Facing the Dragon

Trail Marathon Wales 2015 - 27th overall
Trail Marathon Wales 2015 – 27th overall

The Dragon, facing the Dragon. It has always been pretty symbolic for me. Representing something that was  easy to run from, hard to face. I can still hear my Dad telling me, aged 10 to “Face your Dragons!”.

2015 has been a tough year in a number of ways. The final heartbreaking throes of a dysfunctional marriage. After 2 years of trying to find answers, finally accepting there are none. The needs of my two daughters, one with me half the time, one all the time, but for 2 days a fortnight. This and developing my business has been quite draining.

Through these times, running has been an optional extra, but also a really important way to work through my thoughts. A place of disconnected Solace. In terms of me time, and healthy time in stressful periods it is essential (honestly). It has also provided me with friends that are the most respected, anchored and trusted people in my life.

My running had two main aims in 2015, a sub 4 hour Trail Marathon Wales, and the 3 day Ring o Fire. I achieved TMW and in the process picked up an overuse injury that ruled me out of Ring o Fire. My tent buddies from MdS and I had a great time at Hope24 and some much needed social running, with a healthy dollop of machismo.

Cwm Ratgoed from Waun Oer
Cwm Ratgoed from Waun Oer

Whilst I rehabilitated my poorly ankle after TMW, I spent a while trying to work out my motivation for running. I don’t really fit the normal profile for a runner. I’ve done one road race, a half marathon, but don’t really derive pleasure from running in crowds, or towns. I don’t run to collect medals, t-shirts, or to beat people. I finally settled on running for the journey as my meaning.

I love the feeling of moving freely, to places that are remote. The challenge of managing myself and my environment. The feeling of resilience to move through those spaces without a massive sense of insurmountable challenge.

That is the reason I run. That it is my validation. Not peer recognition, nor a talking point. I run, for my own satisfaction. To expose my own vulnerabilities, and then conquer them. To face a smaller Dragon in each run, or to just kick up my heels and fly through an environment that I love.

And that then asked the question why I run in events. Why is it that I am drawn to things that I can run any old time. When it suits me, either alone or with a small group of friends. And that I can’t quite answer. There is the feeling of a safety net, being able to push myself harder than I would alone. Running alone I always try and protect my descending and my ascending, without putting anyone else at risk (friends, or Mountain Rescue). So, an event gives me a place to run “on the limiter”, in a more controlled manner. That encourages me to run drills, to further my technique, my fitness, my enjoyment through nasty sessions that don’t fit my criteria in many ways, but to go to a limit, and stretch it a bit more.

The other is the challenge of someone else’s cunning. Mountain Marathons, are so much more than just running. Club runners typically don’t understand why you would run competitively, not for distance or for time. But, it is more about the craft of moving quickly and accurately, and that really needs an event to be truly testing. Navigating, moving, connecting to that environment and focussing on that movement.

I had tentatively decided that 2016 was going to be a soul running kind of year. No events. But, Marmot24 snuck in, after spotting it in 2013. This is a very unique event format and one that really inspires me, endurance navigation. Then a place at the Brecon Ultra was offered, and that fits for so many reasons – a very special race. I suppose then that returning to Trail Marathon Wales is a must do as simply the best local trail marathon I have, and voted one of the seven best trail races in Europe.

Pen y Gader, Mynydd Moel, Gau Craig from the East
Pen y Gader, Mynydd Moel, Gau Craig from the East

So there we are, in the period of a fortnight, the race calendar for 2016 filled up. And that will keep me moving through the winter months of darkness and cold training. And that will put me in places that I love, that I feel alive and connected to. That is my running plan for 2016.

Did I answer why I run, or why I run events? I don’t think so, but actually, I also am growing more calm with not needing to know.

And where did the Dragon go, when I faced him? Not sure to be honest. Might have to run down his back the following year and have a different view!

Hope 24 hour run

Funny to be putting this in the “Racing” category. I’ll try and explain how an event can be a non-competitive competitive event as I go through. But, to set the picture Danny Slay, along with Pete Drummond as the organisers of the event make it pretty clear on their website:

“I am proud of what Hope24 is becoming and we like to reward as many of our competitors as possible. Therefore, we don’t do category winners and prizes as we feel that this only rewards those that have the ability to compete at a higher standard. For some, completing one lap of our course is a greater achievement than completing ten.”

