Wendover Woods 50 – Sticking to the fight

The headlines

Boy, that race kicked my butt. Then, with more than a little help from my friends, I regrouped and got it done. It wasn’t pretty but a finish is a finish.

When things go wrong as they sometimes will,

When the road you’re trudging seems all up hill,

When the funds are low and the debts are high
And you want to smile, but you have to sigh,

When care is pressing you down a bit,
Rest if you must, but don’t you quit.
Life is strange with its twists and turns
As every one of us sometimes learns
And many a failure comes about
When he might have won had he stuck it out;
Don’t give up though the pace seems slow
You may succeed with another blow.
Success is failure turned inside out

The silver tint of the clouds of doubt,
And you never can tell just how close you are,
It may be near when it seems so far;
So stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit
It’s when things seem worst that you must not quit.

Don’t Quit
by John Greenleaf Whittier

My PT, Richard Scott, shared this poem with me a few months ago when we were discussing my upcoming Grand Slam attempt and I found myself reciting the “stick to the fight when you’re hardest hit” line as I pressed onwards in the final 2 laps. This helped me to maintain focus, stay positive, and get it done.

[Top man, my PT Richard Scott]

Pre-race

I hadn’t run a 50 mile race since the Malvern Hills Ultra in May 2015. Although I’d run a self-supported 53 miles from Horsham to Chichester in April 2017 and managed 65 miles of the North Downs Way 100 in August 2017, I was nervous about this race. Would I be able to pace myself sensibly? [Spoiler alert: absolutely not!]

A few weeks before race day I travelled up to do a recce of the Wendover Woods 50 route (the race is 5 x 10 mile loops) with Zoe Norman and Liam Gibson, running the Wendover Woods parkrun before our recce just for fun. Fortune smiled upon us that day, as we spotted Drew Sheffield and Claire Shelley after the parkrun and mentioned we were doing a recce only for them to offer to run it with us. Given that Drew is the creator of the route, how could we refuse?! I realised that the race markings would be key on race day as it’s a very twisty, turny loop and having run the course at least I knew what to expect.

[The route – calling them 10 mile loops undersells it somewhat!]

I also realised that it wouldn’t be the best idea to drive 100 miles to the start on race day morning, so booked a cheap room at the Premier Inn in Aylesbury for the Friday night. Having taken a half day of annual leave, I made good time on my journey and was settled in my room by 6pm, having polished off fish and chips and a chocolate brownie in the restaurant next door. Perfect pre-race fuelling, no?

[Obligatory pre-race kit shot]

After phone calls to my wife Beth, my Mum and my brother Greg, my nerves were settling down. I told them I’d be happy with a finish within the 15 hour cut off and hoped that, on a good day, I might get under 13 and a half hours, given that the course has 10,000 feet of elevation gain (more than twice the height of Ben Nevis) and I’d run on trails less than a dozen times this year. I had endured the Giants Head marathon in June (fantastic race, poor hill work from me), run well at the Hangman Ultra in August (cracking route, surprisingly swift footwork from me), and achieved my 28 mile target at the Cardiac Challenge in October (4 mile loops, similarly hilly to WW50). I had also run some hill reps from Stoughton to Kingley Vale a few weeks before race day, managing 3,000 feet of climbing over 12 miles and giving me confidence that I could do okay despite the lack of regular trail runs and hilly workouts.

With my sensible head on, I decided I’d get to bed early for a good night’s sleep. Unfortunately, the pub next door had other ideas and while I lay in bed with my eyes closed trying to get to sleep the sound of hip hop, Motown and reggae filled the room. Oh well, if I couldn’t sleep at learning could rest my eyes and relax, enjoying the music rather than getting stressed out. It worked and, somehow, I fell asleep only to awake later to blissful silence.

[Insane in the membrane? Yep. Pre-race butterflies aplenty!]

Race day morning

I arrived at the event HQ, a field in Wendover Woods, just over an hour before the race start. After a quick catch up with Ashley Hurd on my way into the marquee, I had my kit checked, received my race number and went back to the car to have a 33Shake pre-workout shake (these have worked well for me in my races all year). After deciding what kit to start the race in, I headed back to the marquee and spotted Zoe and Liam. After a quick chat and photo, I went in for the race briefing, catching up with Sam Robson and Jonathan Langford.

[All smiles with Zoe before the race. Photo credit: Liam Gibson]

[Race briefing from Centurion Running Race Director James Elson. Photo credit: Ilsuk Han]

Heading from the marquee to the race start a couple of hundred metres away in the woods I saw David Barker, Corinne Rodgers, Paul McLeery and Tim Cox. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to see Sharon Dickson. It’s wonderful being part of this trail running community, seeing friends on the trail either as fellow runners or as a volunteer. Friendly faces await at the Centurion Running races in particular.

