In Part 1 I shared my preparation for my 100km fundraising run, with a focus on the heat, as this race was due to take place in the longest heatwave the UK has seen in 5 years 🔥
This is my race report of how it went on the day I ran the Cotswold Way Challenge 2018.
Royal Crescent, Bath
I woke up at 5am and immediately peeked out the window. Thank the gods, it was overcast. It was actually quite cool out, about 13°C.
I'd registered the day before so I got to the Royal Crescent for 6:30am, half an hour before we were due to set off. I met up with Scott who I'd been chatting with via the Internets beforehand.
15 minutes before kick off, we were all summoned into the pen, and after the humiliation of being made to warm up to loud pop music, we were set free!
I felt very nervous from the start. The impending heat, the fact that I'd had a ton of people sponsor me, and the not-so-trivial feat of running 100km were looming large. I often find that the first part of the race is tougher than it's given credit for. You're trying to warm up, muscles and breathing all over the place, nerves buzzing, all whilst keyed up on adrenaline.
After some early hill walking, we passed through Weston and began the first major climb of the day up to Lansdown and eventually Bath Racecourse.
I knew the climb was pretty horrible and settled into a good hiking pace, letting a few people past me. I knew pushing hard on the first hill wasn't sustainable.
Bath Racecourse, 10km in 1:00. 19th place.
The first checkpoint arrived quicker than I thought, around 10km in—I'm sure it was listed as being another km down the road—and I got my lanyard scanned and headed straight on. The cloudy weather was still holding out and I wanted to keep up a strong pace whilst it was cool.
I had my first food 90 minutes in. It was later than I had planned, but my porridge and Lucozade had filled me up nicely and I didn't want to overload my stomach early on. I ate my Nakd bar and stuck to my 1 Nakd bar + 1 Torq gel per hour regimen for the next 10 or so hours.
I climbed up to Cold Ashton, remembering it well from my first recce. My nerves finally began to settle and I fell into a good rhythm. As I began the approach to Dyrham I thought I saw a photographer in the distance and prepared to look effortless, but it was my Dad! We checked in, had a quick chat and I ran off into another corn field.
Dyrham came and went quickly, and I was now feeling really good. I didn't know what my pace was, but I didn't care. I could feel that I was moving well, and with the nerves settled, I was euphoric that the big day had arrived.
I was also running alone, with no-one visible in front or behind me. I thought the race might be more bunched, but it turns out I spent most of the day running without other runners in sight.
Tormarton, 25km in 2:32. 16th place
I did, however, catch a few runners shortly afterwards as I cruised into Tormarton ahead of schedule. The temperatures were rising but the clouds were holding out. There was also a breeze which stuck around the whole day and helped a lot.
This was the first major CP, and it was quite a settlement. Action Challenge cater to hundreds of walkers (alongside the idiots who want to just run the whole thing) and as a result, the CPs are pretty substantial and well kitted-out:
I got rid of my soft flask as the weight was lopsiding my vest slightly. My 1.5L bladder was more than enough for now. I also got my headphones out and put some Gojira on. I rarely run with music, but I knew this would be a long day and that some good music could really help.
Not long out of Tormarton, the Sun finally broke through. I was pretty happy that I'd managed to squeeze 2.5 hours of Sun-free running. The temperature jumped up quickly, but I wasn't bothered and didn't slow. I was ready and appreciated what a stunning day it was going to be.
I pushed on over some hills through Old and Little Sodbury where my uncle Mike was waiting for me on a bike, just up the road from Dad. We chatted about the World Cup games I was missing.
I felt remarkably lucid despite being 3 hours in. Mindset is such a big part of ultrarunning, and when you're mentally prepared for how far you have to go, the usual leg ache barely registers. I could feel the 3 hours and 30k in my legs, but it felt like a nice warm-up rather than fatigue.
I was in race mode and completely in sync with a body that was ready to go all day. Sometimes it seems that a lot of race day comes down to how bad you want it, and I really wanted this. After the injury-ridden start to the year, after the doubts about starting at all, after all the training, and after the time investment that running an ultra itself takes, I was so grateful to be there and determined to make the best of it.
The next hour or so I continued in the zone. The heat continued to build, but I kept up my pace comfortable and stayed cool.
