Chasing Laces – Voices from the Running Scene – Chapter 17

Chasing Laces – Voices from the Running Scene by Arthur Knaggs

William

Will spoke to me from his sofa. He hadn’t moved all day and was using crutches. He had just finished running a 100-miler that morning. He spoke slowly and sounded knackered. He missed the cut-off for a buckle by less than half an hour.

I’m a bit tired and emotional. My whole body is pretty achy. The run was good. It was tough to finish and I’m glad I did. I got two huge blisters on my feet just behind the base of my big toe. Every step, particularly downhill, meant that I was sliding onto those blisters in my shoes.

I came in a little bit over the time I wanted, but considering that I walked for the last four or five hours, I’m quite pleased.

Running 100-miler is a big unknown. You need to know why you’re doing it. That ‘why’ has to come from within. I wanted to challenge myself and once I had said that I would do it, I didn’t want to go back on my word. You haven’t got a clue what will happen and what could go wrong, but I don’t think you get to the start without a reasonable understanding that you can finish. It’s all about how you deal with problems in the moment.

The route we followed had a lot of mixed terrain. There was a little bit of road and we ran through lots of wooded areas. In the last fifty miles, the race becomes quite open and exposed. You get big, big, rolling hills. Up top there was a lot of grazing land for cows and sheep. That meant that there were a lot of stiles and gates to run through. The course then finished with a three-mile run on road into town.

The first thirty miles were absolutely fine. I felt comfortable and not too fatigued. I made sure that I was eating and drinking constantly. There was a heavy downpour at thirty miles. That started the blisters off, but I felt strong.

At fifty miles you’re allowed a pacer. Having someone to take care of the logistical side of the race was huge. A guy who runs with my club offered to pace me. He’s a lot quicker than me so he didn’t get fatigued. He ran on ahead and opened all of the gates. Going into the night, he made sure that I was warm enough, that I picked up the right sort of food at each rest station, and that I drank enough water. He also gave me my split times. He had a spreadsheet with him and let me know what my projected finish time would be.

When you’ve been running for 18 hours you can make some huge mistakes, like not picking up water or running the wrong way. Those kinds of mistake will come back and bite you later on. There were several times when he had to grab my arm and point me in the right direction. It was incredibly good to have someone like that with me. He did so much of the mental lifting.

I started the race at 6am and only finished this morning. By the end, the field was pretty strung out and we were running on our own. It was almost therapeutic to be out there. I felt serene. I could look down from the downs onto the coastal lights.

Running at night is difficult. You can’t see where you’re going and it’s harder to navigate. I had a head torch but I couldn’t see all the little tree roots, so I was conscious of the fact that I might trip and hurt myself. It was very dark last night.

It is more enjoyable to run with other people. You don’t have to think as much. You can stop thinking about what you’re actually doing, and just run in the moment. If you’re over thinking, then you’re probably raising your anxiety levels.

***

The course was very well prepped. There were about 13 aid stations across it, each one coming roughly every ten miles. I knew that I had to pick up salty food at the start of the race to help with hydration. It wasn’t very warm yesterday so I didn’t have an issue sweating out salts.

The food at the aid stations is what you would find at a kid’s birthday party. There are bits of fruit and lots of sausage rolls. If I see another mini-savoury egg, I will go mad. You don’t want to stop to eat, so the aid stations are normally before the big hills. You fill up a little plastic bag with food and then munch on the way up. That was great. I planned to walk up the hills anyway. I didn’t want to take my heart rate too high and risk fatigue.

As well as the aid stations and the pacer, you’re allowed a race crew, who meet you at different points on the route. My wife crewed for me. I wanted something a little bit different to the normal that the aid stations give out, so she gave me pizza rolled up and wrapped in tin foil. You need about 11,000 calories to get through a 100-mile race. By the end, I wasn’t finishing my food bags between aid stations. I got sick of just eating the same food. As I walked the last four, or five hours it didn’t matter to me as much.

