ultra – This was a new race planned for 2020. Through some contacts I’d managed to get a place at the event and I was very excited to go run around the Lake District (I’ve still never been). Unfortunately, being a new event, the organisers just didn’t have the option to plan and prepare everything needed during a lockdown to be able to execute the event the way they wished. I’m hoping they are able to bring the event to life in the years to come…

Wendover Woods 50 – The first of the substitutes… With so many cancellations, I was frantically trying to replace ‘lost events’ in my calendar. After the success of the Centurion Running NDW100 I signed up and got a place on their Wendover woods 50km. 3 Loops of Wendover Woods, at night…. Nothing about this race appeals to me. One loop of Wendover Woods is painful enough. I’ve run two at night before and it hurt, a lot. Alas, I’m deferred to 2022 (due to a date clash in 2021) and now have and extra 18 months of pre-suffering to endure.

Camino Lea Valley – A small and new ultra from the DazNBone duo that is Camino Ultra. Another substitute for all the other cancellations. Sadly this too was deferred to November and then fully cancelled. Roll on summer 2021 where I will conquer it.

Cheviot Goat – I didn’t want to do this one either. There is a theme here and that theme is “Jon”. Jon talked me into this one also. This one is different though. I don’t want to do it because I know it is going to be tough. Winter in the Cheviots will make it hard. 55 miles in winter in the Cheviots will make it tougher. A single Aid station in 55 miles in winter in the Cheviots will make it very tough. No course markings, a single aid station in 55 miles in winter in the cheviots makes me not want to do it. I’m going to do it in Winter 2021….

Hurtwood Double – I’ve done the Hurtwood 50km in 2019. I’ve run the route many times too. I had no desire to go and do it again. Then after cancelling their 2020 edition and moving it to January, I signed up because they offered a choice to do it twice over two days and claim the Hurtwood Double. Good luck unravelling my logic there. I took the refund when the event was subsequently postponed again and the date moved to one which I already had a race booked in for. I’ll stick with the 2019 medal on this one.

St Peters Way – This was one I talked Nick into. I’ve not run much up in Norfolk and this 40-odd mile point-to-point ultra sounded like a good way to (1) see some of the area (2) get Nick running further than 50km in preparation for his 50 miler later in 2021. The New Year lockdown meant this plan has been shafted into 2022.

North Downs Ridge – I’ve no idea why I signed up to this. I’ve seen enough of the North Downs Way in the last year. I don’t particularly like this section (from a running event perspective). But I did sign up because I’m needy and have issues. I’m now doing it in a few weeks, May 2021….