Monday, 28 June 2010

Western States Endurance Run - The last 38 miles (the hard bit)

Downhill all the way...kind of (right to left).

Green Gate aid station at 79.8 miles when I'd just started to feel ok again.

Highway 49 aid station at 93.5 miles, just after darkness.

Do I look fresh with 6.7 miles to go?

Thank f*&@ that's over!

This very accurately reflects how I felt at the end.

So I got through to 62 miles and the Foresthill aid station ok. Everything was going well and I felt fine, plus I thought the hardest section was done after the famously hot canyons had been traversed. But accidentally leaving my timing chip at Foresthill was nothing compared to how much I didn't enjoy the last 38.2 miles.

I never expected the race to be easy but as I headed downhill towards Dardanelles at 65.7 miles I started to feel odd in my stomach. Then dizziness also hit me and all I could do was jog the easy downhills instead of running them. At the aid station I told them about my lack of timing chip and tried to eat and drink as much as I could, making sure to not just drink pure water but have electrolyte tablets too. I think I'd skipped putting the tablets in my water the previous time so maybe that was the cause, but I can't be sure of the timings as the time from Foresthill down to the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River at 78 miles is a bit blurry.

I know I kept leap-frogging Dan Barger over this sun-soaked trail (I didn't know his name until I saw the results) as we both went through better and worse patches. It was the sun which really hit me since the previous hot canyons had been generally shaded by trees, but this easy trail was exposed. I've no idea how hot it was but the results show that I ran those 16 miles between 3:21pm and 6:10pm so if it had cooled down, it wasn't by much. This is where I was meant to really eat away at the miles but instead I was going slower than before.

It felt like I was crawling along even though I think I managed under 11 minute miles. I even had to walk frequently on flat sections, never mind anything uphill. This was the least enjoyable running experience I've ever had, tied with the sand dunes on the long day of the Marathon des Sables. At least it wasn't as hot as the Sahara but it felt like I was being cooked inside my head.

It's at these times that you really question why you're doing a race and how important a finish or a good time is to you. I needed motivators to force me forward and at first I struggled to find them. Usually it's that I really want a good time to prove something to myself or to justify the training and hard work. But I was having so little fun that I couldn't even slightly appreciate the great views along the river valley, never mind focus on driving myself forward. But I did come up with a few reasons to keep pushing and these are what stopped me walking to the finish line:

1. Amy would be waiting at Green Gate at 79.8 miles and had to hike there in the blazing sun, so I didn't want to keep her waiting or force her to walk back uphill for a mile and a half in the dark.

2. If I walked it would take forever and I'd be forced to endure the fatigue and hell for many extra hours.

3. I'd already put in over 11 hours of running so I'd better not waste that by a really weak finish.

I have to admit I was also motivated by the thought that if I had a slow race I'd have to come back again so by making this one respectable I could avoid the hell again next year. At this point I swore to myself that I would never do Badwater. Never. It would just be like this the whole time and I'd rather have some fun in my races (even WS had been fun for the first 62 miles). I also questioned whether I want to do many other 100 milers or whether it'd be better to stick to slightly shorter races which I can enjoy the whole way through. Besides, I can do as many marathons and doubles as I like but a 100 miler requires a chunk of time before and after where I can't do as much running or racing, so that's a big sacrifice.

Almost disappointingly I didn't have any hallucinations (still never managed that), just lots of negative thoughts. It was also harder to judge distances as I felt I was going faster than I was.

But I eventually got to Rucky Chucky and looked forward to an easy dingy ride across since the snow meant more melt water and no foot crossing of the river. I stuffed my face with food and drink at the near side of the crossing, then enjoyed the 30 seconds of sitting down in the dingy while thanking the volunteers profusely for their help - I was so genuinely grateful that they were taking me 200ft closer to the finish without me having to do anything.

I'd had my race number on an elastic belt, which had snapped many miles before so was carrying the number in my hand instead. Therefore I almost went through the far side aid station unnoticed. I think almost everyone has a pacer by this point so when they saw me on my own they must have assumed I was someone else's pacer, just waiting around. I told them my race number so they could check me in and out and I had to repeat it several times since my neutral English accent seems to be impenetrable to most Americans. This became very wearing when I had to do it at the start and end of every single aid station. I spoke as clearly as possible and enunciated very clearly but only about once did people understand me on the first time that I said my number was 'four-zero-seven' (that number is firmly etched on my memory now). Obviously I'm thankful for the volunteers giving up their time but the officiousness of many of them plus the need to constantly repeat my number is not ideal when I was very tired and feeling like death.

I was out the aid station as quickly as possible and hiking up the trail towards Green Gate and Amy. Almost immediately I passed Hal Koerner, the winner of the previous two races, who was walking uphill slowly with a slight limp. He said he'd had some injuries coming into the race but it was a shame to see him drop.
Over the 1.7 mile climb to where I'd see Amy again (I really needed a familiar face), I somehow gained five positions to get into 9th. I didn't know that at the time and this was partly because a couple of those positions were due to people dropping. I think the food and drink from the last few aid stations was paying off, plus there was more shade. I came back into the more conscious world and was through the worst of the day, although I couldn't be certain at that point. Amy perked me up although she'd left the timing chip in the car as she didn't realise I'd take it off when changing my socks and shoes. At least my mind was put at rest because she said she'd give it back at the Highway 49 Crossing aid station at 93.5 miles, the last time I'd see her before the finish.

I'd planned to pick up my headlamp here but forgot. That meant I had to get to Highway 49 by 9pm when the twilight would have turned to pitch black. 2h30m for 13.7 miles, which looked like being tight, especially with at least one nasty climb left before 93.5 miles.

The next aid station was 5.4 miles away but I had a second wind and was able to run well over the undulating forest trails. The shade really helped and made me feel almost fine again. Either I was more screwed up than I realised or that 5.4 miles is actually a lot longer because I was running really smoothly yet supposedly averaged over 11 minute miles. I'm pretty sure I was only going that slow on the uphills and that I was going much quicker most of the time. Anyway, this section was enjoyable again and I had the new motivator that if I didn't get to Amy before dark then I'd be forced to walk slowly until I got my lights and that could force me to be out a lot longer.

Then there was a real gem of a boost for me at Auburn Lake Trails aid station at 85.2 miles. As I came into the station a volunteer jogged with me and acted just like I needed. He said all the right things and was really focused on getting me through the station fast (more so than I was). Also, he had a disposable hand flashlight which I could take. This was such a surprise that I was taken aback and it gave me piece of mind to know that I'd be ok even if it got dark before I reached Amy...not that it'd allow me to slow down.

