Sunday, 2 August 2015

The Race Report

So many parts of planning and preparation worked very well for my Grim Reaper 100 run.
From my visualisation and mental preparation, from taping of hot spots to hydration, from clothing and kit choice to coping strategies, from focused training to building resilience, from singing through the alphabet to dreaming dreams, from conversations with every runner to marvelling at the sky above - all of these and more worked well for me as I executed during the event.
Support from Striders, from great individuals, from everyone who donated to Kerry Hospice, from family and from Taina especially - put me in a great position to tackle my little run.

What derailed me ultimately was my inability to eat enough during the day and night. That was unexpected. Even in badly debilitated states in the past, the capacity to take food in and use it has never deserted me to such an extent.
The seeds of it were there from early on. Hydration was fine throughout. I was able to take enough water and electrolyte on board. Urine colour was always healthy.
I ate what I could at the end of laps 1, 2 & 3 - forcing food into myself to the extent of vomiting some at the end of 3. My next food intake was at the end of Lap 5, when Kelly's smoothie and a little sandwich went in and stayed. It was never going to be enough.
That lack of food, combined with the inevitable fatigue and debilitation of miles covered, brought me to the shivering choice to withdraw after 7 laps (70 miles).

Laps 1, 2 & 3 were good and comfortable from a running point of view. Simon Marvel came out on the course to see both me and Nick Greenwood. I took a little physio treatment on my ITB's and also a check on taping. Warm, a gentle breeze, great conversations, laps tucked away.
I spent several miles of lap 4 recovering from vomiting a little and reassessing. Much more space now, fewer conversations. I started singing through the alphabet - first song was Abba with Fernando. Getting stuck on H, I shared this puzzle with every runner I met. Cries of Herman's Hermits reverberated around Grimsthorpe.
I failed to recognise Nick Crowson running up the hill against me (sorry Nick - thanks for calling out to me). Finishing the lap in good spirits and mentally strong, I tried some food and failed to even chew anything.

Lap 5 was slower, deliberately, as I sought to conserve energy. I sorted where & when to meet Tania on the course. This was my second singing alphabet lap.
Helen and Emma arrived as I set out on lap 6, and I was still feeling strong - a little food on board, warm top and gilet for the cool of the evening, hand torch. The girls were great, not for a moment betraying their concerns about how I looked. That came after the event.

Met Tania and Sarah (CoCo and Maya in tow), smiled and reassured about how strong I was. I could see the concern and worry in Tania, which made me work even harder to emphasise how good I felt and demonstrate this. I had to remain strong in that moment, as in every other moment of the day.
4 laps to go, no time to even think about any other concerns but the next step.

Finishing lap 6, I looked forward to the possibility of some food and a bit of rehab on legs from Sarah on the physio couch. I failed to get any solid food on board, drained the smoothie, filled up on water. Warm clothes on, head torch and gloves, ready for the night shift.
Physio out retrieving an injured runner & attending to him. I chose to go out on lap 7 instead of waiting.

Walk/run with a fellow runner from Spalding (thank you) covered the distance to the first check point. Off he went, and I pottered along. Looking forward to the Avenue and picking up some pace on the good surface. That proved beyond me. Conscious that I was now in walk-only mode, I pushed my walking pace as best I could. Songs and dreams and motivation and focus were still dominant. In the quiet corner of my brain, cold rational analysis had commenced.

I went to my glutes for the waddle-like walk that ultra runners are familiar with. Little power there to generate any pace. Pumping arms as levers brought quads into action, no power or pace. Flicking feet forward with calves, nothing in that power source either.
I needed an input to generate some energy when I completed lap 7. That was clear. Food somehow, and some physio.
"Its 1:30 mate" said the marshall. My heart sank hard and fast. That was a 2hr 45m lap. Too slow.

Food intake was impossible, could not even chew. Lay face down on the physio bed. Sarah was out on the course again. Struggling to get up. Some juice, bottles filled, pig headedly setting out for lap 8 despite emerging rational analysis indicating this was stupid. I stopped. I looked at my shaking hand that was struggling to put my water bottle into the belt holder. Hands on knees, shaking uncontrollably from head to toe. Back to the physio bed, lying face down, searching throughout my body for a shred of evidence that I had some energy hidden away. Something to justify continuing. Something to work with.
Listening to the debate between analysis and stubbornness. I made my choice, told the marshall. He cut my wristband as my hand shook violently and uncontrollably. The right and only decision that I could make.

