Yesterday I got back from yet another great race. Maybe I've become better at discerning what's likely to be worth doing, but it's been a while since I went to a race which didn't live up to expectations. The Jurassic Coast was as fun as I hoped. It's a 3-day trail triple marathon along the spectacular Jurassic coastline in Dorset, organised by VOTwo (VO2) and is a brilliantly challenging and fun event.
I've only done one of their previous races, the Atlantic Coast Challenge - the same idea but along the north Cornwall coast to Land's End (the most westerly point of England). It was a great triple and we happened to have perfect weather to support the great coastal scenery and undulating running. The last day was particularly memorable with great fell running over tough, technical coastal areas. Plus it was fun to win every day of it.
So I had high expectations and plenty of Serpie friends running with me along the Dorset coast. I also wanted to win and beat the course record of 12h36m. The course had changed slightly due to an increase in the number of entrants needing a larger base camp, but it was basically the same as previous years. The main difference was that it had rained solidly for two weeks and turned the whole hilly course into a mud bath. So I knew that running three four-hour 'marathons' (it's generally more like 27-28 miles per day) would be tough, especially after ramping up the training and racing this month. But what's the point of doing stuff if it's easy?
The first day started with an almighty hill which meant the field of 250 runners was spread out after a mile. Everyone seemed to be happy to let me lead and navigate even though a few of the guys in the lead pack had run it before and I'd met at several races before - Graham Booty got the course record last year and was at the 2008 MdS with me, running very strongly. Also, Adam Holland is still on track to be the youngest to run 100 marathons ever and will complete it this year at the age of 23. He's always challenging for these races and zooms off at a lightning pace which often ends in a slow finish...but not always. So that was just the two guys I knew and they're both fast marathoners, capable of keeping up with me on the road at the moment.
After a few miles of hills, the course turned into the muddiest course I've ever seen. I'm sure that at least half of day one was seriously boggy mud, which just sapped energy and made everyone fall over and slide around like cartoon characters on banana skins. It was ridiculous, but the one saving grace was that we got to do it in the daylight. The runners in the Oner (pronounced One-er) would be doing the entire triple marathon course in one go, starting at 6pm on Saturday and going almost immediately into the night. Us mere triple-dayers felt very glad to be able to rest after so much mud sliding.
I ran the second half on my own and opened up a bit of a lead, feeling annoyed at the mud, but making sure I kept up a running motion rather than walking. It worked since I finished in 3h56m and was a bit ahead of the rest of the field. Not enough to rest but enough to feel comfortable in first, especially since I hadn't gone all out but instead had cruised in when I couldn't see anyone behind. It's always fun to be in the lead and the evening meal had a great atmosphere as everyone felt they'd got through a tough day of big hills and stupidly hard mud. There were three groups each day - walkers, joggers/walkers and runners and most people had started in the runners group but then finished quite late so day two heralded a large switch over as people opted for earlier starts so they could get back to camp earlier and relax more.
We had nothing much to do in the evening so the Serpies mainly opted for the warmth of the pub (it was frickin' freezing, as I'd learned when I got into the sea to cool my legs and got out again 10 minutes later with teeth chattering and shivering uncontrollably). The food provided by the organisers was good, but whoever chose curry as the theme clearly didn't understand what runners need. Luckily nobody had too much of an issue the next day. Conversation was certainly interesting over the first two nights, pre-race and post day one. All I'll say is that Gemma Hagen can answer questions in a way that encourages a lot more questions...
Getting back to day two, we were really up for another day and raring to go. We'd heard this was the 'easiest day' although that depends on your point of view. It didn't have as much mud but certainly had more hills. The scenery was also better, running along the coastline of the island of Portland for about a half marathon and giving great views of steep cliffs and dramatic rocky paths. It was just my type of running - not too steep but plenty of rocks and great vistas. The first half was quick and much easier going than the day before. I was through checkpoint two (there were three per day, spaced roughly every 10k) within 1h30m and had Adam and one other guy with me. But then we went along the sea-front of Weymouth and it was just concrete and dead flat so I pushed on a bit until the last 10 miles which went back into the more interesting coastal paths.
Somehow I'd got through to this point without really going wrong with the navigation thanks to the good maps provided by VOTwo. Usually I don't like having to navigate with no arrows or markers, but the coastal path was generally well sign-posted with an acorn symbol and I managed to keep myself from falling over while viewing the map and checking out the great scenery. Day two was definitely prettier than day one and not just due to weather and less mud. The coastal paths were bigger and better with some great views, especially near the end at Durdle Door, an archway in the sea. The photos here are from Nick Morrison-Smith who took a camera with him and therefore helped to supplement my memories. I didn't bother since the compulsory kit list was long enough anyway and I had no room for a camera.
Day two ended slightly quicker than day one and I managed 3h46m, increasing my overall lead to around 24 minutes. I caught some Serpies who'd left 90 minutes before me in group two but not all of them so that gave me an incentive to catch Serpies Matthew Wilson and Claire Shelley on the final day, if I could.
We'd been told by previous entrants that day three was very hilly. That was an understatement and the first half marathon was almost all steep climbs and descents. It wasn't too muddy but the ascents were too steep for my tired legs to even contemplate running. Instead I managed to stick to a great power-walk which didn't lose me much time. There were two single-day marathoners running at the front who forced the pace more than I'd have liked. After checkpoint one at seven miles it was just me and one of them and he looked very strong, comfortably running up each hill and making a mockery of the angle. Watching him I knew he wasn't just going off too fast and would be able to sustain a fast pace the whole way. That's never the most comforting thought when you've won two days against triple marathoners and single dayers but are now faced with a much faster athlete just when your own legs have been pounded for two days and the course has just got markedly harder.