Hawkesbury Upton, 38km in 4:10. 10th place
As I arrived in Hawkesbury at about 11am, I was happy to sit in some shade. It was probably approaching to mid-20s now. Dad cracked out his icebox, complete with a freezing towel which was wrapped around my neck. Bliss. I piled on more sun cream, poured some water over my head and back, and headed off.
I kept cruising, springing through fields and air-drumming, and before I knew it I was approaching Wotton-under-edge. I hadn't lost more than a few seconds on navigation so far, with the course being so impeccably signed. I've never run anything like it. Navigation tends to be a big part of most ultra experiences, but I was happy to not have to deal with it today.
Wotton-under-edge, 50km in 5:16. 9th place
I arrived in the massive 50km CP and felt that indescribable half-way feeling. In my head, it always feels like "it's all downhill from here." Regardless of elevation, it's the equivalent of hump day, and the end feels that much closer.
I'd missed Dad but we spoke on the phone. I decided to just grab more water, soak myself and carry on. It was getting really hot, but I still felt calm. I took off up a massive hill and headed for Dursley.
The heat was getting oppressive out in the open, but fortunately there were plenty of covered sections on the route. My legs were turning over on auto-pilot, mind focused, stomach happy and heat manageable, even though the Sun was now out in full force. This day had been cycling through in my head for so long, that as soon as I was actually on the course it felt like my legs and lungs just took over; caught in an inescapable gravity that was pulling me towards the finish. I felt awesome, fully absorbed in the joy, simplicity and autonomy of running from A to B.
As I came down off of Dursley Golf Course (around 60km) I was feeling the heat a little more and noticed I'd been drinking plenty more. My bladder was nearly empty.
It was 5km to the next stop and the not-so-smart part of me thought about just pushing on. But it was also a 5km climb which I hadn't run in my recces.
Knowing how quickly things can turn south, I decided to get more water. Fortunately, the route went through the centre of Dursley and I popped into a newsagent to buy water, a Lucozade and some backup flapjacks. Lesson: always pack a tenner in case! I'd only remembered to stuff a note in my vest that morning, but I'm very happy I did.
I necked the Lucozade, refilled my bladder and then poured the rest of the water over my head, much to the bemusement of the locals in Dursley's town centre.
It was a big boost to pick up more supplies and I did well on the climb up to Coaley Peak. The views were some of the most impressive of the day.
Not long before the CP, I found a chap slumped over in some shade and asked if he was alright. He was running the shorter challenge starting from Wotton. He was hot and struggling with the hills. I told him there was a CP just ahead. I still felt in high spirits and was chatting with and helping anyone I met. I was beginning to catch walkers who had set off from Wotton in the morning, and that felt good too.
Coaley Peak Picnic Site, 64km in 7:31. 7th place
I ran into Coaley Peak, happy to see Dad again after missing him in Wotton.
I still felt strong and surprised I wasn't suffering. Either way, I took my time and cooled as much as possible.
Dad had also brought Calippos, perfect for this heat: ice-cold, cooling calories. Delicious.
Much later than planned, I finally cracked the ice bandana out. I stuffed it with ice and wrapped it around my neck. It felt amazing, and I left the CP feeling distinctly chilled.
Next up was a long wooded descent, which I was excited about. Running downhill on wooded trails is probably my favourite terrain. I felt confident of finishing, having run from this CP to the finish line about 2 weeks before in my longest recce.
Out of the woods, the next big landmark was Stroud. Instead of following the official Cotswold Way which bends around Stroud through some shade and woods, we went straight through the middle of Stroud, and up a huge concrete hill.
I'd already started catching a lot of walkers that had set off from Wotton in the morning, but the hill coming out of Stroud was like a war zone, with walkers strewn over walls and bus stops.
I power hiked up the hill and then got running again as soon as I was able.
I felt good after summiting Stroud, mentally ticking it off as the biggest climb. Not long after coming over the top, it was a sharp downhill through the woods towards Painswick.
I didn't know it at the time, but around 16:32 I surpassed my £1000 goal in fundraising!
The names of people who had donated had been crossing my mind a lot during the race, and it fuelled me onwards.
