Lake Sonoma 50

“Are you okay?”

I had been running down a hill at around mile 42 when up ahead I saw a runner shuffling slowly and propping himself up with a stick. I wasn’t exactly crushing it but this guy, well, he must have been in serious trouble so I stopped to ask after him.

“Yeah, I’m just really dehydrated,” he replied. His face was ashen and he had the thousand-yard stare of a man no longer sure what he was doing in the woods, or even which woods he was in.

“Here, have my water,” I said. “We’re not too far from the next aid station. Maybe a mile or two?”

“Just give me half, that’s great, thank you.” I debated arguing with him but in the end figured I might need some myself so poured him half of what I had into his bottle. I wished him luck and carried on down the trail wondering how long it would take me to get to the finish, never mind him.


One of the things I was most excited about moving to California last year was the chance to run iconic races in spectacular locations. I’d signed up for The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler before leaving the UK and while training had gone well, the race was eventually cancelled due to the smoke from a massive fire 200 miles north of San Francisco in the weeks before. I even created a playlist to reflect my mood.

Fortunately, I was able to get into the Quad Dipsea at the last minute so tested my legs on some of NorCal’s hills. Next on my hitlist was Lake Sonoma 50, famously an opportunity for the elite runners to book a place in perhaps the ultimate US trail 100-miler, Western States. Unsurprisingly, places are limited and it’s a lottery to get in. Very surprisingly, I got a place at my first attempt. All I needed to do was get myself as fit as possible, not least because it has over 10,000ft of elevation gain over its 50 miles, almost twice as much as the races of similar distance I’d done in the UK. The Quad Dipsea had over 9,000ft but in only 28 miles so it was a much shorter day out than Lake Sonoma was likely to be.

Training was going well, mainly in and around the Presidio, a park in the northwest of San Francisco, which has hills, trails and beaches. And then, I got cocky. Two hard sessions in two days and my hip complained to the extent that I didn’t run for almost a month. Part over-exertion, part lack of stretching and foam rolling, it was a timely reminder that while I was getting older I wasn’t necessarily getting any wiser.

Still, after a decent-ish six weeks and a short taper, it was time to head 90 miles north to a place called Cloverdale, deep in wine country and with deer grazing on the side of the road. Just 20 minutes’ drive from the start, it was a lovely bucolic retreat and even the presence of a dozen or so chickens didn’t perturb Hooper.

Unlike in the UK where snow or rain is almost always a possibility, no matter the time of year, the more friendly spring temperatures in California means that this race had no mandatory kit. Pre-race emails did suggest carrying “enough” water though, so I considered carrying two bottles and stuffing my shorts full of gels. But I can’t survive on just gels and one of my bottles was heavy when full so I compromised and went for one handheld and one soft flask stuffed into the bottle pocket of my Salomon race vest. I couldn’t just use the two Salomon soft flasks that came with it because of course the two elastic loops which hold them in place both broke in the week of the race, rendering the whole set up next to useless.

With the race vest approach decided, I could carry everything a lot more easily. This included my ‘medical’ kit: spare plasters, spare contact lenses, paracetamol and ibuprofen in case of emergency, Salt Stick tablets and crystalized ginger. The last one the list I hadn’t tried before but figured it might help with any inevitable nausea. I swear it’s getting worse as I get older, or maybe I’m just running in the heat more. After two races last year in which I used Tailwind, once in combination with gels and once without, and both times my stomach was not happy, I concluded that the powdered fuel was not for me. Yes, I’m quite the scientist like that.

So the plan was to alternate between Gu gels (which I like and were available at aid stations), Gu Chews and my own recipe I call Magic Mash. This is mashed potatoes mixed with cheese (for protein) and mayonnaise (so it wasn’t too dry). It has a grim consistency, especially when it’s been in close proximity to your body for hours on end but I could at least eat it. Crucially, it isn’t sweet, and given that I get fed up with the sweetness of gels in a marathon, there’s no way I could last 50 miles on them alone.


With the race starting at 6:30am, I set my alarm for 4:30 and woke up at 4. Plenty of time to get ready which I duly squandered removing a spider from the bedroom and taking the dog outside for his morning poo. Leaving the house at 5:20, I arrived at race HQ at 5:40, just in time to be the first vehicle to miss out on the car park by the start and finish. I was greeted on the road by race director Skip, who welcomed me and told me to drive up the hill to the overflow area. It was nice to get a personal greeting but I had a feeling that walk up the hill would be a challenge later.

Race number acquired, I dropped off my bags – one for halfway with spare socks, Vaseline, and extra fuel, and one for the finish – and went looking for people I might recognise.

Immediately I saw Bryon Powell of iRunFar and introduced myself by showing him my Centurion t-shirt. He’d run Thames Path 100 a couple of years back so that gave us something to talk about for a good 90 seconds. I spotted Billy Yang, Camille Herron and finally Tom Evans, who I said hello to.

My main goal for the race was get to halfway before the race winner, of which Tom was one of the favourites, finished. The course record at Lake Sonoma is 5:51 and my estimated finish time was around 12 hours. This was considerably longer than my best 50-mile time of 9:29 but I hadn’t attempted a race with quite such a lot of hills before.

I want to say that a gunshot started the race but I honestly can’t remember. Anyway, we were off and onto the road for the first couple of miles. It went up and down and up and down again and I stopped to take photos and generally tried to stay comfortable for as long as possible.

After setting out too quickly at my last 50-miler, I was determined not to do the same again this time and chuckled to see people literally sprinting down hills in the first mile. I mean, each to their own, but no mate, that isn’t going to end well.

Before long we joined the course proper at the trailhead and it was immediately a single track joy, winding through the trees, down the hill and providing tantalising glimpses of the lake itself.

These early miles were a procession of runners like me, mid-packers taking it easy and biding their time. It was single file with almost no chance of overtaking which was fine for everyone except for one couple who seemed annoyed at the traffic jam and shook their heads impatiently, finally sprinting past to gain a few places. I understood their frustration to an extent but these early hours were the time to take it easy and preserve energy. Overtaking is far more enjoyable in the second half of a race.

Before long we were at the first aid station, Island View, where only water was available but it was so early into the race I didn’t even stop for that. If I were an elite, I would have “blazed through”. As it was, I just trotted by, glad to ticked off the first checkpoint without having tripped over, my usual early race trick.

With seven miles to the next aid station I focused on regular eating, drinking and Salt Sticks. There’s a lot of discussion around whether you need salt when running ultras, or how much, but I seem to operate better when I have some so I’ll continue to take it. There’s probably a case for me to get sweat tested but, you know, money.

The trail through the woods around the lake was a delight. Constantly up and down but through the tall trees, across small and sometimes larger creeks where it was impossible to keep your feet dry, it was nothing if not varied. Occasionally it would open out and you’d cross a field…

… but at this stage it was still early and had that deliciously cool spring morning feel to it. Little did I know how much I’d be craving these conditions later on.

Every now and then we’d get another sight of the lake and a hint of where the course would be taking us. Until then, I trotted along in near the back of the pack, enjoying the scenery until the first major aid station arrived.

Warm Springs Creek – 11.6 miles
Time elapsed – 2:23
Position: 269/344

“Did you get my number?” I asked a lady with a clipboard, as a rush of runners descended upon the checkpoint.

“Why, you gonna call me?” she replied with a grin. It took me a moment but I eventually got there and grabbed some trail mix. Clearly food was the answer. Water topped up, I marched up the hill.

It was at this point I began to wonder when I’d start seeing the race leaders coming back towards us. As it’s an out and back course, you see just about everyone at some point. For now though, it was a case of follow the person in front and enjoy the views.

There were ribbons marking the way seemingly every few hundred yards but aside from a couple of forks in the path, it was virtually impossible to get lost. No navigation, no worries. A pure running course. At least, if you’re fit enough to run all the way. Ahem.

After a couple of wet creek crossings we headed up, up, up until finally the track popped out above the lake.

This was the start of the area I recognised from videos and photos of the race and just as I was thinking about the leaders, someone appeared running towards me. I didn’t know him – it turns out it was Sebastien Spehler – and he seemed to be struggling a bit but was still moving pretty fast given that he was at mile 33. Less than 30 seconds later Jared Hazen followed looking very relaxed and I thought he’d catch the leader at some point. At the risk of providing spoilers, he did, and ended up winning the race.

