Sunday, 21 August 2016

My first ultra challenge at Spitfire Scramble

Last weekend I took on my biggest, longest and probably toughest running challenge to date when I took the plunge and ran Spitfire Scramble as a solo runner. 

The Spitfire Scramble is a 24 hour trail race which you can enter as a team of between 2 and 8 or as a solo runner. In the last two years I have thoroughly enjoyed my time running in UKrunchat teams but this year I decided to take the plunge and go it alone as a solo runner. 

The Scramble take place in Hornchurch Country park which was formerly an airbase in the Second World War hence the inspiration for the Spitfire theme. 

I have never really been overly keen in running an ultra marathon as such but I have always had an interest in running this event as a solo runner mainly because its so local to where I live and I have spent so many hours of training running around the course over the last ten years or so. Knowing that I definitely wanted to run it at some point I took the attitude that this year would be as good a year as any to give it a go rather than to keep putting it off for the future.

For me running the Scramble has always been about pushing my limits and seeing what I was capable of. Two years ago as part of  a team I was apprehensive about whether I could run multiple times in a 24 hour period, could I run in the early hours of the morning and how far I could push myself. It turned out my fears were all in my mind and I reveled in running 6 laps in 2014 and 4 laps last year and I thoroughly enjoyed the challenge of running laps late at night and in the early hours of the morning and actually managed to knock out some decently quick times. 

So with my experiences from previous years in mind I put my fears aside and took on the challenge of running solo. 

I set myself the aim of 100K in the 24 hours which would equate to covering 11 laps of the 9.8K course. 

In the build up to the race I realised if I was going to be successful I needed to plan out my strategy. How fast should I run each lap? How should I structure the 24 hours? When and how long should I rest in between laps? When would I rest? When would I eat?

I very much took the philosophy that failing to prepare was preparing to fail.

So I devised myself a schedule of running for the 24 hours. 

The plan was pretty simple: 
  • two laps up front, followed my a break to change and eat
  • three more laps to be completed before 7pm with breaks as needed.
  • A two hour rest after lap five to allow me to have something substantial to eat
  • two more laps before getting some rest for the night (meaning I would have completed 7 of my target 11 laps)
  • four laps required on Sunday morning - I didn't know what state I would be in by this point so just figured they would be slow and I would need plenty of rest so my plan was start early to give myself plenty of time to complete my required laps and to give myself the cheeky option of a few more laps if I fancied it!
I know this isn't the most hardcore of ultra marathon schedules as many competitors will plan to keep moving for the vast majority of the 24 hour period. This tactic never really appealed to me and I knew for my first attempt at an ultra distance I would certainly need the breaks mentally and probably physically as well. 

Race weekend

So on Friday evening I arrived to pitch my tent and pick up my race registration. It was kind of weird not meeting up with team mates as I had in previous years but it was nice to see a friendly face in Paul (AKA Thomo74) who was camped close by and I was very grateful for him lending a hand in helping me with my tent. 

Saturday morning soon swang around and pre race nerves kicked in and I felt stressed and moody mainly because although I had planned out my running I was nowhere near as organised with my kit as I should have been. Anyway I was soon back at the race campsite with a mountain of kit and a mountain of food kind of feeling ready for what lay ahead.

After race briefings and the usual pre race carb loading it was time to begin.

Stood on the start line before the race start with Spitfire by Prodigy, the unofficial Spitfire Scramble anthem blaring out on the sound system was pretty spine tingling. 

I held on to the line 'cos I know that I can' as motivation to help me through the challenge that lay ahead.

At the risk of turning my race recap into an epic read here is my reflections on each lap:

Lap 1 - Starting off at the back of the field it was great to set off at a gentle pace and to chat with Paul for the first mile or two. The course was pretty congested with all runners setting off together and I concentrated on taking it easy. 

Lap 2 - A short walking break to take on a whitworths dried fruit pack and concentrating on a steady pace, good breathing and technique.

Lap 3 - After a break for a change of top, some juice and jaffa cakes I headed back out. I felt strong and kept a steady pace going as the heat started to intensify. My break in between lap 3 and 4 coincided with Spitfire flyover and meeting with running buddy Artur who was a team mate from last year. 

Photo courtesy of Spitfire Scramble
Lap 4 - After some snacks I headed out for lap number 4 accompanied by Artur. The heat started to become an issue and I was taking on a lot of water as I ran with my hand held High 5 bottle, my pace slowed as I took the odd walking break mainly on the hills or when the heat started to become overbearing.

Lap 5 - This was my last lap before a substantial break and that provided my motivation to get out and run, not that I needed it as I still felt strong. At the end of the lap I was pretty elated to see my wife who had popped back to see me and drop off some supplies including my drink of choice in Iced Tea. 

Lap 6 - After forcing myself to eat some pasta from the mobile catering and a few jaffa cakes I headed out at about 8.15pm for my first head torch lap as night began to fall. I felt re-energised by seeing my wife, having some food, knowing I had ran in excess of a marathon and by the change in running conditions brought on by the dying of the light.
Photo courtesy of Spitfire Scamble
Anyone running during sunset were treated to a truly spectacular sunset of gorgeous pink. 