Painswick, 79km in 9:35. 7th place
With the heat creeping towards 30°C, I was happy to get to Painswick. It marked 80k, and 80% of the race complete. As I reached the CP, I knew I'd conquered the worst of the hills, or so I thought.
I found Dad and sat for a good 15 minutes, devouring another Calippo. I picked up some savoury treats (crisps and nuts) from the impressive amount of snacks on offer, as I was beginning to struggle a little with anything sweet. Having sat for so long, my legs were really tight as I got up. Oops.
I soaked myself from head to toe again before setting off. Despite plenty of warnings beforehand, I experienced zero chafing during this race: a miracle considering the heat. Even more miraculous considering that the anatomy of my thighs ensures that they are constantly rubbing against each other whilst running.
I don't have any secret, but the Salomon Trail shorts I was wearing have always stopped any thigh chafe. The material is silk-like, and although my inside thighs were still constantly rubbing against each other, the silky layers between them meant there was no friction. That's probably more about my thigh anatomy than anyone needs to know.
My feet were also holding up well, despite feeling like an elephant had river-danced across them. No blisters, no out-of-the-norm rubbing. I'd planned to change shoes at the half-way point, but there was no need.
Coming out of Painswick, everything became very hard. The hill seemed to never end. I mistakenly thought I was back on flat terrain and repeatedly tried and failed to accelerate beyond walking pace which battered my confidence.
Following the main climb, there were several other "smaller" climbs that further chipped away at my pace, energy and confidence.
This was now well into the furthest distance I'd ever run, and my mind seemed to take note, putting up a struggle each time I contemplated moving beyond a shuffle. At this point, I had probably slipped a little in nutrition too, and my ability to eat anything sweet was falling away.
A weird thing seemed to happen: I knew I'd finish, and that there was only 20k left, but this actually made everything worse, like I'd been consigned to 2-3 hours of further pain even though I'd mentally finished.
One foot in front of the other. I felt anxious and full of doubt as I pushed into uncharted territory. I even got anxious because things had gone so well until now. I'd felt on top of the world for 75k. Maybe I felt good for so long because I was ill and incapable of reading my body? This is the usual crap that pops up in my head.
A quote kept popping up in my head from the Leadville 100 founder:
Make friends with pain and you'll never be alone.
Everything really hurt, and I wanted to be done. I kept telling myself: "pain is temporary, pain is temporary..." Finishing was for keeps. If I could just keep going...
Fortunately, there were plenty of shaded woods but they seemed to stretch on forever too. It was cool, but I didn't like it. I didn't like the woods. I didn't like music I was listening to. I took a salt cap in the hope that might help. I took my third and final Pro Plus. No miraculous recovery occurred. I felt lousy.
I was expecting to be overtaken by other runners but remained very alone. After what felt like an age, I emerged from the woods and knew it wasn't far until the final CP.
Ullenwood, 93km in 11:54. 7th place
I struggled along the road into Ullenwood with my Dad running behind me for the last 500 metres. I was so happy to get there, sit down and see other people.
As I started talking to Dad I could feel I was physically and mentally slow. Everything was registering with a 2-second lag.
I once again took my time and cooled off as much as possible. I crunched on some heavenly crisps*, downloaded what had happened, and ate Calippo. I felt my energy and sharpness return. I changed into my Mind vest and felt ready to finish.
* crisps that any other time would have tasted like bland cardboard, but the savoury crunch was otherworldy after a day of gooey chewy sweets.
My smile came back; it was only 7km to the finish! And it was all downhill into Cheltenham. Except my legs didn't get the message and had decided to turn into pegs again.
After I got going I began counting down. I felt very emotional the whole way, overwhelmed with the thought of finishing, and finishing well. I passed quite a few walkers and happily announced to each of them that we were nearly there. Nearly home.
Dean Close School, 100km in 12:54. 7th place.
627 runners started the 100k challenge with 190 (30%) dropping out along the way. I came across the line in 7th overall, which I am surprised but very happy about! I'd been in 7th since Coaley Peak, 64km in.
I had a dream race for about 80k with legs feeling strong, clear focus, a cooperative stomach, and the heat just about remaining manageable. I took 120,000 steps and burned about 9000 calories.
