Monday, 29 March 2010

Jurassic Coast Challenge Triple Marathon Mar 2010

Yesterday I got back from yet another great race. Maybe I've become better at discerning what's likely to be worth doing, but it's been a while since I went to a race which didn't live up to expectations. The Jurassic Coast was as fun as I hoped. It's a 3-day trail triple marathon along the spectacular Jurassic coastline in Dorset, organised by VOTwo (VO2) and is a brilliantly challenging and fun event.

I've only done one of their previous races, the Atlantic Coast Challenge - the same idea but along the north Cornwall coast to Land's End (the most westerly point of England). It was a great triple and we happened to have perfect weather to support the great coastal scenery and undulating running. The last day was particularly memorable with great fell running over tough, technical coastal areas. Plus it was fun to win every day of it.
So I had high expectations and plenty of Serpie friends running with me along the Dorset coast. I also wanted to win and beat the course record of 12h36m. The course had changed slightly due to an increase in the number of entrants needing a larger base camp, but it was basically the same as previous years. The main difference was that it had rained solidly for two weeks and turned the whole hilly course into a mud bath. So I knew that running three four-hour 'marathons' (it's generally more like 27-28 miles per day) would be tough, especially after ramping up the training and racing this month. But what's the point of doing stuff if it's easy?

The first day started with an almighty hill which meant the field of 250 runners was spread out after a mile. Everyone seemed to be happy to let me lead and navigate even though a few of the guys in the lead pack had run it before and I'd met at several races before - Graham Booty got the course record last year and was at the 2008 MdS with me, running very strongly. Also, Adam Holland is still on track to be the youngest to run 100 marathons ever and will complete it this year at the age of 23. He's always challenging for these races and zooms off at a lightning pace which often ends in a slow finish...but not always. So that was just the two guys I knew and they're both fast marathoners, capable of keeping up with me on the road at the moment.

After a few miles of hills, the course turned into the muddiest course I've ever seen. I'm sure that at least half of day one was seriously boggy mud, which just sapped energy and made everyone fall over and slide around like cartoon characters on banana skins. It was ridiculous, but the one saving grace was that we got to do it in the daylight. The runners in the Oner (pronounced One-er) would be doing the entire triple marathon course in one go, starting at 6pm on Saturday and going almost immediately into the night. Us mere triple-dayers felt very glad to be able to rest after so much mud sliding.

I ran the second half on my own and opened up a bit of a lead, feeling annoyed at the mud, but making sure I kept up a running motion rather than walking. It worked since I finished in 3h56m and was a bit ahead of the rest of the field. Not enough to rest but enough to feel comfortable in first, especially since I hadn't gone all out but instead had cruised in when I couldn't see anyone behind. It's always fun to be in the lead and the evening meal had a great atmosphere as everyone felt they'd got through a tough day of big hills and stupidly hard mud. There were three groups each day - walkers, joggers/walkers and runners and most people had started in the runners group but then finished quite late so day two heralded a large switch over as people opted for earlier starts so they could get back to camp earlier and relax more.

We had nothing much to do in the evening so the Serpies mainly opted for the warmth of the pub (it was frickin' freezing, as I'd learned when I got into the sea to cool my legs and got out again 10 minutes later with teeth chattering and shivering uncontrollably). The food provided by the organisers was good, but whoever chose curry as the theme clearly didn't understand what runners need. Luckily nobody had too much of an issue the next day. Conversation was certainly interesting over the first two nights, pre-race and post day one. All I'll say is that Gemma Hagen can answer questions in a way that encourages a lot more questions...

Getting back to day two, we were really up for another day and raring to go. We'd heard this was the 'easiest day' although that depends on your point of view. It didn't have as much mud but certainly had more hills. The scenery was also better, running along the coastline of the island of Portland for about a half marathon and giving great views of steep cliffs and dramatic rocky paths. It was just my type of running - not too steep but plenty of rocks and great vistas. The first half was quick and much easier going than the day before. I was through checkpoint two (there were three per day, spaced roughly every 10k) within 1h30m and had Adam and one other guy with me. But then we went along the sea-front of Weymouth and it was just concrete and dead flat so I pushed on a bit until the last 10 miles which went back into the more interesting coastal paths.