It hurt then, and it hurts deeply as I sit here. And it should. I poured everything I had and could lay my hands on into my effort. This matters to me, and its now apparent that it matters to many others also.
The hurt is easy to accept and to dissipate. I choose not to dismiss the hurt. It is as much part of the event as every other emotion. All I do is remember all the great parts of preparation, and planning, and execution especially. I could not have scripted this or predicted it. I certainly would not change anything. In future races, I will take the great and the good from this, and use them again.

All of it is there, eternal and unchanging. Hard wired into my memory. And I smile :-)

Saturday, 1 August 2015

Tales From the Field of Dreams

Many wonderful and inspiring moments in the course of tackling the Grim Reaper 100 yesterday:
  • Nick Greenwood, grinning and setting off for his final lap in Striders colours as planned. I saw him just after he finished, still grinning - "I now why you do this now" he said.
  • James Skinner being his calm self, getting me to the start and seeing me through my first lap
  • Helen & Emma with beaming smiles, infectious confidence as I set out on Lap 5
  • Tania (the very wonderful and quite worried Taina), with Sarah and CoCo and Maia meeting me on the course
  • Richard, MdS finisher and qualified for the Western States 100, sharing dreams
  • Grizzled veterans, idealistic world changers, searchers, scared, na├»ve, challenge hunters were all around
  • I went through the alphabet twice, picking an artist by letter and signing a sing in my head
  • Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb was a constant smiling refrain, as was Rosie Swale Pope's "Things live forever in the moment in which they are"
  • Many people going home trying to figure out artists and songs for H, X and Z (got stuck on these both times, shared my task to others - always brought a smile to tired faces)
Despite the apparent madness of tackling these events, there is a cold steely analysis that sits in a corner of my brain.
It remains dormant for most of the time, confident that I know what I'm doing. When it awakes and says "Alan - just take a good look at what's happening now" - it is usually time to take notice.

Struggling to stand (hence why I was bent over with hands on knees), shaking uncontrollably, utterly empty despite Kelly's wonderful smoothie and a little food, there was absolutely nothing to work with. Legs were shot from hip flexors to soleus on both sides, left knee cap getting very painful, feet and upper body had little in them - and I had no control of these left.

Understanding that was the reality, and accepting it, was seriously difficult - but also beguilingly simple. Calling time was the right and only proper decision. 70 miles completed. Large portions of significant risk lay ahead, nothing else.

Brilliant day of smiles and dreams, all of which live forever.

Saturday, 25 July 2015

What Will Sustain Me

In 7 days time, I will have completed the Grim Reaper 100 mile Ultra (all being well). Crossing that finish line will trigger successive waves of exhilaration and exhaustion, of joy and pain, of inner satisfaction and outward smiles. This completes the visualisation process for me.

For many weeks, my visualisation has focused on the start and the laps and the rests and the dark and conditions in running and approaching the finish line. It then jumped to later in the day - home and trying to shower and sleep and eat and walk and struggle and splutter  Now, I have a picture of having crossed the finish line, and those precious moments when the magnitude of completing my challenge will become so real, then live forever in the eternity which all moments live in.

In the course of the past 5 weeks, I have pushed myself through extended marathon training. Average run lengths have been longer, with more focus on endurance and much less on intense workouts. Running twice a day when possible, running back to back days with longer runs also. Running when tired, sometimes nearly exhausted, hungry and muttering, stressed and challenged.

Every run has involved visualising myself in a part of the race, practicing food and drink intake, testing kit, remembering all the invaluable lessons of past events - especially mistakes made and failures. Strengthening resolve is perhaps the best way to summarise my training approach. Mileage is a poor measure of this, likewise conventional measures of aerobic fitness & progression.

