As I didn't do a pre race blog post last week, most would not be aware that last weekend I was running the three day, 131 mile trail ultra, around a complete lap of the Isle of Anglesey in North Wales. At the start of the year, I came across this new event to the UK race calendar named the Ring O Fire. Being a three day ultra trail race consisting of daily milages of 32, 64 and 35 miles, the race had a strong appeal for two reasons. Firstly, as I have always had on my 'to do' list the eight day trans alpine run in Europe, there was always the need to venture into multi-day racing, to see whether my legs (mainly) would hold up to multiple days of racing. Secondly, the idea of running one complete lap of such a large island was an attractive prospect! Looking at my Plans for 2012 post back in February I identified the following races: (updated)
19th February - London Ultra - 50 km (DNF - Foot Fracture)
17th March - Tarawera Ultra Marathon - 100 km (DNS)
May - Race in New Zealand (DNS)
23rd June - Endurancelife Classic Quarter - 44 mile (1st)
27th July - Montane Lakeland 100 - 104 mile (5th)
September - Ring of Fire 3-Day Ultra - 131 mile (Entered)
27th October - Beachy Head Marathon - 26 mile (Entered)
The plans were interrupted due to my foot stress fracture and spending three months in New Zealand. However, upon my return from New Zealand, after another look at the impressive Ring O Fire website, it was a few e-mails to race director Bing, and although the race was full, there had been quite a few drop outs, so my late entry was accepted.
Whilst checking out the race website, the runner profile of Tom Payn caught my attention. His profile stated "Former elite marathon runner with a best time of 2.17.29 from 2009, taking my first steps into the world of ultra distance running!". Then just by coincidence a few days later, whilst reading the very interesting and enjoyable 2012 book titled "Running with the Kenyans" by Adharanand Finn, runner Tom Payn was mentioned as he was living and training in Kenya. Now, me racing against a 2:17 marathoner over a marathon would be an uneven match, as I would expect that in my current state of running fitness I would struggle to go faster than around 2:35. However, ultra trail running is not road marathon running. I saw the Ring O Fire therefore as a great opportunity to test out some of my beliefs about ultra trail running. One of my beliefs being that performance in ultra trail running is determined by so much more than ones physiology, but also largely influenced by positivity, enjoyment, running in the now, managing ones Race Focus Energy, (see previous posts, specifically this post from last November for an explanation of my Race Focus Energy (RFE) performance model), etc. All these attributes, one has to learn from ultra trail experiences. So the stage was set, the Ring O Fire was going to be a battle between assumed Tom's physiological superiority versus my ultra-trail wisdom and experience, plus a battle against any of the other 98 runners that were willing to join in!
Come 1:00pm on Friday 31st August, there were only 63 runners on the start line, even though a full field of 100 runners had entered. I had spent quite some time carrying out non-physical training, mainly to convince myself to go 'slow' on day one, in order to protect my legs for days two and three. The route for the lap of the island was to simply follow the Isle of Anglesey Coastal Path with the distinctive blue footpath markers. Within the first mile as the path passed through the busy port town of Holyhead, the race organisers had arranged for a runner to lead the field through the town to ensure no one went off course, as the coastal path markers were lacking in the town. The lead runner is introduced to us, and my immediate thought upon seeing that he was an elderly runner was, how is he going to run at sub six minute mile pace to lead us through Holyhead? I then 'reprimanded' myself. No, today is all about taking it easy. Save the legs for tomorrow's 64 miles. Having a slowish leadout runner is obviously a 'message from the Universe' to ensure that you start slowly!
Race Start Day 1 - Me (052), Tom (085) and Will (Lead Runner)
So the hooter goes, and as expected we slowly make our way on our three day journey of the island. The designated lead runner sets the pace, which felt very, very slow, but I guess was probably around 7:30 minute mile pace. I am directly behind him, with runners directly behind me. Although a slow pace, I remind myself, this is fine and stay behind. One minute of slow running is completed, and there are runners chatting, joking behind me. Now, I have nothing against joking and chatting during racing. When the time is right, it adds to the event. But two minutes into a race, for me, isn't the appropriate time. I can restrain myself no more, and blast past and lead the field. Fortunately, other runners also felt the pace was just a bit too slow, so I am closely followed by two other runners.
