Five laps in the woods

When I woke up for the final race of the year (Wendover Woods 50) I was pretty scared. The week before I was pretty confident and excited (as can be read from my previous post), but when at 4:15am I opened my eyes I started being worried. Darkness and coldness does not help to get pumped for a 50 mile race.

I was scared of everything this time, not just the distance. I was afraid of the cold, the mud, the fact it was a five lap race, my stomach being funny for the last couple of weeks, my old injury coming back, the hills etc. While still in bed I had time to think about a million things that could go wrong. Luckily 30 minutes later, after having had breakfast, all the positive excitement came back and I felt ready, got into the car (after defrosting it) and left very early.

By the time I arrived at the start it was still dark and all my fears came back. The start of the race was in a field with a couple of tents, pitch black. I left the car for kit check and registration and stepped on a cow poo straight away. By the time I had my bib, left my drop bag and got back to the car I was frozen and my feet wet (and smelly). I set the phone alarm clock to wake me up in 15 minutes and closed my eyes and tried to relax and get ready. When I opened my eyes (I did not actually sleep) daylight was coming but visibility was still bad due to the thick fog.

Quick visit to the portable toilets and off we went. The start was not where the race ended, to avoid a bottleneck at the start due to a small stile. I managed to warm up a bit on the way to the start. The race briefing was the shortest ever and we were off. It was time to relax and put the training to the test.

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The Wendover Woods are quite nice. Small but nice. I had been there for one of the Rail To Trail marathons and I remembered steep hills and a lot of mud. Luckily this time the mud was not terrible, the trails were a lot better than I expected, soft, leafy, slippery in places, but never too muddy.

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The woods are quite small but the guys at Centurion managed to create a nice 10 mile loop that is very varied and fun. I only realised after the first lap that we were always running quite close to the centre of the woods, which made it fun as we kept on encountering the same people going for a stroll or walking the dogs. Most of them were nice and supportive of the race, asking us how we were doing and stuff.

So one of my fears, the mud, was unfounded. My apprehension of steep hills, on the other hand, was not. This is the race with the most climbs I have ever done. I am sure it’s nothing compared to real mountain races, but for me it was quite a lot. I think more than twice as much as any other 50 mile race I have done.

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Usually the uphill bits are good to walk, eat some food and in a sort of way almost rest. Not this time. The hills were so steep that my heart rate while walking up hand on knees was a lot higher than while running on flat.

After the first lap I realised my objective to finish in 10 hours was a bit too optimistic. I did the first lap in 1 hour and forty something minutes and I knew I was going to have to slow down if I wanted to finish.

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During the second lap, knowing the terrain, I started planning how I was going to survive running the same spots 4 more times. The first part was the easiest, almost flat, but I found it the least fun to run and I could not wait to get to the first big downhill, down what seemed like a dry river bed. Very steep and slippery with some hidden traps under the fallen leaves. Then after a small climb where I usually had a gel, there was an even steeper descent (called Powerline) that ended in a field, the only bit not in the woods. Then a steady but easy climb and a bit of up and down took us close to the fist aid station, but we could not stop, we could only see it 10 meters away. There were some more kms around the woods before we got there again.

One of the climbs soon after was not even on a visible trail and even after 5 laps I did not know what the best way to tackle it was. The first time I went zig zag, the other times I just went straight towards the next tree with a course sign. No idea what was best. More downhill and then a nice very runnable dirt road finally took us to the aid station. There was only one in the whole race, apart from the one at the start line. So getting at the aid station was quite a morale boost as it meant more than half of the lap had been done.

I only ate fruit and got hot tea (in the last two laps) from the aid stations, the rest was all about trying to eat my own gels and drink my Tailwind powered water.

The long easy climb after the aid station that I ran the first time around became my favourite place where to eat and relax walking for the other 4 laps.

The rest of the lap was first made of a larger bit of dirt road that was very runnable (Boulevard of Broken Dreams), most of it downhill, then a long climb that took us to a nice single track trail (Hill Fort Loop). The craziest climb was at the end of the lap. It was so steep I had to stop and catch my breath just to walk it, grabbing trees and branches to help me stop from sliding down.

More up and down and then a final climb to the finish line. After the first lap I was already dead. The second lap I barely survived. The third lap I was struggling to eat. I looked forward to finish the third lap as I had decided to grab my drop bag and change my top, get the headlamp (a must have after 1pm) and get my MP3 player.

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I felt like a new person, but only for 5 minutes, then I felt s**t. I suffered from not having eaten enough the lap before and the 4th lap became very painful. I was seeing blurred trees and I struggled a lot. I was in the top 30 by the end of lap 3 but I was losing places in the first half of lap 4. When I got to the open field I felt like I was not going to be able to run anymore. I made myself eat more. I had one gel, one salt stick, one Cliff Shot and 3 almonds all in one go. Drank half a bottle of water and Tailwind and walked for 3 minutes to let it all go down. I slowly got better and got into gear again. By the time I was approaching the crazy final climb I was running super excited.

I knew the trail by heart then. Seeing certain rocks or trees that I knew were going to be there gave me strength. I also got to a point where running downhill was so painful I managed not to think about it. I went in a sort of trance where I was thinking of myself as only being made of two arms, with no legs. I let my feet go by themselves and did not think about them, floated. It worked quite well and I finished lap 4 on a high. One more lap to go!

One final cup of tea (I never stop at aid stations, I eat and drink walking away from them even if it means carrying a paper tea cup folded in my pockets) and I was ready for the final push.