What will sustain me when I am facing into darkness, out on lap 7 of 10, fatigue and hunger and 13 hours on my feet taking their toll? What gives me a good change of sustaining myself is being as familiar as possible with all of those feelings, of embracing them and carrying on with or in spite of them. I'm keeping going, and all those sources of stress and fatigue can join in my party or bugger off. I'm not stopping for them.
Imagine you are a pain, and I welcome you in. Your ability to inflict yourself on me as a pain is much diminished by my welcoming. Then I'll quote stuff to myself "tomorrow is a new day" and "make friends with pain and you'll never be lonely" and "things live forever in the moment in which they are" and I'll continue writing my own history and my future. Then I'll play a song in my brain - Van, Bruce, Christy, Shane, Pink Floyd - "there is no pain you are receiving..." and I'll do some meditation exercises. Then I'll be closer to the next lap end and food & a sit down and a chat and repairs as necessary - and a repeat performance.

Today, I will run at Fineshade Woods, where the trails are a good replica for much of the Grimsthorpe route when we are off tarmac. It also allows me to run laps, albeit 6 rather than 10 miles. I will sit at the start of each lap, have a drink and some food, then run a lap. Building familiarity with race day routines, fine tuning shoe, sock and taping combinations, embedding priorities in my memory for the day.

Before then, I will spend time finalising my food plans for race day. I will burn c11,000 calories and some of that needs to be replaced across the 20 hours of running. Two cool boxes are being planned, one in the morning to travel with me and one in the evening to sustain me to the finish. That's the great benefit of a lap system. It is accessible. Not easy, just accessible. It allows us to plan and organise and execute with precisions.

Sunday will be a relaxed run with the LSR crew, easy and familiar, then lots of sleep & hydration & good food and a few short runs to keep my body & mind relaxed. They are both jumping today.

Friday, 17 July 2015

Connecting our Dots

Standing 10 paces away, as surprised as I was, crouched the Muntjac. Its 0420, I’m on First Drift, having crossed the peaceful Welland and wandered past shadowy early light bunnies in Burghley Park. I have seen Muntjac before, never this close though. Memories of cycling thru misty lanes and early morning Rutland water fog float in.

Down the hill and across the road – there’s a young urban fox wandering around the Junior School’s playing field. The magic continues.

Bedri’s words are in my mind: “If you know your history, then you know the future”. They connect to Rosie Swale Pope: “Things live forever in the moment in which they are”.
History and future mesh, entwine and are seamless. Floating along in this eternity is compelling and bewitching, every moment is now then is gone to live forever and I am so glad to remember and have memories. This is enriching and life enhancing at its best.

Around me, the world is moving from first light to sunrise. I remember and connect to first light and sunrise at Cape Aghulas on 1st January 2015 – the first wonderment of my year filled with celebration, challenge and wonderment. I connect to Grimsthorpe in 15 days time, when I will be closing in on completing the Grim Reaper 100 mile Ultra – through first light and sunrise, with wildlife for company. Connections – cycling in the early morning when I first moved to Rutland in ’99; listening to Jaco in 2010 talk about these mad people he knows who run 100 miles.

This is the joy of running – a free and unfettered mind, disconnected from the consumptive short term drivers of daily life. As I write, I am similarly disconnected – an absolute thrill of writing, and why my journals & blog are so important. Expression, freedom, creativity, sharing – great ways to invest thought and effort and resource at minimal cost.

My mind has tricked me into believing that I’m not going through the usual pre race nervous anticipation. Of course I am. It has been there as I struggle to get going for several miles, then find my place and just run in that moment – step by step, moment by moment. It has woken me at 0315 after just 4 hours sleep.

I have just seen another Muntjac from the train.

Saturday, 27 June 2015

Relishing the Pain and Darkness that Beckon

As I approached the finish line 5 years ago, I asked myself if I could cope with another 30 miles (3 laps). I wasn't sure in that early morning darkness, having covered 70 miles already. However, I smiled and told myself that I could have faced going out for another 10 mile lap. Now I get the opportunity to do so.

On 31st July 2015, I will line up for the Grim Reaper 100 mile Ultra.
Starting at 0930, I will live in every moment and stitch all of those moments together with relentless forward steps until I have come back to where I started 10 times.

Its not 100 miles, its 10 laps. In fact, I'm only focused on then final 3laps, as I completed 7 laps in the Grim Reaper 70 mile Ultra in 2010. Quite a lot has changed since then. I'm 5kg lighter, significantly more efficient and resilient, now a 2 54 marathon runner vs 3 14 in 2010. Most of all, I have failures and successes to learn from.