Day 1 - Running Towards Holyhead
GPS Trace Displaying Day One Route - Estuary Crossing: 7.64 miles, Elevation minus 1 metre!
Tom gradually eases away from me, and I gradually ease away from the third runner, with there then being a large gap to the remainder of the field. After around seven miles of running, the route travels along the beach for a while, before we are required to wade across a knee deep estuary. There had been talk prior to the start about it being maybe better to remove shoes and socks to prevent sand getting into the shoes and creating blisters so early on into the three days of running. Tom is probably around 75 metres ahead of me and starts removing his shoes.
Day 1 - Estuary Crossing - Tom 75 metres Ahead
Day 1 - Taking on Some Fuel - All Fine
As I have never removed my shoes in a race before, I go straight into the water, now closely behind Tom. As we exit the water crossing, I hit the front as Tom puts his shoes back on. Seeing this as a good chance to gain some time, I go back to a reasonably high intensity, and although I am running over sand and tussock grass the pace is quick, with the GPS data showing the next two miles are completed with an average heart rate of 167bpm, with the maximum during this two mile stretch being recorded at 177 bpm, not too far away from my overall maximum of around 186bpm.
Day 1 - 7 miles - Estuary Crossing Close Behind Tom - Marshals Guiding the Route
Tom rejoins me, in reasonably quick time, and as I was working pretty hard, there is a feeling that maybe this 2:17 marathoner with his assumed physiological advantage may be just a bit too good today. I expect him to go straight past me, but no, I am able to stay with him with only a slight increase in intensity, with the average heart rate for the next three miles being 169, 168, 168, and although the course is a mixture of terrain, including stiles and kissing gates, we are still able to knock out three miles of running in 6:23, 6:53 and 6:58, so a good quality running pace. Whilst running these reasonably flattish miles, my mind was frequently asking me "Is this fast pace wise? Is this too quick? Remember the plan to take it easy, save the legs for days 2 and 3!" Fortunately, I am able to ignore these messages, and stay within the present moment, and just focus on the enjoyment of running quickly at the front of the race, over a scenic coastal trail.
The miles seem to quickly pass by, and once the trail gets more undulating and a bit more technical, I detect 'weaknesses' in Tom's running abilities. Yes, he can run quickly on the roads, and on smooth underfoot climbs he typically pulls slightly away from me. But any rough underfoot conditions, i.e. mud, narrow twisty paths, rocks, and descents, then I am able to quickly regain the small gap and retake the lead. I guess the lead must swap and change around ten times, as we each benefit as the route matches our talents/expertise.
At around the 20 mile mark, which the GPS data shows was reached in 2 hours and 27 minutes, going up another smooth underfoot climb, Tom's lead this time is that little bit further ahead. I am working quite hard, but with nearly two and a half hours of racing behind me, I sense that my levels of Race Focus Energy are beginning to dwindle, as the race to date had been demanding a high level of Race Focus. Fortunately I had been able to 'top it up' a bit whilst racing, due to the positivity and buzz of running so quickly and not just keeping up with, but at times, making the 2:17 marathoner work quite hard! The decision is made to let Tom go, and to keep an eye of him so as to only lose a few minutes today, therefore more than able to gain those lost minutes back on days two and three.
The route next crosses a rocky causeway before heading through a twisty forest path near an extremely ugly power station, where Tom goes out of sight. Shortly after the woods I quickly pass through the final checkpoint for the day, with no interest in how many minutes I have lost to Tom in the last 15 minutes or so since he left me, as I am just focusing on what I am doing. I maintain a good running pace, but with a substantial drop in Race Focus Energy demand, due to the decrease in my running pace since Tom left me, with the average heart rate now in the low 150s as compared to the previous average heart rate being in the 160s.