Somehow I'd got through to this point without really going wrong with the navigation thanks to the good maps provided by VOTwo. Usually I don't like having to navigate with no arrows or markers, but the coastal path was generally well sign-posted with an acorn symbol and I managed to keep myself from falling over while viewing the map and checking out the great scenery. Day two was definitely prettier than day one and not just due to weather and less mud. The coastal paths were bigger and better with some great views, especially near the end at Durdle Door, an archway in the sea. The photos here are from Nick Morrison-Smith who took a camera with him and therefore helped to supplement my memories. I didn't bother since the compulsory kit list was long enough anyway and I had no room for a camera.

Day two ended slightly quicker than day one and I managed 3h46m, increasing my overall lead to around 24 minutes. I caught some Serpies who'd left 90 minutes before me in group two but not all of them so that gave me an incentive to catch Serpies Matthew Wilson and Claire Shelley on the final day, if I could.

We'd been told by previous entrants that day three was very hilly. That was an understatement and the first half marathon was almost all steep climbs and descents. It wasn't too muddy but the ascents were too steep for my tired legs to even contemplate running. Instead I managed to stick to a great power-walk which didn't lose me much time. There were two single-day marathoners running at the front who forced the pace more than I'd have liked. After checkpoint one at seven miles it was just me and one of them and he looked very strong, comfortably running up each hill and making a mockery of the angle. Watching him I knew he wasn't just going off too fast and would be able to sustain a fast pace the whole way. That's never the most comforting thought when you've won two days against triple marathoners and single dayers but are now faced with a much faster athlete just when your own legs have been pounded for two days and the course has just got markedly harder.

Somehow I managed to keep him in sight to the checkpoint at halfway. This was mainly thanks to my kamikaze style of downhill running which didn't take much effort, except to put any fears completely off the table. I have to admit that the best thing about mountains and even hills is the down hill. The harder, the better, and I absolutely love the technical stuff where you have to concentrate so hard you're almost holding your breath. Luckily for me, this happens to be the terrain which most slows down almost everyone else so I can always use it to catch up with people, with the added bonus that as I catch them I'm having the time of my life and adrenaline is pumping round my body like a body-builder on steroids...skydiving...naked...probably.

So I somehow left checkpoint two ahead of him and went off, determined to set enough of a pace to make the win hard for him. The course was great from this point. Totally runnable and with great undulating epic coastline views. For anyone feeling tired, like the Oner entrants I was starting to catch up to, this must have been exhausting, but I wasn't far enough into the marathon to be tired and the grass, light mud and rocks were just what I wanted to enjoy myself.

Soon I caught up to my group two Serpies who'd started about 90 minutes earlier. Jo Proudlove, Toby Melville and Jany Tsai were all together and had hoped to get a bit further than halfway before I caught them. Then a few miles later I caught Claire, closely followed by James Adams in the Oner. He told me he was knackered but he'd made good time to that point and only had 10 miles left of the massive distance. He even had time to take a photo of me running up to him, which was helpful of him since there weren't many official photos. I had no time to chat since I knew the guy in second was going well and wasn't far behind at all.
On the other days I'd had it sewn up by this point but it looked like I'd have to push a bit harder this time if I wanted a hat-trick (and 100% record at VOTwo events). I was in two minds since I'd only have six days to recover for Two Oceans 56k in Cape Town and I'd have to be reasonably fresh to break fours hours there for a silver medal. But my competitive nature meant I had to at least cruise with a bit of effort, then if he caught me I could decide whether to go all out for a race or not. I was pretty sure I was far enough ahead of the guys in the triple to be safe but it just seemed silly to not go for the outright win given I was leading and feeling fine.

Checkpoint three came and there was no sign of anyone behind me as I caught more of the early runners and the Oner guys. Every time I passed someone, especially those who'd been out all night, I was sure to congratulate them on getting through the course as it'd had been a real test over three days (or under 24 hours for the ultra runners). I also tried to be as polite as possible when overtaking on narrow sections, whether it was other runners or general walkers on the path. It just seemed like the kind of event where racing comes second and enjoyment and relaxation comes first. But for me the concepts of racing and enjoyment are so intertwined that it's just not fun if I don't have any target, whether that's time, position or whatever.

The running into the finish wasn't too tough and was generally on scenic trails, with one large hill left then a long, gentle downhill. It finished with over a mile along the beach, which is where I caught Drew Sheffield in the last stage of the Oner (I do love meeting mates mid-race as it's more of a conversation starter than just meeting in the street). His first words were to ask if I'd seen any Oner guys behind him and he was relieved to know there was nobody near and that his position was very safe. A man after my own heart, clearly.