Hoping I’d see Tom Evans soon, I got my phone out ready to take a video but even so, he was going so fast that I only managed this fleeting clip.

It was great to see a friendly face and just him saying hi and the fact that he was doing so well gave me a real boost as I made my way to the mini aid station at Wulfow Springs. With the next checkpoint just over a mile away, I didn’t stop.

I regretted this almost immediately as the temperature seemed to rise a few degrees as soon as I left the aid station and had the urge to empty my water bottle over my head.

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The lake was in full view at this point and I distracted myself from the heat by trying to enjoy myself. So much of why I love trail running is being in the countryside, the landscape, nature. In some ways I’m grateful I’m not a pro, who I can’t imagine have the luxury of taking much notice of their surroundings beyond where to place their feet safely. Of course, in other ways I’m very jealous I’m not a pro…

Madrone Point – 18.8 miles
Time elapsed – 4:02
Position: 232/344

I saw a lady with a sponge and a bucket full of icy water and panted expectantly at her like a thirsty dog.

“Head? Back of the neck?”

“Neck please,” I managed. As I was bending down I noticed a border collie behind Sponge Lady and asked if I could pet it.

“She’s a bit shy unless you have bacon.”

I thought this was an oddly specific comment until I got to the snacks and noticed crispy bacon among the usual checkpoint fare. I didn’t fancy it though so just grabbed some more trail mix and started walking up the big old hill that looked like it was going on forever.

I pushed some food in my face, strode up the fireroad and overtook a few people with shorter legs than me. The front end speedies were on their way back, now 32 miles in and mostly blowing hard, as you would having done that distance in just over four hours and with the elevation they’d already conquered. I said “well done” to everyone and got a smile from the always happy Magdalena Boulet.

Eventually the climbended and the descent began, with the low-lying sections getting wetter the further we dropped. I spotted Hal Koerner of Unbreakable fame, multiple race wins and course records. I was about to say hi when he went ankle-deep in a mud puddle and exclaimed “Dammit!” which if nothing else enabled me to pick a better line coming the opposite way. Hal was later to drop at mile 38 with a bad knee.

I was just starting to enjoy the long downhill when it truck me that this was going to be considerably more challenging on the way back. It’s not always so good to know what’s coming up. Still, I did my best to make the most of it while I could without completely trashing my quads.

And then the final hill of the first half began. It was steep, rocky and by now, hot. It went up and up and up. I rate myself as a decent hiker but this was real hands on knees stuff. People were stopped on the trail, getting their breath back. We weren’t even halfway through the race yet. I took solace in the fact that I was still moving relatively well.

Eventually the gradient evened out and the views returned. I recognised filmmaker and runner Billy Yang coming back down and estimated that he was at least an hour ahead of me. Not that I had any chance of catching him but it gave me a mini target to aim for beyond the turnaround point.

A relatively flat (i.e. undulating) section followed and the sight of a marshal gave me a lift as this meant the start of the loop near the halfway aid station.

I trotted along the narrow loop and checked how I was feeling. Legs and lungs were fine but my stomach wasn’t great. I couldn’t remember if there was a toilet at the aid station and suddenly that was all I could think about.

No Name Flat – 25.2 miles
Time elapsed – 5:27
Position: 229/344

As with previous checkpoints, I could hear it before I could see it and felt a degree of relief as I arrived to the sight of a portapotty. Without going into too much detail, nothing was forthcoming but just sitting down for a few minutes seemed to help. I restocked my supplies from my drop bag, overheard someone telling their runner friend that she’d beaten ultrarunning legend Dean Karnazes to halfway, and had a look around for him.

Before moving to San Francisco, I’d got in touch with Dean – who lives in the area – to see if he wanted to go for a run. It never happened for various reasons so this was my chance to get the run in. As I had my water bottles refilled, I saw him leave the aid station. I thought I’d catch him fairly quickly but his insistence on running all the ups left me trailing in his wake.

When I finally did draw level, it was only because he’d stopped to tie up his shoelace and as it was on a downhill section I didn’t really want to break my rhythm. I figured I’d see him sooner or later anyway.

This was the longest and steepest downhill on the course and my quads started to make inquiries into my sanity as I let gravity do its thing. Being back at lake level meant only one thing – a long, long climb back up again.

I made friends with a dog who was out for a walk and wanted to come with me. I made jokes to fellow runners (all of whom were walking at this point) about hills. I made long-distance guesses at whether what I could see on the back of people’s legs were tattoos or mud splatters or tattoos of mud splatters. One I still couldn’t tell even up close. All of this to take my mind off the interminable climbing.

Eventually I reached the peak and fairly floated down the fireroad to Madrone Point, passing a crushingly honest sign on the way.

Madrone Point – 30.9 miles
Time elapsed – 6:45 (estimate*)
Position: 189/344 (estimate*)

* The official timing has me arriving here almost an hour later and then doing the next section of seven miles in an hour which is clearly nonsense so I’m going to stick with this.

Trail mix. Sponge Lady. Onwards.

It was now around 1:15pm and I don’t know how hot but within two minutes of leaving the aid station I was struggling with the heat. The same open trails which had almost floored me on the way out were threatening to actually do so on the way back. I started setting myself little time goals just to keep myself moving towards the next aid station. By the time I dragged myself up the hill to Wulfow Springs I was completely out of water – 1.25 litres drunk or poured over my head in just over a mile and 30 minutes.

I got my bottles filled, had several cups and even considered sitting in the wooden tub until I saw how green with algae it was. I sat in the shade and tried to get my heart rate down. Five minutes rest now would hopefully save me more time later.

It was only about six miles to the next aid station but it would take me almost two hours of tentative trotting, realising I would never be ready for the heat of Western States – very helpful of my brain to consider this challenge right in the middle of my current one – and trying to forcefeed myself. The low point of my race came when I took out the emergency gel from my shorts pocket – by this point seemingly about to boil – and squeezed the hot, sweet goo into my mouth. Quite how I didn’t vomit instantly is one of life’s great mysteries.

After far too long via some familiar trails, the sounds of volunteers and supporters arrived and I dropped into the penultimate oasis.

Warm Springs Creek – 38 miles
Time elapsed – 8:40 
Position: 149/344 *

* I can’t believe I made up 40 places in this section but that’s what it says so that’s all I’ve got to go by.

Cooler now but still too hot, I took some comfort from the numerous fried runners slumped in chairs at the aid station. I may have still had a seemingly unfathomably long 12 miles to go but at least I wasn’t in as bad shape as some of these guys. Water topped up, I headed down the slope to the big creek crossing. Cold on the way out, now it felt like a silky cool heaven, a plunge pool after a sauna.

I was on the verge of lying down in the water when I realised I was in danger of dropping my phone so stuck to a quick splash at the end of the paddle. On I plodded.

Back into the woods and with it came a delightful shade. The ups got harder and the downs were barely easier but the old mantra that every step was getting me closer to the finish kept me moving.

After a couple of miles I bumped into Mr Dehydrated and soon afterwards a whole group of people spread out along the trail, in various states of disrepair. We were all gamely still going but the unspoken feeling was clearly one of minor despair. It’s a bit miserable when you’re not fit enough to keep moving at a pace you want but you can’t complain because you signed up for this, buddy; this is your fun day out!

A few more creeks kept me cool when I was getting low on water and finally the last aid station hove into view.

Island View – 45.5 miles
Time elapsed – 10:40 
Position: 156/344 

I took my time at this one, eating watermelon, trying some Roctane drink to get some easy calories in and again took solace from the walking (or rather sitting) wounded who seemingly weren’t in any hurry to finish. For me, the hurry was strong. I wanted to have as much of an evening as possible and now, less than five miles separated me from the finish. On a good day, with flat terrain, and feeling fresh, this would have taken me no more than 35 minutes. But at Lake Sonoma 50 with its relentless hills I would be lucky to get it done in an hour, which I really wanted to do to break the arbitrary 12-hour target I’d set myself.

Upwards and onwards. Looking ahead to see if I could catch anyone fading. Peeking backwards occasionally to ensure no one overtook me. One foot after the other. Upwards and onwards.