Day 1 - Church Yard - All Smiles - Enjoying the Moment
I pass a photographer as we skirt around a church yard, and the route becomes the most scenic for the day, but also the most undulating and demanding. I really focus on trying to enjoy the moment, and to disregard the 'temptation' to start counting down the miles. I remind myself that I choose to do these event, as I enjoy the actual running of the event, not just the satisfaction once finished. So the positivity remains high, and the pace does slow, mainly, due to being aware that this isn't a one off race, there are still days two and three to complete. But overall I am pretty pleased with the way I am running.
Day 1 - Leaving the Churchyard - Awesome Scenery
I reach the end of day one, at the Amlwch village hall in a time of 4 hours 30 minutes, for a GPS distance of 32.5 miles. I ask the marshals how many minutes down I am on the leader, as the last section of the route was very twisty and undulating, so I was unable to see Tom ahead. I am told that I am the first finisher, realising that Tom must have gone astray. Earlier in the day I had asked Tom if he knew the area well, as he was not carrying a map like myself. He replied that the route was totally new to him, but he would keep his map in his backpack until he needed it, if he became lost. At the time I remember thinking, a rather novice approach to take. Why wait until getting lost. My approach is to try to avoid getting lost! Tom finishes 11 minutes behind me, with the next two runners, actually brothers in law, coming in nearly one hour behind my time.
The two brothers, Richard and Richard, then offer to drive me the three quarters of a mile to the leisure centre for a shower. Although I am feeling pretty good, with the legs especially not displaying the usual stiff, sore, damaged feeling typical after completing a trail marathon, the prospect of getting to and from the leisure centre by foot wasn't that appealing!
For the next few hours the other sixty odd runners complete day one at the village hall. The hall is a large hall, so there is plenty of room for all of the runners to sleep the night. The majority of the runners are sleeping within the hall, and there is an excellent feeling within the hall. There is a really strong community atmosphere, and I spend the evening chatting away non-stop to loads of different runners. The hall lights are eventually turned off and the hall quietens, as day one draws to a close.
Day 1 Finish and Accommodation - Amlwch Village Hall
It is an early start to Saturday morning as Q, one of the race directors enters the hall with his boundless supply of positive energy and enthusiasm, complete with Johnny Cash singing Ring O Fire blasting out loudly from his music machine. I had spoken to Q the night before and he had asked for some feedback on how day one had gone. I was able to give him and his race team a massive thumbs up, however, I had mentioned the need for a quicker lead-out guy at the start of the race. Q had therefore decided to take this task on himself, so he was checking with me, just how quick we would start day two at. I reassured him that it wouldn't be too quick, and I was sure that his pace today would be more than fast enough for the first mile out of the village and back onto the coastal trail.
Day 2 Start - Q Leading Out
During the night I had had a little bit of concern about how my legs would be upon waking. Usually the day after an ultra trail marathon or ultra race, my legs are totally 'trashed' and in no state at all to run. As I rose from my sleeping mat, I was pleasantly surprised. Unbelievably, my legs were pretty well totally fine. Chatting to some of the other runners over the weekend who had completed previous multi-day events, they seemed to indicate that somehow the legs 'know' that they are required to run again, and therefore don't seize up! To many, this could be a hard concept to grasp. But being a total believer of the integration of the body and mind, yes, I have no doubts. The body and mind together respond in a way that is expected/demanded of them. So no stiff legs. Great!
I start day 2, consisting of 64 miles of coastal path, with an eleven minute lead over Tom. Prior to the start, chatting to the photography near the church yard on day one. He commented that I had gone past him around five minutes ahead of Tom. This was excellent news to hear, as I wasn't sure how much time Tom had lost by going off course. It therefore appeared that he probably lost around seven minutes, from probably a two minute lead, to a five minute deficit. The key take home message from day one was that during the last demanding, but enjoyable (if you allow it to be) six/seven miles I had put six minutes into Tom. Yes, ultra trail running performance is influenced by more than just physiology!!!
