Finally, after quite a long quiet spell on the blog, I am ready with the race report from a recent race I took part in. It took me some time to write this whole thing up and consequently this is a very long entry. I suggest, dear Reader, that you go to the kitchen now, brew yourself a nice cup of tea or coffee and settle in a comfortable position in anticipation of this exciting read. I thought that I might perhaps split it into 2 posts, but eventually decided to have everything in one place, however I’ve made sure to divide it into clear sections, so that you might skip some that are not of interest such as description of some of the stages, jumping to the crucial 7th stage and the following summary.
Think of it as one of those books, where in the beginning the author tells how the story ends and then throughout the books explains how it led to the conclusion. During the weekend of 1st-2nd April 2017 I participated in an ultramarathon called the Viking Way Ultra (VWU- http://www.vikingwayultra.com/). This is a running event that takes place along the long distance footpath Viking Way (https://www.lincolnshire.gov.uk/countryside/visiting/walking/viking-way/120966.article, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Viking_Way), winding its way through Lincolnshire and Rutland.
The footpath is 147 miles long and the participants of the race have a maximum of 40 hours to cover that. The ending of my story is that unfortunately I failed to finish the race. I pulled out of the race at mile 113.5, after 30 hours from start. Mile 113.5 was checkpoint (CP) 7 and from there I was transported to Oakham. The reasons for my withdrawal from the race were ugly blisters on my feet, tiredness and realisation that I am not able to make it to the finish within the time limit. This is actually my first DNF (did-not-finish) in years, so kind of a breakthrough moment that demands reflection.
Decision to sign up
Until 2014 the longest distance I ran/walked had been 100k. In 2015 I decided to try something longer and signed up for the Ridgeway Challenge (86 miles) in August 2015. It was not easy, but I made it. A few weeks later I knew that in 2016 I want to tackle 100 miles and without further deliberation I signed up for the South Downs Way 100 which I quite confidently finished in June 2016. Following this trend, I started looking for the next big challenge for 2017. I laid my eyes on the Grand Union Canal Race (145 miles) for which I applied but didn’t get selected in the ballot. My backup option was VWU so I expressed interested in participation, got accepted and once I paid the entry fee I knew I have a few months to get ready for it.
2016 was quite an intensive year during which I ran 8 ultramarathons, the last being Might Contain Nuts in December. After that I devoted December and January to recovery and regeneration. During this period I almost didn’t run at all, except for 2-3 local orienteering races. Such recovery period apparently is known to be good for the body and the head and to become ‘hungry’ for races and good results in the coming season. In January I built a training plan which assumed:
- A ‘warm up’ ultra in February (race report here: http://wolnybiegacz.pl/en/tut-2017-race-report/)
- February and March to build up good form for Viking Way Ultra…
- … and for the polish Harpagan 100k race just 3 weeks after VWU…
- … and a series of sky races in May, June and July.
The theory was great, unfortunately the reality was that after the TUT race I was plagued by some viral infections, common cold with an annoying cough and generally feeling quite weak. As a result of that since mid February till VWU I had no long training runs (i.e. 20 mile-ish or longer). On my blog I might have been making an impression that I run a lot in interesting places (Stuttgart, Dhahran, KAEC, Vienna), but in fact these were short, ad-hoc runs, far away from the plan, but better than nothing of course. Therefore in the week preceding VWU I was conscious that my preparation for the race was suboptimal and that it’s gonna be hard.
On my way to the start
My participation in VWU involved quite a logistical operation due to the race starting in north Lincolnshire, finishing in Rutland and me having to come from Oxford. Having packed everything and having said goodbyes to my family I left my home in Oxford in the afternoon of Friday, 31st March and drove to Oakham. After an uneventful 2-hour drive I left my car in front of the B&B where I would spend the night after the race and walked to Oakham railway station where I had an unpleasant surprise.
Having bought my advance train tickets online I assumed I’ll easily collect them at the station in Oakham. It turned out that in Oakham a) there is no ticket machine and b) the ticket office closes around midday or so, so I had no means of getting my train tickets. Trying not to worry too much I thought that I should be able to cover the first leg of the train journey to Peterborough and then collect the tickets there while waiting for another train. I had more than 40 minutes to kill waiting for the train in Oakham and luckily I stumbled upon a microbrewery just by the station where I did a bit of pre-race carbo-loading.