A new bit of trail we hadn’t used on the way out. This must be near the end. Passing another runner just as a ‘1 mile to go’ sign appeared.

“Is that for real?” he said.

“I don’t trust it but I’m going to go for it now anyway,” I said in an uncharacteristically gung ho way. I wasn’t sure if I had much to give but frankly, I didn’t want to get chatting now that I could smell the finish line.

As it was, the last part was a bit of a mudfest but I ploughed on regardless, listening out for the loudspeakers at the finish and then it came. I had four minutes to get sub-12 so picked up the pace as far as my battered legs would allow.

The finish funnel. Flat grass! A ridiculous log to jump over. What is this. A steeplechase?! Applauding supporters. A half-hearted sprint finish and a hug from race director Skip. Billy Yang was even there so I got a high five from him.

Finish – 50 miles
Time elapsed – 11:58
Position: 179/344 

It was only just sub-12 but it felt like a minor victory. That finishing position feels about right, compared to my halfway position of 229. Barely anyone overtook in the second half and I passed a lot of runners which is what I’m most proud of in this race. I wasn’t anything like as fit as I wanted to be but I only have myself to blame for that. More importantly, I enjoyed myself enormously (for the most part) on an iconic course, run by some of the biggest names in the sport.

If it isn’t obvious from the photos, Lake Sonoma is a stunning course. It is breathtaking beautiful. Okay, maybe it’s the hills that take your breath away but even so, it is amazing to look at, to be on, to experience. If you ever get even the slightest chance at entering, do it. It’s not cheap – $200 – but is is so worth it. The organisation is exceptional, the volunteers couldn’t be better, and the swag isn’t bad either.

While my time wasn’t any great shakes, I finished without any injuries, all my toenails intact and only minor aches the next day. If nothing else, training on hills every day and adding in some more consistent strength work does seems to have made me a stronger, more resilient runner. The next step is to get some speed back. Whether I’ll enter any races between now and the North Face 50-miler in November remains to be seen – a local half marathon is $115 dollars and I’m not sure that’s value for money – but with any luck I’ll be in better shape for my next assault on the hills of northern California that I’ve grown to love.

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Quad Dipsea

The Dipsea Trail starts in Mill Valley and goes up and down a lot in its 7.5 miles to Stinson Beach. I ran the first five miles of the course (and back again) a few years ago while on holiday and always wanted to run in the race, the oldest trail event in the US (est. 1905). It’s a beautiful trail through Muir Woods, up Mt. Tamalpais and down to the Pacific Ocean. If you’re ever in the area, I urge you to check it out. I promise you will not regret it.

It’s very hard to get into the original Dipsea race and so your best chance is to do the Double or the Quad, (roughly but not quite) four times the regular route. As The North Face Endurance Challenge 50-miler had been cancelled due to the residual smoke from the devastating wildfires in Paradise, I got on the waiting list for the Quad. Despite this last-minute bid for a race, I made it onto the start list and hoped that two, nearly three in fact, weeks of inactivity meant I was well rested rather than veering into a huge loss of fitness.

Living in San Francisco automatically means regular hills on training runs so in that sense I was better prepared than ever for the rigours of the Quad course, with its 9,276 feet (2,827 metres) of both climb and descent. Having said that, my most ‘mountainy’ race thus far was the Picnic Marathon around Box Hill in England’s usually less than lump south, which has about 6,400ft of elevation. That had taken me about 6h20m, although a dodgy stomach probably accounted for at least 40 minutes more than I’d hoped for on that memorable-for-all-the-wrong-reasons day.

So while the distance didn’t scare me, the hills and steps (of which there are many) did, in the sense that I didn’t want to be walking too much, especially towards the end. I was lucky enough to get in touch with local coach and ultra athlete Chris Hauth who just happened to have won the Quad in 2009 and so I asked for his advice on the race. His tips boiled down to this: walk the steps and take each leg at the following efforts – easy, moderate, hard, survival.

Race day

I took my race vest with me but decided in the end to carry a water bottle in my hand and a few emergency snacks in my pockets. There didn’t seem any point in carrying any more weight than necessary, especially as you could access your drop bag at halfway. That, and there were aid stations at miles 4.5 and 7, as well as the halfway point, all stocked with the usual ultra goodies.

After gathering on the road and listening to a short announcement, the race began. Almost immediately, the first of the steps appeared and everyone around me walked up them. Maybe some of the quickies up the front run them but for the rest of us mere mortals, a steady walk is definitely the best approach. Besides, it was so packed that there was no room for overtaking at this early stage.

In the first half mile alone, there are over 700 steps up, mostly wooden, some uneven stone and all, on this cool November morning, wet, thanks to some heavy overnight rain. Treating the first mile as a warm-up, I let people pass as and when they wanted and trotted along trying to keep my heart rate as low as possible.

After the initial climb a descent towards Muir Woods begins. I was settling into my rhythm and enjoying those early ultra miles when you feel good and everything seems possible. And then I heard them. Two runners who were clearly catching up with each other after a long absence. Fair play to them for being able to talk constantly while negotiating some seriously steep hills without becoming short of breath but non-stop chatter wasn’t my idea of a relaxing and enjoyable race.

They were just behind me so I took the chance to take a photo…

… and let them pass. But they barely got away from me and so I had to suck it up. Of course, people are well within their rights to talk while they’re racing – I’ve even done it myself occasionally – but there was something incessant about this conversation that I couldn’t block out. Maybe I should have brought earphones after all.

Instead of getting any more annoyed, I focused on what I needed to do to make the day a success, and control the controllable. My first goal was to get to Stinson Beach feeling fresh and without falling over or twisting an ankle on the root-filled, rocky route. The rain of the past few days also meant there were a few streams to step through as well as the odd patch of mud. Not English cross-country level by any means though, despite warnings it was likely to be a sloppy ride.

Crossing the river at the Muir Woods car park saw the start of the second major ascent of the route. After 2.5 miles of almost constant climbing, the hill known as Cardiac peaks and with it, the aid station. About an hour had passed which was about on schedule for my pre-race goal of 6h30m. I figured 1h30m for the first leg with a slight but increasing slowdown for every successive leg.

On any ordinary course, 2.5 miles of mainly downhill would take me less than half an hour but the Dipsea Trail is anything but ordinary.

If nothing else, the uneven and steep steps down towards Stinson Beach are extremely tricky to make up any time on, whether they’re wet and muddy or not. As it was, I was happy to tiptoe down to maintain my upright status. The final mile to the beach is more undulating and runnable, at least at this stage. I passed the aid station less than half a mile before the turnaround point and reached it at 1h29 feeling fine aside from a few twinges in the quads coming down the final hill. Nothing significant, just the effect of more than 2,000 feet of ascent and descent.

On the way back, concerned that I might be going too fast to last at the pace I wanted to maintain, I decided to take a few more photos. It’s too gorgeous a course not to capture it.

And these signs made me laugh too.

And then the first really steep climb of the return leg began, up the muddy, slippery steps into the woods. It was hard work and I had a moment of gloom. If it was this hard on leg two, how would I find it on leg four? Sometimes the best thing to do is to not think at all so I just focused on the next step and then the next until the trail became a slope and the steps were behind me.

While I waited for the gradient to decrease I continued to hike and soon found myself making ground on the person in front. She was gamely running every single step, something I could not have done, but I was keeping my heart rate as low as I could and catching up so I figured it was the best approach for me.

Suddenly, there was an almighty crash on the trail ahead and a “Woah!” After some indistinct muttering it was silent again so I carried on expecting to see a tree or at least a big branch blocking the route. But nothing was visible so after a quick look for any wobbly-looking trees carried on about my business.

My business was getting back to the start feeling in reasonable shape and the occasional photo break helped me to not over exert myself. At one such moment I happened to see a timing chip that had fallen off someone’s race number (or bib as it’s known over here) so I handed it in at the Cardiac aid station. They would have missed out on a few split times but maybe it helped in some way.

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Going down Cardiac is so much more pleasant than the reverse and it was good to get the legs moving again. My toes were very happy in their new home – I’d done what you’re not supposed to do and bought new shoes the day before but Hoka Challengers are good to go straight from the box – and everything was feeling fine as I dropped down the first set of steps back into Mill Valley.

