The Grim Reaper Ultramarathons, July 31st 2015

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way…”

Charles Dickens – ‘Tale of Two Cities’

So begins a tale of two races!

Indeed, of late and in the past two weeks I have experienced the best of times and the worst of times. I have made some wise decisions and some foolish ones. I have believed in myself and at times I have found myself being unable to believe in what was going on around me.

I have seen great light and peace and tranquility out at sea and I have seen great darkness and foreboding in the built up landscape since returning but in occasional moments of despair I have not lost hope and I’ve seen that the world is there to be experienced if you open your mind to it.

Onwards then, to the race report! I signed up to run the Grim Reaper 70 in January and at the time it was going to be my A-Race for 2015 – I intended to gear my training towards this race from April onwards in the hope of being able to finish in the top 3. Obviously when the opportunity to row across the Mediterranean Sea came about the Grim Reaper 70 took a back seat! I still fully intended to run at Grim no matter what the outcome of the row but I knew I wouldn’t be trying to finish first, second or third – I would just go  out and see what I might be able to do.

After returning from the Mediterranean things took a turn for the interesting! Gabrielle decided to sign up to run the 40 mile event as her first ever ultra and, indeed, her first ever marathon with only a week to go before the race and having only run 14 miles in one shot. My mind began to relax at the thought of running 70 miles on my own at this point and I thought it might be possible we could run 40 miles together. So, that’s what we did. I’ll add here that I truly wish I had double up my entry so I could have dropped down to the 40 mile event, finished there and picked up a medal but unfortunately the race rules at Grim Reaper meant I actually recorded my first DNF…

As the race is on a 10 mile trail loop I’m going to break it down lap by lap. Here goes.

Lap 1 (0-10 miles, 1:43:55)

I started off the race right next to Gabrielle and planned to head out at between 6:00 to 6:35 per kilometre pace. I wanted to try and stick at this pace for the 70 mile event at this point and it felt very strange holding myself back – it’s the slowest I’ve ever started a race and it was difficult to watch people running off quite a lot faster. However, I was attempting a new strategy of proper even pacing and I was using my heart rate monitor – my intention was to stay within my MAF zone for the last 3 laps of the 70 miler and prior to that I wanted to run around 10bpm slower.

Anyway, the first lap was a joy. Gabrielle and I ran happily together chatting and enjoying the views and I enjoyed ticking along at a sustainable pace instead of straining myself early on. It was great to head into the aid station at 10 miles feeling strong and running together – we stopped for 8 minutes, refilled bottles, picked up some tangerines and salted potatoes and headed back out onto the course.

Lap 2 (10-20 miles, 1:50:02)

At the 5 mile point of this lap Gabrielle surpassed her greatest distance run so far and did it without breaking stride and with a smile. We were ticking along nicely and as we emerged onto a paved section with about 6 kilometres to go on the lap we had a chat about what we were going to do from this point onwards – we both thought we might be holding each other back from running a bit quicker and we both said if either of us felt like dropping back or running on then we should do that…5 kilometres later we were still running together happily and I can safely say I was enjoying the run more than any other I’ve ever been on and Gabs was feeling strong and positive about heading into lap 3 and clocking a marathon for the first time!

When we reached the aid station we had a slightly longer break, I think of 11 minutes. While we ate some food and Gabs changed her socks I decided that I was going to run every step of the next 20 mile with her unless she decided to have a Speedy Gonzales moment and race off.

Lap 3 (20-30 miles, 1:53:46)

I ran this lap feeling pretty strong and confident of running a sub-8 hour 40 miles and this became my plan after passing through the marathon point in 4:58! Gabrielle and I were both feeling the usual pains associated with running on trail past the 25 mile point and I did my best to keep us to a decent run/walk strategy – 1 to 1.5km of running with 250 to 500m of walking depending on the terrain.

I don’t really remember too much about this lap really apart from it was amazing to be with Gabs as she joined both the Marathon and Ultramarathon club in the space of a couple of hours! With about 1 klick to go before the aid station I ran on ahead to find out what position she was in and to get two cups of very sweet, strong black tea for both of us. At the 30 mile point I was in 10th position in the 70 mile race and Gabrielle was in 16th place in the 40.

Lap 4 (30-40 miles, 2:03:53)

This was a difficult lap for both of us.