Luckily the tickets were not being checked between Oakham and Peterborough, so I made it. In Peterborough I collected my tickets and relieved got on the Virgin train to take me north. Change of trains one hour later in Doncaster and after 40 minutes or so I alighted from the train in Hessle. After a short walk I checked into the Premier Inn hotel and went to find the race registration in the adjacent restaurant. I was on the lookout for a group of weird people that would stand out from the surrounding diners and indeed found them quickly. Having collected my race pack and having chatted to the race director (RD) Mark Cockbain and some other guys I enjoyed further carbo-loading in the form of a greasy burger with chips. Interestingly, all the guys seemed to be very laid back and relaxed, as if the next day’s run was not a big deal, so I similarly felt quite at ease. Having eaten my dinner I went for a walk to Hessle where I bought a couple of packets of instant porridge for breakfast. When I returned to my room I took a shower, packed my stuff and around 10 p.m. went to sleep.
I thought it’s worth to mention what supplies I was running with. To carry everything I wear the Salomon S-LAB Adv Skin3 12 SET race vest, which is quite small, but can actually be packed very efficiently. The Viking Way Ultra is divided into 3 distinct parts, each of them around 50 miles long which meant that in my vest I had to carry food and drink for 50 miles, then refill from my drop bog that was moved around from CP to CP by Mark. On top of that, each big stage had 2-3 minor CPs with basic food and water, coffee, soup, energy bars and gels etc.
Here’s what I had for each 50 miles:
- 2 litres of fluids (water, electrolyte drink, watered cranberry juice)
- 3 High5 gels
- 2 Science in Sport (SiS) Double Caffeine gels
- 1 SiS GO Isotonic Energy gel
- 1 tube of Maynard’s jellies
- 4 bars (mix of Snickers, Bounty and Twix)
- 2 Babybel cheeses
- 2 Cheesestrings
- A handful of cashew nuts
On top of that I carried that compulsory equipment: 2 head torches (1 was compulsory), spare batteries, space blanket, high-viz and waterproof jacket, compass, cash and mobile phone.
The alarm clock rang at 5:15 a.m. and with difficulty I got out of bed. I prepared my instant porridge and was slowly eating it while dressing up and packing my race vest and my drop bag (the drop bag would be accessible at CP3 and CP6). Just before 6 a.m. I checked out and was waiting in the lobby together with other convicts for the minibus ride that would take us to the start. Shortly after my arrival downstairs Peter (whom I would later see throughout the event) packed us into the minibus (nicknamed meat wagon) and drove across the impressive Humber Bridge. Still, after so many years it’s world’s 8 longest suspension bridge. It was the longest back in 1981 when it was opened.
Having arrived at Barton upon Humber Peter unloaded us and went back to get a second batch of runners, while we had some time to kill in anticipation of the race start. Mark was already there, preparing the start line. I left my drop bags in Mark’s minivan and took some pictures of the beautiful sunrise. A few minutes before 7 a.m. Mark delivered his ‘race briefing’ which was basically ‘run ahead and follow the trail, if you get lost then find your way- I won’t be able to help you, and if you get hurt then call 999 rather than me because I won’t be able to help you’. Uplifted and motivated by this great briefing all runners got ready to start.
There were 30 people signed up for the race. Until the race day a few people pulled out so at the start line there were 22 pretenders- 20 men and 2 women. At 7 a.m. we were unleashed.
Stage 1: Barton upon Humber to Bigby (15.8 miles)
There was no rush, everyone set off fairly slowly, although after 15-20 minutes the group was already nicely spread apart. Initially Viking Way ran along the Humber estuary and then we moved south winding our way between fields and along minor roads. Most of the time I ran on my own at what looked from the start 13th place, but sometimes I would catch up with someone, then someone would catch up with me and so on. Having passed Barnetby le Wold after a short while I entered Bigby and after 2h 53min running checked into CP1 manned by Mark. I refilled my soft flasks, ate a few biscuits and swiftly moved on.