“You’re looking far too fresh!” said a spectator as I passed.

“There’s a long way to go” I replied, knowing that even though I was almost halfway by distance, I was still at nothing like halfway in terms of time.

I trotted into the turnaround in 3:07 and went straight to my drop bag to replace my plasters. Wet tech t-shirts and my nipples are not good friends and it seems to be getting worse with age. Is there a scientific reason for this? Are they getting longer?!

Anyway, before I could even find them (the plasters, not the nipples), a volunteer came over to me and asked if I needed anything. I’ve volunteered at an aid station and all you want to do is help runners as much and as quickly as possible but as a runner, I still feel taken aback and overwhelmed with gratitude that these people are trying to help you however they can. It really is the most special thing about ultrarunning, where you spend that little bit longer around the volunteers than you would at a shorter race, and can appreciate them that little bit more.

While she was filling my water bottle, I was faffing around with plasters and quickly realising that cheap, non-waterproof, own brand ones were basically useless and as I didn’t have a towel, they wouldn’t properly stick to my wet body. Nevertheless, I balanced one on each nipple and set off on leg three.

The first half of the Dipsea back down to Stinson Beach felt okay but despite walking where it was sensible to and getting calories in every half hour, it was taking me longer than I wanted.

My mind was taken off the struggle briefly after I saw a face I recognised volunteering but couldn’t place. It was only after some time that I realised I’d just passed Victor Ballesteros, the runner in this excellent fly-through of the Dipsea trail.

Cardiac was especially hard going. I was still running okay on the undulating flats and downs but anything remotely ascending was suddenly like going up the down escalator.

One of the most challenging aspects of the course is that although a good chunk of it is downhill, some of it is so steeply stepped that for the unpractised (me), it’s impossible to make up any time as saying upright is the only thing that matters. And with the slippery conditions rendering some of the steps movable objects, it was simply a matter of being patient and concentrating. Which is hard when your quads are squealing at you and all your brain is doing is thinking about sitting down and having a beer.

 

By the time I reached the beach for the final time I was feeling pretty broken. I had about 1:40 to break 6:30 and given my slowdown rate, things were not looking good. The climb out of Stinson was long and slow and I barely got into a jog before reaching the Steps of Gloom. However, this time I felt a lot more positive, partly as I knew I didn’t have to do it again. At least not today.

The other reason was that the guy in front of me had just stopped and was holding his thigh. He had cramp so I offered him a salt tablet.

“I’ve no idea if it will help but it probably won’t do any harm,” I said, as any good dispensing pharmacist would doubtless do.

4042-02-687-(zf-7675-65468-1-002)

Focusing on someone else helped me to stop thinking about my own pain (and even lifting my leg up some of the steeper steps was painful by this point) so I made a conscious decision to encourage, either by words or a thumbs up or smile, everyone who passed me in either direction. This might sound sickeningly nice until I reveal that I tried to trip up those overtaking me but wasn’t quick enough. Just kidding. Or am I?

Strength work as part of training is something I always mean to do but as it’s not as fun as running, I rarely do any. Despite all the time on my hands this autumn, I still didn’t do much and this is probably as good a reason as any that my sides ached horribly on the descents in this final leg. My legs themselves weren’t too bad but my sides, oh my. There was a point where I was in such discomfort that I wondered if I’d passed out and been repeatedly kicked in the ribs at some point during the race. All of this meant that my downhill pace reduced drastically and the chances of making up any time on the descents were scuppered.

The final big climb was steeper than ever (who was tilting the earth?) and I was literally using my hands to help get me up the slope at one point. So much for a running race. Chris was right – this was now just about survival.

Eventually the drop into Mill Valley arrived and a few whooping runners whizzed past me in an all-too enthusiastic manner for my liking. With my time target gone, I trotted down the final steps (all 700-odd of them let’s not forget) and across the line in 6:41 and change.

The finish area had a festival feel to it and I felt like I’d been dancing non-stop all night and now needed a serious disco nap. (A bit like at Homelands in 1999, at which I saw Fatboy Slim, The Chemical Brothers and Basement Jaxx in a row. Amazing night albeit with a lot less elevation.) I picked up my finisher’s t-shirt, a fancy chrome drinking flask, a stubby holder (or whatever they call them here) and headed over to the Firetrail pizza tent. Great pizza but I quickly learnt that I don’t really want anything spicy immediately post-race.

Looking for something to wash it down with, I discovered that I’d timed my finish to imperfection as the Sufferfest beer stall had gone to restock. Luckily there were three huge ice chests containing water, a juice soft drink and – praise be! – chocolate milk. Which was just as well because, as usual, I’d left the one I bought beforehand at home. And then the beer crew returned, I grabbed a can and went home to do a post-race flat lay.

Race stats

Naturally, Strava didn’t capture the elevation exactly but you can get the gist of the course profile from the chart above.

I finished in 6:41:33 which was good enough for 113th place out of 280 finishers. My splits were as follows:

7.1 miles: 1:29:19 (107th for the section)
14.2 miles: 1:35:54 (116th)
21.3 miles: 1:45:36 (101st)
28.4 miles: 1:50:45 (128th)

The winner finished in 4:21 (I mean, what?!) and the final finisher came in 9 hours and 29 minutes after setting off.

Although this wasn’t my goal race by any means, I’m really glad to have got in through the back door as it’s a great event and has a real community feel to it. People keep coming back and there were several people completing their 20th (or more in some cases) Quads. I’ll be back at some point although it may be too soon after next year’s North Face 50 for which I have a deferred place.

Highly recommended and yes, the ‘quad’ in the title has further significance beyond the number of Dipsea legs for several days after the race.

 

Official website

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Stinson Beach Half Marathon

The view from Mt. Tamalpais before the race (photo by Cate McVeigh)

Surfing. Rollerblading. Sunbathing. None of these things were happening in California when I arrived on Stinson Beach, 20 miles north of San Francisco, ready to run my first ever race since moving to the US. In fact, it was a cool 8 degrees (or 46 as the locals would have it), foggy and there were about 120 people standing around shivering while we awaited the off. It felt a lot more like a parkrun than anything else. Not that this was a bad thing, far from it, but not perhaps the all-American, razzle dazzle I was expecting.

But as is tradition, I’m getting ahead of myself. So let’s rewind a couple of months to early August…

*picture goes wobbly for a few seconds to indicate going back in time*

My wife gets offered a job that’s too good to refuse (nothing to do with the mafia, honest) and so we move to California because, well, why not? Sadly, I can’t take my job with me so I come on a spousal visa and apply for a work permit. This could take 3-6 months so I am on household admin and dogsitting duties. With any luck, I’m thinking, this will leave plenty of time to train for my next big race, The North Face Endurance Challenge.

This 50-mile race goes some way to making up for the fact that, due to the change in continents, I didn’t manage to finish my goal for the year, namely the Centurion 50-mile Grand Slam. The story of that tale is for another time but the partial refunds I got from not doing two of those races paid for my entry to TNF50. It’s a hilly trail race (10,000ft of elevation gain) so I need to get some hill training in. Fortunately, living in San Francisco – where there are more than 50 hills in the city limits – this was not going to be a problem. Every single run I did involved ups and downs, some more extreme than others.

Hill rep heaven

Within a month we’d moved out of the financial district and next to a park called Presidio, which has trails galore. This was better for me (specificity) and better for Hooper, our border collie (being off the lead is far more fun). As I was permanently dogsitting, all of my runs were with Hooper. At first, it was frustrating. He would lag behind me on the uphills, which on the lead was more resistance training than anything else, while on the downhills I wouldn’t be able to keep up for fear of falling over. But after a while I began to accept the slow ascents as a way to catch my breath before hurtling down as my four-footed friend led the way.

Hooper, my running buddy

There was also the problem of doing long runs. While time wasn’t an issue, breaking the dog could be. One day, a solution occurred to me. In the 50-miler I’d likely be walking a fair amount anyway so I started doing my longer runs alternately running and walking a mile. The dog survived and I got time on feet. Most of my runs were ‘easy’ or ‘doggy fartlek’ at their most challenging but I was clocking up the miles without too much damage, and most importantly, getting some hills in.