My plan for day two was therefore simple. In contrast to day one, where Tom and I swapped the lead repeatedly as we tested each other out. Today, I would simply follow Tom. Let him set the pace, and see if by the end of the day I still had my eleven minute lead, or if Tom does manage to pull away, ensure I lose less than eleven minutes.
For the first five miles or so Tom and I are joined by Richard Webster (currently 3rd equal) who is wanting to start quickly in order to put a time gap on his brother in law who is in joint third place. He is working really hard, and running well. It is Tom and Richard sharing the lead, I am simply running directly behind, enjoying the course, and feeling so happy within myself that my legs are feeling great. There is a long steady climb and Tom gradually moves away from me, and I move away from Richard. I think that is fine. Just keep my eye on Tom. For the next few hours, I re-catch Tom, and he moves away again. This is repeated many times as different terrains suit our strengths, combined with Tom again occasionally going slightly off route.
Day2 - Approaching Checkpoint 2
After around four hours of running, Tom and I are still together as we climb a steep climb around three miles from the checkpoint at Penmon Point. As I get over the climb, a wee gap behind Tom, I suddenly begin to feel sick. I have to ease off my pace, and hope that the sick feeling will quickly pass. Unfortunately it doesn't. The sick feeling gets stronger, and my pace gets slower. I am eventually brought to a stop and am literally sick, bringing up loads of liquid. The four hours of running so far had been excellent. The conditions were warm and sunny, with a strong tail wind behind. Due to the warmth I had been drinking reasonable amounts of water, and had also consumed my usual High 5 gel at the first two checkpoints of the day. So there wasn't the issue of being dehydrated or of trying to force feed down too much food. I hadn't down anything different to any of my previous 50 plus trail marathons, or 17 previous ultra trail races. Yet for the first time ever during a race, I was sick! Not a great feeling!
I manage to start running again, and slowly make my way to the checkpoint, where I am told that I am ten minutes down. I have pretty well lost all of my eleven minute buffer in around three miles! I am still not feeling great, so only take on water at the checkpoint. I am all set to walk my way up the hill out from the checkpoint, but there is another photographer taking shots with the Penmon Point lighthouse in the background. I glance behind and think that I can't ruin this great photo shot by walking, so manage to run all the way up the climb past the photographer.
Climbing Up from Penmon Point Checkpoint
Managing to Run - Not Feeling Great!
I descend down the hill and shortly after am brought to another complete stop as I am sick again, bringing up all the water I had taken on at the checkpoint fifteen minutes earlier. I again manage to get running again, but I am basically now on survival mode. The route is flat alongside the coast and the GPS data shows that I am running at 12 minute mile pace. (Note the GPS data is missing around 1 hour 40 minutes from 1.5 miles to checkpoint one at around 10 miles, as I had my only stumble of the day, and accidentally stopped the GPS watch).
GPS Trace Displaying Day 2 Route Until DNF at Beaumaris (1hour 39 mins missing - straight line!)
I eventually make my way to the halfway Beaumaris checkpoint at around 32 miles, not in a great shape. I had now been feeling weak and sick for around an hour and a half. Being concerned about how weak I feel, I suspect that maybe it is due to lack of carbohydrate. I therefore take a few sips of coca cola to try to take on some carbohydrate. Not a good move, the queasiness of being sick again increases immensely. I am stationary at the checkpoint, spitting on the ground, ready to be sick. I guess after ten minutes at the checkpoint, I finally manage to walk out, up the steep hill.
As I finally reach the top of the hill, still feeling dreadful, I am unable to get running again. I lean over a gate and try to assess the situation. I have around 32 miles still to complete. It is warm, sunny and windy (now a cross/head wind). I am feeling really rough, probably dehydrated, and not able to take on any fuel. I am not in a very happy place! I consider simply walking the next six or so miles to the next checkpoint, and to re-evaluate things there. Yes, I am able to walk, but having real difficulty trying to run, even at 12 minute mile pace along the flat! After a few more minutes of leaning over the farm gate, to keep myself upright, I make the decision to DNF. Yes DNF number three, all within one year. UTMB DNF due to a 'broken mind'! London Ultra DNF due to a 'broken foot'! Now Ring O Fire due to a 'broken stomach'!