Lap 7 - This is where things started to get a bit tough as tiredness started to kick in, I had covered around 60K and it was now past 9.30pm. I had also started to get a pain in the outside of my left ankle which was causing me a bit of concern. I still felt that I was running strongly and my pace hadn't dropped as much as I had anticipated. I toyed with the idea of getting another lap in before bed but in the last mile or so I was overcome with a strong hunger so decided I needed to stop to eat which would mean a longer break and therefore I might as well stick to my plan of trying to get some rest over night.

Finishing lap 7 soon after 11.00pm I sat down on my camp chair and hungrily devoured a protein shake, a peanut butter wholemeal wrap, several jaffa cakes and orange juice. I rested for a while as I caught up on the support from Twitter before getting into my sleeping bag to try to get a bit of sleep.

I set myself an alarm for 2.30am so I had about a three hour rest period, although I rested with the campsite still being very active and noisy I didn't get much sleep.

Lap 8 - I was out running again at around 3.30am after some coffee and yet more jaffa cakes. I felt pretty good, my back which had started to aggravate me felt much better after a lie down and I was confident I had plenty of time to finish the four laps I required. I had raped up warm expecting chilly conditions but was soon stripping off as it was still fairly warm.

Lap 9 - It was now starting to get light and it was quiet and peaceful on the course, the pain in my ankle had started to worsen and I was walking all the hills by now but still running well and feeling confident, I took my time and tried to enjoy the tranquility of the course.

Lap 10 - After a quick break for a coffee I was keen to get back to it knowing less than a half marathon stood between me and my target. My knees were now really sore from the long periods of running and my ankle was becoming more problematic. I had so far managed to complete every lap in under 1hour 30 so my target for my last two laps was to maintain this.

Lap 11 - I was well ahead of schedule so I took my time getting ready for my last lap and sat for a bit enjoying the buzz of the campsite. I decided it wise to visit the medical tent to get my ankle looked at. The first aider diagnosed a slight pull to my ligament and I got my ankle lightly strapped and iced for my final lap. 

Off I set for the last time at around 9.15 scarcely believing the race was almost over. My mind struggled to comprehend the distance I had covered and that I was about to complete my challenge with a degree of ease. 

The final bend coming into the home straight for the last time made me feel pretty emotional and I was glad that by finishing at about 10.45 there wasn't a fanfare finish that there would have been nearer to the race deadline of 12.00 either wise I probably would have gone full on teary! 

My wife had again reappeared to cheer me on to finish my final lap and it was great to sit around in the sunshine in the campsite enjoying the excited buzz as teams frenzied to complete the last few laps. I set about trying to polish off my mountain of food and very much enjoyed a post run curry and chips before it was time to pack up my tent.

I proudly collected my medal reflected on the event leader board and was surprised to see myself in 5th position out of 19 solo male runners. 

I was brought down to earth from the jubilation of this achievement when I came to change my socks and discovered the soreness on my big tow on my right foot was being caused by this beaut of a blister.

Thank you ever so much to the first aider for the care and attention in bursting and treating this hideous thing, I wouldn't wish that on my worst enemy! 


So what did I learn from this challenge? 

Firstly I absolutely bloody loved it! Spending practically a whole weekend focusing on running was pretty much a dream weekend for me. I found the experience completely immersive, spending so much time with a clear mind just enjoying each lap and each mile without the distraction of what housework I need to, the pressure of work or the constant attachment to my mobile phone. 

I think I am a way off completing an A to B ultra as having the opportunity to stop at regular intervals definitely assisted me in the completing of the distance. 

Running the distance down in laps meant I didn't concentrate on the distance I had covered as I was just concentrating on laps, concentrating on running 4 laps seems a lot less daunting than running a marathon! Also having a clear plan in the form of my schedule meant the race was broken up into manageable chunks which I just focused on rather than focusing on the full distance.

What I learnt

I certainly learnt a lot from the experience, mainly around the fact that the longer a running event the more the planning and organisation becomes less about running and more about the logistics around the running. 

Before the race I was apprehensive about whether I should take on such an event and challenge. The furthest distance I had ran prior to this was only a marathon, I didn't have any fancy kit and I don't even own a Garmin! But I did it and I did it in my own way.

I set out my target, I planned how I was going to achieve it and I did it! 

I did it my own way, my snacks included maltesers, dried mango and pringles and I stuck to what I thought would work for me and thankfully it did, despite my chocolate coated coffee beans, maltesers and jaffa cakes all turning into their own respective sticky balls of congealed chocolaty messed. 

I'm still struggling to comprehend what I have achieved despite blister ridden feet, swollen ankles and achy knees still providing me with reminders a week after!

Thank you as ever for all the support I have received before and during this race especially from Artur and Paul who supported me during the event. People of Twitter thank you also for your support, encouragement and words of congratulations.  

As always I'm looking forward to the next challenge, the full Bacchus marathon in September and my ongoing quest for a sub 21 minute 5K.