Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Rat Race The Wall -- 11:17:01

The scenery was gorgeous. (Source.)
What a day! I had a really solid race, running most of the way across England, for 69 miles. The weather was great and the countryside was lush and gorgeous, with the course running along Hadrian's Wall and through pastures and quaint old towns. I'm guessing 80% of the course was paved. I ran well and had a strong finish, taking 11 hours 17 minutes. Shockingly, I came in 7th place overall out of 605 starters. I didn't trip or fall or get injured. I was led off course once and lost 5 minutes, and another time I had to wait for a herd of sheep to cross a road, but otherwise, I had a smooth race.

Well over a year ago, my wife had found Rat Race -- The Wall online. She had wanted to have a family trip to the United Kingdom and thoughtfully looked for a race for me. (Thank you, Jennifer!)

The race course runs west to east across most of northern England, from Carlisle to Newcastle upon Tyne. Much of the course runs along Hadrian's Wall, built by the Romans between 122 AD and 128 AD. We also ran through miles of beautiful pastures and through many small quaint towns. I learned during the race that the course also requires climbing short ladders, perhaps a dozen times, to get over short walls, plus going through a dozen gates that have a variety of latches to figure out. Fun!

I shared this race idea with some friends in the Coastside Running Club, and Mor and Jez expressed an interest. Awesome! Jez was going to move back to Cambridge, UK, and Mor's wife has family in England, so that made the logistics easier for them. Additionally, Mor's brother, Alon would join, too.

A year goes by and all of our training is relatively solid and the trip begins!

In the week leading up to the race,  my family and I were in Dublin and I wanted to shake out my legs after the long flight. I ran relatively hard for 7 miles and felt good, and enjoyed exploring around Dublin.

Then when walking around town that afternoon, I felt what might be a groin muscle pull. I ended up walking about 7 miles, and every time I stopped and then started again, I had trouble walking! Oh no! I tried not to panic, but how could I run 69 miles if I can't even walk comfortably for short distances? The next day was about the same, and the following day was similar but getting better. I tried to do lots of stretching and massaging. I ran a slow mile with my daughter on that Friday morning, the day before the race, and I felt good, but not always perfect.

For my meals the day before, I went all-carb, starting with a delicious "French breakfast" of croissant, baguette, and jam. I had three slices of bread and peanut butter for lunch. And for dinner, I had a tasty pasta along with a delicious chocolate fudge and cream dessert.

On that Friday afternoon, the day before the race, we runners had to check-in at the Carlisle Castle. I had put together all kinds of mandatory equipment that was not required for the many other more remote and difficult races that I've done in the U.S. -- pants, jacket, 10cm x 10cm bandage, roller bandage, gauze, and a headlamp plus extra batteries (even though I was almost certainly going to finish in daylight). The check-in worker asked to see my water-resistant "bottoms" (which I was wearing) and my water bottles. They randomly checked for other items from other runners.

I tossed and turned that night, worrying about ridiculous things like whether or not to carry my bulky water resistant pants in my running vest. I decided to obey the rules to the letter, and I squished them in my running vest, in the morning.

Race day! I woke up at about 4am, well before my 4:30am alarm. There was plenty of morning light already, so I felt ridiculous at having set aside a headlamp. I heated some water and had two cups of instant oatmeal and I felt good! I walked the half-mile to Carlisle Castle where the race starts. Mor! Alon! Jez! I soon met up with my friends. I dropped off my drop bags and we took some photos.
Mor, Jez, and me, in front of Carlisle Castle and ready to run!
I would have liked to go to the bathroom one last time, but there were only about 10 porta-potties for the 605 runners who started the race. The line was way too long and I didn't worry about it; it was going to be a long day with plenty of stops.

Jennifer, Claire, Jess, Lisa, Matt! My various family members took the time to get up extra early and see the start of the race. Awesome!

I ate an energy gel 15 minutes before the start, and topped off my water again from Jennifer. (I didn't see any race-provided water.) There were some last minute instructions from the race director, and at about 7:08am (8 minutes late), we were off!

I wasn't sure what pace I should aim for. I thought 10 minutes / mile on average would be great, and would give me a very respectable overall placement and would take 11 and a half hours. But the initial road and trails were easy to run on and I had a hard time holding back, and I was averaging about 9:15 per mile, as I recall.