Where in London a 40-mile week would mean around 1,000 feet of elevation gain, the same distance here was more like 5,000 feet. And while I wasn’t doing anything in the way of structured speedwork, the hills were apparently taking up the slack. A rare foray to (the admittedly pancake-flat) Crissy Field parkrun resulted in a second best ever 5k time of 20:35.

But being a flat-track bully was of no use to me in my quest to conquer my hilliest race yet. I needed something lumpy to practise on and where better than the area where some of TNF itself would be held. The Stinson Beach Half Marathon was to take place four weeks before and while considerably shorter, would be a fun test. In an attempt to recreate some latter-part-of-the-race-day fatigue, I spent four and a half hours on a run-walk earlier in the week, while also getting about 3,000ft of elevation.

And so I found myself on the beach, looking forward to a couple of hours in Muir Woods and the Dipsea Trail on the slopes of Mount Tamalpais, Marin County’s totemic peak. I looked around to see if I could find any other potential TNF runners. There were a couple of guys in Ironman (the triathlon series, not the comic book character) t-shirts, and another with a race vest and blue cap (on backwards, presumably for aerodynamics) who looked a possible candidate but other than that it was hard to tell. The issue was further muddied by the fact that a 7-mile race was taking place simultaneously. Suddenly we were off, up the beach, away from the cloud-shrouded Pacific and towards the trails.

I took it gently to begin with, partly as I had no idea of the elevation or course profile, and partly because although it was marked, I didn’t want to storm off in the wrong direction and get lost. Not that I’d be anywhere near the front but still. After a couple of road crossings very early on, we were on packed dirt trails of varying width but almost exclusively uphill as we made our way through shrubland and trees, up steps and slopes. I overtook a few people before finding myself alone in the woods and hoping the trail was marked well enough.

I needn’t have worried as there was really only one route, as the single-track weaved its way up the side of the mountain, beside a stream, between trees, over rocks and bridges and under fallen trees. I knew it was coming but I was still excited to reach a ladder to climb up next to a waterfall. This was all a far cry from the roads of Fulham.

(I didn’t take this photo but now can’t find who did, sorry!)

I passed a few people and a few passed me but it was all immaterial as a) I wasn’t really racing anyone but myself and b) I didn’t know which race they were running. I just wanted to maintain a reasonably hard effort and not get injured. Before I knew it, I was at the 5k mark and although it had taken me a distinctly unimpressive 38 minutes, it had been enormous fun winding my way up the hill.

At around 3.5 miles the 7-mile runners took a right turn to head back to the beach, while the half marathoners went straight on. This was also the first water station. We’d been advised to carry water so to at least in part replicate TNF race day I wore my race vest with two 500ml bottles and a few gels, so I didn’t need to stop and overtook someone in a blue top as he stopped for a drink. As several runners had peeled off back down to finish their race, this was the first time I got the chance to see who I was up against in the half. At the very least, there was Man in Blue, who quickly went ahead of me again, and my first glimpse of Pink Vest Guy, who was also descending at a rate I couldn’t keep up with.

The next two miles were almost entirely downhill and the most fun section of the race for me. Balancing speed and foot placement among the rocks and tree roots was as much a mental challenge as it was a physical one and there were times my eyes were barely able to keep up with the forest floor flashing beneath me. Although that’s probably more to do with my old eyes than my blistering pace.

For most of this downhill I saw only the occasional glimpse of Man in Blue and would do the same as the course went back up the mountain. I hiked now and then but mainly kept up at least a steady trot, not so much to race but just to keep myself honest, to keep my effort levels up.

Then came a sharp switchback and directly above me I saw Pink Vest Guy. My immediate thought was that I’d taken a wrong turn, cut a corner somehow and got ahead of Man in Blue in error. I began to tell myself it was okay if I had to officially declare myself as a DNF as it was just a training race/run but I’d be annoyed if I had lost concentration and missed a marker.

View from the top of the second climb of the day (Cate McVeigh)

I decided instead to focus on making ground on Pink Vest Guy and by the second water station at mile 7.5, I had overtaken him as he stopped to get a drink. Not looking back, I pressed on and enjoyed the winding trails among the trees, challenging myself to go as fast as possible without slipping into a ravine or twisting an ankle on a rocky stream crossing. My concentration was broken briefly when something hit my forearm and pierced the skin like a needle before I brushed it off. I’m still not sure what it was – a fly? a wasp? a spider? – but several days on it’s still itchy and swollen. At least it wasn’t a bear.

I spotted Man in Blue again and tried to up my speed but I could feel myself going into the red far too quickly and chose to maintain rather than overreach. There was still yet more climbing and several miles to go. As I reached the final peak of the day though at mile 10, I was surprised to see Backwards Cap at the water station. Again, I breezed through but soon noticed he was just behind me.

At this point I should probably point out that, at heart, I am a competitive person. That’s one of the many reasons I love sport. But I’ve never been good enough at running to be competitive in the sense of challenging for a podium place. There are always faster people than me in any given race and so very quickly it becomes natural to care only about your own time or performance or however you decide to measure success. For me, it’s often about beating a previous time. But whether I finish 63rd or 10,709th is largely irrelevant. As long as I’ve tried my hardest, that’s good enough.

Onwards down the undulating trail towards the finish we went. I didn’t look back but occasionally I could hear his footfalls. It seemed I was gaining on the ups but he was catching me on the downs. The trail descended steeply and I was back in the woods, overtaking someone who may or may not have been racing. I was determined to get down as fast as I could. And then… steps. Uneven, rocky, steep steps. Part of the Dipsea Trail and notoriously tricky. One misplaced foot would mean disaster and I slowed to ensure my safety but more crucially, enough for Backwards Cap to catch up and get past. Okay, I stepped aside but again, safety first.

Further steps played into his hands (or rather, feet) and he was soon out of sight. But not for long as I made ground on the short ascents. We were into the last mile now and back on the path we’d started the race so it was once again familiar. I reached the penultimate road crossing and turned left down the road before realising my mistake and retracing my steps to find the footpath now obscured by a parked car. It was less than 10 seconds lost but time I could ill afford if I wanted to catch my rival.

Generous hikers stood aside as I careened down the path to the final road crossing. It was clear and I ran across knowing I was less than a minute from the finish. Ahead was a road with a fence at the bottom and Backwards Cap was running down it. To the right of this road and the marker ribbon was the way to the finish. He’d gone the wrong way and was shouting his annoyance at the world. I took the correct path and he popped out of the adjacent road next to me. I can’t remember exactly how the next part unfolded but the following exchange about sums it up.

“You go ahead,” I said. ‘You deserve it.”

“Thanks man!” he said as he sprinted off.

“I might take this back if you’ve won this!” I shouted after him jokingly.

Twenty seconds later I crossed the finish line, less than five seconds after him. I’d finished in 2.12:23 and in fourth place. Man in Blue had come second while Pink Vest Guy was a few minutes behind me in fifth.

The finish (Cate McVeigh)

While a part of me would have liked to have got on the podium – to be clear, there was no actual podium, or even any finisher medals, just personalised ribbons for the top three and a squeaky rubber chicken for the winner – not letting him go ahead of me, no matter the position in the race, wouldn’t have felt right. He was the faster runner when it mattered. You could argue that navigating is a part of racing and in that he failed. You could also argue that I didn’t deserve to beat him as I lacked the killer instinct at the crucial moment. But I did what I did as it felt right in the moment, and it still feels right now.

A half marathon, even one as hilly (for me) as this one, is no indicator of my performance in the forthcoming 50-miler, but it has given me confidence in the hills and that I’m in reasonable shape to take on that challenge. More importantly, it was an honour and a pleasure to run on such gorgeous trails. If you’re ever in the area, you must check them out – they are simply stunning.

There’s another race on a very similar route with a different name next May. Don’t bet on me not being there…

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Country to Capital 2018 – Five things I learnt

In the interests of only me (rather than you, the reader) going over old ground, this will not be the usual race report in which I painstakingly recount every step of my journey from Wendover to Little Venice. I’ve done that before. Instead, here are five things I learned from this year’s race.

1. My sense of direction is suspect

Despite having done this race twice before, several of my confident assertions that “I recognise this field” resulted in me, running club friends Francis and Sydnee going off course. Not for very long, but still – not particularly helpful.