Stage 2: Bigby to Tealby (14.7 miles)
During this stage the path enters Lincolnshire Wolds, so the hilly part of the course. I left Bigby and gradually continued on with a mix of running and walking, admiring the surroundings and having the hills on my left hand side.
Having passed an old roman town Caistor and then Nettleton I entered probably the most picturesque part of VW, the Nettleton Valley. In Nettleton I passed Javed Bhatti who slowed down and seemed to be struggling a bit- he eventually pulled out at CP3.
Continuing along the Nettleton Valley, more walking than running uphill I bypassed the highest point of the Wolds and continued on through Normandby le Wold. In Walesby some trickster must have turned the VW sign, so with reservations I followed where it showed for about 100 meters until I realised that it wasn’t the right direction. There Trisha van Rooyen caught up with me and decided to continue that way despite me saying it’s wrong. I backtracked and found the trail again and seemed to build a few minutes lead over Trisha. Shortly I entered CP2, where I refilled my flasks with water and took on a couple of gels and bars to have enough food for stage 3. Time at CP2: 6h 20min from the start and 3h 27min from CP1. Trisha and Ben Davies arrived shortly after me.
Stage 3: Tealby to Fulletby (19.7 miles)
Having covered 30.5 miles already I was feeling a bit tired an the first couple of miles were very slow. Trisha, Ben and I think Steve Hayes overtook me and quickly disappeared out of sight. I sat down for a minute in Ludford, gobbled down one of my double caffeine gels and soon felt much better. I managed to run considerable parts of this long stage, usually with no one in sight. Gradually passing various unremarkable villages and crossings I was monitoring my time and wondering how much soon I’m going to be at CP3 and how much in advance of the 12.5h cut-off. After 4h 43min from CP2, just past Fulletby, I checked into CP3 with a total time of 11h 3min so with a nice cushion below the 12.5 hours. At the CP I caught up with Trisha, Ben and Steve, who were ready to leave when I arrived, which meant I’m not very far behind them.
I accessed my drop bag and refilled supplies for the next 50 miles, ate a few sausages, drank some tomato juice to replenish salts and electrolytes and to break the sweat taste of gels and bars. I had the opportunity to put on warmer clothes ahead of the night but I chose not to… which in hindsight was not a good decision… later on that.
Stage 4: Fulletby to Stixwould (13.5 miles)
I felt quite well after 50.2 miles and after a relatively short stay at CP3, around 18:20 I swiftly set off to cover as much ground as possible during daylight. I ran most of the time and felt strong, partly because it was a long and gradual downhill. After 20 minutes or so I caught up with Steve and Trisha who seemed to have stopped and I think Trisha had to put plasters on her feet. In the distance I saw Ben so went on and soon entered Horncastle, another ex-Roman town.
Having almost crossed the town I caught up with Ben and for the next half an hour or so we walked/ran together or close by to each other. Past Horncastle there was a long and flat stretch initially along a canal, then on a disused railway track (then it got dark so I turned on my head torch) and finally through a golf course after which it entered Woodhall Spa. Just past the golf course Trisha and Steve caught up with us and for a short moment the 4 of us moved together until a crossroad where I went the right way and the others chose not to so I crossed Woodhall Spa on my own.
After the town there was a couple of miles remaining through fields and along small woods until CP4. I checked into CP4 at 21:16, so over 14 hours since the start. Distance elapsed 63.7 miles, so just over 100k. Trisha and Steve checked in a moment afterwards, but there was no sign of Ben.