Lap 1 – Let’s do this

8am. Off we go, to the sound of multiple GPS watches being started. Having started around two thirds of the way back, I settle into a steady pace. I’m trying to run easy and not to get carried away in the early stages. I’m calm. Then I check my Suunto Ambit 3 Run GPS watch, see it’s showing distance, pace and battery life, and scroll through to the next screen to check the time/running duration. Only there is no second screen. I didn’t set it correctly. Now I’m stuck without the ability to see how long I’ve been running. “How will I know how I’m doing?” “Oh no! What if I get timed out because I don’t know how long I have left?” Mild panic ensues. Then I regain perspective. So what? If I run steady and keep going I’m confident I can finish within 15 hours. Maybe this is a blessing and it’ll take the pressure off as I just focus on running? I relax and continue.

Learning point #1 – Check your GPS watch is set up correctly before the race

Learning point #2 – When things go wrong, remember to stay calm

The route is lovely. It’s a mix of runnable, wide, hard-packed trail, single-track (some with tree roots aplenty), some lovely downhills through the woods and across a field, and some long, long and short, sharp climbs. The climbs had names, including Devil’s Road, The Snake, Gnarking Around, and Railing in the Years. In later loops I’d be less fond of these climbs!

[The start of Devil’s Road, a long climb which is tantalisingly close to Hale Lane aid station but you have to run past it and on for a couple of miles to get there! Photo credit: Ilsuk Han]

I had decided to keep time at the mid point aid station, Hale Lane, to a minimum and as I was okay for water and sticking feeling well fuelled by the 33Shake gel and Chia Charge flapjack I was eating, I said hi to Ian Lang on my way through and headed straight up the next hill without stopping, removing my windproof jacket as I was getting warm as the sun shone and temperature rose. I really enjoyed the first loop and was pleasantly surprised to cross the timing mat after just over 2 hours and 8 minutes. Nifty, for me anyway, and after a quick pit stop to top up with another 33Shake gel and Chia Charge flapjack (my nutrition plan, something I’d do every lap) and saying hi to Ash and Liam I was off on lap 2.

[All smiles at the end of lap 1. Photo credit: Ashley Hurd]

Lap 2 – Don’t get carried away GC

Lap 2 went well. I ran past Francis Graham-Dixon, who was volunteering and ensuring we went the right way, slowed my pace slightly and settled into a comfortable rhythm. I enjoyed it.

[Game face on. Having a blast at this point, around 15 miles in. Photo credit: Stuart March]

I crossed the timing mat after 4 hours 45 minutes, well over an hour inside the cut off, and topped up my supplies. After exchanging a few words with Richard Goulder, I set off for lap 3. It was a lovely surprise to see Steve Amiet and John Fitzgerald as I left the marquee and a speed hug with both set me up nicely for the 3rd lap.

Lap 3 – Mental torture

This lap started so well. I was feeling good. Stuart March caught me still smiling around mile 21, just before Zoe caught up with me. She was looking strong and encouraged me to follow her, but I was struggling and starting to doubt myself at this point so urged her to carry on. I was delighted to find out later that she’d finished in under 13 hours and got that 50 mile Grand Slam medal (as did Sarah Cooke, Sharon, and Paul). Great work everyone.

[Just before the (mental) darkness descended, around mile 21. Photo credit: Stuart March]

Then it all went wrong. From around 22 miles in, and for the rest of the lap, my mind was filled with negative thoughts that threatened to derail my race. “I can’t do this.” “Why didn’t I do more hill training? I’m never going to finish this.” “Why am I doing this to myself? I’ve nothing to prove. I’ve run 50 mile races and more before.” “What am I doing? How will I do the Grand Slam next year if I’m struggling now?” And lots more besides. For 2 hours. During these long races we find ourselves running alone a lot and dark thoughts can gain momentum really quickly if you’re not careful. This was one of those times. I felt beaten.

[A rare smile on lap 3. Photo credit: Ashley Hurd]

I tried to flip it, looking for the positives, telling myself that I was doing well and had banked time so even if I had to walk a fair bit I could still get it done and finish in time. However, the negative thoughts kept returning. I was also getting a little cold in parts of the woods but told myself I’d wait until the end of the loop to change clothes and add a layer. In retrospect, I hadn’t taken in enough food either as my pace slowed.