We had quite a ways to go until the first aid station -- 10 miles. Furthermore, we were instructed *not* to fill our water bottles or hydration packs at this aid station, which seemed strange and dangerous to me. So, I was a bit concerned about hydration.

A handful of people passed me in the initial miles, and I wondered if I was taking it too easy or if they were going too fast. Since our pace would have us finish in under 11 hours, which very few people did the previous year, I thought everyone else was likely running too fast! I tried hard not to run faster than 9 minutes per mile. Three guys slowly came up behind me and I said hello. One of them said that I looked like I knew what I was doing and they didn't want to pass me. I smiled to myself, but I said I wasn't sure how fast I should be running, but that I was pretty sure that many hours from now, our current speed was going to feel quite fast. None of them had run as much as I had and their marathon times weren't as fast either, so even though they appeared much younger than me, I felt a little more confidence that I was on track. Around the 5 mile park, I finally pulled aside to urinate and they passed me.

The first aid station was called a "Checkpoint" and was at mile 10. The race had two kinds of aid stations -- "Checkpoints" and "Pit Stops". The Checkpoints had only water (no sports drink) and candy and the seemingly bizarre rule that we were not allowed to fill water bottles or hydration packs. Pit Stops were full-service and crew were allowed to help there, too. Also, somewhat bizarrely, the exact location of the Checkpoints was kept a secret and distances between aid stations was not published! I thought this was sort of dangerous because the distances between aid stations was on the long side. I made educated guesses and carefully traced the whole route in a mapping program to figure out the distances between aid stations. I'll update this table with more accurate numbers once I retrieve my GPS data from my watch.
Aid StationDistance (miles)Next (miles)
Carlisle Castle0.010.0
Irthington Village School10.05.2
Lanercost Priory Pit Stop15.24.2
Walltown Quarry24.03.4
Cawfields Quarry Pit Stop27.410.0
Hexham Tyne Green Pit Stop44.48.8
Styford Toll (High Barns)53.33.0
Newburn Tyne Riverside Pit Stop61.97.2
HMS Calliope69.1

I arrived at the first aid station and it was tiny and was staffed by a single volunteer. Thank you! She had a large table filled with moderate-sized cups (8 oz of water each, maybe?) and I gulped down two cups and grabbed some "sweets". Lots of runners didn't stop there, which surprised me, since that meant they were going to run over 15 miles carrying 40 oz of water. (The race mandated one liter minimum which is about two 20 oz water bottles.) Onward!

I arrived at the first Pit Stop. Those two cups of water from the previous Checkpoint made my water last. They had all kinds of meat-filled sandwiches which I'm sure would be filling but they sounded way too heavy. I stuck with the sweets and sports drink and the energy gels I was carrying.

There were some climbs along the way that were moderately steep but not very long. I generally ran every step of these because it felt good and reminded me of running up Montara Mountain. I could feel my heart rate rise and my breathing increase, but I thought that it was OK for a few minutes at a time. So, I tended to pass people on the uphills.

Somewhere at the mile 19 mark, I made the mental note that I was now beginning a 50 mile race. Unfortunately, I did not feel remotely fresh for starting a 50 miler!

The scenery was gorgeous. There was no rain predicted for the day and the temperatures were cool. It was really good running weather. The miles were adding up, though, and I was already feeling the initial familiar soreness in my feet. I came upon Walltown Quary Checkpoint at mile 24.0, and there was everyone! Matt, Lisa, Jennifer, Jessica, and Claire! I gave Claire a hug. Matt said I was in 31st place. No way! That sounded too fast. That was super-sweet to see everyone. I didn't linger and I grabbed two cups of water, downed them, and continued on.

Somewhere in the next leg I crossed the marathon mark, at around 4 hours 20 minutes as I recall. I felt good! There was some kind of race sign at this point too.

At Cawfields Quarry Pit Stop we had access to our small disposable drop bag, which contained all the energy gels that I thought I would need until our next drop bag at 44. Unfortunately, I hadn't marked my aid station chart (taped to my water bottle) with which aid station had my drop bag and I couldn't remember for sure. I asked a volunteer if this was the "half way aid station with our drop bag". I don't know why I thought it might be the half way point since I knew it wasn't, and the volunteer corrected me but didn't tell me where the drop bags were. So I went on, and only realized the mistake later that my nice supply of energy gels and Shot Bloks were going to be thrown away. The race doesn't provide any of these maltodextrin type energy gels, just "sweets" that are regular kinds of candy sold in England. Oh, well, the sweets seemed to be working just fine!