The biggest diversion I took, ironically, was at the official diversion point. Unable to follow a simple arrow, I took the original route and wasted 10 minutes circumnavigating a field for no good reason other than I couldn’t be bothered to check the map at that point.

On the plus side, I was just getting into my stride – at 17 miles this was possibly the longest ‘warm-up’ period in a race I’ve ever experienced – and so didn’t mind too much. I also simply decided that it wasn’t going to bother me, despite the fact that this bonus loop effectively put paid to any chance of getting a PB. instead, I made a game of steadily chasing down as many people as I could from there to the next checkpoint.

2. People are amazing

As if running an ultra isn’t impressive enough, there are always people who surprise and humble you. First, I met a woman who had “failed” at the 145-mile Grand Union Canal Race at mile 111 last year, and wanted to check out the last 20-odd miles. Just four weeks after having her gall bladder out. On the basis that the doctor told her “no strenuous exercise” and she wasn’t pushing herself today.

Then there was the woman I bumped into at the final check point whose race plans for the year had been thrown into disarray when she discovered just recently that she was pregnant. A wise decision? I’ve no idea. Amazing? Absolutely.

3. Fuelling really helps

Well, yes. I honestly already knew this, especially in ultras, when you’re trying to keep moving for a long time. But this time I made a concerted effort to get calories down me very often. As well as having a bottle of Tailwind on the go at all times, I had regular Gu gels, a Clif bar and a couple of jelly babies. I’m sure this is one reason I never felt low on energy.

4. Going faster doesn’t always mean more pain

Around mile 37 my legs started feeling a bit sore in various places. Given that I hadn’t run this far since October 2016, this perhaps wasn’t a surprise. In the past I’ve been guilty of letting pain beat me, mentally. Watching the miles tick by wasn’t actually helping me so I switched the view on my watch to time, listened to some music and made a conscious effort to speed up, rather than slow down. I’m not really in peak shape at the moment so it wasn’t all that pretty but I didn’t manage to increase my speed and the pain definitely didn’t get any worse for going slightly faster. It might not always work but it’s worth a go.

5. Worst time, best feeling

This was my slowest time at Country to Capital, albeit only by around six minutes. Part of that I can put down to my diversion, and part to not being at full fitness. But while it’s easy to get bogged down in PBs – and make no mistake, I was aiming for one at this race – going slower needn’t mean a bad result.

Thanks to my fuelling, course knowledge (okay, only the last bit on the canal) and attitude, I finished feeling fairly strong and more importantly, really satisfied with my efforts. Taking the positives out of situations is something I intend to do a lot more this year, as there will doubtless be a few lows in my quest for the Centurion 50 Slam.

Thanks to GoBeyond for another great day out, to my Fulham Running Club buddies, and well done to everyone who ran the race.

Stats

Distance: 44 miles

Time: 7h 48m

Position: 113/328 (305 finishers)

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2017 – a review

Last October, shortly after finishing the Autumn 100, my girlfriend and I got a dog. Here he is on the day we picked him up.

Partly because I was knackered and couldn’t imagine racing for a while, and partly because of the new family member, I decided not to run any ultras in 2017.

JANUARY

Having dabbled with the automated personalised training program TrainAsOne last year, I thought I’d give it another go this year. If nothing else it provides sessions I’m not expecting which is a nice break from doing your own plans – it’s pretty hard to surprise yourself.

Feeling reasonably good I entered one of many Richmond Park 10k races held throughout the year, and on a wet January morning clocked up a 42:48 on what is roughly twice the parkrun route. A minute outside my PB but a solid start to a year in which I was hoping to get faster over the shorter distances. Only later did I discover I’d actually won my age group but missed out on a bottle of wine because I left before prizegiving.

As an experiment, I’d also given up meat (but not fish) for the month, lost a bit of weight, and I think this helped with my running. Ate an awful lot of falafel, mind.

FEBRUARY

After the relative success of the 10k, I decided a half marathon was next and signed up to Hampton Court half. Training was looking good and then the week of the race a cold appeared. Not just a sniffle but a full-on head cold and while I could have run, I was at nothing like full fitness so canned it. Luckily, the inaugural Thorpe Park half still had places the following week so I got a place.

Feeling better but still not 100%, I gave it a decent go on an undulating course and did manage a PB of 1:38:18 but was a bit disappointed. It was one of those days when even from very early on everything felt tough so this was a victory of sorts.

MARCH

Despite having no spring marathon to train for, and having not run more than a half marathon since October, for reasons I can no longer fathom, decided it would be good to take part in the Thames Riverside 20. Part of the appeal is that it starts and finishes half a mile from my house but that was really the only good reason to run it. I certainly wasn’t fit for it, and huffed and puffed my way to a 2:44:36 finish, about five minutes outside target marathon pace.

A few weeks later, and a week before the actual Boat Race, Fulham Running Club held its first ever race, a low-key 10-miler on the Boat Race route. Well, on the towpaths from Putney to Chiswick Bridge and back. Having never run the distance before I had no real idea how to pace it so just set off and saw what happened.

In the end, I managed to finish in 1:11:52 although it’s been suggested by the organisers that it could be slightly short of 10 miles. Either way, it went well and again picked up first for my age group (gotta love these local race fields when there’s only one other person in your age group and all your fast friends stay away).

APRIL

On the mistaken assumption that 10 miles was now ‘my distance’, I entered the Thames Towpath 10-miler which starts at a field by Chiswick Bridge and heads southwest along, yep, you guessed it, the Thames towpath.

The start is worth a mention if you’re ever considering it, because it’s a very odd three or possibly four increasingly small laps of the field which is not ideal for getting to race pace much before the first mile ends. It’s a decent route apart from that though, and I certainly can’t blame it for not getting a PB (1:12:23). Oh, and most importantly, you get a pint glass as a race souvenir. Cheers!

MAY

Despite swearing off ultras for the year, I told myself it didn’t count if it wasn’t a race and duly booked off a Friday in May to run from Richmond to Windsor with a couple of friends. The weather was one of those late spring days when the sun is on top form and all the flowers are radiating life.

If anything, it was too hot to run 28.4 miles, even slowly and with several refreshment breaks. But it was such a relaxed, fun morning and afternoon that it was well worth all the sweat. Easily my most enjoyable run of the year. No medal, no PB, just friends, running and beautiful surroundings.

JUNE

In June, the dog didn’t have the operation that we’d planned, but we took the time off anyway and promptly got food poisoning in the hottest week of the year. Running took a backseat at this point. At the end of the month, I ventured out for a 20-miler to see how my fitness was and struggle to even finish. This was the first sign my autumn marathon PB attempt was potentially in trouble. I ignored it.

JULY

One of the good things about the TrainAsOne programme is that it adjusts for when you miss sessions. On the flip side, I found myself getting to the end of the week thinking I’d trained okay, when in fact, I hadn’t done the running required. It was my own fault I didn’t fully recognise it but life was getting in the way and I simply wasn’t doing the long runs.

AUGUST

Booking a half marathon a month ahead of the marathon seemed like a good test of fitness and maybe even a chance of a PB. And for the second time this year, I spent the week approaching the race with a cold. However, it wasn’t as bad as earlier in the year and decided to give it a go.

The out and back route of the Thames Meander half was flat, not too busy and familiar. Also familiar was the fade in fitness over the last couple of miles so the PB wasn’t to be. But I’d take a second fastest half time ever of 1:38:56 in the circumstances.

SEPTEMBER

I don’t like to race very often, rarely more than once a month. This is because typically I want to give it everything in a race and I can’t do that if I race too much. It’s also expensive, or can be. And, it makes the race experience more special. On the other hand, the lack of race practice can be a problem, as I found out (almost) to my cost at the Richmond Runfest marathon.

Having planned my journey, I was halfway there before remembering I’d forgotten my timing chip and hastily had to get a taxi home and then onto the venue to avoid missing the start. A schoolboy error, and while I wasn’t late, it was unnecessary stress added to my ‘A’ race for the year.