All of the miles from 80-90 went by fast with one more position gained and there was still light as I started the climb up to the Highway 49 Crossing. I ran when I could, which was a big improvement on earlier climbs and I got there at 9:02, just a few minutes after darkness and 16 hours into the race.

I still didn't know what position I was in but hoped it was at least top 10, so I asked and was happy to find out it was 8th. Amy gave me the chip but I didn't even take any food or drink from her, just from the aid station. I'd not eaten much in the past couple of hours because the sugary gels and treats were just becoming sickly. That wasn't due to stomach issues, just the fact that I'd eaten about half my weight in sugar so far that day and probably wouldn't have any teeth left by the end. They weighed me at around 150 pounds, so I'd maintained around my starting weight of 149. I think the highest was around 151 at Foresthill, so I probably had taken on the water previously to that and not absorbed it, leading to my horrible 16 miles.

I didn't even take the headlamp from Amy but just kept the hand-held one I'd been given. Only 6.7 miles to go but I was going to make sure I'd jog and get through it. I don't like night running much, usually because it only happens when I've been running all day and am too tired to focus well. But the circle of light in front of me was mesmerising and I kept putting one foot in front of the other. Time lost any meaning and I'd sometimes look at my watch to find 20 minutes had flown by and sometimes that two minutes had crawled by. It was also difficult to know if I was going up or down unless it was steep, which was a weird experience.

Would I get to the finish and break down with emotion? Would I collapse from exhaustion? I really didn't know, but just kept staring hard at the track and looking for every piece of yellow surveyor's tape and the infrequent glow-sticks. I rarely got lost during the whole day but have to admit that the course markings weren't always frequent enough. I liked the Eco Trail de Paris 80km race where you could always see a piece of surveyor's tape. At WS, I'd sometimes go minutes worrying that I'd missed a turn or a fork, especially at night. Even in the light much earlier on there were at least a couple of turns that weren't marked and where I stopped, looked around with another runner and found no markings within sight. At these points I chose the likeliest looking turn but often didn't see tape again for a couple of minutes. It's only a small issue and most of the trail was well marked, but I expected more from this race, especially for a $300 entry fee.

The last aid stations at No Hands Bridge and Robie Point were in a party mood and seemed surprised to see me with no pacer (well, I've never needed one before). I didn't spend much time at them as I wanted to finish and get the ordeal over with, although I was feeling generally ok.

Even over those last 6.7 miles there's plenty of up and down and the last 3.4 miles from No Hands Bridge (which was beautifully lit up with outdoor Christmas-style lights) is virtually all uphill. All I could see outside of my circle of light was the full moon, which provided no helpful light on the tree-covered paths. At any other time it would have been a stunning stroll, but I still couldn't fully appreciate the scenery. Then I saw two lights in the distance behind me, probably five minutes back. I certainly wasn't going to let anyone catch me now so I sped up and powered on to the road into Auburn, wanting to avoid a sprinting race for position. People were sat outside their houses cheering, although many only cheered after I passed and they realised I was in the race and not just some strange guy jogging on his own at 10:20pm (the lack of pacer again made me look like I wasn't in the race).

Finally I entered the track at Placer High School and ran a solid victory lap into the finish for 17h26m19s. It was great to finish, really relieving. There wasn't euphoria, just exhaustion, but I shook the race director's hand and refused the chair as I wanted to walk around to keep the blood moving and avoid stiffening up immediately. Well, I avoided the stiffening for a few minutes anyway.

What was my impression from my first 100 miler? Well, I have more respect for those who are out for longer than me. No matter how slow you go, it's a hard, hard slog. And the slower you go, the longer you have to suck it up.

WS was great but also disappointing in some ways. The course is spectacular and a real challenge, plus it's generally organised very well. And if you want a race against the best trail ultra runners in the world, it's the place to go. But running 100 miles is a lot less fun than running 50 for me. Plus I can actually run 50 rather than walking or shuffling and I prefer running.

At 63 miles in and for the remainder of the day, I was convinced I'd never return and that I wouldn't use the automatic entry from getting top 10. I've never finished a race and sworn to never do it again, but I did say that immediately after the finish...before changing my mind 30 minutes later. I know for certain that I don't want to do Badwater or any longer races, but I've already entered Rocky Raccoon 100 in February and would like to have a shot at the course record of 13h16m (at least that's all running). UTMB in 2011 is not a certainty, but I'm coming round to it now. And although I didn't enjoy much of the day, it is VERY satisfying to finish and good to know that I didn't cave in when it got tough, even when I stopped caring about the race.

I think I learned a few things out there on the trails and I definitely pushed myself in a new and interesting way. 8th wasn't bad for a first attempt, although the time and place were worse than I'd hoped for. One thing I'll definitely not do wrong again is getting lazy with taking my hydropack off and not putting Nuun tablets in. I'd also want to do more mountain training and heat training for WS for next year. UTMB would probably be more fun since the only issue I had was heat/hydration related and it's definitely not as hot there. But I couldn't get away with the lack of uphill training that I had this year.

WS won't overtake Comrades as my focus and 2011 will definitely be all about nailing Comrades with a gold. But a month later I'll be lining up in Squaw Valley like a drug addict waiting for his fix. Besides, I have to check out the normal course after doing a snow year.

Ultras have inspired me and driven me for the past five years and now I can branch out into 100s as well. Not exclusively, but I'm definitely up for throwing in a couple of them each year.

Congratulations to all the finishers and especially to Geoff Roes for smashing the course record by 29 minutes, finishing in a mighty 15h07m. Anton Krupicka led most of the way with Kilian Journet but they finished in 15:13 and 16:04, respectively, after Killian dropped off the pace with 20 miles to go. Mind you, if he'd not run 1,000km across the Pyrenees three weeks earlier then he would have been a bit fresher and maybe the heat got him too. Those three ran really impressively, but there was plenty of hot competition behind them too. And fellow Brit (now Colorado-based), Nick Clark, almost pipped Kilian for 3rd with a sprint over the last couple of miles and a time of 16:05. Not bad to have five of the top 10 (those four plus me) doing their first WS.

Sunday, 27 June 2010

Western States Endurance Run - The first 62 miles

One minute to kick off.

Time for the first long hike of the day.

Sunrise over Lake Tahoe.

Near the top of Emigrant's Pass at four miles.

Desert hat in the snow.

Just a scrape, luckily.

The lake on the snow route.

Around Duncan's Canyon at 25ish miles.

Over halfway at Michigan Bluff aid station.

Compression socks for the last 38.2 miles.

Finally - the big one. Western States had been on my 'must do' list for a few years but it still seems like it sneaked up on me before I was ready.

The original and most prestigious 100-miler (100.2 miles, according to the organisers) hit its 37th running in 2010. I think it was Dean Karnazes' book, 'Ultramarathon Man' where I first heard about it and he certainly made it sound appealing if you're of the right frame of mind. It seems like the logical next step for an ultrarunner to take on a 100-miler after stuff up to 100k, so I knew I'd do it at some point.