Learning point #3 – Act upon negatives thoughts early, remembering past triumphs over adversity

Learning point #4 – Keep the calories coming in regularly

As I approached the end of the 3rd loop I found myself thinking back to the race briefing and James Elson’s instructions on how to stop if that’s what you decided to do. I considered bypassing the timing mat, going around the marquee and in through the back to end my race. Thankfully, I still had enough of a fire inside me to think “I’ll cross the mat, go in the marquee, and look for a friendly face. I need a pep talk.”

I crossed the mat. Ash greeted me. I felt and looked crestfallen. I took my drop bag from Richard and told him I was struggling. I saw Louise Ayling and asked her to help. Before either of them could come to my aid, Ash and Steve descended upon me and truly saved the day. They worked wonders, providing sage advice on how much time I had left, helping me to get some hot food in, change tops and layer up as the temperature fell, and generally restoring my self belief. Steve clinched it when he looked me straight in the eyes and said “I know you. You’re not a quitter.” When people believe in you, it really makes a difference. How could I stop now? Ash later reminded me of this Rocky clip, which he had on standby if needed. Perfect.

Top work fellas. Thank you so much.

Lap 4 – Eye of the tiger

Having flipped the switch and decided to crack on, keep moving forward and do my best, and with over 7 hours in which to cover the last 20 miles, I left the marquee and headed out on lap 4.

I then stopped, turned around to face Ash, Steve and John and shouted “Eye of the tiger!” while pumping my fist in the air. It was such a release. I felt great, pumped for the next loop, and momentarily embarrassed as everyone in the marquee stopped and turned to see who was causing such a scene. I smiled to myself. It was just what I needed. I began running again.

I was tired but I felt better within a few hundred metres. I was going to finish this race. I was telling myself positive stories, drawing on past experiences to keep going. Remembering when I dug really deep before, such as at the North Downs Way 50 in 2014 (limped/hiked/jogged the latest 40 miles when my IT band went), the Autumn 100 in 2016 (chasing cut offs for the last 50 miles), and the North Downs Way 100 in 2017 (timed out at Holly Hill but pushed on before that to reach the Wrotham aid station with 10 minutes to spare).

I made the most of the last of the daylight, watching my feet as I ran through the woods and marvelling at the sight of the sun setting through the trees. It was magical. It still hurt, but I was focusing on the process and taking one step at a time.

Then it was time to get the head torch out. My LED Lenser SEO5 had seen me safely through 13 hours of darkness at the Autumn 100 in 2016, with one change of batteries. This time, it died within 90 minutes and I had to revert to my Alpkit headtorch, which was okay but not great, until I got back to the marquee.

Learning point #5 – I need a new, more powerful head torch for the Grand Slam next year

I made a decision. I’m enough if a liability on rooty trails in daylight, so I didn’t want to risk running with a headtorch and tripping up on rooty single track, so I walked these bits with purpose. I committed to running the wide, hard packed trails and non-technical bits.

I kept recalling the words of Apollo Creed to Rocky Balboa when he’s being battered by Clubber Lang (good old Mr T) in Rocky III: “Be more man than him!” Only in this case, the hill climbs were Clubber Lang. It made sense to me at the time anyway!!

I was also driven forward by Apollo’s calling out of Rocky when his head isn’t in it while training for the Clubber Lang fight. I had to get it done because “There is no tomorrow!”

My renewed confidence was momentarily shaken when I had a pain in my left adductor for the second time in the race. Thankfully, as the first time, after some self massage of my leg and a little walking it loosened up and all was okay.

Learning point #6 – Strength, flexibility and mobility work has helped keep me injury free this year and more consistent efforts here will help me get even more race ready

I finished lap 4 with 3 hours and 20 minutes left to do the last 10 miles. After more words of encouragement from Steve, John and Ash – who all commented that I looked like a different man to the dejected one who came on after lap 3 as I was smiling again – and a change of head torch batteries, I topped up my food supplies and out on a fleece before heading out for the final lap. 3 hours 20 minutes to do 10 miles with 2,000 feet of climbing. If I maintained a fast waking pace I could do it. I was determined to get that medal now.

Lap 5 – What’s the time please?

My legs were heavy. My head was strong. I ran. I ran some more. Somehow I managed to push on, conscious that time was still on my side but I couldn’t afford to relax and walk it in. Well, not yet anyway.

[Image from Ross Edgley’s Instagram feed]

Ross Edgley, who recently completed a world record swim around the British Isles, has coined the phrase “Feral Fortitude”. Ross swam for 12 hours a day for over 5 months to cover the 2,000 mile route, something nobody had ever done before. I took strength from Ross’s adventure and incredible perseverance in the later stages of my race. I strongly recommend that you listen to Ross’s interview on the excellent Joe Rogan podcast to find out more. You can watch it on YouTube here.