The plan for the race was to start just over 8-minute miles and then settle into 8-minute miles, hopefully for the duration of the race. This seemed to be working okay to begin with but even as early as 6 miles, it felt like slightly hard work. By the halfway mark, I knew I wasn’t going to be able to maintain the goal pace and people were starting to overtake me. I figured I’d tough it out and keep going as long as possible. This turned out to be about two miles, at which point the legs had turned to lead and my left shoulder, sore from a fall a few weeks earlier, began to ache.

With 11 miles to go, I had hit the wall for two reasons. Firstly, I had set off faster than I was fit for. Secondly, my experiment to take on gels gradually as part of my drink had failed. Doing ultras has shown me the importance of fuelling and for me, the importance of real food. When I think about all my best marathons, I’ve had at least a cereal bar as well as gels during the race. Having done no ultras this year, I wasn’t in the habit of eating while running and had forgotten how crucial it is.

I took a gel with 10 miles left but it had no noticeable effect and from then on it went from bad to worse, to the point where I had to stop, stretch and walk sections, even before the 20-mile mark. An indication of how far my head had gone was that I didn’t bother taking my last gel as I didn’t think it would make any difference. The result was a painful stagger to the finish in 3:55:22, my worst marathon time since my first. Mentally, this was a lot harder to take. Physically, I was in a lot worse shape at the finish and had to sit down for 15 minutes while I belatedly had the gel and got my shit together. Overall, it was a salutary lesson in pacing, judging my own fitness and fuelling. A valuable lesson, but not much fun.

OCTOBER

With my main goal for the year missed by a significant distance, I decided to set myself a new challenge for October. A friend had signed up to #runeveryday and while I’ve generally been averse to this on the grounds that rest is vital, I figured I could manage it if I was sensible about distances and recovery.

The official rules were to run at least 1 mile a day but this didn’t seem worthwhile so I set myself a 5k minimum. After 6 days, my legs decided it was okay and I started really looking forward to figuring out how I was going to fit in a run every single day instead of the usual four or five times a week.

The first real test came with the first cross-country event of the season with Fulham at Wimbledon Common. A huge club turnout of speedy runners meant I was never going to trouble the scorers but it was nevertheless great to don the black and white stripes. Even better, the course covered sections I’d never run on before and had some exhilarating downhills as well as some lung-busting ups, the highlight being a hill we managed to ascend three times in a two-lap course. I completed the 4.6 miles in 33:49 which I was happy with.

Less happy were my shins after bombing down the hills and so halfway through the month got a 30-minutes sports massage. An absolute lifesaver and highly recommended for anyone attempting a run streak.

For the remainder of the month, I mixed up pace and distance but didn’t exceed 12 miles in any one run and finished on 182 miles for the month. I don’t think it did me any harm but other than upping my average weekly mileage and being more consistent with my running, it’s hard to say how much it benefited me either. Maybe I’ll find out over time.

NOVEMBER

Finding time to do the long runs has been hard all year for various reasons but October showed me there’s always a way to fit some running in somehow, even if it’s a boring, hard, uphill treadmill session.

In November I managed to get up to 15 miles, with a 10-miler two days before which was almost like a long run. I also decided that if I couldn’t get the time on feet required, I should at least try to get faster over shorter distances. Having booked in the Run in the Dark 10k at Battersea Park in the middle of the month, my lunchtime sprintervals had some purpose. I felt in decent shape and thought I might be able to get close to my 2014 PB of 41:55 but didn’t have much of a race or pacing plan other than not to set off too fast.

As it turned out, a slightly faster first mile could have meant I was close to challenging that PB. In the end I finished in 42:11 with a negative split (I went through 5k in 21:39 which means a 20:42 second 5k) and to be honest I’m pretty happy with that.

DECEMBER

My only goals for December were to have a nice day out on the trails and get some time on my feet in preparation for my first race of 2018, Country to Capital in January.

Earlier in the year I’d learnt of the Fox Way, a circular route of around 39 miles which has Guildford at the centre. There was even an inaugural race in 2017 (sign up for the 2018 race here) and while I didn’t want to do the whole thing, I figured out a shortened route and convinced my ‘social ultra’ buddy Tim to join me. This despite him just recently having completed his first 50-miler, the unforgiving Wendover Woods 50.

We started at Worplesdon station in Surrey and made our way clockwise round the route using this guide Aside from a short snow flurry it was a beautiful winter’s day and we took our time, enjoying the scenery and getting slightly lost every now and then.

After seeing various familiar sights (the North Downs Way, a school friend’s house, a gin distillery), we called it a day at Wanborough with over six hours and nearly 30 thoroughly enjoyable miles under our belts.

For me, 2017 has been solid if unspectacular. I’ve run the most I have ever in a calendar year (over 1600 miles), not been injured and got a half marathon PB. My main focus for 2018 is the Centurion 50 Grand Slam and I’m looking forward to enjoying more trails and less road for a change!

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Boat Race 10-miler

Confession: I’ve never watched the Boat Race. At least not live, as in standing by the river Thames between Putney and Chiswick and watching the crews of Oxford and Cambridge duking it out over the five miles of one of the oldest rowing races in the country. I’ve seen it on television but despite having lived in Twickenham, St Margaret’s, Richmond, Mortlake and the Putney end of Fulham, I’ve never ventured out. I mean, you get a better view on TV don’t you? A couple of strokes and they’re gone.

This year I might actually watch it if only in deference to the first ‘Boat Race’ of the year, the pilot event held by Fulham Running Club, last Sunday. Not only is it ridiculously handy for me, and run by my club, but it’s also on a route that couldn’t be more familiar to me unless it was ‘Two Bridges’, a 4-ish mile loop incorporating Hammersmith and Putney bridges. Starting outside Bishop’s Park, where Fulham Palace parkrun is held, past Craven Cottage, home of Fulham Football Club and then following the Thames Path all the way along the river, the course goes inland briefly before crossing Chiswick Bridge and heading back east through Barnes to Putney, across the bridge and back to Craven Cottage for the finish.

As this was the first time the club had held a race, entries were limited to 50 but as with all good events, the ratio of volunteers to entrants was excellent – in this case 26 high viz club members or friends who kindly got up at the crack of dawn (the day the clocks went forward as well), to register, time, marshall or be tail bike. In the end, there were 48 runners, with 24 men and 24 women.

As a ‘home’ race, I saw lots of familiar faces like Steph and Cat, and was pleased to see coaching client, Julia, ready for a marathon paced effort (with her pom-poms ahead of her fancy dress World Record attempt at London), and colleague Laura, also training for London (her first marathon), keen to try a new distance race and see some new scenery.

Although chilly in the morning March wind, I had a feeling the sun would soon be out so I took my sunglasses and perched them on my head just in case. After a short race briefing, we dropped off our outer layers and bags and trotted down the road to the start.

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Ready for the off (Photo: Andy Han)

After little delay a whistle went and we were off. Simply by standing next to Martin White, local speedster, I found myself at the front of the small field which felt a bit odd as a resolutely middle of the pack runner. However, the likely race winners soon sped off and I found myself running with fellow FRC runners Sydnee and Stephen. Sydnee had recently got a half marathon PB a minute faster than mine so she seemed like a good pacer.

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And they’re away! (Photo: Andy Han)


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Sydnee, me and Stephen (Photo: Andy Han)


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(Photo: Tom Riddell-Webster)


Seeing John Devoy always makes me laugh (Photo: John Devoy)

We ran together and chatted occasionally for a couple of miles after which she dropped back slightly. By this time the leading group of about ten was out of sight so I focused on maintaining a hard-ish pace. I’d planned not to look at my watch too much for this race and for the most part managed to run on feel and still be fairly consistent. There was a slight diversion near Barnes Bridge but still no sign of any other runners until I approached Chiswick Bridge where I spotted Nick Marriage out on his own on the other side of the river, heading home.

Phil gave me a cheery wave as I hit the bridge and I looked back down the road behind me for the only time in the race to see Sydnee and Stephen no more than 30 seconds behind me. At the top of the bridge was Max who told me I was in 8th place which was a good incentive to keep the two behind me at bay for the second half.

On hitting the road at the bottom of the bridge steps however, I realised this wasn’t going to be easy. The relatively comfortable pace of the first five miles wasn’t just me feeling fresh. Apparently I’d been running with the wind, something which was now fully in my face as I headed east. Mentally, mile 6 was the toughest and I laboured a bit, comforted only by the fact that everyone would be feeling the same.