I stumble back down the hill. Advise the marshals of my 'desire' to withdraw, and after beginning to shiver a bit at the checkpoint, sit in one of the marshal's car to keep warm, and am in a daze, falling asleep and waking repeated for the next three hours, ensuring that I do not make any eye contact with any of the other runners passing through the checkpoint. I was in no state to talk to anyone, not just due to the lack of energy and not feeling great, but more due to just wanting to be on my own, to process what happened, and to 'get over it' before I rejoin the ultra running community of The Ring O Fire.
After three hours of drifting in and out of sleep. I awake, and am feeling heaps better. The sick feeling has gone, and I also feel that I have successfully processed the disappointment of my third DNF in such close succession. I am ready to communicate with others. Just fortunately (for me, but no doubt not for the runner) as I 'awake' a young runner has just made the difficult decision to withdraw. His girlfriend/partner is there to support him and they are heading in her car to the day two finish at the Aberffraw village hall, so I am able to get a lift.
Shortly after reaching Aberffraw village hall, the end of day two, Tom arrives at 5:17pm, 11 hours 17 minutes after starting. He looks a little tired, but overall pretty good, considering the long duration of time he has spent running. Looking at the checkpoint results for day two, although I am not sure what the total race distance was for the day and how close to halfway the Beaumaris checkpoint (where I DNFed) is, it is apparent that Tom slowed down during the second half of the day. He reached Beaumaris checkpoint in 5 hours 17 minutes, and therefore took 6 hours for the second half. Not that he needed to run any faster as the second finisher for day two, Richard Webster, was nearly two hours behind.
Again there is a great atmosphere within the village hall as the remaining runners finish day two, although the time gaps are a lot larger as there are a high number of DNFs during the day. Of the 61 day two starters, only 32 complete the stage! The village hall takes on I guess a bit of a battlefield feeling, with most runners pretty tired, but very satisfied in having completed the stage. For others, like myself that DNFed, there is disappointment, however, the mood within the hall is very positive, so overall an enjoyable night chatting, and welcoming the finishing runners. Although, I must admit that I didn't stay awake to welcome all the runners in, as 14 runners complete day two, finishing after midnight!
The next morning, the number of runners dwindle even more, with there being only 28 starters. I watch the start and then after picking up my car from Holyhead go to the first checkpoint at Rhosneigr to watch the runners pass through. The checkpoint was located at Sandy's Bistro. Sandy just so happens to be race director Bing's mum, so typifying of the great friendliness and organisation of the whole weekend, Sandy was providing bacon sandwiches not just to the checkpoint marshals, but also to us spectators, and to any of the runners that needed a bacon butty boost. Checkpoint food doesn't come much better than that! Having watched all of the 28 runners pass through, I decide to miss out on the finish and prizegiving, and start on the long drive back to East Sussex.
All 28 runners that started day three completed the stage and hence ran a complete lap of the Isle of Anglesey! Tom Payn won in a total time of 21 hours 54 minutes with Richard Webster second (24:52) finishing ahead of his brother in law Richard Heath (26:59). First women finisher was Elisabet Frankenberg (32:59) with Jenn Gaskell (36:55) second women. The organisers having 100 entries decided to order 90 finisher medals, allowing for ten drop outs! Perhaps just a little optimistic. With there being only 28 runners achieving the complete circumnavigation of the Isle of Anglesey, the race certainly lived up to it's description on the race website:
"Set against the dramatic backdrop of Snowdonia, Ring O’ Fire offers adventurous runners the opportunity to challenge their limits in some of the most awe inspiring coastal scenery in Wales. Ring O’ Fire should not be underestimated; the 131 mile distance and 13,695 feet of vertical ascent make this a mammoth undertaking for even the most hardy of runners."
Ring O Fire Race Start / Finish - Awe Inspiring Coastal Scenery!