But this isn't an easy race to get into. To give an idea, there were something like 1,700 entrants into the lottery (every respectable race has one these days...except Comrades) for around 350 places. There were other routes to get in, but these can basically be summarised as elite entries and old guys who started the race. To get those elite places, you either need to come in the top two men or women (you can't choose which, unfortunately) in some select races in the Montrail Ultra Cup or be top 10 from the previous Western States.

Over the years, the history and reputation of the race has only increased and it always attracts a very strong field. This year there were probably 20 men and 20 women who would be favourites for most trail ultras if they showed up normally. But when put together it makes for a great, highly competitive race which is very hard to call. I won't go into the main contenders as I briefly mentioned them in my last posting, plus there's plenty of chatter on the internet about them already. However, this year's men's field was almost certainly the best ever and probably the most elite set of (trail) ultra runners ever assembled. So I wasn't even on most people's radar...which was kind of pleasant. It meant nothing was expected of me, but also that unless I did well, I'd still be off everyone's radar.

Getting back to the actual race, it starts in Squaw Valley, a few miles from Lake Tahoe and at an altitude of 6,250ft, and goes through California's Sierra Nevada mountains to Auburn, at 1,280ft. Although there are certainly steeper races, it still has 18,040ft of climbing and 21,970ft of descent (yes, I know that doesn't add up, but it's what the website says). It is particularly known for the heat and temperatures in the gorges can hit dizzying levels - well in excess of 100F.

I won't go into too much detail about the history, but it started originally when Gordon Ainsleigh turned up to the 100 mile Tevis Cup Trail Ride in 1974 without a horse and said he'd run it instead. Completing it in just under 24 hours, he set the standard for the whole 100 mile running craze so now many races offer special belt buckles for finishes in less than a day. The silver 24 hour Western States buckle is one of the most prized targets for ultrarunners, although as long as you finish in under the final cut-off of 30 hours, you still get a bronze buckle.

I'd digested all the mystique of the race over the past few years and when I arrived in Tahoe a week before the race to acclimatise, I was more excited and nervous than I've been since I did my first ultra at London to Brighton. As I mentioned in my last posting, this sheen had worn off in the few days before the race due to the race taking itself too seriously. I stated that I thought the race was overhyped and took itself too seriously for what is essentially an amateur sport (no prize money at WS, although this year there was a $2,000 incentive for a new course record announced about a day before the race).

I hoped that the race would live up to its billing. So does it? Well, it definitely didn't disappoint by being too easy. But it wasn't quite as polished as I'd expect from such a prestigious event, as I'll explain below.

After a weigh-in and general registration on the Friday, I turned up around 4am on race Saturday for the race bib collection. Amy would be my only crew and I owe her massively for putting up with a week's holiday just for this race and for one of the longest days of both of our lives. Mind you, a holiday at Lake Tahoe isn't too much of a chore...

Sunrise was due around 5:30am and the race started at 5am. There was a huge amount of nervous energy buzzing around the runners and their families and friends, especially the newbies to the race. Although there were 24 aid stations along the course, most weren't accessible to supporters and crews since it goes through very remote areas.
Amy would be following the organiser's suggested path, especially as she's on her own and didn't want to get lost or have to do too much hiking to aid stations. That meant just seeing me at Robinson Flat (29.7 miles), Michigan Bluff (55.7 miles), Foresthill (62.0 miles), Green Gate (79.8 miles), Highway 49 Crossing (93.5 miles) and the finish at Placer High School (100.2 miles). The gaps between seeing her would be huge, with the first time being well over four hours in. And if things went to hell, she could be waiting a long time at each aid station. Obviously we went through the logistics before and set estimated parameters of when I'd get to each point.

Although it was my first proper 100 miler (Rocky Raccoon on an injury as a planned training run for this doesn't count as I shouldn't have even started that race), I saw no reason why I couldn't finish near the front if I ran a conservative race and so vaguely aimed for 16h40m, or 10 minute miling. Last year that would have been 2nd, but in this year's field I expected it to be more like top five (and I would have been spot on - that time would have been 5th).

I knew that my Comrades time included a 5:24 50 miles to finish the race over hills bigger than the faster US trail 50 milers, so that should make fast 100 mile times possible as long as the climbs don't waste me. I'd not done enough hill training, especially compared to the mountain-dwelling top guys although the hilly Miwok 100k felt good as a training jog, but WS is known for being very runnable so I had a sensible plan to jog through the harder first 62 miles then speed up a bit over the last 38 miles which were over easier terrain. Fellow Bend resident (while I lived there) and 100-mile specialist, Jeff Browning, gave me that useful tip and I think it's excellent advice as long as you're well enough trained for endurance.

This target probably sounds very cocky to any ultra veterans for someone doing their first 100, but I had enough results recently to have confidence that I could keep to that pace easily for the first 100k and the course kind of gets easier after that. I expected it to be the hardest race of my life, although in a very different way to Comrades, which was an all-out speed-fest. It would be more of a grind than keeping a high intensity level for a long period, but most of my recent ultras have been negative splits so it was worth a go.


Back to the pre-dawn darkness and I eventually lined up with the other runners as the clock ticked down to zero hour. I was stood next to the super-fast mountain lunatic Spaniard, Kilian Journet, who most people didn't seem to recognise. So I took a few photos and set my camera to take a video of the start. I had two watches on due to the Garmin battery only being good for around 10 hours, but I still wanted it to give me altitude readings through the mountains and canyons. As the gun went off, I tried to simultaneously hold my camera up and start both watches, but only managed to trip over some safety cones around the start line and start both watches late as I fumbled in the darkness to find the correct settings over the first quarter of a mile.

The camera was a useful pacing tool, forcing me to ignore the leaders and start off very gently, taking photos all the way up the four mile, 2,500ft climb to Emigrant's Pass at 8,750ft. I'm glad I took it easy, both to avoid wasting energy so early in the race and to enjoy the views as the sun rose over Lake Tahoe and the mist in Squaw Valley. Never before in a race have I planned to walk within a quarter of a mile, but it's a steep start and climbs are definitely my weakness so I power walked most of that climb, getting through quicker than I'd hoped and reaching the top in 53 minutes.

This year the course had been altered from miles nine to 23 due to heavy snow over that section of the course making it impossible to get the Lyons Ridge and Red Star Ridge aid stations in. Instead, we followed a lower course along a lake but still the same distance. This section was supposedly much easier and faster, but this was counteracted by around nine miles of snow-covered trails which would normally have been faster and easier. I'd done a total of 30 minutes of snow training in the preceding months and slipped around a lot, enjoying the camber about as much as I enjoyed running on the soft sand dunes at the Marathon des Sables. Admittedly, the snow did give better scenery and it was spectacular to see the forests and mountains when I was able to look up without sliding around.