Somehow I managed to keep him in sight to the checkpoint at halfway. This was mainly thanks to my kamikaze style of downhill running which didn't take much effort, except to put any fears completely off the table. I have to admit that the best thing about mountains and even hills is the down hill. The harder, the better, and I absolutely love the technical stuff where you have to concentrate so hard you're almost holding your breath. Luckily for me, this happens to be the terrain which most slows down almost everyone else so I can always use it to catch up with people, with the added bonus that as I catch them I'm having the time of my life and adrenaline is pumping round my body like a body-builder on steroids...skydiving...naked...probably.
So I somehow left checkpoint two ahead of him and went off, determined to set enough of a pace to make the win hard for him. The course was great from this point. Totally runnable and with great undulating epic coastline views. For anyone feeling tired, like the Oner entrants I was starting to catch up to, this must have been exhausting, but I wasn't far enough into the marathon to be tired and the grass, light mud and rocks were just what I wanted to enjoy myself.
Soon I caught up to my group two Serpies who'd started about 90 minutes earlier. Jo Proudlove, Toby Melville and Jany Tsai were all together and had hoped to get a bit further than halfway before I caught them. Then a few miles later I caught Claire, closely followed by James Adams in the Oner. He told me he was knackered but he'd made good time to that point and only had 10 miles left of the massive distance. He even had time to take a photo of me running up to him, which was helpful of him since there weren't many official photos. I had no time to chat since I knew the guy in second was going well and wasn't far behind at all.
On the other days I'd had it sewn up by this point but it looked like I'd have to push a bit harder this time if I wanted a hat-trick (and 100% record at VOTwo events). I was in two minds since I'd only have six days to recover for Two Oceans 56k in Cape Town and I'd have to be reasonably fresh to break fours hours there for a silver medal. But my competitive nature meant I had to at least cruise with a bit of effort, then if he caught me I could decide whether to go all out for a race or not. I was pretty sure I was far enough ahead of the guys in the triple to be safe but it just seemed silly to not go for the outright win given I was leading and feeling fine.
Checkpoint three came and there was no sign of anyone behind me as I caught more of the early runners and the Oner guys. Every time I passed someone, especially those who'd been out all night, I was sure to congratulate them on getting through the course as it'd had been a real test over three days (or under 24 hours for the ultra runners). I also tried to be as polite as possible when overtaking on narrow sections, whether it was other runners or general walkers on the path. It just seemed like the kind of event where racing comes second and enjoyment and relaxation comes first. But for me the concepts of racing and enjoyment are so intertwined that it's just not fun if I don't have any target, whether that's time, position or whatever.
The running into the finish wasn't too tough and was generally on scenic trails, with one large hill left then a long, gentle downhill. It finished with over a mile along the beach, which is where I caught Drew Sheffield in the last stage of the Oner (I do love meeting mates mid-race as it's more of a conversation starter than just meeting in the street). His first words were to ask if I'd seen any Oner guys behind him and he was relieved to know there was nobody near and that his position was very safe. A man after my own heart, clearly.
Then I expected to see a finish along the beach, but instead there was a turn, a chunk of dune-like sand (I may have mentioned in previous blogs about deserts how much I hate sand), then half a mile of huge puddles to the finish. I'd managed to keep the lead so felt like I was on a victory lap for that last half mile. I finished in 4h04m, annoyed to miss out of the 4h marathon every day, but then the last day was 27.8 miles and the total distance was not 78.6 miles, but more like 81 miles (and I didn't get lost so that should be pretty accurate on the Garmin). At least I'd broken the course record and done so in the worst ground conditions they've had.
Matthew was the one Serpie I didn't catch and he was relaxing at the end, very happy with his impressive finish in a total of sub 16h. Soon after, Claire finished but we disappeared in a bus to the train station before everyone else came through. I also found out that the guy who'd been on my heels all day was Huw Lobb, currently a Serpie, but also one of the fastest British marathoners ever and a cross-country champion. Luckily for me he's not done a marathon for a few years but he's only a little older than me and I certainly consider it a good win to hold him off by 10 minutes. He's not as fast as he used to be, but he's still posted some zippy times in the past couple of years, as good as anyone in the club, if not quite at his peak of a 2:14 marathon. Then Mr Booty managed to beat his own course record too and hold on to a solid second over the three days, but couldn't quite catch Huw's fresh legs on day three.
Overall it was a tough event and brilliantly organised. Everyone, bar a few whingers who seemed to think the mud spoiled their fun, had an amazing time and got highly addicted to multi-day running. I already was, but it's always good to get more mates involved. It was hard, but not impossible. The Oner looked very hard, given the boggy start, but when I opened the door of the caravan in the middle of the night while they ran to briefly cool myself, I saw the clear, still night and could appreciate the majesty of running from dawn to dusk. It's still something I've not done and it's not on the cards this year, even at Western States (unless things go very wrong). The first time I'll do it will be UTMB 2011 which starts in the evening and will have me clambering through mountains through the night. I imagine it'll be a very serene, but exhausting, challenge and look forward to it.
So, it's on to Two Oceans, great white shark cage-diving and then some relaxation. This month has been, overall, a big success. My knee has proved to be completely fine and I've started to get some form back. The training run at Glasgow-Edinburgh felt ok, then I tried to race the Eco Trail de Paris but felt very slow until I managed to get a good last 10 miles in. Then the high mileage (for me) of 95 miles/week this month has left me a little tired but generally ok and definitely not broken. My strongest running was at the end of races, so I've some confidence that I'll be fully in shape for Comrades and Western States. But there's not long before I'll have to start tapering for those, so I just hope I'm able to improve my speed by then otherwise I'll be well off the pace.