Then I expected to see a finish along the beach, but instead there was a turn, a chunk of dune-like sand (I may have mentioned in previous blogs about deserts how much I hate sand), then half a mile of huge puddles to the finish. I'd managed to keep the lead so felt like I was on a victory lap for that last half mile. I finished in 4h04m, annoyed to miss out of the 4h marathon every day, but then the last day was 27.8 miles and the total distance was not 78.6 miles, but more like 81 miles (and I didn't get lost so that should be pretty accurate on the Garmin). At least I'd broken the course record and done so in the worst ground conditions they've had.
Matthew was the one Serpie I didn't catch and he was relaxing at the end, very happy with his impressive finish in a total of sub 16h. Soon after, Claire finished but we disappeared in a bus to the train station before everyone else came through. I also found out that the guy who'd been on my heels all day was Huw Lobb, currently a Serpie, but also one of the fastest British marathoners ever and a cross-country champion. Luckily for me he's not done a marathon for a few years but he's only a little older than me and I certainly consider it a good win to hold him off by 10 minutes. He's not as fast as he used to be, but he's still posted some zippy times in the past couple of years, as good as anyone in the club, if not quite at his peak of a 2:14 marathon. Then Mr Booty managed to beat his own course record too and hold on to a solid second over the three days, but couldn't quite catch Huw's fresh legs on day three.
Overall it was a tough event and brilliantly organised. Everyone, bar a few whingers who seemed to think the mud spoiled their fun, had an amazing time and got highly addicted to multi-day running. I already was, but it's always good to get more mates involved. It was hard, but not impossible. The Oner looked very hard, given the boggy start, but when I opened the door of the caravan in the middle of the night while they ran to briefly cool myself, I saw the clear, still night and could appreciate the majesty of running from dawn to dusk. It's still something I've not done and it's not on the cards this year, even at Western States (unless things go very wrong). The first time I'll do it will be UTMB 2011 which starts in the evening and will have me clambering through mountains through the night. I imagine it'll be a very serene, but exhausting, challenge and look forward to it.

So, it's on to Two Oceans, great white shark cage-diving and then some relaxation. This month has been, overall, a big success. My knee has proved to be completely fine and I've started to get some form back. The training run at Glasgow-Edinburgh felt ok, then I tried to race the Eco Trail de Paris but felt very slow until I managed to get a good last 10 miles in. Then the high mileage (for me) of 95 miles/week this month has left me a little tired but generally ok and definitely not broken. My strongest running was at the end of races, so I've some confidence that I'll be fully in shape for Comrades and Western States. But there's not long before I'll have to start tapering for those, so I just hope I'm able to improve my speed by then otherwise I'll be well off the pace.

Monday, 22 March 2010

50 miles then run up the Eiffel Tower

Starving at CP2

View from the final CP

CP2 while James went through

Typical trail, but less muddy than most of it

The start

James trying his best not to look English and failing as usual

My impression of a Frenchman

If someone told you that you can go up the Eiffel Tower without having to queue you might assume it'd cost a lot or that you'd need to be a visiting dignitary. But about 3,000 people were able to do just that last weekend (not at the same time or there would have been a queue, obviously) thanks to a very cool event, now in its third year - the Eco Trail de Paris. With an 80k, 50k and a shorter 18k, I had to choose the main event and do the longest one.

I decided that March is unofficially mileage month. After the lack of running up til February, I managed to get 60+ miles/week in through that month, just so I'd be able to take the strain of lots of very long races and basically no tapering through the entire month of March. The slightly odd-sounding mileage target for the month is 406.1 miles, worked out as an average of a half marathon per day.

Anyway, following the race this weekend, I'm three weeks into it and have managed to stick to my plan religiously. Obviously, I had to factor in that an ultra means lower mileage for at least a couple of days afterwards, but I've done the hard part now I've finished the second ultra of the month and I'm still feeling fine with the knee injury well and truly in the past. It's meant I haven't got as much speed as before, but in a few months that'll come back. This is the base building phase for both Comrades (end of May) and Western States (end of June) so as long as my legs get used to running longer, they should be able to take some faster training in there too.