With that as the outline, it is digging back to 4th April 2014 how I ended up being there. Wandering through Gatwick Airport with Phil and Andrew on the way to Errachidia Airport to run the Marathon des Sables I spotted a team of guys with Aarn Sacks on. They were immediately obvious as Team Hope, a group of firefighters who were raising a huge amount of money for charity. Social media being what it was, we were aware of what they were looking to achieve and who the characters in front of us were.

After MdS 2014
After MdS 2014

Flip on a week, Andrew, Phil and I in Tent 96, in the desert with the two sleeping bags we’d joined on the first night in the bivvy, Linda and Rachel along with Artur and Dave had formed a pretty tight knit “team”. All working individually, but really pulling the same load in camp. After such an experience, we knew that friendships would be formed, and as we said our goodbyes we promised each other a reunion.

Once home and nursing the long run injuries, Danny Slay was positing about the Hope 24 event, and how teams of 1,2,3,5 or 8 could come run a 5 mile trail for 24 hours. It seemed like a good opportunity for a 2015 reunion, and after a quick email, 5 of us were keen.  9/10 May became our re-union date. In the time in between we had all got our own little running or adventure goals. Linda and Rachel being very competitive in all sorts of races, Phil running some super fast times, and Andrew preparing for MdS 2015 with some amazing Ultra performances. 

But, this Hope 24 “thing” just a social re-union with a bit of running, right?

Phil and Andrew, catching up
Phil and Andrew, catching up

Well, Andrew came back from the desert, and had absolutely smashed through the event this year with a 3rd in Age from the UK. So as Phil, Andrew and I sat in Magor services on the M4 talking through MdS 2015, and general banter, there was a gentle probing as to what our expectations were for Hope 24.

Andrew, Phil and I had run together at Trail Marathon Wales, and Phil and I had run a parkrun together, and we knew Linda and Rachel were pretty competitive. No-one wanted to commit. Just natter, but we were all there to do the best we could personally. Phil headed to Bristol Airport to collect Linda from a flight from Cork, and Rachel from a flight from France. Andrew and I headed to Newnham Park to set up the camp.

After a brief tour *ahem* up the wrong road right next to the camp, we got the tent and shelter up in a relatively quiet campsite. Chatted to a few “veterans” from the 2014 event who were quick to tell us that the hilly trail run was tough and we needed to be wary of not having high expectations for the lap times.

Excellent sketch map of Hope 24 from Matt Bisco
Excellent sketch map of Hope 24 from Matt Bisco

A quick phone call from Phil confirmed he was enjoying the same entry tour as us as Andrew and I walked what turned out to be the second half of the course. We would have done well to have studied the rather excellent sketch map from Matt Bisco!

But more about the course in a bit.

There was serious catching up to be done. A bottle of red, some chilli olives, a bit of cheese was a great way to catch up with everyone. Talk of potential returns to the desert, the Dragons Back Race, Glen Coe Skyline as potential future races, plus the Ring o Fire and the Kerry Way Ultra as races we’re variously booked into.

Rachel clearly loving the shift from 27C in France to a slightly less tropical Newnham Park soon layered up with borrowed kit from us all.

The campsite came to life, we registered, got our individual race numbers (for the chip timing). One of the great things about not having “winners” prizes is that there are a large number and variety of spot prizes and I picked up a Buff at registration. We settled into watch (local?) people set up the camp for the event and then disappear and generally listen to the Peacocks squawk.

The almost inevitable rattle emanating from Phil’s rear whilst looking down on the tent took us all back to the days of Granola in the desert. We went to bed with all of us having better, or worse nights sleep. We were up at a similar time, and I got the Aeropress and Carvetii Coffee going, and we started the pre race grazing, banter and working out race order. We settled on youngest first, Rachel, then Linda, and she had mentioned she wanted to nail some laps! Then me, then Phil and Andrew. 

Tent 96 in pre-run hamstring stretch pose.
Tent 96 in pre-run hamstring stretch pose.

I bumped into Wayne Drinkwater, another MdS vet, here for a solo attempt at 100 miles. Wayne was another amazing fundraiser, and I really like his quiet approach to all that he does. Coming back to Ultra distance after a recent op, and being totally solo, we offered space under our shelter if he needed it.

Whilst we talk about nailing laps, Phil decided he needed some new nails, and Rachel happily matched Phil’s to Linda’s. I was quite surprised that Phil managed to keep his nails looking good for the whole event, where as Linda’s looked a little chipped, quite quickly.