About five miles in I tried to pass someone and slid down on to rocks and ice to knock my left knee and graze it. Not the ideal start but it uninjured apart from the cut so I hoped it wouldn't become a throbbing pain after another 95 miles (it didn't). However, it did look relatively hardcore when I ran into the next aid station with blood streaming down my leg thanks to my heart pumping harder as I ran.

After the first snow section we went below 7,000ft and it became very easy to run. Almost too easy and I had to hold myself back from running comfy six minute miles downhill as that would have been a bad idea. I was chatting to Devon Crosby-Helms on this relaxing downhill, one of the women's favourites, and let her speed off at around 6:15s thinking she would regret that pace later (she did drop around halfway so maybe that came back to bite her).

Soon I'd got well into the race and was leaving the pretty, snow-course lake views (not sure what lake it was) to climb up to Duncan Canyon aid station and get back on the normal course at 23.8 miles in 3h38m. At this point I was way back in the field, in 36th, but was dead on my planned splits and felt very good. On the climb up I passed a few people and kept to my other major tactic at the aid station - to eat and drink plenty by taking my time.

The day was heating up but was still cool enough for me to keep my gloves on. There were several stream crossings, including one with a rope to stop people being swept away. The race is known for the Rucky Chucky crossing of the American River at 78 miles which involves a rope but I hadn't expected so many times where my feet (and up to the knee) would get wet - there were maybe 10 of these. I'd guess there was more water flowing than usual due to the late snow melt and this was very obvious in the waterfalls around Lake Tahoe, especially Eagle Falls which I visited in the preceding week.

There was a decent climb up to the first major aid station for supporters at Robinson Flat at 29.7 miles and we got into the snow again. Many of the aid station during the day had medics and scales to make sure anyone with hydration or salt-related issues (in particular) could be helped or even pulled from the race. I think this aid station was about the 2nd time I was weighed, but all was fine since I was still spot on 149 pounds like when I started. A gain (too much drinking or lack of absorption of liquids) or loss (the opposite) of more than 3% would get them worried and potentially hold me back until I got back to somewhere close to normal again.

As I popped out the aid station, Amy was waiting for me with a change of T-shirt (pointless in hindsight since the new one was wet by the next aid station as I threw water over myself to keep cool) and to take the camera plus my excess clothing from the colder and higher early section. She gave me more gels and food then I got going again. I thought it was a downhill straight after Robinson so was annoyed to find it kept climbing for a mile (note to self: I really should memorise the course profile better in future). That meant it stayed snow-packed until the course eventually went down again and gave great views into the lower sections of the Tahoe Forest.

As I wouldn't see Amy again until 55.7 miles, I suspected I'd be less fresh and perky so I'd told her not to worry if I looked rough, especially as the hardest part of the course is the oven caused by the canyons from Last Chance aid station at 43.3 miles to Foresthill at 62.0 miles. But from around 31 miles to Last Chance is mainly downhill and easy, wider trails. I was cruising and enjoying the chance to go a little quicker without expending much energy at all. I even saw Sean Meissner (another Bend area ultrarunner) who was there to pace a female Montrail team mate of his and it was encouraging to have him tell me I was looking strong. However, if my forced slow pace and mere 38 miles of running had tired me out, I hate to think how long I'd have been out for.

I was making sure I stayed on top of hydration and took Nuun tablets with all my water in my backpack. So much so that I gained a little weight and had a high of around 150.5 pounds as I went through the canyons. First was the steepest, with a long, zig-zagging path down then a sharp, 1,500ft climb up Devil's Thumb. I had a good power walk going and passed a few people to get to 17th by the aid station there at 47.8 miles, not feeling the heat at all.

A brief mile later and I went down an even longer drop to Eldorado Creek at 52.9 miles, which I'd heard is the point where a lot of people drop due to the heat and the nasty 1,800ft climb to the next aid station. I was 88F on the thermometer in the shaded aid station but I still felt absolutely fine. No issues from tired/sore legs, no problems with the heat and no problems with hydration or my salt balance and I'd got past half way, so all looked rosy. But, I've done plenty of races that long, hot or steep so I hadn't yet reached the unknown of distance and time where I couldn't be sure how my body would react.

The climb to Michigan Bluff was longer and higher but less steep than the one to Devil's Thumb so I was able to jog sections of it and get myself to the next point where I'd see Amy. After 9h17m she got to see me for the second time, after some driving time but mainly a lot of waiting round (I knew there was a reason I'm marrying her). I got more supplies and filled myself up at the aid station on food and drink, trying to get as variety of food to cover as many vitamins and salts as possible.

Then I jogged off to go through the last, smaller, canyon and back up to Foresthill at 62.0 miles. Again, I was happy to feel completely fine and to get to see Amy again relatively soon. I was weighed in then stocked up before doing my one change of socks and shoes. Since the harder, slippery and wet trails were behind me, I opted for road shoes and knee-high compression socks. These would hopefully keep my calves feeling better as well as protecting me from the poison oak in the last 20 miles of the race.

After a mile of running I realised that I'd taken off my timing chip when changing my kit but forgotten to put it back on. Amy would probably have driven off and I didn't want to run back up the road anyway. Instead I decided not to stress about it and to make sure I informed every aid station as I went through. I'd see Amy again in 18 miles and even if she didn't have it then, she could give it back to me at 93.5 miles so I'd have it at the end. It seemed to be ok as there weren't any timing mats and this proved to be the case - the only timing mat was at the finish. Yet, I couldn't help worrying slightly that I'd be disqualified or that people wouldn't believe that I'd not cheated. Not much I could do except keep running, so that what I did. Besides, I soon had a lot more to worry about, but I'll have to put that in a separate post as I need a rest.

Thursday, 24 June 2010


The start line being set up

The view from Emigrant's Pass of Lake Tahoe

So I've had a few days up at altitude (6,400ft) at Lake Tahoe and now it's just a couple of days 'til Western States. I think I'm ok with the height now, so it's just the snow, heat and hills I need to concentrate on.

It's amazing how much hype this race gets. Online forums are buzzing with predictions of the winners and top 10, especially with talk of the 'Big Four' of Hal Koerner (won the last two runs), Anton Krupicka (trains 200+ miles per week in the build up and wins a lot), Geoff Roes (has won about eight 100-milers out of eight, with course records) and Killian Journet (insane pro runner with the UTMB record and has just finished a crossing of the Pyrenees). My poll on this blog has Killian as favourite (my pick too), one vote ahead of Anton, then Geoff and only one vote for Hal and a couple of people thinking it'll be someone else (not sure who, but there are a lot of strong runners entered).