For the runners reading this I feel like I should add a disclaimer: there was a strange lack of club runners running this race, which really opened the field up. I didn't understand why until I saw Strava next day and realised that nearly every club in the area was involved in the Cotswold Way Relay, which runs on the same day, and starts at the opposite end.
I think the fact that the event caters for both walkers and runners also puts it off the radar of many ultra runners. That said, if you want a gorgeous, perfectly signed 100k to smash without all those pesky club athletes, I highly recommend it! The route was beautiful, the checkpoints were like small festivals, and I felt very looked after the whole day.
I don't expect this result to neatly translate into another top 10, but I'm still over the moon with an average pace of 7:36 min/km, including a lot of time sat in the final rest stops cooling down. This worked out 20 seconds per kilometre faster than my first ultra, which was 15°C cooler, 12 miles shorter and 1000m less hilly.
It's been 7 or so months in the making and despite the weather being really tough, it was a stunning route that I feel privileged to have been able to run with loads of other nutcases. Keep running weirdos ✊🏻
And a massive heartfelt, happy, tired thank you to everyone who supported me.
"Drink to thirst" is enough to get me through even the hottest days. Despite the heat, I never felt dehydrated. When I was hot I would first consider backing off my pace and then doubling down on external cooling.
I didn't need salt caps either. I packed a few in case, as they're so tiny. I did take one cap when I was feeling really low (around 85k?), but it wasn't necessary and didn't help. It's harder to rule out the wider role sodium might have played, as it was bundled in gels, bars and other foods that I ate.
A crew helps so much. From lugging your shit around and allowing you to run light, to just having someone to check in with and talk to. Having someone waiting for me at each stop was a huge boost.
Eating by schedule. This was the most regimented I've been about calories, and I felt like my energy was dramatically better than in previous runs and races.
In the past, I've focused more on hydration, or combining hydration and calories. But simply drinking to thirst whilst being more strict on fuelling felt like the perfect balance for me. I'm no expert, but here are some reasons why I think it's better to give more of your attention to fuelling:
- You can rehydrate quickly, whereas energy depletion is a much more difficult process to reverse. Calories must pass through the digestive process, whereas water is absorbed directly with no pre-processing.
- Your water needs are adequately communicated via thirst, which is exquisitely tuned to your needs and which will vary from day to day, based on hydration levels, weather, exertion etc.
- Issues of taste and palatability also mean that maintaining a stream of calories requires more effort and attention than just drinking water.
Next time I will aim for a higher glucose ratio: not only were my Nakd bars primarily fructose, but my gels were also a 2:1 glucose/fructose mix! As there is a 30g per hour absorption ceiling for fructose, this is probably too high a ratio. Interestingly, it didn't cause me any GI issues.
I will also be experimenting with pushing my overall carbs per hour up to 60/70g as the structured eating gave me solid energy for 75k of this race, and the last part was mostly a mental challenge.
It's worth reiterating that this is just my race day nutrition; I don't train with such a high intake of carbohydrate.
Easy is a state of mind. Heart rate, pace and all the other numbers are more useful in training than racing. Running by feel meant that I slowly picked off runners for the first half of the race, and then didn't get overtaken by anyone in the second half.
Better recovery. I managed to get into an ice bath after the race. The evidence is still mixed on how much this actually helps, but personally, I notice a big difference in perceived stiffness and feel much more mobile in the days afterwards.
The day after I did a little walking, but mostly just rested.
The day after that, I used my indoor bike to turn my legs over for 20 minutes. This is a great recovery tool as you can lower the resistance to allow leg movement without spiking heart rate. This allows you to get some warmth into your legs (reducing DOMS) without putting any stress on your cardiovascular system.
I increased this each day until I felt ready to cycle outside again. I'm taking 3 weeks off of running to allow my knee some serious recovery time. If there's one pattern I noticed in reading about elite racers, it's how much more time they give to recovery.
Horseflies are assholes. Yep, the worst pain I had to deal with post-race was... my hand. I got bitten towards the end of the race, and my hand ballooned:
That's it! I hope you enjoyed the report. I'm now busy cycling and planning future races...
p.s. You can find all my ultra race reports here.