Ready for Wrath – 160k over three ultras from 24 April to 7 May
South Downs 45k, BigWayRound 50k and Bewl Water 60k Ultras
After finishing the 300k Northern Traverse (NT) in early April, and with the 400k Cape Wrath Ultra (CWU) starting on 22 May, I had a 7-week gap to fill, in which to cram in recovery from the first race, a small training block, and a taper before heading up to Scotland. My initial thoughts were to take it fairly easy, as it usually takes me a week or more to recover from a multi-day non-stop race like the NT, but after finishing strongly in that race, also found that I recovered quickly as well and was able to start training again only a couple of days after getting back from the north of England. One of the things you always have to balance in training is the need for recovery with the need to maintain or increase training intensity in order to build strength and endurance and avoid “de-training” during those periods in between races. Given that I felt pretty strong, I decided to try if I could to squeeze some more intensity into the middle 5 weeks of this 7 week gap, and in particular to put in some more “long runs” in which I could get both more trail distance and vertical in my legs while also test out a few more kit / shoe combinations. After the uppers of my Hoka Speedgoats had started to fall apart during the second half of the NT, I decided to give the Inov8 TrailFlys a try-out, and liked them so much that I wanted to give them a longer run in some actual races.
Initially I picked out the LDWA South Downs Trail Marathon, 45k across the South Downs around Eastbourne with lots of hills, as a good one to go for, but after looking at other races in the vicinity, found that there was the 50k Big Way Round Ultra near Winchester the following bank holiday weekend and then the 60k Bewl Water Ultra the weekend after that, so decided that it would be a really good test to do three 50k-ish ultras on consecutive weekends, to give me around 100 miles of distance and 3000m or so of vertical. Just like I had done with the Amersham 50k race earlier in the year, I would do all three races with zero pre-race taper, so would go into each of them with the kind of “Day 2” fatigue in my legs that would replicate a little bit what it might feel like in Scotland during the CWU. I figured that if for some reason I picked up any twinges, it would be easy to drop one or more of these races, and I had 2 weeks to recover after the last of the three races, so there was relatively low risk in doing this “training trilogy”.
Race 1: South Downs 45k, Sunday 24th April
I’d forgotten how long it takes to drive down from north Kent to Eastbourne, so I was a little bit nervous whenever I got stuck behind traffic on the way there, but managed to pull in to the East Dean village hall car park with 15 minutes to go before the race started, having scoffed a couple of muffins and drank half a litre of iced coffee on the way. It was all a bit hectic, and I didn’t really have any time to stretch or warm up properly before the race started – I would have to use the first hour or so of running to do that!
At 28 miles / 45k it’s at the bottom end of ultra distances, but with 1300m of elevation, it’s quite a hilly course with some spectacular scenery including the Seven Sisters, Birling Gap, Firle Beacon and the Long Man of Wilmington. Although I was treating the race largely as a training run, I was aiming for a time of around 5 hours and had decided not to stop at any of the checkpoints but to just make my two hydration flasks last the whole race.
As usual, I started off reasonably slowly, taking the first couple of kilometres easy as we climbed uphill out of East Dean to the coastal section of the South Downs Way and a sequence of up and downs along the Seven Sisters. I ran the downhills as hard as I could in order to replicate the kinds of downhills I would be facing in Scotland, and soon joined a pack of 3-4 runners near the front. As the route moved inland, this group stayed close together, and I passed CP1 and then the halfway point in second place within this bunch, at which point the long climb up to Firle Beacon started. Given the steepness of the climb, we all switched to more like a 25:75 hike/run, before the slope flattened out and we were treated to a long, fast descent towards CP3 at Alfriston. With only 13km to go, we then hit the last big climb up to the Long Man of Wilmington at which point I started to lose a bit of ground to the 2 leaders. They were only a few hundred metres in front, but as we reached the top of the climb and started to run at full pace again, it proved hard to make up the gap (not helped by missing a turning on the way back into East Dean) and I ended up finishing 4 minutes behind them in 3rd place.
Aside from the stunning views from the South Downs all the way to Brighton, Eastbourne and the sea, I was really happy with the time and happy with the placing, particularly as the race came after a heavy couple of weeks of training with no taper, and only 3 weeks after the NT. I was a little bit disappointed that my uphills were still somewhat lacking in power and speed, but it was very encouraging that I felt strong even over the last 10k on the flats and downhills and was able to maintain a good ‘cruising speed’ without feeling like it was costing me a huge amount of effort. All the heat endurance work seemed to have significantly improved my general aerobic base, and my ability to maintain a running pace at below lactate threshold. The ground conditions were very hard and rocky, giving my knees and feet a good examining and which will also be good preparation for the Summer Spine race along the Pennine Way in June, which has similarly hard-packed trails at this time of year.