Stage 5: Stixwould to Greetwell (18.5 miles)
I felt tired leaving the point but sort of glad about passing the 100k milestone. On the other hand this was a long stage now and I knew it will drag on. The trail mostly led along fields and local roads. In the beginning I kept company with Steve and Trisha for a while having a good chat with Steve about my compatriots on Jersey. They went ahead faster then I felt like moving, but I soon left them behind in Southrey where they stopped for some reason. I ran/walked in the dark on my own, seeing in the distance a brightly illuminated sugar factory outside of Bardney. The night was pleasant, it was neither windy nor rainy so I felt ok and dressed appropriately. After Bardney and 45 minutes later after Stainfield the fun began- a bit of a muddy path after Stainfield followed by a path overgrown with clumpy grass and then a path over a very uneven solidified mud. Going was painfully slow and I had neither strength nor will to run. Fortunately past Barlings Abbey it got better and I was able to run again. After a couple of miles the path approached river Witham and followed along it for 3 miles or so. Running was a bit annoying due to uneven ground and grass clumps, but I shuffled on hoping not to miss the point where the path leaves the riverside. I didn’t miss it and shortly thereafter checked into CP5 at 2:02 a.m. 81.2 miles elapsed, so more than halfway through in a decent 19 hours.
Stage 6: Greetwell to Wellingore (15.6 miles)
At the CP I refilled my flasks, drank a cup of soup and a cup of coffee, ate some nibbles and having received some cheering and a motivational hug from Karen Webber I left towards an interesting highlight of the trail- Lincoln with its magnificent cathedral. Easy start firstly along the railway line, then through a small industrial estate and into Lincoln… and then the nightmare happened. Blisters underneath both of my feet burst in a quick succession resulting in excruciating pain that’s difficult to compare with anything else. Anyway, I had no time to dwell on that, so swallowed an ibuprofen tablet followed by a caffeine gel and slowly hobbled towards the cathedral. After a few minutes the pain started to wear off and after 15 minutes or so I practically forgot about it. At 3:00 a.m. I touched a cold stone of the cathedral and set off downhill towards High Street, being a witness to the carnage happening there i.e. people partying in civilised manner and consuming alcohol in non-debilitating quantities (yeah, right). I whizzed through the craziness and after 20 minutes or so left Lincoln behind me. Now followed a series of seemingly never ending villages.
Around 5 a.m. a serious crisis hit me- I started to feel very sleepy, my eyes kept closing and I struggled to stay awake to keep moving. Another caffeine gel got consumed but it was the stage where caffeine no longer helps. I tried to wake myself up by talking to myself, singing, hitting myself at the head with my map holder, pinching but nothing worked. In one village, maybe Waddington I overtook one guy who later turned out to be the VWU veteran Andy Horsley who took a short break. 20 minutes later he caught up with me and for some time we walked/run together. Conversation with Andy awoke me and I felt better for a while and managed to conquer the following villages: Harmston, Coleby, Boothby Grafoe and Navenby, unfortunately slowly falling behind Andy and losing the opportunity to converse. I reverted to my rambling and singing to stay awake giving Andy an undeniable privilege to hear this gobbledygook behind him. I’m glad it was in Polish so he couldn’t understand it, because otherwise I would be very embarrassed.
Past Navenby we passed Wellingore and a mile later checked into CP6 at 6:48 a.m. That meant I covered 96.8 miles in 23h 48min. The last 15.6 miles took me 4h 46min giving a non-impressive average speed of 3.3 mph. Considering however time spent at CP5, bursting blisters before Lincoln and struggle to stay conscious after Lincoln it wasn’t too bad. I realised that if I maintain this pace I should be able to make it to the finish line (50 miles left to cover in 16 hours), so I felt positive.
Stage 7: Wellingore to Foston (16.7 miles)
At the CP I accessed my drop bag and added supplies for the last 50 miles, ate a bit, drank a bit and committed my main mistake of the race- I didn’t sleep at the CP. I felt positive about the coming 50 miles and sort of forgot my struggle to stay awake a while ago and set off into the sunrise, while instead I should have taken a 15-20-minute nap, especially that there was a minibus available for that where I could sleep fairly comfortably.
At the CP, or actually just before it I realised I felt cold, despite feeling relatively warm throughout the night. This definitely affected adversely how I felt and with my judgement impeded I thought I’d rather set off briskly from the CP to warm up in the slowly appearing sunlight than stay to sleep. This turned out to be a miscalculation.
