I didn't run at all after the UTMB for a couple of weeks or so; disappointment at yet another poor performance on Mont Blanc coupled with some tiredness after a busy summer I guess. Whatever it was, I didn't have the enthusiasm. I diverted to walking, climbing, and other more instantly gratifying activities. Then I came home and entered the Chester Marathon. I still can't think why I did that, except that it sounded like a good event running right through the middle of our historic little city then taking in a fair bit of both Welsh and English countryside, and finishing back in Chester along the river to the Roodee racecourse. There was an added bonus that I could leave home less than an hour before the start.
On the other hand, there were less then three weeks to go before the race and I hadn't done any road running to speak of since April. A couple of ten milers and a slowish eighteen did nothing except leave me with rather sore Achilles tendons in both legs. Roads are hard. I stopped and had a couple of weeks rest, I'd done plenty of mountain miles, enthusiasm would get me through - well maybe.
Around four thousand others thought the event worth entering, enough for starting pens down on the racecourse; I went in with the 3:30 crowd, more in the hope of not tripping over too many Elvis's at the start than for any serious time ambitions. It was going to be a great day for a run, dry, partially cloudy and with a pleasant breeze.
After a five minute delay while crucial bits of road were finally cleared (better than the fifty minute delay just up the road at the Liverpool marathon for the same reason!) we were off. I took my usual approach of just going with how I felt and not looking at the watch until half way. It came up in 1:43, a bit quick for me and I was probably going to pay for it later. Or rather I knew I was, because although the organisers had billed it as a flat course, we locals knew of the several sharp little rises in the second half that were going to need a bit of effort. I kept on eight minute miles until around mile 21, when the lack of road training kicked in and things got hard. But you can always suffer a bit for three quarters of an hour or so and I made it to the finish in a shade (well a second to be precise) under 3:35. I had trained properly (sort of) for the Rotterdam marathon earlier in the year and taken a minute and a half longer on that, so I came away pleased with my day. The event itself and the organisation had been superb, I'm sure I'll do it again.
The only slight cloud on the horizon was that I had already entered the Rotherham Round which was due six days later, an event which has real class and which I had not been able to get to for various reasons since 2008. I did nothing in the intervening five days and hoped it would be OK.
The Rotherham 50 miler is a brilliant mix of countryside, woodland, canals, rivers, industrial estates and suburbia. You are never in any environment long enough to get bored, it really is a great tour, and the 800m of climbing comes in so many little jumps that it is barely noticeable at all. The welcome you get at the start and at every one of the seven checkpoints is wonderful. Getting lost occasionally is part of the game, almost everyone does, even if they've done the course several times before, as little bits change every year due to things being built, knocked down, paths rerouted and so on.
My memories of previous events were of cold, continuous rain and ankle deep mud. Then three years ago it was moved from December to October because "we were spending all night trying to find people who'd got lost in the dark" and as well as increasing daylight this has improved typical conditions enormously. Even so, the weather forecast for last Saturday was exceptional, wall to wall blue sky, temperatures rising to a 15 degree maximum, and with a slight breeze. I drove across the Pennines before dawn under a cloudless starry sky, to arrive just before the "walkers" start at 6am. I registered and found a few familiar faces, Jon Steele, Shirley Colquoun, and John Vernon. The "runners" start is at 7am, just about light enough at this time of year to run without a torch; I decided to go for nine hours but be happy with ten, either way a torch wouldn't be necessary, I left it in the car.
After the usual low key briefing and start that accompanies many of the best ultras, we were off on the first and longest leg, a bit of park, canal towpaths then fields and hedgerows. It was chilly at the start in teeshirt and shorts; we had expected that but the sheen of frost on the first wooden bridge deck was a bit of a surprise. I ran a few miles with Jon, then he went on when I stopped for a gel and a drink, we would pass and re-pass each other several times during the day. The day warmed, miles and checkpoints passed, it seemed to be going well.
Then at around 15 miles, along a section with hardpacked footpaths before and through Rother Valley Park, my legs started to sieze up. Quads, hamstrings, calves, first tightening then beginning to hurt quite a lot. I clearly hadn't really got over the marathon six days earlier. I was fairly convinced I would have to start walking, but concerned that if I did that this early in the event I would never get going again. I decided to push on until I really couldn't run, get as much ground covered as possible. I started doing calculations on what distance I would have to reach to be able to get home at a walk; I was seriously regretting not having brought a torch because although the finish would be welcoming runners home until 10pm or later, my own cut-off would be around 6.45 when it got dark! But at round 22 miles the tracks gave way to open fields, springy grass and crop edges. I got to the Harthill checkpoint at 25 miles feeling a bit better physically, and a whole lot better psychologically for getting to half way.
I decided that if I cut my stride (and therefore the pace) significantly, I could probably keep running. I had averaged just over 10 minute miles (plus stops) to half way, so I decided to go for around 11,30's for the second half. It seemed to work, and the whole thing got more enjoyable again. I went through good and bad patches as you do in every ultra, and for me the stops for cups of tea when available definitely get significantly longer as an event goes on, but from about 30 miles on I was sure I could keep running to the finish.
I didn't do any time calculations until the Maltby checkpoint 10 miles from the finish. If I could cover these at 11:40 pace including stops, I might squeeze 9 hours. Well, a stop for an orange squash and a couple of Jaffa cakes at the final Denaby checkpoint couldn't be avoided, and in the last three or four miles anything that wasn't horizontal or better got walked, but I just made it. 8 hours 59 minutes 8 seconds. Perfect pace judgement - well that's my story and I'm sticking to it. It was a PB for the event. Now conditions couldn't have been more perfect, but I'm at the stage where PB's are so rare I'll take them with whatever environment advantages are going, the more the better!
I'd better get back to a bit of training again now.