Today has been my first immersion in the event, after going to Squaw Valley and taking part in multiple talks and a hike up to Emigrant's Pass, the 2,500ft climb in the first four miles of the race. That is a bitch of a start, but 'only' leaves 15,500ft more to climb and 22,000ft to descend from that point. I have to say I feel a little underwhelmed now by the whole event and am not fully buying into it being the 'biggest/best/ultimate' ultra in the US. It just seems that it's treated as the pinnacle of ultra-running, but I can't see why it's so much better than numerous other races. Others are harder, more scenic and hotter. UTMB (pencilled in for next year) strikes me as more inspiring due to the insanely steep and beautiful course, but I'd better focus on this week's race and get everything from the experience.

Don't get me wrong, the field is the best I've ever heard of in ultra trail-running, it's the original 100 miler and it's undoubtedly cool. However, I now can't quite buy into it being quite as special as many others view it. In the States, it seems you're not a real ultra runner until you've run this and no matter how amazing your other achievements, you haven't proved yourself until you race well here (am thinking of the negative comments Killian's had which have him rated as low as seventh favourite in some online discussions). And I think the constant talk of 24 hour buckles and the 30 hour cut-off has reminded me how much slower this race is than what I'm used to (24 hours is just over 4mph, which is walking speed on the flat).

Hopefully I'll understand better once I finish, but the MdS and Comrades (or even Boston) blew me away in terms of organisation, atmosphere, friendliness, excitement levels, etc., while this hasn't yet. But even with a tamer build-up (for me), the actual race will hopefully prove exciting.

Also, this'll be a snow year, meaning there's too much snow high up for the aid stations to be set up. So a higher section is switched for a slightly lower section for (I think) about 13 miles. It doesn't avoid the highest point and the first 25-30 miles could be fairly snow-laden, so almost everyone will be dealing with that unexpected outcome. I don't mind too much, although I've only done about 30 mins of snow running (last week, by accident). Am sure it won't matter, although temperatures may dip well below freezing if I'm unlucky.

However, it'll still be hot for the rest of the race, with current forecasts for the finish at Auburn of 95F, meaning it'll be hotter than that in the valleys. This is the real test put on by the race, so I hope that a week of saunas before I came to the Tahoe area will help a bit.

I'm still a little nervous, but definitely up for the race, and looking forward to the challenge. I'm in great shape, but not as well trained for mountains as I'd have liked, so I'll just have to see how it goes. Whatever happens, it's bound to be a real adventure and it's the first race (excluding RR100 where I turned up after two months of injury and just wanted to see how the knee felt) in a long while where I'm not 100% certain I'll finish. I just hope I enjoy it since I plan on doing a lot more 100 milers so would have to change my plans if it's just plain drudgery. At least I know that going slowly means I should feel fine for 60+ miles and Miwok 100k was a great training run where I felt very comfortable the whole way and just enjoyed a nice jog. If I get to Foresthill (100k) like that then it should all be fine, since it's easier running from that point.

Sunday, 13 June 2010

Dirty Half makes for a great US trail championship

Today was the USATF trail half marathon championship in Bend, OR at the Dirty Half. Since I'm in Bend for a couple of weeks it would have been a shame to miss this so I signed up early for the highest profile and well-regarded local race. It was a bonus that it was also a championship race since it's well worth travelling to, even without that honour.

Summer started in Bend on the Saturday after a long period of generally crappy weather but the conditions on race day were perfect with the recent rain making the course less dusty. It starts off with a few miles of uphill, levels off around five miles, then undulates before descending again and throwing in some more hills near the end with a total elevation change of +/-1,000ft.

The guys at the front went off fairly fast and I didn't see them again after about a mile. For me, the aim was to run hard and get in a great training session on relatively easy trails. The legs are still feeling Comrades and I could tell within the first minute that they had no pace in them, especially for the uphills.

I wanted to have an enjoyable day and most of it was...except the actual running bit. The tired legs meant I was breathing hard and going slow enough uphill to have people overtake me easily. But with it having plenty of downhill in the second half, I aimed to push and get the heart rate up higher than in all the marathons and ultras. This almost ended with me having to walk or at least slow down to a gentle jog because I started sprinting downhill before seven miles and the legs felt extremely wobbly with a lot of miles left. But I spent the time from five miles in going past people and got up to eighth by nine miles then couldn't see anyone again til the last half mile. Seventh was too far ahead but it gave me an extra incentive to push and meant I got in a great training session.

Max King won by over a minute in just under 1h11m and was almost a minute per mile ahead of me, in 1h21m. It's a great race, although trying to race it on tired legs wasn't as much fun. Excellent organisation, as ever, by Footzone and it reminds me of why Bend's such a great place to live, especially for runners.

No more races until Western States in 13 days. Am guessing I'll need another session of Active Release Technique work for the knee, but that should be long enough to recover and be in reasonable shape. As long as I can get a place, 2011 will probably be the year I can race it really hard and this year will need to be a learning experience (not that I won't try to be near the front).

Now I need a lie down. These half marathons are knackering.

Saturday, 12 June 2010

Squeezing in the Newport Marathon on the Oregon Coast

Last weekend I used the Newport marathon as an excuse to see the Oregon coast in June with Amy. I assumed Oregon + June = hot, but was soon told that rain is more normal and it doesn't get very hot either. Luckily, for the two full days I was there, it was unusually sunny and even shorts and T-shirt weather.

With Comrades only six days earlier, plus 40 hours of flights and airports to get back from it, I was still a bit crippled. The left knee soreness I've had on and off was making me limp badly for the first two days after the ultra, but the recovery compression tights were on the whole time, including the long journey home and I felt just plain sore in the muscles by the time I landed. Comrades always destroys my legs much more than trail races thanks to the faster pace and hard road surfaces, but I was able to do short, very light jogs by Thursday.

Friday was another very short, very slow jog and I didn't feel prepared to run further than about five miles. I only entered the Oregonian marathon on the off chance I'd be ok to jog it, so if I had to DNS, so be it. But I lined up on race day in bright sunshine with knee-high, compression socks on. Given the race didn't count, this was the time to try new stuff out and the compression tights seemed to work, so why not give the school-girl-style socks a go too. Paula Radcliffe uses them and she seems to know what she's doing, even if it makes her look silly.

I jogged off with the 800-strong field along the coastline and felt reasonably good going at 3h marathon pace, but decided to opt for a gentler 3h09m time since I like filling in marathon times I haven't got before (I need 3h10m, 3h09m, 3h00m and most times below 2h45m to get the full set of Boston marathon qualifiers). It gives me something to aim for and allows me to practice my pacing, which really helps in the ultras, especially.