So I set off and kept around 100-200 meters behind Andy. My brisk jog turned out to be short lived and I reverted to a brisk walk, but once I stopped jogging the tiredness came back and sleepiness again brutally assaulted me. I kept moving though, even overtook Andy at one point, but around where the trail turned left from the Roman Road he moved ahead and soon disappeared from my sight while I kept battling my sleep demon.
Approaching Carlton Scroop I felt exhausted and determined to find a place to lie down for a few minutes. I found a bus stop bathed in morning light where I lay on a bench and drifted off for what seemed to be 3 minutes filled with some dreams. It helped, I felt refreshed and actually glad that my average speed on this stretch still didn’t fall below 5 km/h (3.1 mph). I set off but after 10 minutes or so my brain again signalled that it needs rest. I plotted through the next 3 miles in a daze, not fully conscious of my surroundings and made the call to sleep again, this time for longer. I found a sunny patch of shitless grass where I lay and immediately drifted off for about 15 minutes.
This rest helped considerably and I felt much better. Unfortunately, as a result of this immobility my average speed fell to 2.8 mph and I realised that at this pace I am not making it to the finish line in time. There was still 5 miles or so left to CP7 so I kept doing while regularly checking my progress and checking if my average is going up or not and by how much. In spite of the rest I was pretty much unable to run anymore, so kept briskly walking. Past Marston my average speed was slightly better, but not good enough so I made the decision to call it a day at CP7. I was deliberating it for the last 3 hours, calculating the distances, splits, averages but the maths seemed to be against me all the time and I kept reaching the same conclusion over and over again. Moreover, I heard from the other runners that beyond CP7 the trail gets very muddy, which reduces the chances to increase the pace even more.
Past Marston, with about 2 miles to the CP I saw Andy far in the distance ahead of me. Despite my pathetic pace I was still getting closer to him which meant he must have struggled even more. Half a mile before the point I almost caught up with him, while in the distance behind me another runner appeared. That was Steve, powering on as if he was on fresh legs! He quickly caught up with me and I was shocked how fresh and strong he looked. I announced to him that I’m finishing and wished him good luck truly hoping he’ll make it to the end. He tried to convince me not to resign, but my decision, supported by facts, was already made.
I made CP7 at 12:45 p.m., so the last 16.7 miles took me almost 6 hours (2.8 mph average speed). I covered 113.5 miles in 29h 45min giving a really good average speed of 3.8 mph. Till the finish line still 34.3 miles remained and 10 hours to cover that, requiring moving not slower than 3.43 mph. The numbers don’t lie- I let Keith Godden at the CP know that I’m pulling out, gave him my tracker and officially got listed as a DNF, just like Andy who struggled for the last couple of miles and was unable to go on. By the way, if the time limit was 42 and not 40 hours I would have continued.
After a short break Steve set off. Less than 10 hours later he crossed the finish line with a comfortable 25 minutes to spare as the 7th and the last finisher of the race. The winner, Barry Miller, took 34h 10min to finish.
35 minutes after I arrived at the CP came Anne Green, who knew it’s very tight with the time, but she continued on. She eventually pulled out at CP8. Meanwhile, Andy and I sat comfortably in Keith Godden’s minibus where we both slept for an hour or so. We had to wait for Ben who was the last remaining runner behind us before we could be ferried to Oakham. Ben arrived 2 hours after me. He briefly considered continuing to CP8 but decided to stop at CP7. A while later the 3 half-dead bodies were loaded onto Peter’s meat wagon and delivered back to Oakham. There I got my drop bag from Mark, thanked him profusely for the doubtful privilege of participation in his race and headed back to my B&B to start recovery.
Summary and the analysis of failure
As I stated at the beginning, this was the first race in 10 years or so which I didn’t finish, so I had a profound need to analyse why this happened, what I did wrong and whether it was within my reach to conquer this formidable distance of 147 miles. I was gradually writing this blog post over a period of 10 days after the race and I must confess that the first 7 days after the race were very tough for me. My feet stopped being painful in 2 days, my blisters sealed and dried in 3 days, strangely I had hardly any soreness in calves and hips, but the whole week I felt empty and devoid of energy. I felt burnt out and worried, whether I entered a dark place in which I could get stuck for weeks or months (such stories happen, take Steve Birkinshaw’s harrowing story as an example: http://stevebirkinshaw-wainwright2014.blogspot.ch/2016/06/patience.html). It was very important for me to write this account of my VWU attempt, draw my conclusions, learn from the experience and get back my ‘mojo’ and find energy and will to push forward.
