Last One Standing

Last One Standing

Sometime last year, after completing my first 100km ultra I saw this race advertised… It grabbed my attention for its simplistic concept that sparked so many questions! For many people those questions would have been ‘why…?’ or ‘who on earth?!’ For me the questions that were, ‘how will I tackle this…?’ and ‘how far can I go?!’. Seems I wasn’t the only one…

‘Competitors start at 12noon and then have an hour to complete the 4.2 mile circuit before having to complete it again. This will go on every hour until the 48 hours is up or there is only one runner left. The Last One Standing.’

It was strategic. The faster you went the more rest you got. Not always a good thing as muscles cool and begin to stiffen. But as I found out a little late in my training, to slow – for minimal rest and to keep moving means you use different muscle groups. A slow jog becomes a walk and its no longer your quads and hamstrings doing the, (cough) leg work….

I approached my training for this run in a similar way to my previous ultras. Back to back long runs at the weekend, dropping speed and focusing on time on my feet. Going for a 5hr run then 6hrs the next day. In all honesty – I felt slightly under trained. I had only planned out my long runs at Christmas. Realising I had just 7/8 weeks to be race ready! I have a solid base – and suck to my plan. From experience, I felt if I could get those miles in my legs they would carry me. I felt in training for distance, you reach a plato – you no longer train to go further. You’re training you body to cope. To fuel, recover, to just keep going. You are training your mind too. I don’t think one person at Castle Ward thats weekend would have disagreed, that it would have been the head that gave up before the body, injuries aside.

A couple of weeks out a good friend who I’ve been working with as a mind/body coach suggested joining me. It was a no brainier! My plan was to have a car/suit case(s) with my kit in near the start finish area. Having Martin there to sort things out, keep an eye on my food and hydration. Offer encouragement and keep check on me physically was invaluable.

We flew over to Belfast on the Friday evening. Getting to the hotel at around 22:00. Too late for a proper meal (fail!) so snacks, final prep and asleep by 00:00. I slept soundly and woke around 07:00 – 5hrs to race start, I was going to be awake a long time! This didn’t bother me. I am used to jetlag and I’ve even ran tired. I recall doing the Vegas marathon while my body clock was on UK time. That felt like a midnight start. I just knew there would be a dead zone in the small hours I had to push through. Normally when travelling, a cocktail does the trick here… That not being a practical optuon here, I figured to keep moving would be the key, any fatigue would pass.

12:00. Lap 1…
104 people toed the line. In the run up to the start Martin and I had got chatting to other runners and support teams. There was such a mix. There were several hard core ultra runners (I don’t count myself as one of those!!) with many accolades and races under their belts. There were people who had never run more than a marathon. Some with less max distance than that… But it didn’t matter. Everyone had their own goals and targets. All the way from, ‘see how it goes’, to 12hrs, 24hrs or even the full 48hrs! The fact that everyone would start the next lap together until they DNF (did not finish) unified everyone. The top runners couldn’t race off and feel a million miles away. They would be side by side with the slowest runner for the start of next lap. This created an amazing atmosphere!

17:00. lap 6…
97 People toed the line. This would take runners to 25miles, just shy of a marathon by the end of this 6th hour. In the build up I had practiced running 4.2 mile loops with on-the-hour starts. I’d varied my pace to see what shorter or longer rest gaps would feel like and what I could do in that rest time. Ultimately this was out the window – as the course was very different to what I expected. With the hills you had to walk some stretches. I ended up coming in pretty consistently around the 45 min mark per lap. Dusk was about to set in – I expected this would have a big impact on the field. I have no issues with running at night. But after a few laps I could hardly see. I realised my batteries in my head touch were going… Luckily I had brought spares. Doing several laps in the daylight helped too. I was getting to know the course. In the dark you could only see the puddles, big mud patches were harder to spot so memory here helped a lot. Keeping to the right or staying in the centre became automatic at certain points, so to take the best path.

For me, running in the dark also changed my perception of hills. You couldn’t always see the incline coming up as you were only concentrating on the next 3 foot in front of you. The same with the mud. As i couldn’t see it, I tended to run through it. Occasionally with regret at a particularly squelchy patch. I did wonder if both these visibility constraints were actually to my benefit. Running though the mud meant I wasn’t trying to dance around a soft patch and keeping the pace up small inclines meant I was keeping rhythm. Both saving energy. Add to that the fact i could not see a daunting sight in front of me. Ignorance was bliss… I think I preferred it in the dark.

19:00. Lap 8…
86 People toed the line. And I got shin splints… The hills and the walking were taking their toll. I’ve had shin splints before. They hurt. But they normally pass. These ones stayed with me in my left leg at varying degrees for the rest of the race. The next 16hours. I like to think I can listen to my body and know which niggles I can run though. I decided I was leading with my left leg too much. I needed to rest it and use my right to push me up the hills. I also had Martin do some manipulation on it and the surrounding area for relief. This helped and lap 10 was probably my best loop. I remember thinking the crowd was thinning. I wasn’t tired and my legs still felt strong. I wanted to eat.

I had been worried about my nutrition. During my training runs I found myself fading due to not taking enough calories on board. I was burning around 520 cals per loop. I knew I needed to replace them as i went you have no chance of keeping going, if you end up in a deficit over 24hrs. That’s 12,500 calories to consume and digest on the go. Most of the time I ate and drank what I craved. Sweet, savoury, cake, cola, protein shake, fruit. I was taking onboard something every loop. Even if I didn’t feel I needed it. Little and often. At the time I felt my best, I thought now is the opportunity to load up. My body is firing on all cylinders and I’ll be able to digest a ‘meal’. I wanted chips – but the chip man had gone home…
I think I had a bagel, some nuts and some jelly babies.