Ring O Fire Finisher Medals - Just a few leftover! Going cheap on E-bay?
I sub-titled this race report "A New Experience", which it was for me in terms of being my first multi-day race, and my first experience of being sick during a race! What have I learnt? Well firstly I feel confident that I am able to race multi-day races in the future, with the body and mind finding racing the second day not a problem. The first four hours of day two were going really well until my sickness 'blip'! Unfortunately, I don't know how I would have got on during day three, but I am reasonably confident that I would have managed okay. It seems that just reducing the intensity bby only a tiny bit, has a large affect on reducing the mucle damage / soreness the following day. Or perhaps I didn't reduce the intensity by much at all and the reduced soreness the next morning is solely due to the mind informing the body that muscle soreness is not permissable as it still has more miles to be raced! Another unfortunately consequence of DNFing, was that I was unable to truly establish just how much 'wisdom and experience' can make up for 'youth and physiological superiority'. It was really enjoyable and exciting racing against Tom, and having gained eleven minutes on day one, I had a good advantage, but I will never know if I would have been able to hold onto it. Overall Tom ran very well, especially considering it was his first ultra experience. Unfortunately by the next time I get to race him, no doubt he will not be such a n ultra novice, which will make the challenge of matching him even tougher!
The big question however that I am unable to answer is, why did I get sick? I have raced over 50 marathons, and eighteen ultra-trail races, and have never been sick. I always use gels for my nutrition, so trying new or different nutrition wasn't the problem. Prior to being sick, I had only consumed two gels, and had taken on sufficient water, so again there shouldn't have been a problem there. My only possible answer, which some may find a bit 'far fetched' is that my body had just had enough! It had endured a pretty demanding 105 miles up at the Lakeland 100 only five weeks earlier. Which to be honest, I knew I had not fully recovered from. Every run for the previous five weeks, I felt tired, lacked energy, and didn't really have my usual love and passion for running. There had been a lack of motivation to actually run, which is a totally new experience for me, clearly illustrating that my recovery was not complete. I therefore conclude that, having got through day one really well, that come four hours of racing on a second consecutive day, which I had never done before, the body simply decided 'enough was enough' and decided to take whatever measures it needed to, to get me to stop. Having raced many ultras where often one experiences a difficult patch, I have developed strategies to deal with these moments, and therefore I guess the usual messages such as tiredness, sore muscles, or mental fatigue were effectively being ignored! So the body resorted to extreme measures, making me physically sick, thereby removing the essential hydration and fuel, and preventing me from taking on board and retaining any more. A pretty effective way to get me to stop!
So to summarise, I feel that I am capable of racing multi-day events in the future, but perhaps I need to respect my body and mind a little bit more, and listen to their messages, ensuring that I do not start a multi-day event in a tired state. I am usually pretty cautious when it comes to demanding too much from myself with regards to racing, with only racing seven times a year. I guess last weekend's experience is a strong reminder to give respect to what one is demanding from within, in order to achieve the amazing feats of completing such demanding events such as the Lakeland 100 or the 131 mile Ring O Fire. Yes, although we may 'condition' ourselves to believe that we are 'invincible', one must always maintain some concept of reality, albeit, keeping this as a tiny and distant consideration.
Just before signing off with some thoughts, I need to say a massive THANK YOU to Race Directors Bing and Q and their fantastic team of marshals. They took on a big challenge, creating and putting on such an awesome event, and they truly delivered. I can only see the event going from strength to strength. And as the Ring O Fire Team conclude with regards to its inaugural running: "The Ring O’ Fire has certainly lived up to its reputation as one tough, bad ass, mother of a race!"
Time to sign off:
"Yes, within our minds, it is our self expectations that essentially determine the limits to what we are capable of achieving. However, the mind does not have total control, and the secret of maximising performance is in enhancing the harmony between the body and mind." Stuart Mills, 2012
Lastly, thanks to all of the other Ring O Fire runners. It was great meeting loads of you, and I look forward to racing and chatting with you all again at a future ultra-trail adventure.