So hereby let me itemise the things I think went wells and the things I think were my main sins.
What went well:
- Feeding strategy- I had just about the right amount and diversity of foods on me, well supplemented by what was available at CPs. I wasn’t hungry, I didn’t feel week because of not taking in enough food, I didn’t even lose much weight!
- Hydration strategy- at each point I had just enough liquids on me, listened to my body and drank to thirst. Having a mix of plain water and electrolyte/isotonic drinks I didn’t get dehydrated, neither isotonically (proportional loss of water and electrolytes), nor hipotonically (primary loss of sodium and other electrolytes over water), nor hipertonically (primary loss of water over electrolytes);
- I maintained a good pace. Oftentimes with the excitement, endorphins and the adrenaline rush I start with a quick pace, quickly burn out and then struggle for the remainder of the race. At VWU I kept a moderate pace from the beginning and as a consequence my average speed for the first 96.8 miles was a nice 4 mph;
- My navigation, map reading and concentration was pretty much flawless, because not once, except the 100 metres before CP2, I was lost and had to make up for it. I’ve seen race reports from the previous editions of VWU where someone could run for half an hour in a completely wrong direction, then needing to backtrack, losing an hour and adding 3 or 4 more miles.
What went wrong:
- In my opinion the main mistake and the prime cause of failure to finish VWU was that I didn’t sleep at CP6. My time there was good- 23h 48min, while the cut off was 26h 30min. I could have easily spent 15-20 or even 30 minutes on a power nap in the minibus and then set off maintaining a decent, consistent walking pace, perhaps enhanced by infrequent running, especially that it was a nice and pleasant day;
- At CP3 I should have put on an additional base layer and changed my short tights to the long ones. Also, after CP3 I should have worn my gloves and Buff earlier than when I started to feel cold. Many times I ran in the Harpagan 100k race in Poland wearing just a base layer even though the temperatures were sometimes around zero degrees and this is what I was used to. At VWU I should have taken into account that by the time the night is gone I will have covered way more ground than in Harpagan, will have spent way more time on my feet and will have felt much more tired, hence more prone to feeling cold;
- As mentioned earlier, in the 2 preceding months I struggled to train properly and lacked long weekend runs. This made going at VWU tougher than it could have been, though I think this point is not a crucial as the two points above;
- I perhaps should have changed my sodden socks at CP6, though I’m not 100% convinced. On one hand, I would let my feet breathe and dry a bit and maybe the blisters would ‘feel better’. On the other hand my feet were already a mess, so not sure if anything would help- I would just revive the pain by taking off the shoes and socks.
To conclude and summarise the above points, I am glad with what I achieved at VWU and I don’t consider my participation in it a failure. I believe, that finishing the race was actually within my reach and if not for the mistakes I made (mistakes which I had had no chance to commit before, because I had never before run such a distance), this could have been a success. I feel that I haven’t attempted something that was way beyond me. I set a new personal best increasing my longest ever distance from 100 miles from June 2016 to 113.5 miles. I’m dead sure that I want to go back to Viking Way and conquer the entire length of the trail. Regrettably Mark Cockbain claims that he no longer plans to host this race, but hopefully he will change his mind one day.
If you got to this point then I’d like to thank you very much and I hope that you found this an interesting read. I’m curious if anyone can identify themselves with my conclusions, or whether someone perhaps spotted other mistakes I could have made, so please feel free to engage with me on the blog or on the FB page.
Best regards, Marcin
10 days after the race I again feel strong, eager and motivated to run and to fight for a good result in upcoming Harpagan 100k (21st April). Today in the early morning I did 20k (12.5 miles) in the Lepontine Alps (of course I will blog about that), admiring amazing views of the swiss town Lugano and of the surrounding canton Ticino. I feel that Viking Way Ultra didn’t break me; on the contrary, I feel stronger, cleverer and more experienced.