I ran all of the sections without tree roots and hiked up the hills with renewed purpose in the first half of the loop, reaching the Hale Lane aid station and grabbing a few jelly babies and some chocolate for the final stretch. Ian Lang informed me that I had 1 hour 50 minutes to cover the last 4.5 miles.

I pressed on, just as my watch stopped recording the run with the battery on 0%. It was still telling the time as I pressed on up the hill out of the aid station, stopping completely a few minutes later. Cue me asking the few people waiting at various points on the trail to cheer people on “What’s the time please?” as I did the mental maths and tried to work out if I was still moving fast enough to get in under the 15 hour cut off and finish the race. In the final 3 miles I decided to stop running in case I fell over and ruined my chances of finishing, knowing that I was so close to getting it done now.

The last time I asked for the time I was told that it was 9:50 and I had 1 hour 10 minutes to do 2 miles. Even I could work out, in my tired mental state after 48 miles and thousands of feet of climbing, that I could finish as long as I kept walking. I kept walking! As I reached the top of Gnarking Around for the fifth and final time I shook my fist at it (like you do) and trotted on form the final downhill before heading on to Railing in the Years, pulling myself up the climbs using the handily located handrails! How close to the cut off was I?

Cresting the final hill, I could hear the finish line and cheers as other runner crossed the line. I kept walking, allowing myself a smile as I knew that I was almost there. I was going to finish the Wendover Woods 50. I crossed the stile into the trig point field for the last time, heard the bleep of the race timing machine, and ran the final stretch to the finish line. As I approached, I saw the clock had just passed 10:30pm. I had finished with almost 30 minutes to spare. Close but not quite squeaky bum time!

Chris Mills congratulated me as I crossed the finish line. I then fell to my knees and said a few words to my Dad, who died last year. When I got to my feet, I was so pleased that Ash was there to place my medal around my neck. That was a special moment. I had done it.

Learning point #7 – I can dig deep when I need to (or as my brother kindly said afterwards, “You’ve got minerals bro”)

Learning point #8 – Grand Slam 2019 is definitely do-able with smart training, discipline and lots of mental strength to gut it out when times get tough

That finish line feeling, you can’t beat it. And this one was special, the most satisfying since the South Downs Way 200 in 2018. Stuart March captured this perfectly, as always.

[Finish line photo 1 – Sheer and utter relief. Photo credit: Stuart March]

[Finish line photo 2 – pride. Photo credit: Stuart March]

[Finish line photo 3 – joy, delight, gratitude and overwhelming satisfaction. Job done. Photo credit: Stuart March]

The Centurion Running ever present Tracey Watson had already finished and it was great to see her. She’s incredible, and had now finished the Double Slam (4×50 mile and 4×100 mile races in the same year) for the third year in a row. Outstanding.

A few minutes after I finished it was lovely to see Corinne Rodgers collect her medal and I accepted the ensuing hug with pleasure. These races really are very special. A good job too, as I have 4 x 100 mile races to do next year, starting with the Thames Path 100 in May. Finishing WW50 has restored my confidence as I head into the Winter training months. Bring on the Slam!

[The bling and finisher’s t-shirt shot]

[This medal means a great deal to me. It’s a symbol of perseverance.]

8 days later – Post-race reflections

What went well:

✔️Nutrition – 33Shake and Chia Charge combination worked a treat

✔️Gear – my shoes, clothing and pack all served me well

✔️Mental strength – I reminded myself that I am strong enough to bounce back from mid-race lows

✔️Finish – I got it done, and within the cut off by a reasonable margin

What didn’t go well:

❌ Nutrition – I didn’t eat enough and struggled for energy in the later stages

❌Pacing – once again, I failed to pace myself sensibly and suffered for it in the second half of the race

❌Head torch – my current torch is fine for most runs bit didn’t give me much confidence on this one

❌Mental meltdown – if I can stop the negative thoughts more quickly in the future I’ll reduce the depth of my lows

Next up

On Sunday 2 December I’m doing the Christmas Cracker Challenge in Southsea. This is a 1 mile race, then a 10k (where I’m paving Steve from work as he aims to get it done in under an hour), and finally a 5k. All while dressed on a Santa suit. That should be fun! Onwards.

6 thoughts on “Wendover Woods 50 – Sticking to the fight

  1. What an inspiration read and great will
    Power Graham you went to hell and back but proved how strong your mental strength is and that when the going gets tough you had as your brother said the minerals to get back up and conquer your demons.

    Well done mate and good luck on the grand slam next year

    Stone old

  2. Pingback: Autumn 100 – Grinding out the Grand Slam | Time to go ultra - #projectultra was just the start

  3. Pingback: 2020 vision: My next big challenge | Time to go ultra - #projectultra was just the start

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