Taking time to reflect on your achievements is a key aspect of growing as a runner and as a person.
No event goes fully as expected – there are always things to learn, and things you got right that are worth repeating.
This piece is an honest reflection on my recent 108 mile race along England’s Pennine Way, the Montane Spine Challenger. Building in reflection – an after action review – into your routine will ensure you continue to improve. I’ve been reflecting on the things I did well, and the things I’d do differently next time for the benefit of all…
Overall I am delighted. Of 110 that began the event, I was one of only 67 to finish and placed 22nd overall…not bad for my first 100 miler (and first 50 miler :-|). I never set out on this event to do anything but finish. That was always the goal and I achieved it. Billed as ‘Britain’s Most Brutal’, the Spine certainly lived up to its billing, throwing some real challenges at the competitors and made all the more ‘interesting’ by the weather. Full sun during daylight contrasted with freezing cold, strong winds and pouring rain at night – a typical British summer event!
I spent over a year preparing for this event. When it was cancelled in 2020 I was fairly gutted. But on reflection, I was nowhere near ready, physically or mentally. The extra year gave me the time I needed to prepare properly (see the article on getting to the start here).
Mentally I was in a great place. I knew the route inside out (from recce runs and map study) and I had considered nearly every conceivable eventuality and had a plan to get through and keep moving. And I’m glad I did; where others struggled I was able to execute a contingency plan and keep on moving. Cramp at 20 miles? No problem. Headtorch battery dead? Easy, light switch over!
I trained hard for this, harder and more consistently than I’ve every trained in my life. I ate, slept and lived for training. I had a great plan and we stuck to it, building volume and load steadily over a long period to minimise injury risks. The only thing I’d do differently in the future is a bit more gym work for my legs (in my defence, gyms were closed during the pandemic lockdowns, but I could have done more bodyweight work at home).
I’ve always hiked, and as part of my final taper I spent 6 days walking Hadrian’s Wall with my wife and friends – beneficial physically and mentally. As an aside, it was great to spend time with friends and family – and don’t forget to plan for this as you embark on any training plan. Carrying a heavy load for multiple days was great preparation for later in the event when I was reduced to a power hike. That preparation, along with good pole technique, meant I was still able to maintain a 5km/h (3mph) average pace over the terrain. Very happy with that!
My kit selection and use was bang on. I had options on route which I’m glad I had available; I took an OMM core vest and Inov-8 Thermoshell from the CP onwards which was a good move. As I started moving slowly in the rain and cold overnight (the slowness driven by a combination of fatigue, weather and terrain), I ended up wearing it all, including the Inov-8 Ultrashell Pro which was stunning (it kept me dry inside and out!).
Shoes had been an issue in the build up to the event with an unfortunate ganglion on the top of my foot being aggravated; but I made a call and the shoes served me well (although see the note on feet and blisters later!). I had very few kit issues, I’d used it all extensively throughout training which meant there was very little, if any, ‘faffing’ with kit or trying to find things. Everything worked exactly to plan 🙂
With one small caveat (see below) my nutrition and hydration went to plan. Luckily I was carrying a Salomon XA Filter in a soft flask; there were a few long stretches with very little ground water and having an option to take from a muddy puddle was one that I needed (twice!). Carrying water is always a balance, on some legs where I knew there was very little water I started with a full 2.5 litres, on others where I knew from my recces there were guaranteed options I was able to just carry the two soft flasks (1l).
Nutrition was interesting, I had options and ended up eating things at completely different points to what I expected. KMC recharged bars were a godsend as were Mountain Fuel flapjacks – both just melt in your mouth. That said, good old mini pork pies, a few bags of crisps, a bacon sandwich on a hill in the dark, and old school fruit and nut trail mix were all part of my mobile feast. My training pal Danny remains disappointed I didn’t take cold pizza – I swear he does ultras just so he can eat cold pizza. Over the 37 hours my watch says I burnt somewhere around 18000 calories…so keeping the fuel going in was absolutely key.