00:00 lap 13…
29 People toed the line. There was still a solid group and a lot of banter going on around. I’m quite a solitary runner – I find it an effort to run and chat. Especially when I’m saving energy or already feeling tired. I engaged from time to time – but especially later in the race I preferred just listening to others around me or the science. At this point people were getting excited with their achievements. This tended to be those that hadn’t had expectations or had said 10/12 loops. The rest of us were feeling daunted by the prospect that we were only 12hrs in! The rest of us being me… We were half way. My hamstring’s and quads were fine. But my shin splints hurt… I knew it wasn’t going to get easier or better. I just told myself it probably wouldn’t get any worse – this is as bad as it gets and just manage it. My legs still work, it might be uncomfortable – but just keep going. I’ll get a rest soon… Be it a walk break up a hill or 10mins break at the car. I tried to focus just on that segment of that loop. Normally halfway through a run is when it becomes easier for me. Mentally I’ve broken the back of it and I’m counting down. I was hoping for midnight to have the same effect. But all I could think of was – in 3hrs time I still have another 9hrs to go. It was exhausting and I couldn’t break it down in my head, to make it sound better.

03:00 lap 16…
19 People toed the start line. We were over the 100km mark (67 miles). This was now the furthest I had ever run. And it felt it. I’d been awake for 20hrs and running for 15 of them. I could feel the fatigue setting in. I knew these dark hours would come. I just wanted to stop. Martin suggested power naps. I had contemplated these but wasn’t sure about it. Apparently the first guy back was doing this. Getting in and having 15mins kip an hour… For the next 3 laps, I would cross the finish line. Get a snack and a drink from Martin and then sleep for 10mins in the drivers seat of the car. It was bliss. Martin would wake me 2mins before the next start so I could do anything I needed to and get back to the start. Those precious 8-10 minutes sleep might not sound long – but they were just what I needed. Each start I felt my head focusing more. With my legs hurting I needed my brain engaged to keep going. I was struggling but i knew my legs could carry me. I just needed my mental resolve.

06:00 lap 19…
13 People toed the start line. It would be light soon. Dawn was the next mile stone. I was hoping I would feel better with the new day. A second wind? It didn’t happen – but I was chipping away, lap by lap…. I was officially counting down. ‘After the next lap, only 4 more laps to go!’ That sounded better than 6 more starts to complete…

Until then, we had been pretty lucky with the weather. It stayed dry most of the night and with a mildness and a breeze the puddles were getting smaller. At some point after midnight it had started to light drizzle. Nothing to bad and even refreshing at times. As it got to daylight it started to rain. This meant the puddles swelled and avoiding them got harder. The first hill was a grass bank which got more slippy. Through the first 20hrs I hadn’t changed that much as I was comfortable. I changed my trainers for fresh ones every 5/6hrs. With the rain came wet feet and tops. But being close to the end I wasn’t too worried. If the rain had come earlier, the whole night would have been a lot more difficault!

11:00 lap 24…
11 people toed the start line. This was it… I just had to get around within the hour. Only one more time up the hills. 1 more time through the puddles. 1 more time under the bridge and one more time across the finish line… Those first few steps over the start were always the hardest as the muscles had started to cease up from the waiting. Getting them moving again was painful… But I knew by the time I got to the boats they would have eased back in. I might not have had that magic halfway feeling at midnight. But there were parts of the course I knew would be a struggle and parts that I looked forward to, like achievements. The boats were my first achievement on each lap. Run all the way to the grass bank was my second achievement. Get to the road, that was about a mile in and my third achievement. Under the bridge with the supporters on top. I would reward myself with a snack during the big hill up to the house. I’d then walk a little at the top. That was around half way. Getting to the end of the road and turning left to the mud track was an achievement. It was pretty much down hill from there… Past the caravans – the muddy downhill stretch was over. Onto the water front – this was long and winding – but the home stretch. Traversing the 2 big puddles and I can hear the music at finish area in the distance. Last puddle by the car park and up the last bank – through the gates and I can see the flags. I can see the support crews. I can hear the cheers… I’ve bloody done it.

The Afterglow.
A few runners were talking about doing one more lap. It was expected that several people would drop out after 100miles. Martin asked if I wanted to go around again. I’ve never been as sure about something in my life. ‘Get this timing chip off my leg… And give me medals!!! I’m done!’

6 people started the 25th lap and the winner went on to do 30 in total. He still looked strong on that last lap!
I changed into dry clothes and got in the car Martin drove to the hotel and i ceased up in the passenger seat. I think my body went into shock – I napped but went super hungry. Super hot then super cold. Apparently I turned yellow, green then white consecutively. Then begged for a wheelchair to get out of the car at the hotel.
It took me several hours to start feeling ‘normal’ again. I honestly thought I was going to need to call an ambulance and wondered if my travel insurance would cover me!! I rested well – I had 2 nights before I flew home. My quads and hamstring’s weren’t too bad. And DOMS never really came. My shins and ankles took the brunt of it. With my right Achilles suffering the worst. Not painful but damaged. It needed nursing.

I had an amazing time but hurt for the majority of it. I’m sure a lot of runners say the same for whatever event they do. However, the positives and good memories are the ones that stick with you. I’m glad I pushed through. I’m grateful for all the supporters. I’m happy I got to run with some amazing people. A lot of people achieved and experianced some amazing things over that weekend. I learned a lot through the whole experiance. Will I do it again?

‘One day I won’t be able to do this. Today is not that day…’

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