The Parisian race was a mixture of fun and things going a bit wrong (for me only - the race was generally well organised even if the communication from the organisers wasn't always perfect). I'd expected a big group of Serpies when I signed up many months ago since it sounds great on paper - 50 miles of undulating trails, finishing with a sprint up to the first floor of the Eiffel Tower and with 1,500 entrants. So many Serpies are getting into trails and ultras that I assumed they'd all be entering...but in the end it was the usual two who do every race they can get their hands on, James Adams and myself.
For a while it looked like it'd just be me due to James' lack of organising any transport to Paris until about a day before, plus his St Paddy's Day food poisoning due to a dodgy late night burger. Then we even had issues overnight at the hotel when I realised there were bedbugs in my bed and that I was being eaten alive and therefore not getting any sleep. I opted to sleep on the floor while James made various noises from various parts of him. Luckily I had ear plugs.

On race morning it seemed like a genteel start given kick off was at 12:30pm. We weren't 100% sure how to get to the start so went to the expo under the Eiffel Tower. Many other runners were there, mainly to register, so we managed to work out that a train from a nearby station went to the right place and that we had been given the correct ticket in out good bag. It wasn't as easy to work out as you'd expect and the actual trains had no identifying numbers or a screen on the platform to show where they headed making us (and about 200 other runners) get on, then quickly off again, several trains before the right one came.

Hoards of lycra-clad Frenchies got off the train with us and we piled into coaches to take us to the start at a place called Trappes, somewhere east and a little south from Paris. There was cake and also muesli bars to eat at the start but it was cold and windy enough to make us both a tiny bit uncomfortable while we waited about 90 minutes for the start. I stuffed my face while James was being more careful and crossing his fingers that his stomach would hold up and that the tiny quantities of food he'd eaten for the past two days would be enough.

After a quick race briefing in French then in English, we were off and the day had warmed up to make us all feel overdressed in our cold weather gear. But gear is a very important thing in this race. Not because you need it (it's Paris in Spring so you aren't exactly going to get lost on a mountaintop for days on end), but because the compulsory item list is long and partially pointless. For example, does everyone really NEED two headlamps with spare batteries as well? Or a very long strip of bandage in case you burst an artery and no medical help is around? Running tights/leggings were also compulsory so I was feeling hot in them. And, like every French race, a medical certificate, signed by a doctor, was compulsory. The one compulsory item I didn't have was a reflective armband, but my hat had reflective strips and my sleeves were bright white. I hoped this wouldn't be an issue.

The course record was a reasonable 6h02m so I had my sights on that but the entire field zoomed off like they all wanted to break world records. I got caught up in it, but was actually running around the right pace at first, covering the easiest and flattest section to 21km in 1h29m. Unfortunately, I felt bad and that I was going too fast. I made the error of running other people's races rather than my own and also didn't want to get too far behind the lead pack. But I wasn't fully fresh after the 56-miler two weeks earlier and in-between I'd run high mileage so my tapering had basically consisted of only doing a 5-miler the day before. Not ideal, but I thought I could get away with it. Even if I couldn't, the training benefit of March meant I couldn't prioritise any of the races unless I wanted to take something away from Comrades or Western States.

I decided to forget about the course record and settled down to a slower pace as the course got harder and prettier. It was very muddy for much of the distance and the hills weren't big, but often steep (1,500m, or about 5,000ft, of total ascent over the whole course but it felt like more) and required walking up. Some stomach problems and too much stuff latched on to the back of my water pack (and therefore falling out) caused a few minutes of stoppages and a group of runners overtook me, including the lead woman. I reckoned I was around the top 20, but couldn't really tell. I'd been running just ahead of them for about 10k, so it was annoying to drop positions without a fight.

A relatively long, but gentle, climb took us up to an observatory and the first glimpse of the Eiffel Tower, 35km away along the course. It was a nice surprise to see it, but I'd only gone a few kms over half way so it wasn't time to start thinking of the finish line. Soon after, at 46km, there was a random checkpoint, with no food or water, which we hadn't been told the location of. Annoyingly, the one item of kit they wanted to check was the reflective armband, which I didn't have. So after a couple of minutes of me trying to pretend that it must have fallen off my waterproof jacket which was tacked on to the back of my pack, they let me go but took down my number. I was annoyed for the next few minutes because it was broad daylight, I had no intention of finishing in the dark and I had plenty of reflective stuff on. But I kept jogging along, wondering whether I'd get to the end and be disqualified.