Every Ultra has its low points. For me the main ones were getting cramp early on (see below), and a growing ‘fear’ of descending Pen-y-Ghent’s loose cobbles with increasingly sore feet. It was the latter that gave me my first thoughts of quitting…25 miles before I even got there. But I knew that this was going to happen, and I was able to reason with myself (sometimes out loud) to stop any of these minor issues escalating. I chatted to some fantastic people along the way, and quite a few sheep and cows. Every challenge that came my way I was ready for. And at no point did I really doubt I was going to make that finish…my reason, my why, my need to do, was just too damn strong!
It was hot. Really hot. It had been for a while and there was a significant reduction in flowing water on the course. In the first 20 miles the heat started to bite and I cramped, hard. Both calves and inner thighs started cramping on me very badly. I wasn’t the only one! Luckily I’d thought this through and had a plan, and I knew there was a guaranteed water source (a larger stream) coming up soon. So I didn’t panic, which was good, and got salt, water and food down my neck. Slowly allowing my body to recover. I didn’t get cramp again over the remaining 150km…I had my warning and I listened.
My feet ended this adventure…battered. I went into the run with a slight niggle under the ball of my right foot (legacy of a hard training run in the mud in the wrong shoes). I started with everything that has ever blistered before taped. But a combination of the distance (obviously), and a few wet foot moments whilst getting water from rivers, which soaked off some of my tape, meant my feet were not in the best place by the CP. That was OK, I re-taped everything…except I didn’t. That little toe that doesn’t normally blister – I didn’t re-tape that. And the small blister on the side of my foot…well I saw it but I didn’t tape it. Oh and I put on my longer compression socks for the overnight leg (I would regret that when trying to get them off later). I had to stop just before the aid station at 140km to treat the worst of my blisters; the constantly rough terrain around that point had pushed one blister ‘over the edge’. And then at the aid station itself I had to stop to let the medics do their thing. All told I probably lost an hour. Not that I regret it, without the efforts of the medics I would not have made it to the finish. No, what I regret is not doing a proper patch up job myself at the earlier checkpoint, and wearing those stupid socks – if you want a bit more overnight warmth wear longs or calf sleeves but always leave your feet accessible!
As well as not doing my feet properly at the CP, I also did not complete my CP checklist. I have no idea why. I missed the most crucial aspect which was the restock/repack before the longest leg of the event. In doing so I left the CP without water (I had to go back, more wasted time), and I forgot my watch charging lead …my primary navigation device switched off with 20km left to go, luckily I had a map as back up (mandatory kit) and I had run this last few km only 5 weeks previously. And I didn’t pick up my sunscreen…so in the full sun on the second afternoon let’s just say I got a touch red! The lesson here is obvious, I had a checklist, I’d thought about everything, and then I ignored it…why? I was tired, I wanted to get on the road soonest, I thought I knew better. So against all my training I chose to not bother finishing the checklist…I know better…20+ years as Fast Jet aircrew there are some checklists that get followed no matter how experienced you are!
Check points have their own time dimension. I was only in the first CP for about 20 minutes, just long enough to change, reload, eat and go. BUT I wasn’t, I was there for nearly 90 minutes. What the heck happened, where did the time go? I started well, I was on it and multitasking…but then I got comfortable. And when I got comfortable, I got tired and lost the focus. I’ll be honest I was never not leaving that checkpoint but when I eventually did I’d had a lovely relaxed time!! I’m not going to be too hard on myself, I was here to complete, not compete. I was here to soak up the atmosphere and enjoy the experience. But if I’d stayed focused, if I’d kept cracking on with things I’d have left there at least 30 minutes earlier and probably in a lot better shape.
Next time? Will there be a next time? I think I stretched the limit of my marriage…holding down a demanding job and training for a big Ultra is tough (and both my children are adults so I don’t have that dynamic). So I don’t think I’ll be back for this one…
But I am looking for the next challenge, probably a big multi-day epic. Whatever I do next, I’ll go there better prepared and with more experience knowing that I can achieve the goal, I can overcome the adversity, and I can run 108 miles. But I’ll still make mistakes…guaranteed!
Our plans are broken down into 4 week blocks, with each block focused on a specific aspect of your training. Our team have built plans using their own experience, knowledge (and quite a collection of personal ‘lessons’ such as those above) to help you fully prepare and avoid some of the pitfalls, mistakes and pain we have suffered on our own Ultramarathon journeys. Each 4-week block includes details on preparing physically and mentally, as well as ensuring your equipment is ready and won’t let you down on the day.
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