By the time I saw Rod and Richard at The White Hart (ideal vantage point for the actual Boat Race), I’d got over my little grump and had decided to attack a bit harder once past the road crossing at Barnes. Back on the towpath and with about 3.5 miles to go I kept pushing every time I felt like it was getting too easy. Maria was at Hammersmith Bridge and it was again great to see a familiar face en route.

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Yes, that’s me, being outpaced by a Labrador (Photo: Maria Fernanda Boccardo)

Just over two miles left.

I could feel my form going and tried desperately to focus on the path ahead and walkers to pick off, to overtake. One of the downsides of such a small field was that I hadn’t seen another competitor ahead of me since mile 2 which turned it into a somewhat lonely time trial. Now, I’m not the sort of person who needs a crowd of supporters or even other runners to motivate me, and by necessity I do most of my training alone, but this was tough.

Even maintaining my pace was now becoming hard and as I picked my way through the boats and throngs of people in front of the boathouses approaching Putney Bridge, I could hear a runner behind me. It was Stephen, looking annoyingly fresh and said “Good running,” hoping my voice would indicate I had tons in reserve for a storming last mile. I’m not sure it worked though as he glided effortlessly up the road as I did my best to up my pace.

The tiny incline of Putney Bridge felt colossal as I did my best to keep him in sight but if anything he was getting further away. Left into Bishop’s Park, a quick wave to Bob Lynam as I followed the parkrun route and out of the park back onto Stevenage Road.

A short sprint finish and I was done.

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Stop the clock! (Photo: Andy Han)

“How did I do?” I asked Ilsuk, on timing duties.

“Second lady!”

“Awesome!”

Time – 1:15:55
Avg pace – 7.13/mi
Finish place – 9/48
Category M40 – 1/2

Full results

At the finish with Laura

I’m probably biased as this is my home club, but this was a superb event, well organised and with a great, supportive atmosphere. There were also more snacks, water, gels and beers than I could carry, although in retrospect maybe trying to run with the beer was a mistake.

Plans are afoot to increase numbers next year but probably not by too much which is great as small events are special and increasingly rare in this age of expensive, commercialised races. A huge thanks to everyone involved, volunteering, supporting or running.

Beer by Sambrooks, dog author’s own

I might go and watch the actual Boat Race this year. Bet it won’t be as good as this was though.

I almost forgot. Despite there being only two people in my category, I won a prize! You also deserve a prize if you can guess what it is from the envelope…

Confusingly titled prize

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Thorpe (Park) Half

My first memory of running – as a pre-determined activity as opposed to just moving as quickly as possible in between self-inflicted injuries as a child – was with my Dad, running around Thorpe. We lived there from when I was less than a year old until I was 11. 

My Dad, who had smoked all his life, had decided to give up after my sister came home from school one day in tears saying “Daddy’s going to die!” having learned about the dangers of cigarettes. Pretty much overnight, he quit the fags, started chewing Orbit and started running. One day when I was about 6, I went with him. I remember his white leather trainers which had red and blue stripes on the side. I thought they were cool and decided I’d get some just like that when I was big enough.

We did a lap of Thorpe, passing the village hall, the pub and ‘the Poplars’, a tree-lined avenue near the local primary school. I’ve no idea how far it was or how fast we went but I do recall thinking it was fun and easy.

Fast forward 30-odd years and I found myself back in Thorpe, looking forward to another fun and easy run at the inaugural Thorpe Half. I hadn’t planned to run it – it’s not exactly local for me anymore – but after a cold had prevented me from doing the Hampton Court Half the week before, I’d managed to get a late place. I hoped my fitness was still there, despite a week of sniffling and moaning. Either way, it would nice to see some old sights and catch up with school friend Oli who was also running, mainly because it was local for him.

Having last run a half in September 2015 (Ealing, 1:39.53 PB), I was a little out of practice at the distance. But my training had been good and until the cold I’d been feeling in good shape. As ever, I’d set myself three goals:

A: Sub-1.35. Ambitious but maybe not impossible.

B: Any PB. Really the minimum I expected of myself.

C: Not get injured.

You may have noticed the parenthetic ‘park’ in the title of the post. More on this later but the race did start and finish in the Thorpe Park car park, despite the fact the park itself is closed for winter at this time. Even without the joy of having a go on a rollercoaster, it was nice to be back – like hundreds of other students, I’d worked there over the summers of 1992-94. Happy days.


Finding my way to near the 1.30-1.40 area, Oli and I set off and within 50 yards he’d stopped to do up his shoelace so I pressed on. With a target pace of 7:15 minute miles, the plan was to start at 7:30s for the first three miles and then pick it up if I was feeling good. As usual in the first 800 metres people sprinted and elbowed their way past like Arnie in Jingle All The Way. One muscular chap was puffing and panting and I wondered how long he’d keep that pace up before fainting through hyperventilation.

After less than a mile we were clear of the park’s service roads and onto the local roads of Thorpe. I could see a road that I knew would take me past the village hall and past the pub but we went right before that and away from the village. I’d found a comfortable pace and thought more about my youth, climbing up trees, listening to the Top 40 on a portable radio and completely by accident finding a discarded copy of ‘gentleman’s’ magazine Mayfair, which in retrospect I really shouldn’t have even touched. Yeuch.

By mile 3 we were heading resolutely away from Thorpe along a road I half recognised and then realised we would soon be going up a hill past what I believe used to be Holloway Sanitorium. This was the point at which I had intended to speed up but even in the first few miles my legs were feeling heavy and that early race sprightliness simply wasn’t there. I hoped it would pass and pushed on up the hill.


Down the other side wasn’t much better and after some flat country lanes through a part of Lyne I didn’t recognise, we reached the 10k mark. It was about 46 minutes and there were no signs of me feeling any better. I was caught by another heavy breather and wondered if there was something in the air today that was causing all of these noisy runners. 

After a fairly uninspiring section by the motorway, I could see the 8-mile sign in the distance. I told myself that if I could get in under an hour I might still be on for a PB. As I passed it my watch read 59:58. I figured if I could get through the uphill section to follow I’d be okay. 

I turned left onto the road next to Thorpe Green where I’d once poleaxed my Dad with a cricket ball which hit him square on the kneecap. There was no sign of any cricket today, just the faster runners going in the opposite direction and heading back towards the finish. Past The Rose and Crown, then up the hill, then up a bit more past St Ann’s school where my sister went, and there was the turnaround point. It was all downhill (or flat) from there so I decided to push on as much as I could while I had gravity on my side.

Down the hill, through the final water station and back past the green with just a parkrun to go. With around 1:15 on the clock, breaking 1:39 was going to be a challenge. Whenever I get in this situation, I always think I’m going to feel great because I’m fitter and the PB will be a breeze. And then, as I grind my way through the last few miles I remember that getting a personal best means literally doing your best and sometimes that is simply being tougher and stronger and more determined than ever before.

Finally I’m into the last mile and I try to pick up the pace but I’m running through treacle and there’s another turnaround point up ahead and the service lanes before the finish. I push and push and push and eventually the finish line appears and I’m done.

1.38:30.

Over a minute better than my previous best and yet it didn’t feel like it was my best effort. But I guess it was on the day. It may seem ungrateful to not be happy with a PB but as Geoffrey Mutai says in Ed Caesar’s excellent book Two Hours: The Quest to Run the Impossible Marathon, “It is possible to feel two things.” Proud but still disappointed. Still, there would be another chance for a better time in the future.


Back that parenthetic ‘Park’. Have a look at the medal…


You may notice that the bottom of it it looks a bit, er, filed down. Well, apparently the organisers didn’t get permission to use the Thorpe Park logo in time and this is the result. Personally, I’m not bothered but some people were a bit angry. There were also complaints about cars on a closed-road race (I did see a couple but I don’t think we were in danger), the course not being flat as advertised (fair enough) and queues to get out (I walked so I didn’t see this). However, from my perspective, it was a pretty smoothly run event with good marshals and free race photos so I’d recommend it.
Finally, while I’m not getting a lot faster, I am getting better at pacing. So for that, I am pleased.

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