How and why are the two most common questions from those who know me less well. How is easy - just keep going, living in each moment as best I can and being relentlessly accepting. Why is potentially much more complex. At its heart, why is addressed by the compulsion to explore my capabilities in managing myself. Yes - its a management challenge first and foremost.

There is also an element of looking time in the eye and saying "you haven't got me yet". Its difficult to envisage being able to run quicker over marathon distances. James brought this home to me when he mentioned that 2 54 56 at age 50 is equivalent to a lifetime best of 2 36 based on WAVA data. I will take that and bow out of fast marathon running.

Taking the 7 years of work and training and learning and development and pain and joy and anguish and exhilaration and sharing and stretching out the distance a bit - all seems eminently sensible for me.

Therefore, on we go. Running without a watch, all that counts is the finish. My time will be the best I can achieve - and will be a function of how well I manage myself in the conditions. My physical fitness will take me through much of the first half. Thereafter, it will be my unrelenting pride and positivity and focus and acceptance and pain.

Yes - pain, a close friend now through many years of pushing through various limits and limitations. "Things live forever in the moment in which they are" - and pain is inevitably part of that eternity. Better that pain is my friend than my enemy when there's still 50 miles to run and darkness beckons.

Thursday, 4 June 2015

The Who (me - not the rock band)

In the aftermath of the 2015 London Marathon, I became really intrigued by Who it was that executed such a superb race.
It seemed to me there was a different or new or improved me out there, racing with such a positive and accepting and relentless approach.
Having had several weeks to mull this over, my initial reaction appears to be correct. There was a different me on display - more accurately, perhaps, a different version of me. The real, belief fuelled, ambitious, accepting, balanced and contented me.

I have focused on "being the best I can be" over my running years (all 7 of them). That best has been most often described in terms of performance - time and distance. Now I have a new way of describing it - the Who I am when racing that well. The qualities that served me so well in the race (and in reality in all of my preparation and training) are qualities that are so worthwhile in every day of life.

A few years ago, I wrote that running makes me a better human being. Updating this, running has helped me discover how to be a better human being and who that better human being is.
My new challenge is making the most of this.

Saturday, 2 May 2015

The Beaming Face 'neath the Blue Sky

I was asleep one week ago, sleeping well and waking just before my 0700 alarm on 26th April 2015. My waking was filled with great calm and purpose ahead of a race and a performance in the London Marathon that is secure for the ages.

The numbers - finish time of 2h 54m 56s, 2nd Hayes in the field, 28th Irish man, 49th in my age category (50-54). Splits of 1 26 25 and 1 28 31; I passed 141 runners in the last 7.2k and 22 passed me; picking up the final 2k to 4m 7s pace (6m 35s per mile) sealed the 4s I was inside the 2 55 target; needless to say, there was a sprint to the line.

Two images stand out above all others - Tania's beaming face popping out of the crowd on Tower Bridge as we planned, and her more than beaming beautiful self at the finish bringing me the official news of my time.

As I have digested and reflected and analysed this week, many aspects of the race have been fascinating and surprising - all in supremely positive ways. The "how" I executed in the race was filled with belief and calm and relentlessness and acceptance. Inextricably linked to this, the "who" has become more intriguing through the week and I will return to this in subsequent blogs.

I ran very steadily in the opening 2 miles - recording 6 48 and 6 42, laughing at my foolishness (as I deemed it) of 2014 when I scampered and jostled through the opening 2 miles in 6 24's. Purposeful and deliberate, yet calm and accepting, I was easing my way into the race. A quick next 3 miles took me through my first check point at 5 miles at an average of 6 30, gently ahead of my 6 36 average pace target to there. I was very comfortable, moving smoothly, and took huge confidence from hitting that first check point in such good condition. Game on.

Through to 10 miles still ahead of the 6 36 avg pace, I had filled up with faith and belief in myself. I maintained the smooth comfortable feeling for the most part - the only exception being an excitable 50m of high 5's with the crowd at Surrey Quays that got my heart rate racing a little. A funny and impromptu action in many ways - and a great insight into the positive mind set I had.

From there to Tower Bridge was very easy, as I looked forward to seeing Tania. Easing my way up the slope and down the far side, keeping to the left and Lo, The Fair and Beautiful face appears in shimmering glow. I smiled (probably an inane grin in reality), touched hands with Tania and bounded away with an overflow of energy and belief.