Amy was at the 11 mile aid station, which was really just a farm offering oyster shots and didn't even have water. The course then went out-and-back so that the same point was also just before 20 miles. It's a fast course and virtually flat so the perfect weather meant it was a really enjoyable long run. I chatted to a few people and it's always good to see the whole field coming the other way on out-and-backs, which lots of smiles and encouraging words.

I jogged it in to the finish for 3h09m18s, just as planned. This time I cheated a bit, because I didn't do an even pace, but instead did 1h30m for the first half in case my legs lost all energy near the end. But I felt fine at the finish, even after the oyster shots. A fun day out and a chance to see a beautiful part of the state I'd not been too. I thought I was doing well to be able to keep up a reasonable pace for a marathon so soon after Comrades, then I noticed that Mike Wardian managed a 2nd place in the North Face 50 miler in Virginia the same weekend after going the same pace as me at Comrades. That adds to his nine or so (comfortably) sub 2h30m marathons and several longer races (like 3rd in the MdS) just in 2010. I thought I had fast recovery and didn't taper but he rewrites the book on marathoning.

Anyway, that was my last long run before Western States on the 26th. I just have to keep everything in working order since it's too late to improve my fitness now. This weekend (on the 13th) has the US trail running half marathon championship, conveniently in Bend. So that's my last race and a chance for speed work now my legs are probably, maybe, recovered from Comrades.

I'm getting the fear about doing the longest, hardest, hottest race I've ever tried and wishing I could have fitted in more big hilly trails. I'm even sitting in a sauna each day to acclimatise to the heat, although this is the least enjoyable training I've ever done. I hope the race is worth it and this could be where I decide whether or not I want to focus on 100-milers or not. I hope so, since there are so many great ones in the world and it's the best ways to see some of the most remote places around (well, in developed countries anyway).

Wednesday, 2 June 2010

Giving it everthing at Comrades 2010

The winning painting in the Comrades Art Competition, by Henk from Kearsney Striders

I did a little hiking in the Drakensberg Mountains prior to the race

The lead men

Josh Cox soon before he started walking

Me in my fetching Kearsney Striders kit

Mike Wardian with 12kms to go

Near the end and really feeling it

Peter was a lifeline through the race and here he helps me stumble around after

Kami coming in strongly for 4th

A handful of people wore fancy dress - nice work!

So how was this year’s 55.5 mile Comrades Marathon different? Well, for starters it had been marketed as a big deal with twice as many entrants – around 23,000 of them. But for me, it was number four and the first where I felt I could really go fast and be nearer the gold medals for the top 10. I’ve written a lot about the race and it proved again why it’s my favourite race and why I keep travelling so far to run it in South Africa, as I’ll explain.

This time I had more friends coming over from the UK and Ireland and the fact that the race was much bigger than previous years meant I knew a lot more people who were running. The organisers had convinced everyone that 2010 would be special due to the FIFA World Cup being in South Africa two weeks later plus it being the 85th running of the race. I can see that the former meant the world spotlight was on the country but the latter reason seemed a bit dubious. However, the marketing had paid off and the race had sold out very quickly and had double the number of entrants in a typical year, with around 24,000 signed up. It also promised to be the Guinness Record for the biggest ultra in the world...but one thing I’ve learnt about Guinness is that any non-professional records are often dodgy (like all my weird records). In 2000 there were over 20,000 finishers at Comrades, but Guinness weren’t there to certify it so whatever the number in 2010, there would be a ‘record’ even with the Comrades organisers admitting it would be the second largest race in history.

But never mind the technicalities, it was billed to be something even more amazing than usual and I was very excited in the build up. I had some left knee niggles in the couple of weeks before race day, but these proved to be unimportant (they may be more significant for Western States since my knee is currently buggered, but I’m writing this just a day after the run so there’s bound to be aches and pains).

Comrades is the most elite ultra in the world, bar none. The quality of the field for the 89.3km (55.5 miles) is better than any other by far and includes ex-Olympians. Previous winners include running legends from South Africa, obviously, plus Alberto Salazar (quoted saying it was his best win) and Ann Trason. They were the only American winners in the race’s history but there had been two male Brits winning as well, back in the 60’s and 70’s. No British women had won. So I’d set myself the ambitious goal of getting a sub six-hour time, which I don’t think had been done by a Brit since that last win in the 70’s.

It would have been easier if it wasn’t for the hilliness of the course, but I’ve done it three times, with two in the downhill direction from Pietermaritzburg to Durban (4,700ft of climb, 6,600ft of descent) and one in the other direction (with opposite elevation changes). 2010 was another down run, making it two in a row instead of the usual alternating annually. I’m not sure why this was but it allowed the marketing people to offer a ‘double down’ medal to first timers (‘novices’ in Comrades-speak) in 2009 who came back.

Never have I wanted a result more, since breaking six hours gets a particular, rare medal – the Wally Hayward medal. Comrades has a lot of unique features, which I’ve mentioned previously, but one which is a real motivator for a lot of people is the medal system. There are different medals for the top 10 men and women (gold), sub 6h (Wally Hayward), sub 7h30m (silver), sub 9h (Bill Rowan), sub 11h (bronze) and the final cut-off of 12 hours (Vic Clapham). Some of those medals are named after previous winners. Bill Rowan was the first winner in 1921 and did it in 8h59m, so those breaking 9h are beating the time of the first winner. But my medal was named after Wally who was the first to break 6h as well as managing wins in the race 20 years apart.

My Durban friends were in attendance as usual and I stayed with Peter Pearse and his wife Annette. He was meant to be running but had been off-form in the recent Two Oceans marathon so decided to crew for me instead (‘seconding’ for me, as it’s referred to at Comrades). Another friend, Paddy, had also meant to be running but had just had eye surgery which wasn’t healing fast enough to allow him to get to the start line, so he also joined my seconding team.

Race morning started stupidly early, as always. I was up at 3:30 then we were off shortly afterwards with Peter’s brother, Mark, also in the car and going for his 12th finish. Both of us were running for Kearsney Striders, a club based along the route with a maroon kit, in the same flimsy style as all male Saffer kits. We got there slightly later than planned and when I jogged from the car to the ‘A’ seeding pen I only squeezed in with a minute to spare, at 5:14. The pens were closed at 5:15 and music blared out into the huge crowd of runners and spectators in the pre-dawn, flood-lit blackness. It was a little chilly but promised to be good running conditions and not peak at a hot temperature.