After twenty minutes in the final lap I had to turn on the head torch as it was very dark and everything changed. The woods became even more magical. My MP3 player was playing the right music (instead of the boring podcast I had on lap 4, big mistake) and I tried to enter that special “made only of 2 arms and no legs” trance. And it worked. I felt like I was going fast (later I discovered it was the slowest lap I ran, but it felt much faster than the 4th) and started overtaking people again that I knew where on my same lap. Running down the river bed I was almost in tears of happiness, I could not believe I could still run and I was so happy of being in the woods in the dark. When I got to the descent before the field I slipped and fell for the first time and I thought it was about time! I was too excited to be at the end to care.

The fourth lap was painful in places, especially the downhills, but otherwise it was the most fun, magical and emotional of the day. I loved it. Almost at the end, in the middle of what seemed like nowhere, in the dark, a family with kids were there with cow bells encouraging me, I was so dead that it felt surreal and I could not stop thanking them while I running away.

I got to the end so excited I even sprinted the last one hundred meters. I could not believe it, the day was over. It felt eternal but at the same time short. I finished in 10 hours and 27 minutes. 30th place (which I am very happy with).

I collapsed in the car and sent messages to everyone to let them know I was alive. I changed as quickly as I could into warm and dry clothes and went back to the starting tent aid station for a very well deserved minestrone which tasted like the best thing I had ever eaten.

I cannot thank the Centurion people and volunteers enough. It had been a fantastic day and I cannot wait to finally try and do all four of the 50 milers next year.

I have plans. Stay tuned!

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In between 50 milers

What have I done in the past two months? My two readers will be asking.

After the Chiltern Wonderland 50 it was time to rest and prepare for the next 50 miler, the Wendover Woods 50, which I will run this Saturday.

I was quite happy with my performance at the CW50. I did not do an incredibly fast race, but as my second 50 miler I think it was a good exercise in patience and careful pacing, which is not what I am usually good at. So I decided I did not need to do anything special to prepare for the WW50 except run consistently in the two months in between. Obviously I could not let 2 months go by without doing a race, so I decided to do two trail half marathons.

After the CW50 I was pretty tired and due to a nasty cold I ended up running only twice the week after. One run was particularly fun as I found myself in Richmond Park so early in the morning it was still pitch black and I had to run blind. I was not ready for winter darkness yet!

The following week I felt better and ran my usual six times including some nice tempo workout, a wet 21k on Saturday and a 17k on Sunday for a total of 74k.

The week of the 3rd of October I killed myself: easy Tuesday, repeats on Wednesday, recovery Thursday, tempo run on Friday and finally 30k on Saturday and 20k on Sunday with very tired legs (103k in total). The real enemy of the week had been the stomach. Every single day I had cramps after 10k. Not good.

Then came the week of the first half marathon. I took it easy running only 2 days and then on Saturday I ran the Wimbledon Common Half Marathon for the third time. I really enjoy that race. I love the woods in the Wimbledon Common and the organisation is always spot on. Nice little race. I ran it last year in the summer too (it is held twice a year) and finished 9th. I wanted to do better this time. It was raining and muddy so it was going to be tough to finish in a better time, but I was aiming for a top 10 finish nonetheless. I stuck with the lead pack as much as I could and settled for 5th place for the first 5k. I was then overtaken by two guys and tried to stick to them. The race is made of two laps with a climb at the start of each so halfway through you have to run up a muddy hill again. This is where I managed to get to 6th position again, unfortunately I lost it to another person a bit later.

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For most of the second half I was alone. The guys in front where too far to be seen and I could not see anyone behind me. In my mind I settled for 7th place and in a way stopped pushing. I could have probably done a better time if I had had someone to race with but I was happy crossing the line in 7th place in 1:29, almost 6 minutes slower than last year. It had been a lot of fun, but I was spent. Half marathons kill me more than longer races and I spent the rest of the day going from my bed to the sofa like a zombie with an upset stomach.

With another half marathon to do a month later and 6 weeks to go before the next 50 miler it was time to ramp up the kms.

The next week I ran 88k, the highlight was a nice Autumn 20k run on North Downs Way early on Sunday morning. I really like those trails, but I had to cut it short as there were a lot of cows and I am scared of cows when I am alone, so I turned around a bit earlier than planned.

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Then it was time for another serious week. I ran 102km including a nice uphill repeat session, a tempo run and a 42k run to celebrate my 42nd birthday. It had been a nice solid week which I followed with another even better one of 120k with nice back to back long runs during the weekend (28 on Saturday and 39 on Sunday). That was it, enough long runs for the WW50.

On the 12th of November I ran the Dirt Running Half Marathon. I really enjoyed it two years ago, it was actually my first race on trails. I had fun again this time, even if the weather was not very good. The first half of the race is along a canal so it’s really flat and you can run it fast. Then there is a hill that takes you to the woods. I killed me and I lost a couple of places. The second half is in beautiful woodland. I loved it, especially the breakneck downhills in slippery mud. The race ends with a couple more kms on the canal where I managed to get some speed back in and dropped the guy I had run the woods with. I finished roughly 5 minutes slower than the previous time. In part because the course was slightly different, in part because it was more muddy, but most of all because I am not as fast. Strava showed that I had been faster on the canal bit last time and there are no excuses there, no mud.

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I was pleasantly surprised I finished 15th overall and first in my category, SM40. It’s the first time I win anything and I was happy to step on the podium for once!

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Last week I took it very easy, trying to taper well. I ran 6 times but never pushed too much. I did a total of 85k while this week I will run very little before the race, just the 11k today. I will try to sleep as much as possible, stretch and foam roll every evening and just hope I can perform on Saturday as well as I did on my last 50 miler.

I will surely do a post about the WW50 and then it will be time to talk about 2017!

See you!