At about the half way point, I got stuck on a single-track trail behind a runner who was walking. "Sorry, I can't walk any faster" he reported. There was heavy brush and trees on either side of us, so passing him was impossible. He said he was from Finland and he asked what the name of a plant was that causes a rash. I said poison oak or poison ivy cause a bad rash, but that I didn't see any here on the trail. We came to a small clearing, but then he pointed at a plant and as I examined it, he kept on walking back to a single-track trail, so it took another minute before I could pass him.

Somewhere around mile 30, I encountered something in a field and my family helped me compose a poem:
Image by Hans Braxmeier from Pixabay.
Ode to the Cowpie

Cowpie, oh, cowpie, how squishy are thee.
I mistook ye for mud, but that ain't what ye be.
Thou wert white as chalk and seemingly sturdy,
Yet my shoe plunged through you on my great Wall journey.
Onward I ran, through pastures of green,
Hopping o'er walls, feeling fast and lean,
But my thoughts return to you, my smelly friend;
You stayed with me 'til the very end.

There was a sign for the half-way point, at mile 34.5. I did an assessment and I definitely felt more than half way used up! I was getting sore, but my energy levels seemed to be pretty good and I was happy that the second half of the race had easier running and more gentle downhills than the first half. I also took my first of three ibuprofen which helped keep the soreness in check.

Running through some cute small quaint old town, the course headed up a steep hill. I hadn't seen any runners in front of me for a while. I came across two arrow signs. One pointed straight to the left and the other pointed up and to the left. It was a three-way intersection of sorts, where you could either continue straight on the road or veer left on to a pedestrian path or make a hard left on to a residential street. I wasn't clear on where I should go! I peered down the pedestrian path and couldn't see any other signs. So, I turned left and ran down the street. It soon made another hard left, heading back down the steep hill I had just run. This seemed very unlikely, but the course had a lot of turns! I ran down the hill and came to a three-way unmarked intersection, so I knew I was off course. Bummer! I trudged back up the hill and got on to the pedestrian path. I fixed the one sign so that it pointed up instead of a hard left. I continued on and a few minutes later there was another arrow sign, so I knew I was on the right path. I had checked my watch and figured I had wasted 5 minutes. Bummer.

At Hexham, at mile 44, I ate my only real food of the race -- a dinner roll. As with the previous Pit Stops, there was a wide variety of meat dishes and "heavy" food, like chicken legs. I was handed my drop bag, and I reapplied sunscreen and got out of there as soon as I could. I passed several runners in the aid station.

For the next two hours or so, I ran alone. I was getting tired and for 5 or 10 minutes I think I slowed down a bit to around 10 minutes a mile. I was surprised when another runner caught up to me. We chatted for a while and introduced ourselves. He was Matt Simpson from London and this was his first ultramarathon. I told him he was doing great! He said that we were in 11th and 12th position! Wow! I was not expecting that. Cool! I couldn't help but to pick up my pace a bit and run with him and we were cruising along at a little under 9 minutes per mile. I thanked him for encouraging me to run a bit faster and he thanked me for pulling him along.

Last aid station! Only 7.2 miles to go! I quickly filled up both water bottles (mistake?) and ran out. I didn't need any food, so I didn't even look. I wanted to put some distance between me and Matt and another runner that we had caught up to while approaching the aid station. I think there was another runner or two in the aid station already, changing shoes or patching feet or something.

I felt pretty good all-in-all. I was sore and tired but still moving well and had no signs of cramps. I increased my effort but I didn't feel like I could go any faster than about 8:30 / mile. The pedestrian paths were very runnable. I'm in the home stretch! I turned a corner and it felt like a Christmas present -- there were two runners walking side-by-side. Then I felt guilty at having felt good at passing them. I wanted everyone to be able to do their best. They clapped for me as I passed and I congratulated them and patted one of them on the shoulder.

I started to smell the ocean air. Getting closer! Finally, I could see the river that I knew we would finish along. I dumped out a full water bottle because I wouldn't need it. A sign said 4 miles to go. Ouch! That felt far. I got down to the river and passed another runner. I spotted another runner about a quarter mile ahead but he was moving well and I just couldn't seem to speed up. I was getting desperate to see the modern artistic pedestrian bridge that we had to cross over to the finish line. 2 miles to go?! Ouch!