Some people bounced up and down with the beats, some stretched with focused gazes, but all looked excited. It was the moment I’d been waiting for for a whole year since the finish line in 2009. Only a thunder cloud can emulate the electric atmosphere of a Comrades start line and there was palpable nervousness and anticipation in the air. I bumped into some friends just as we got closer to the 5:30 kick-off and I could see they were as up for it as me. We had the two iconic songs which epitomise the race for me – the local song ‘Shosholoza’, which I think has mining roots, and Chariots of Fire. Both permeated through my bones and I stopped bouncing around and stood transfixed on the invisible horizon as I thought about the task ahead.

It’s easy to aim for a time and to concoct a training plan which you think will get you there, but in those seconds before the starting cock crow and gunshot I fully appreciated what I was about to attempt. I’d have to run near to my marathon pace up and down big hills for six hours, averaging four minutes per km, or 2h50m per marathon. I’d also have to knock off 30 minutes from my 2009 time and that race had been near perfect for my shape on the day. So for just a few seconds I took a deep breath to set me up for the task ahead. A task which I’d talked up for months and which I finally had to back up actions. I wanted the challenge and knew I was in good enough condition to do it, but I’d have to absolutely nail my tactics. There could be no room for error, I’d have to push harder than ever before and I’d need a portion of luck. This day was a big, big deal to me.

So, no pressure then, eh? As that gun went off I just went over the start line in the mass of runners and settled into a pace which felt ok. After a few minutes I could check to see what that pace was, but I wouldn’t be adjusting it for a few kms until I’d warmed up. It was pitch black apart from the street lights and it felt like the usual midnight riot as we charged along the streets of Pietermaritzburg. Lunatic runners shot off like they only had a 10k to run. I allowed the crowds to surge past me and didn’t let them upset my pacing. Then I saw Kami Semick after a few minutes and had a quick chat before wishing her luck in her attempt at a gold medal before I went off ahead to start aiming for the pace I’d need to sustain all morning. There were three other top Americans running as well so there were potentially four gold medals which might head back over the Atlantic.

The supporters were well wrapped up in the morning cold but I was just about warm enough from the running. Many were huddled around fires and I loved the commitment for them to get up so early to watch the hordes of runners stream past and send us off on our epic day. I know the kids will remember it for the rest of their lives and that many will reach that start line themselves and think back to their first memories of the race and how it became an annual tradition to be involved.

But while they cheered I was finding things tough. That’s not the ideal start to the race when it’s such a long one, but I just couldn’t stick to the pace I’d planned on without it feeling really hard. You can’t push the pace early and feel like you’re racing in an ultra and need to generally get at least half way without it feeling too strenuous. But I felt like the constant climbs (the first 20kms are predominantly uphill to the highest point at Umlaas Road except for the killer downhill of Polly Shortts) and cold were making four minute kms feel like marathon pace, which is not sustainable for an entire morning.

Soon after the sun rose I saw Peter and Paddy in Ashburton at 15kms after a particularly challenging hill and told them that things were looking bad and that 6h10m-6h15m was a more likely target. I was three minutes over pace after that first hour and it hadn’t felt easy so I was probably being optimistic even telling them that timeframe. It’s always hard to predict how an ultra will go early on, but you can get a feel from the first miles. All you can do is keep running and see how it goes.

The day rolled on and I caught up to the gold medal position women. After passing third place (a Russian lady, unsurprisingly, since they’ve dominated the ladies’ race, in particular), I decided that it would be more sensible to change my target to chasing down the Nurgalieva twins who have won most of the Comrades runs this century, usually around 6h10m. It helps to have something to focus on and I just didn’t think there was any chance of gaining the lost time back, even if I could get back on the required pace. The hills were proving too much of a drain and were slowing me down more than I’d planned on. They don’t relent and even the down run has significant climbs other than the five major, named hills. It may end at sea level, but it still totals 1,400m (4,700ft) of ascent. Not much for a trail race but a lot when compared to fast road races and enough to make it noticeably harder on the legs than a flat race of the same distance.

Somehow my legs seemed to warm up and start functioning better so that as I went through nearer to halfway, I was comfortably clocking kms just under the four minute pace I needed. It seemed quick but my breathing was relaxed so I just knocked out the distance and saw Paddy and Peter a couple more times before the first major uphill of Inchanga, which started at 39km in. I was able to let them know that things had improved and that I was maybe back in with a shot of the finish time they were expecting.

Inchanga was a beast, as always, but I managed to keep up a fair pace and pass people, especially those on walking breaks. The sun was out but it wasn’t too hot and there was a light breeze to keep it comfortable. Just after the top was the ‘47km to go’ marker, meaning 42.28km had been completed – a fraction over a marathon. I hit it around 2h51m. I could hear the speakers and MC at halfway from around a km away so I heard them announce the Russian twins going through just under 2h59m. That’s course record pace (5h54m for women) since the halfway mark is marginally over the true halfway by around 400m and faster than they’ve gone before. But at least I had an idea of where they were now as I went through in 3h02m.

It was a relief to go through the halfway corridor of balloons and Flora advertising boards and to be on a good pace, feeling fine. I’d told myself in advance that a negative split would be possible, like in 2009, and that I’d still be in with a shot of six hours if I went through in under 3h03m. But I’d hoped to not be too close to that time. In the year leading up to the race I’d heaped pressure on myself to improve and had made sure I let people know what my aim was, so that it would be more motivating and easier to stick to the training. At three hours into the race I seemed to be living up to the run I knew I had the fitness to pull off, but there was still the hardest part left and any problems could still add buckets of time to my finish.

Next was the long, hard climb from halfway up Alverstone and up the third big hill, called Botha’s. This is probably the hardest climb of the day on the down run as it’s far enough in that the legs are tired and has multiple climbs which sap the energy out of the legs. As I passed the ‘42km to go’ sign I saw I had exactly 2h48m to break six. Dead on four minute kms and the course is a big net downhill from that point, losing almost 2,300ft to Durban. Paddy and Peter saw me and handed me another gel, which helped, but my calves started screaming at me on that long climb.

Luckily one of the highlights of the course was up next. With around 38km to go there’s Kearsney College, the home of the Striders who I was running for. As I had a local kit on, I got a lot of extra support from those living in the area, mixed in with some surprise that one of the Striders was relatively near the front with the pros. The kit has lots of tiny white dogs on it and I have to admit I’m not sure the significance of dogs to the club, but it gives some supporters an opportunity to shout at me ‘Who let the dogs out?’ in various states of drunkenness while they sit by their braais (barbeques) lining the street. Another surprise around this point was passing the elite US marathoner, Josh Cox, who had aimed to win, but I went past him with 37 kms to go and he was walking (he finished in 6h51m, so did get running again, but his heart can’t have been in it any more).

As happened last year, I was handed a balloon shortly before the college so that the lines of school boys would see their runners coming and cheer loudly. In 2009 this had been a real pick-me-up and saved my race, but this time round I was already going well, even if my legs were complaining a lot more sharply than before. High fives were exchanged along the line of kids and I couldn’t help having a bit more spring in my step.