The next checkpoint was a long way, at 53km, and a lot of people struggled with the 32km gap. But by the time I got to it, I'd been running on my own for ages and hadn't seen the people ahead or behind me. I'd overtaken a lot of people since CP1 and they had a lot of film crew and even an MC getting the reasonable crowd and large number of volunteers excited. Everyone before me had been French and there was no other runner in the area so the MC started interviewing me. He knew I was English from the info he had on the runners and it was an interesting experience to try out my French while eating as much as possible. At least my French was good enough to understand when he said I was seventh, but I wasn't sure if that was overall or just in the men's race. With 27km to go, top five overall seemed like a good aim, especially as I'd been taking it easier and felt fresh again.

After a good few minutes of eating and refilling my water bladder, I was off and had more motivation. Even if the time would be slower than I wanted, I could still get a great day's training and top five on an off day with tired legs would be a definite success. Even more so after starting off too hard and then losing heart at the effects of my purposeful overtraining.

I'd ask spectators along the way "Ou est le prochain coureur?" which was imperfect French for "Where's the next runner?" I got a variety of answers, some too long for me to understand, but one guy was very clear and told me I was only a minute behind and that he was going slowly. That spurred me on, but he must have seen a jogger, not one of the participants because I still hadn't caught anyone by the next checkpoint at 60km and I'd sped up.

The day had stayed cool and rain free, so even by this point I didn't need extra layers. The checkpoint was empty of other runners and I now suspected that there was a big gap behind and ahead of me. It meant I had to keep concentrating on not getting lost, but the trails were well marked with tape, some orange arrows on the ground and marshals dotted about on road crossings.

The final checkpoint was at 70km and I finally caught up to the next position just before it. He was struggling badly and hobbling at a slow speed. I asked if he was ok, but his response in French was unintelligible. However, his sullen face said it all - race over. I felt bad for him but it did show me the contrast with how I was feeling, which was fine. In fact I was feeling better than at any other point in the race. It also helped that the second viewing of the Eiffel Tower was at this checkpoint and it looked a lot closer.

Only 10k to go and it would mainly be flatter and along the river after the biggest downhill of the day. I was on track for around 6h30m if it was exactly 10k to go, but that checkpoint was early according to my GPS, so I expected a slightly longer run in to the finish. 10k is nothing as long as you feel fine, so I happily sped up and started throwing in 4-minute kms. The course followed a skanky section which looked more like the canals in the UK than the beautiful Seine river, but it soon switched to the more familiar Parisian landscape.

I caught two more guys along the river and they were both going at a slow jog, so didn't even try to stay next to me. It seems the fast pace at the start ruined a lot of people's races and I'm sure most of the large group who started off with close to 6-minute mile pace could have gotten a better time and had more fun if they'd ignored the rush.

I assumed I was in fourth at this point but still hadn't caught the lead lady so that meant fifth overall at worst. I'd managed to scrape into the top five and it didn't look like there was any chance of gaining more positions - one marshal told me I was 10 minutes behind and I was within the last 5k.

As the Eiffel Tower approached, it gradually looked taller and taller. It wasn't dark yet so the lights all over it weren't lit up. I realised that one of the best things about the race would be to run up to the glittering tower with the lighthouse-style lamp swirling about on the top. But I could always see that later after the finish.

As I came into the final sections and jumped up the stairs from the water-side to the base of the tower, there were large crowds cheering. It was a fitting end to the race...but there was still the best bit to come. As I ran under the tower, the course snaked into the expo tent, along a stage and out the other side. There were staff members and 50k finishers sat down eating and they cheered every runner through, including myself. Then there was just the final climb up the tower to come.
I was given a ticket and they stopped me to check my bag (for bombs?) before letting me loose on the stairs. I started off bounding up them but soon slowed to power-walking two at a time and using the handrail. There was a cameraman just below the entrance into the first floor, so he saw me at my slowest, then he also saw me catch up to the lead lady on the very final turn on the stairs. She was walking slowly and I hesitated for a second about overtaking her on the narrow staircase. However, she kept going at the same speed, so I ran up the last few stairs and popped out to a throng of paparazzi photographers who'd been expecting the winning woman to come through next. They quickly redirected their cameras when she appeared behind me, but I felt exhilarated to have finished and to have recovered from many tough and slow miles in the middle. 6h32m32s and fourth overall, but well off the podium who were bunched together around 6h08m. Over 1,000 of the 1,500 entrants finished within 12 hours but I'm not sure if the slower ones after that time were counted as finishers.