I started to have a dark moment quite early on when I began to start thinking about running without Gabs from 40 miles into 70.  It was difficult for Gabrielle, I think, because she was in a lot of pain and was starting to feel the end of the race approaching but a little slower than she may have liked at this point – if she’s anything like me those last few miles would have felt like they weren’t going anywhere!

Mile 31.

Mile 31.

By mile 35 I had stopped trying so hard to push for a sub 8 hour 40 miler as it was my goal, not Gabrielle’s. To push at this point would have been pretty excruciating for both of us and I had to remember that the 40 was not my race and that I had been running with Gabs to support her and to enjoy the occasion – not to push for a particular placing or a particular time! With that said, I did have to ask Gabs for a walk break with about 7km to go as she found a spring of energy on a paved section and I was struggling to hold the pace – I was starting to feel pretty dehydrated and a bit sick here and I was thankful when she dropped back into a walk!! After a short break we both fell back into the same pace and run/walk rhythm as before – we could smell the barn!

Mile 39!

Mile 39!

I remember very late on, with about 3km to go and about 20 minutes until the 8 hour mark I began to feel light headed and on the verge on throwing up, Gabrielle had also been feeling quite ill over the preceding 5km or so but the racer inside me piped up and said “If we can manage three 6:00 minute klicks we could potentially get in on 8 hours…” the response made me laugh, chilled me out and brought me back to the notion that I still had 30 miles to go and my own race to run: “Fuck the schedule, I just want to run into the finish! Let’s walk a bit.” So we walked a bit, we ran a bit and then, as we were leaving the woods with around 500 metres to go we picked it up into a run.

My friend Trev was there to take some photographs of Gabrielle finishing her first ultra in 8:10:26, 11th place overall and 3rd female and was also waiting to take me out onto lap 5…

Lap 5 (40-50 miles, 2:28:59)

At the end of lap 4 I took an extended break to enjoy the moment with Gabs, to attempt to force down some real food and to sip a little bit of beer. I really, really, really struggled after about ten minutes when I realised I was definitely going to be going back out on another lap. I didn’t want to go at all, my legs were cramping and I didn’t want to eat or drink anything – the thought of another 30 miles of gels and tangerines made my stomach churn which wasn’t a good sign after I’d managed to force down some vegan chilli. But, my buddy Trevor had travelled to the race originally to pace me through the last 20 miles but now he took it on himself to pick me up and get me moving again! After 22 minutes I got up and started to hike out – within a minute we were running at 5:55 pace and I didn’t feel too bad until we reached the first walk section. My mind definitely wasn’t in the game as I realised I had brought out no tangerines, no salt pills, no jelly babies and I’d left my hat and my buff at the aid station – all I had was water and gel and I started to feel sick again!

A look of despair as I realise I have to go back out and try to run another 30 miles. At this point I felt like my day was done...

A look of despair as I realise I have to go back out and try to run another 30 miles. At this point I felt like my day was done…

Being an amazing friend Trevor decided to give me a little push and began to pick up the pace again. I ran as best I could up to the five mile point but every time my pace increased I was struggling against a very noisy stomach and some very strange pains in my chest and across my back – I ran on through the 45 mile point for a few hundred metres and then threw the towel in. Trev tried his best to motivate me as he has done in previous races by running on ahead but my heart was not in the race anymore and I told him to run on and get in a decent session as he’s racing Ironman Wales in September. So, from 45 miles into 50 miles I walked and took the time to think about everything. I loved my day right up to leaving onto lap 5 and I should have been strong enough to call it right then and there but something inside me was calling me to push on and to prove something – at 45 miles I wondered what I was proving and to who?

Walking in my first DNF. 50 miles, 11:08:16.

Walking in my first DNF. 50 miles, 11:08:16.

I came into my own personal finish line at 50 miles feeling happier than I had when I left on the lap and happy with my decision to walk in a DNF and with the decisions I’d made during that 5 mile walk – I’m going to take a month off from any form of endurance training and I won’t be entering any races until at least December. I’ve been promising myself that I’d focus a bit more on strength and conditioning in the gym and now seems to be a good time to start actually doing this. I’ve packed in a lot already this year and my body is not thanking me for it right now, I need to give it the respect it deserves so I can carry on into old age racing and adventuring.

But, with all that said, I can honestly say that I ran the happiest 40 miles I’ve ever run alongside Gabs and it was amazing to be part of her achievement. I’m hoping we’ll get to run some more long stuff together in the future!

Peace & Blessings x

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