Moving through half way, happy with my effort to this point, I reflected quickly on how much better off I was vs 2014. I acknowledged to myself that it would be a long hard road to the finish, recognised that I had ran well to this point and was giving myself a chance. There was also a conscious switch of mind set as I approached the 2nd half. The faith and belief and calm of the first half were put on the back seat, and I focused on form as my priority in the passenger seat alongside me.

Ed and Gareth and a large Striders posse awaited on Narrow Street. Once I had my gels on board, seeing these guys and girls was a tremendous boost. Marathon running is hard work, and it is sapping mentally in particular. Support like that is powerful in so many ways.

I remember looking for the 15 mile marker to check my time, but don't recollect the exact time. I was still inside my 6 36 avg pace, which allowed me to "invest" in the tough miles ahead especially from 16 through to 20. Not yet digging in, my focus on running form (tall, pelvis forward) and Becca's advice about minimising swinging arms - imagine holding something between thumb and forefinger - were my mantra through to 20 miles.

Passing through 20 in  2 12 45 left 42 15 for 10k. I had delivered on the overall plan - get to 20 with a chance. A brief smile, inwardly, unnecessary expenditure of energy was out of the question. Now to take it home. With this came an adjustment to my mind set. I became very accepting of the reality that my performance would be the best it could possibly be. This had been building for several miles, now it came and sat up front beside me in the passenger seat alongside form. The effect was to liberate me to continue pushing, without fear of blowing or tiring or otherwise. I was utterly determined to take the sub 2 55 challenge all the way to the finish.

Those final miles blurred past. Gels on board again, a little water, energy from the crowd, form and acceptance working glove in hand with me. Nods and finger raises were as good as it got in acknowledgement of support from the crowd.

A loose and almost sub conscious monitoring of time at the mile markers from 21 to 23 indicated I was hanging on to the chance. At 24, I had a huge injection of belief (just 2 to go) and the finish plan emerged. I pushed as hard as I dared - maintaining pace in reality. The plan was "Get to 25, then its Parliament Square and the finish." That's when I need to pick it up with whatever is left and go for home.

Past 25, time to execute the finish plan - I don't recollect any calculations at this stage, just utter belief. Up the gentle slope (it seemed mountainous), turn for Parliament Square, I take momentum from everything around me. Careering down hill as Big Ben strikes 1 brings a big smile - I visualised this weeks ago as an indicator of having a chance. The statues in the square, inspired by them all - especially Mandela - and I'm motoring. Exiting the square, I pass Tracey McCartney - an injection of Nene Valley rivalry was another little boost to push me along.

800m to go, push with form and belief and everything else I can find. 600m and the pushing is seriously tough. I can see 400m ahead, then 200m and the roundabout and I see the race clock ticking towards and past 2 55. Instinctively, knowing I'm app 24s behind the race clock, the sprint unfolds for the last 150m. Searing hurt and effort, reminder of how it had been like that for much of the race, run for your life and time and everything that is worthwhile, and an image of Tania somewhere in the crowd.

Across the line, holding my own hands, press the button - 2 54 54 on my watch. Elation was a struggle as I was more crushed in those few post race moments than ever before in my entire life. Reaching into my goodie bag, I fall upon deodorant - where's the water! I drink whatever I find, try eating a protein bar and my jaws lock. Even my ears hurt. I come across Eve, Terry's Comrades running contact who he told me to look out for. Mingle with runners equally elated and devastated. Tumult in mind and body, where's A for Alan - it seems an eternity away. Praise and a big smile to the ladies on the luggage trailers for a great job, chatter to strangers, weak and somewhat disoriented, make progress and find the A for Alan place. James and Jim await, beaming faces and shattered bodies to share. Stunning runs from both.

Everything crystallises when Tania glides into view, beaming and bursting and bearing the news of 2 54 56 according to the official time from the marathon website. Job done. Smiles and hugs and photos and repeating ourselves, tackling the protein bar with little success again. Water, smiles, beams, pride and puffed chests midst all the pain - it had been a loyal friend throughout the race, joining me around half way and never leaving my side.

Blue skies indeed. The image from Headspace during the week had floated into my mind several times during the race, bringing a double smile beneath the deep & serious focus. Time for the rest of the blue sky day.