Race 2: BigWayRound 50k
As coincidence would have it, the Big Way Round also covers parts of the South Downs Way, but at the western end near Winchester as opposed to its eastern extremity. The Big Way Round Ultra is the longest one of a number of other races organised on the same day of different distances, so we would have to make sure we took the correct turnings to avoid accidentally ending up on the half-marathon or marathon courses. It’s a little bit less hilly than the South Downs Marathon, but still has some long, hilly sections, although not quite as steep as the previous week, so I was hoping to run the whole 50k, and similarly not stop for any drinks breaks but get through the whole race on the 2 x 500ml soft flasks I was carrying. It was hot day, so I just wore compression base layers, keeping a spare shirt in my pack on the off chance that the temperature dropped and the wind picked up.
With 100+ runners, it was quite a crowded start, and as usual I stayed at the back for the first few kms as I found my rhythm, although I had managed to do a fair bit of mobilisation in the 10 minutes before the race so wasn’t starting quite as cold as in the previous race. With three other races sharing parts of the same course, it was a little bit hard to keep track of whether I was gaining or losing places. The first few kms through Winchester town centre, past the cathedral and the statue of Alfred the Great, were very scenic, and then by the River Itchen it continued with a number of very flat sections before a longer climb towards the wonderfully named Cheesefoot Head at around 10k.
I was finding that my uphill pace was a lot stronger than the previous week – perhaps all the hill intervals that I had been doing were beginning to pay dividends – and I was picking up quite a few places, moving towards roughly middle of the pack. Each km was showing pretty consistent splits on my Garmin as I ticked them off – between 5m and 6m30s – so it wasn’t a huge surprise when I passed CP2 at 24km in 2h15m, on course for a 5h time and feeling strong.
The second half of the course however is where there were the slightly larger and longer hills, so this would be a good test of whether my legs had built out some more endurance. I expected any minute to feel the onset of the heaviness and fatigue that normally starts to kick in at around 30km, but unlike the previous week, it never happened. My legs continued to feel fresh, and my hear and lungs never really felt they had to work too hard to maintain a (slow) running pace even up the longest of the ascents. Hugely encouraging! I must have passed at least twenty other runners in the last 20k purely on the uphill sections as they slowed to a hike while I jogged past. I was certainly no speedster, but even at 8km/h pace on the uphills you’ll quickly overtake someone who is doing 6km/h power-hiking.
It really didn’t feel that long before the final hill topped out and the long descent towards Winchester began, the cathedral being visible from quite a way off providing lots of encouragement that the end of the race was (literally) in sight. As I entered the town again, I was able to up my pace to a sprint, with the main challenge being avoiding the hordes of shoppers in the town centre and the tourists around the cathedral and other sights. Right before the finish line appeared, the 50k split popped up on my Garmin – 4h59m30s, so a sub-5hr 50k split, a new 50k PB for me and a great way to finish the race. The medal, 26th place out of 110 runners and a time of 5h02m30s was just the icing on the cake.
Race 3: Bewl Water 60k
With the BigWayRound 50k being on a Bank Holiday Monday, I only had 4 days to recover before the Bewl Water ultra the following Saturday. I did wonder whether this would be enough, but at the same time with the 8 consecutive days of the Cape Wrath Ultra coming up, I knew that it would be a test of my ability to recover quickly and would be give me good sense of my readiness for the much longer race in Scotland.
The Bewl Water course itself is a 20k loop around the reservoir of Bewl Water, so the course comprises three loops, and although flat by ultra standards, with each loop having 4 hills there is enough vertical for it to be a good workout. The course is only a 20 minute drive from where I live, so although it was an 8.30am start, I was able to have a bit of a late lie-in and still manage to tape my toes, make some toast and coffee for breakfast and get some stretching in before the start. As with the Big Way Round, there were a number of races all taking place on the same course, a 10k, HM and Marathon as well as the 60k ultra, which was to cause a bit of disorientation for me later on as about a hundred 10k runners streamed past in the opposite direction on what were some quite narrow paths. For both these ultras, I had decided not to bother with poles – it would give my knees a stronger examination, and on fast, flat courses like these poles can be more of a distraction than a help in any case.