I chatted to the race director and some of the staff but was keen to get down to the bottom again since there was only Coke and beer at the top, with all the food at the bottom in the tent I'd just run through. I also wanted a shower and to get back into a viewing position for when James would come through. He'd optimistically said 7h30m, but his illness meant I expected him to come through slower than this. He finished in 9h20m after some torrential downpours, which I luckily managed to completely avoid in the marquee.

Overall we were both happy to have got round without injury and I was amazed he managed to do it after being ill. James does know how to push himself, which is why he's had finishes in races of 145 miles and 153 miles - sheer guts and determination are the main success factors in those races. I had to face the reality that if I train hard I can't also race hard at the same time with no taper at all. It would be good to retry that race but it's just too far to go from the US.

So, five days to recover and to fit in a slightly lower mileage before the Jurassic Coast triple marathon on Friday-Sunday. Based on how my legs are 48 hours later, I should be fine to run those three races reasonably hard. I don't get to rest properly until a week later, after completing the Two Oceans 56k race in Cape Town, South Africa. Then I can hopefully look back at a great month and allow myself an easy week to soak up the benefits of the training. The proximity of Comrades and Western States isn't really a worry, but I know I need to train very hard, particularly on hills, to nail these races. I can't wait for the challenge I've set myself but there's also a significant chance of failure just because my expectations are set high. Sub 6h at Comrades (2h50m marathon pace for 55.5 miles) and top 10 minimum at Western States as long as I'm not fried from Comrades.

Sunday, 7 March 2010

Glasgow to Edinburgh for many of the Serpie ultra runners

Pre-race Serpies

The Falkirk Wheel...well, part of it

What a nice tunnel for half a mile

This weekend was the second year of a new race from Glasgow to Edinburgh along canals and it went well for almost all concerned. 56 miles and navigation that basically involved one rule - keep the water on the right. Plus it's as flat as a squished badger, so the perfect ultra for a mass horde of Serpentine runners to attempt, many for their first (proper, i.e. 50 miles+) ultra. It also coincided with a 30th birthday for James Adams, so there were also many turning up in Edinburgh just for the food and drink without going to the bother of burning off the calories first.

12 Serpies had entered but with DNSs and DNFs, only six made it the whole way through. Looks like there's now a significant contingent of ultra runners at our London club, which is only fitting with a Club President, Hilary Walker, who still holds several ultra world records many years after breaking them.

After my couple of months out through injury and the DNF at Rocky Raccoon 100, this was meant to be a chance to have a hard run, without using too much effort. I've got a heavy race schedule over the next few weeks with the Eco Trail de Paris 80k, Jurassic Coast triple marathon and Two Oceans 56k all in quick succession, so I couldn't afford to wipe myself out. And the knee needed to hold up too or a lot of race entry fees would go to waste.

I stayed the night before with Casey in Glasgow, who had been part of the second-placed mixed team at Transalpine. I'd convinced him into running the double marathon but an achilles injury has knocked him out just as he was getting very quick and looked on for a sharp marathon in London. Instead we had a catch up and chatted about the race back in the Alps and about this year's event, which I sadly can't make.

On the morning of the race the forecast and starting conditions were very good, with the Scottish winter easing up so that the only snow was on the nearby mountains. It wasn't even raining and the whole day stayed dry except for a brief light shower mid-afternoon. This isn't the Scotland I'm used to, but it wasn't sunny either so at least one stereotype stood up.

I'd expected a newish race with only 100 entrants and no prize money to have an average field but there were three members of he Scottish 100k team, two male and one female. So my aim of cruising through for a comfy win seemed off the cards, especially when they shot off and really wanted to race it.