The next time I was due to see Peter and Paddy was soon after, around Hillcrest, where Peter lives. The support was most vocal over these kms due to the proximity to the college and I also saw Peter’s wife, Nets, and daughter, Em, around here. I only just caught them in the thick crowds and if people didn’t shout my name I had no chance of spotting them. This is a relatively flat section and I was flying, but trying to save something for the longest downhill of the day on Field’s Hill, from about 25km to go.

Finally I caught sight of the Nurgalieva twins ahead and a few guys who were sticking with them for pacing. I’d expected to see them within the first 10km, but they’d really pushed the start and opened up an unsurpassable lead in the ladies’ race. At 26km to go I was in their ‘bus’ (as a pack is called over there), watching their unmistakable waddling style of running and the lead car with cameras and entourage attached. I’d planned to run with them for a bit, just for the novelty of running with race leaders in a professional race, but they’d slowed from their initial cheetah pace. I only ran with them for about 100m before deciding they were going too slowly and would upset my time goal since they clearly weren’t going to make six hours this time and were running about 15 seconds per km slower than I wanted.

So I pushed on again and soon hit Field’s Hill after a couple of bridge crossings over the M13 highway. I couldn’t see the twins behind me and the runners were now very well spaced so I could barely see a single runner ahead or behind. From this point the aim is always to catch all those people who went out too fast and I was gradually catching each runner who came into view.

The hill lasted almost four kms and really pounded the thighs. Some guys were walking down it, and these were speedy runners. The big danger in the race is to run Field’s too hard and end up with exactly a half marathon left but no legs to do it on. For many, this is the hardest section, but I always look forward to a chance to catch up some time. I’d lost maybe a minute from the climbs in the second half, so wanted to use the downhill to catch this up, plus a bit extra, then I’d still be needing the four minute kms for the last 21km. If it had been dead flat, I think this would have been possible, but at the bottom of the hill I could feel that my thighs were causing almost as much tight soreness as my calves had for a while.

I had a decision to make – to go for the 1h24m final half marathon and hold nothing back or to just jog it in and accept a slower, easier time, but still aiming to beat the twins. Since I’d already gone through several decision points in the previous hours and had cranked it up each time, it was a foregone conclusion which I’d choose. Motivation was the key now. How badly did I want it? One question showed me the way forward – could I live with a half-arsed attempt once I finished? If I felt I hadn’t given every last drop from my heart, I knew I’d have to think about it until I returned to the race. But if I used the after-burners all the way, I’d know I’d given it my all and could be satisfied.

The fatigue and pain was making me more emotional, as was the elevated heart rate from the higher effort level. Suddenly I knocked out the pace I would need for a few kms through Pinetown. If I just took it 5km at a time, maybe I’d make it. This soon switched to taking it every km at a time as I needed immediate feedback and targets to stop me dropping off at all.

Unfortunately, the task then became harder with Cowies Hill looming ahead. Although not the biggest hill, it is steep and added more seconds to a km which would mean all the remainder would need to be faster. Doubt crept in again as the task seemed impossible. I was going as fast as I could and barely breaking the four minute kms, but would now need to eat away at the additional time added on in the last few uphills.

The road kept going and I didn’t slow down as it was generally flat or easy terrain. Paddy and Peter were at 12km to go and gave me my last two gels. The first one went down immediately and gave me a huge boost with a faster km. Another fast km followed it and I saw I’d have 38m30s to do the last 10k. Doubt entered my mind again, but all I could do was take what I could from the day. Maybe I couldn’t run almost six minute/mile pace to the end and maybe I could, but I was definitely going to try.

That’s exactly what I did for a km and I started to believe I might actually pull off my target time. I’d never have believe it after the first hour of running, but I’d pulled things back to this point. However, Comrades wasn’t going to be kind to me and out came one of the nasty, sharp and unnamed hills which I’d completely forgotten about, at 45th Cutting. What needed to be fast was instead a hard slog uphill and meant I’d need to get around the speed of my 10k personal best for the last 8kms. I’m an optimist, but not enough to think I can finish an ultra with a fresh-legged 10k time. From this point I knew the finishing time would start with a ‘six’.

But what’s the point of wasting a hard day’s work? I kept on hammering along as if that slow km hadn’t happened and it paid off with an unexpected twist near the end. Of the two elite male runners from the US, I’d passed Josh Cox earlier but not seen Mike Wardian. I thought he might be in amongst the gold medallists, but then I caught sight of him at 6km to go. Given I’d not seen him before, it meant I was catching him so I had one last incentive – to overtake him. He was still passing other runners, but they were all so spread out and it took me a km to catch him. I said hi but was unable to manage much of a chat and he clearly didn’t want to be overtaken by a white boy (only two guys ahead of us at this point were white and both were Russian ex-winners), so sped up.

I had just enough left in me to go clear of Mike (he finished just over a minute behind me), then I could only see two more people ahead on the long straight on Pine Street, so set off after them to take my mind off the cramped, screaming muscles. On the final turn I caught the last of them and I could barely hear the roar of the crowd as the cricket stadium lay ahead with the finish. Looking at my watch, I’d almost got under six hours, but instead I heard the countdown for the Wally Hayward medal cut-off just as I started running round the inner side of the cricket ground and before I broke inside on to the grass. Each cut-off time on the finish has the race director face away from the runners, do a countdown then fire a pistol. I was nowhere near but was still the only one in the stadium, making me the first of the silver medals – a dubious honour.

My friend and one of the race commentators, Helen Lucre, later told me that she’d had a minute or so of TV footage focused on me as I ran through the stadium and missed the medal cut-off by 73 seconds, so I’ll have to look that up. But it was a victory for me as I ran my best ever race, the hardest effort of my life. I didn’t get the time I wanted but I was within spitting distance of it. And I did a negative split, overtaking people non-stop from about 90 minutes into the race and not being passed once from then. 24th overall, out of over 16,000 starters is something I’ll treasure...until next time as I know I can go much faster (but not until I’m better trained and definitely not this time around). As ever, the race left me more highly motivated than before and with a desire to reach the highest level I can. I’ll never forget it and I’ll return every single time I can. My addiction to Comrades is total, but also totally understandable to those who’ve ever been part of the race.

Kami finished 4th for the ladies race in 6h32m and Lizzy Hawker from the UK was 6th in 6h39m (both are past 100km World Champions). The Nurgalieva twins finished within a second of each other in 6h13m and Stephen Muzinghi of Zimbabwe won his second consecutive Comrades in 5h29m, with the last male gold medal being 5h48m, just 13 minutes ahead of me...