As I walked down to the start, I could feel the humidity in the air, and indeed the forecast was for possible showers later on in the day – to be honest, it felt as if it might start raining at any moment. I was still about 100 metres from the start line when they began the countdown and got the runners going – 3 minutes ahead of the scheduled start time! Luckily the timing was based on your own chip rather than the starting gun, so the clock only began when I crossed the line. The first ascent – a short but steep one up a slope to the reservoir’s edge – was pretty much immediately after the start and gave me a good opportunity to warm my quads and calves up right away. There were about 30 or so runners in the ultra, versus 100s in each of the other races, so it wasn’t too long before I had caught up with the main pack that had started ahead of me. After the initial climb, the course is broadly flat, following the edge of the lake among the trees and passing through occasional clearings. There were a few muddy patches here and there, but the ground was pretty dry and hard, and the path generally even and runnable.
The first water station was after only 4km, so I didn’t stop there as my water bottles were still full, but just glanced at my watch to see the splits – around 22 minutes, so around 11km/h pace, which felt about right. I’d done a lot of interval training over the previous few weeks, so tried to see if I could push the pace a little bit more. It was difficult. My legs felt OK, but had just enough heaviness in them from training to make it feel like a lot of effort to run faster than 12km/h, and the humidity was not helping either – it felt a lot hotter than the 18 degrees air temperature. I passed a few more runners over the next few km before coming to the long climb up the road towards the second water station and the 11km mark. The good news was that while I did not have a lot of extra pace on the flats, my climbing was continuing to show improvement from all the hill interval work I had done. I was able to pass another couple of runners over the two long climbs that formed the southern part of the course loop. I figured I was probably now somewhere around 10th place, and was quite happy with that as the second half of the course passed without much incident and I cruised past the start line with a split for the first 20k of 1h50m, just under 11km/h so a similar pace to what I had managed the previous week, and I felt reasonably strong going into the second lap.
As the second lap went on, I started to notice the impact of the humidity – I was sweating quite a bit and drinking more fluids than I would normally need to, so on passing the second water station again, which was now at the halfway point of whole race, I stopped to have a couple of extra drinks and to refill my drinks bottles. I had also been chomping my way through a lot of Haribos and Jelly Babies at this point, so was getting almost nauseous with all the sugar that I was taking on. Although my running pace was pretty consistent, I had to make second stop for a pee break, and then stopped again for a drink and to refill my bottles as I came through to the end of lap 2 with a split of dead-on 4hrs for the first 40k, so 2h10m for the second 20k lap. I was slowing a bit, but probably 5-10 mins of the difference was due to the drinks breaks so I was not massively concerned.
The final lap was hard work – although I was able to run for almost the whole lap, there were a couple of steep steps which this time round I hiked rather than ran up, and the humidity continued to force me to take on a lot more fluid than I would normally need – I stopped for drinks at both the intermediate water stations this time round – but I had pulled away from the 2-3 runners who I’d been running with on Lap 2 so was largely on my own for most of this lap. As the kms ticked down I approached the final hill and was heartened to see that I had reeled in the runner in front of me – as he power-hiked the final climb, I ran past just as the heavens opened and the rain fell, first in a shower then increasingly heavily. The slope flattened and I sprinted down the long descent through the car park and past the visitor centre back to the start line, finishing in 8th place in a time of 6hrs 22m. I was somewhat disappointed not to be closer to the 6hr mark, but with 20 mins taken up by drinks and pee breaks I figured this was close enough to last week’s performance to be happy with it overall, and I was particularly happy to have come through the whole race without any injuries or niggles, and with my legs still feeling fresh.
Ready for Wrath
It was great to get these three shorter races under my belt, and not to have to worry about having ‘under-trained’ as I started tapering for Cape Wrath. I’ve tried over the last 6 months to fine-tune the kinds of activities that work best for me during tapers, and seem to have converged on the following principles, which in many ways mirror the kinds of activities that also work for me best during post-race recovery:
Reduce mileage significantly, and reduce amount of (joint-impacting) running
Swap running sessions for bike work, with heavy interval-style sessions in week 1 of taper and lighter sessions in week 2
Increase number / length of heat training sessions, walking on high inclines to minimise joint impact with occasional jogged intervals
Lots of time mobilising / rolling / stretching / massaging key muscle groups and joints
I’ve found this is a good way to (a) avoid getting bored or frustrated, (b) avoid putting on weight, (c) maintain or improve my cardiovascular fitness during the taper period, (d) improve general feeling of physical and mental well-being. I’m really excited about Scotland, and you’ll be able to track my progress and send me “UltraMail” messages at the following link.