Canals aren't the most interesting routes normally, but the background of snowy hills was an improvement on the races I've done on the Grand Union Canal from Birmingham to London. There's also a sight along the way at just over 22 miles in - the Falkirk Wheel. This seems to be partly practical and partly for tourist boats and it lifts barges/boats up from the lower canal to a level 50 feet higher in a carousel-style motion. It was also the only remotely hilly part of the course and surprised me as I had no idea it was there or that a nasty hill would interrupt the easy, but muddy, terrain. Mind you, I think I'd have preferred more hills just to add variety to the course and give the leg muscles a chance to work in different ways instead of just keeping going on the flat. There was a half-mile very dark tunnel just after the Wheel which was a cool addition to the route and I really liked. The slipperiness wasn't great but it made for a memorable, if poorly lit, section. Wish I'd had my camera at that point.

I ran on my own after checkpoint two and was a little bored in third place. I had no inclination to go out hard after the first pair and my legs are only just getting the miles back in them anyway. After keeping up a very even pace to checkpoint four at 42 miles, I lost an incentive to push to the end and decided to jog it in and save my legs so that I could train well during the week. I wanted to know how far behind fourth place was, but reasoned that if he took long enough to catch me I might give him a race to the end as long as my knee and legs felt fine. A slight detour after that checkpoint avoided some scaffolding under a bridge but it was marked and about the only chance to get lost, but you'd have to try hard.

So I had a stretch for a few minutes then jogged a couple of 9-minute miles before working out how long it'd take to finish and decided it was worth going a little quicker just so I'd be on my feet less time. I'd run out of water by this point and the checkpoints only had water and very dilute SIS sports drink (no food). So I ate plenty from my backpack and decided to refill my 2L North Face bladder at the last checkpoint at 47.25 miles. I felt very relaxed and knew that it wasn't long til the end, but then a middle-aged guy zoomed by while I was at the checkpoint.

Suddenly a little spark ignited my competitive streak and I decided to see how fast he was and use his pace to get me to the end a bit earlier. He was clocking 7-minute miles and that was a little above the average pace to this point so I could tell he was just trying to look stronger and drop me so that he could slow down again. But I was feeling very comfy and just sat on his shoulder for a mile to see how he was doing and assess whether I could push past him easily. He did speed up slightly but it was coming up to the last six miles and I wanted to avoid a sprint finish (that's what I now reckon started off my injury in the first place at Fukuoka). So I accelerated and started to really get into the race mood for the first time that day. It's funny that it took his challenge to make me really enjoy the day as I'd have happily cruised into the end at a gentler pace if he hadn't come past me.

I kept the pace at 6:40/mile and stayed at that for a couple of miles to make sure I'd be out of sight and in the clear. I think he slowed down as soon as I overtook as he saw that his burst of pace hadn't dropped me, but I wanted to be sure now that I'd get third as I'd been running for hours and didn't want to have wasted the effort.

Then at just over a mile to go I saw Serpie, Andy Taylor, running the other way and he kept going. I assumed he was getting in a nice run and seeing how many other club members he could see en route after cycling the whole route on a mountain bike first. He told me it was a mile to go, so it looked like my Garmin would show it up as around a mile short, after every checkpoint being exactly the distances advertised. However, after I'd gone a mile and still couldn't see the finish I started to doubt him. He wasn't far out with his estimate and just after that he came up behind me on his way back. Luckily I wasn't struggling and it wasn't a longer race as even minor differences in distances to what's expected can be utterly demoralising in ultras. I finished in third in 6h51m09s and had left myself a comfortable four-minute cushion to fourth.

Overall there were smiles all round and the race went well for most people, apart from the few DNFers, obviously. It's almost exactly the same distance as Comrades at 56 miles (or estimates of 55.2-55.8 from the Garmins I've seen), compared to 55.5 for the down run or around 54.0 for the up run. So that ranks as my second fastest double marathon pace ever. Definitely a good day on my recent mileage. Hopefully the three remaining months to Comrades will mean I can get some pace back and build up to a perfect race. And, most importantly, the knee caused no issues during or after.

The evening's celebrations were chilled after the remaining Serpies came through, mainly before darkness. Serpie results and the winners are below:

Men's winner: Marcus Scotney - 6h22m56s (CR)
Women's winner: Lucy Colquhoun - 7h31m02s

3 - Ian Sharman - 6h51m09s
10 - Claire Imrie - 7h42m05s (2nd woman and her 1st longer ultra!)
11 - Oli Sinclair - 7h43m25s
26 - James Adams - 8h52m07s (birthday boy)
28 - Jen Bradley - 9h00m47s
37 - Diane Haywood - 9h37m55m

72 finishers

DNFs - Nick Copas, Mark Braley