Finally, finally, I could see it. I was closing in on the runner in front of me but I wasn't going to catch him. Approaching the bridge, I saw Claire! Awesome!!! I felt tears of happiness and relief swell up. Claire wanted me to finish fast and I started pushing hard on the uphill over the bridge. On the downhill, I picked up more speed and Claire said to run ahead and that she couldn't keep up. Jennifer! Matt and Lisa! Jessica! Woo hoo! 7th place out of 605 starters! 11 hours 17 minutes and 1 second.

Soon after the race, I went back to my hotel to shower and rest and eat a little bit. I was probably a bit dehydrated and I felt "unsettled". I received updates on Jez and Mor's and Alon's progress. They all finished!

Jez took videos during the race and put together a cool movie. Thanks, Jez!

What Went Well
  • Had pretty good energy for the entire race. My "low points" were short periods of a somewhat slower pace, like 10 minutes / mile on level ground.
  • The soreness in my feet and legs seemed to taper off and not get much worse between 35 miles and 69 miles.
  • No injuries.
  • No trips or falls.
  • No cramps.
  • All-in-all, my Hoka One One Challenger ATR 2 shoes did well, although I did get a couple of blisters.
  • My Ultimate Direction AK running vest worked pretty well, although I still got some chafing near my neck.
  • No other chafing.
  • I still feel shocked that I placed so high out of 605 runners; I suspect that many more casual runners attempt this ultramarathon than in the ultramarathons in California or maybe in the U.S. in general.
  • I had no poop problems! (This is a big improvement over my previous race!)
  • I used Nuun tablets for the beginning of the race, which made the water taste great, plus the salts helped me drink more.

Things to Improve On
  • I don't blame myself, but I did waste 5 minutes being misled by the course markings in one spot. I guess if I were to run this course again, I would understand the slightly unusual style of placing arrows. Or if I could have somehow memorized the course, I wouldn't have been misled.
  • I got a couple of blisters. They weren't too bad, but if this has been a 100 mile race, I suspect that I would have had to stop and address the problem. I still don't have the exact right shoes or lace tying techniques or something.
  • I had placed strips of moleskin adhesives to protect my neck from chafing from my vest, but I didn't quite get the spot correct and the two patches eventually fell off anyways.
  • At the last aid station, with just 7.2 easy miles to go, I didn't actually need to fill up on water. This was a slow process because we had to use slow spigots from big containers; there were no pitchers and no volunteers to fill the bottles for us. If I had just cruised through without stopping at all, I would have run out of water in maybe 3 or 4 miles, but I might have caught the next runner who finished just 45 seconds in front of me.
  • Know your aid stations and drop bags! In the heat of the moment, at the Cawfields Quarry Pit Stop at mile 27.4, I forgot which aid station had my disposable drop bag. I asked a volunteer if my "half-way drop bag was here" and he said "no, you're not half-way yet", but really what I should have asked was, "do we have our first drop bags here?" So, I continued on, and my nice little bag of energy gels and Shot Bloks got thrown away.

Random Data
  • Results
  • Garmin data
  • I picked up three pieces of trash off the ground that had come from runners in front of me. There weren't many runners in front of me, so I wonder if one of them thought it was OK to litter everywhere.
Race Review
The organizers put on a really good event. There were some aspects that were very unusual to me, like limiting the amount of water taken at most of the aid stations, but all-in-all, it worked out fine. The course markings were really good and thorough in all the places except the one intersection I mentioned. The course itself was exceptional; the race was truly gorgeous. I liked the easier 2nd half, too.

On the downside, there were no where near enough porta-potties at the start. I understand (having worked on organizing a race myself) that this greatly cuts down costs. They probably should have just said that the bathrooms at the start would be severely limited. I do think they should have had some water at the start, though. Or maybe they did, but I just didn't see it.

The other aspect of the race that didn't work out was the Race Drone software that was offered (for something like $5). It sounded really useful -- it's an app for smart phones that will send updates of my position at regular intervals. In a pinch, I would be able to see my location relative to the course, in case I got lost. Friends could follow me online, seeing my progress in Google Maps with the course also showing in the map. I bought the app, but their servers got overwhelmed during the race and the service was mostly useless. They proactively offered a refund, though, which I took them up on. I chatted with the makers of that software, and they put up the map for my next race, Siskyou Outback 50 Mile, and so I'll try the software again for that race.