***

It was important not to look at the race as a 100-miler. That’s pretty daunting. If you’re 30 miles in and start thinking that you still have 70 miles left to run, that’s a very bad place to be. I broke the race up into five miles chunks. I wrote a little postcard for each of those stages. I wrote down what aid stations were coming up in each section, and who I was going to meet. I also wrote down motivational quotes and important things that I had to remember like taking salt tablets. The one I relied on most was: “If you’re going through hell, keep going.”

I think the process of going through that helped quite a lot. It meant that I had worked out where my low points were going to be before I got there. That helped me keep going through the night.

Part of my plan was to start off at the back and just overtake people. You have to be careful that you don’t run with people who are far fitter runners. I knew that I could hang onto them at the start but I would blow up in the second half of the race if I did.

I’m normally a mid-table finisher but because this was an ultra, I had to make sure that I went out slow. I was then overtaking people all the way until things went horribly wrong for me at 84 miles. I would see people in the distance and could feel that I was going faster. Eventually I overtook them. Then I would start to look for the next person. That helped me psychologically. I wasn’t trying to win. I just wanted to finish.

***

I need competitive goals to keep the pressure on. I started the race with three goals. My first goal was to run further than fifty miles. That was further than I had ever run before. My second goal was to beat thirty hours, which is the course cut-off. My third goal was to finish the course in under 24 hours. There were times during the race when I thought that I would be able to run a 22-hour race. If I was looking to run this again, I would have narrower bands between my goals. To drop from completing the race in 24 hours to finishing in thirty is a huge difference. You can go and have a nap!

In the first fifty miles, the race is all about getting to mile fifty. That is when the race really starts. Then you can start thinking about the time you want to get. Because I started slowly, I was overtaking people, I was in a good place. I was happy. I thought that I could deliver a time that was two hours quicker than my first goal, but then my body let me down.

There is an acceptable level of pain. I knew that I was going to get discomfort during the race, but what happened to me yesterday, and this morning, came close to unacceptable.

The last four hours hurt a lot. I got stabs of extreme pain through my feet whenever I stood on any rocks. I had to look for little grassy bits to walk on. When the blisters came, I had to change my strategy. I stopped aiming for a time and told my pacer that they just had to get me home. If you finish the race within 24 hours, you get a buckle. That gives you a little bit of kudos. Because of my physical condition, I accepted that that had probably slipped away. Perhaps if I had greater mental strength, I could have pushed through.

***

What would I have done differently? Because my blisters caused so many problems for me, they became the guiding light for what went wrong. I started off running in trail shoes. With trail shoes, the sole is a lot more solid than for normal training shoes. They’re less flexible. Because I had wet feet and I could feel blisters coming on, I changed into road shoes, which are softer. The road shoes did not give enough protection as the blisters developed. Once I knew that they were there, I should have given the blisters more attention. You can get lubricant to rub onto your feet that reduces chafing.

I should also have been more in check with the pace that I aimed for. At 70 miles, I walked for half an hour when I probably didn’t need to. If I had run, I would have had more time in the bank. I would have been a lot closer to the 24-hour cut off. Perhaps I could have manned-up a bit earlier on … I don’t know.

***

Did I enjoy it? It’s one of those things … the event, meeting people, talking to people as you’re running, that’s all great. If I hadn’t been injured, it would have been lovely, but I went through the last six hours asking myself what the hell I was doing there, and just putting one foot in front of the other. That put a bit of a downer on the whole experience. Perhaps if you ask me in a week, I might forget about the pain. Once it goes away I think I’ll probably bask in the realization that I’ve done 100-miler in a little over 24 hours.

I only ended up running ultras because I’ve been training with a club. People tell me that if I can run marathons, I should give ultras a go, so I started to wonder whether I could do that and then I did a 50-miler. Now I’m here. There’s only a narrow band of people who do this. It’s very satisfying to do something which is so far removed from what most people would even consider. It’s quite a nice place to be.

© Copyright Arthur Knaggs 2019

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