Lovely purple nails Phil!
Lovely purple nails Phil!

Happy, and The Road to Hell were played on the startline, an obvious nod to those at MdS2014, and one that Tent 96 had collective goosebumps over.

The shape of the course meant that we could watch Rachel off the line, then support her before the second significant climb and then see her come back past the tent before the first handover to Linda. As the ‘probe’ the feedback from Rachel was really valuable. Two hills, a bit sloppy in places, but all good. Around 42 minutes a lap.

Linda blitzed round, about the same pace as Rachel, we supported. Tony Sheridan also from MdS 2014 came round, stopped for a quick chat, and then retired for Gin and Tonics and steak. What a civilised experience! I started to think about a smooth transition, and how I was going to run the lap. I wanted to run well, but also wanted to hold a bit back it was going to be a long night, and with us aiming towards 160 miles, it was likely to need to be consistent.

Spot prize of a Buff
Spot prize of a Buff

So onto my description of a lap. Standing in the transition box, looking for Linda coming down the finishing straight. Flicking the ‘baton’ wristband from her wrist into her hand. Crossing the line, hearing a beep and then taking the band and turning to run down the start straight. A really smooth left curve, before getting on a stony track. I focussed on getting warmed up, running within myself. A little bend and we’re onto slightly soft mud, and then over a little bridge, roots on the entry and exit suited me, but there were a few ginger steps over this. Then  a very short ramp up to a skeet shooting area, exited with a little Fred Astaire arm swing on a large fence post to a hard standing area marked out with Orange Clay pigeons. Another short climb and then a steady run through the 1 mile mark. This area was the wettest on the course and marked an area where the next left turn started one of two significant climbs. I found this runnable, and with three sections easy to pace through. A little bend through some trees at the top, and then a gently descent to clear the legs of lactic before a lovely plunge back to the skeet ground. The next section really only had a sharp left turn over a bridge as a point of note, quite flat run back towards camp. Somewhere through here was the 2 mile mark. Over the third bridge on the course, a slippy lead in, plywood bridge and then the second big climb. This is steep, through two trees, on open grass pasture then slacking off before a long and gentle climb on a stony path. A brief respite out of this field, before re-entering and climbing the headland of the field to “Thomas the Tank”. This area is a pony club jump filed so has a lot of funny things, including some sheep. Danny told me there is a great view from here, but I was keen to descend this section fast, and never looked up here! A stony vehicle track that descends slowly at first, a few flats, and then a steepish but quick for the strong of leg tarmac descent to a sharp left turn was easily the quickest mile of the course. A narrow little bridge, the fourth, delivers runners back into the camp field, and all that remains is a horseshoe shaped track back to the transition area.

I was pleased to hand the wrist band to Phil, knowing he would go out hard, my watch shows around 36 minutes for my lap, and though blowing hard from the flat finish everything feels ok. A quick bit of water and then get on with supporting the rest of the team.

Phil came back and despite having a poorly Achilles had set the fastest time. Andrew was saying he would go as best he could, and as normal not acknowledging what an excellent runner he is. At this point, maybe good, maybe bad, Phil and I went to see the event timing people Wild Boar Events. This showed Phil a little faster than me, but both of us close enough to 35 minutes to think about dipping under. Boys being boys the banter started. I was doubtful of being able to go faster than Phil. However, I like trail, and Phil doesn’t get as much time on it as I do.

Andrew came back in having smashed a great time, and off went Rachel again. One rotation and 25 miles we were off again.

I decided I was going to “go hard”on my next lap and dipped under the 35 mins mark. I was helped by a runner passing me at the second bridge of the lap, and I just locked on for the tow. But, the confidence this gave me was brilliant.

After this lap I popped to the Luff Bus for a yummy bit of flapjack, and some Butternut and Lentil Dhal. Great food to have at an event like this and was much appreciated!

Not the nicest evening out, thanks for the photo Phil Waters!
Not the nicest evening out, thanks for the photo Phil Waters!

We were all pushing hard, and just as the sun was setting we realised that we were actually one of the teams putting in the most laps for the time. Go Tent 96!! There was a slight disbelief we were up there ahead of teams of 8, mixed and single sex. This started to fade in the night, we started losing places, and I think we all took our eyes off comparing, and just went as well as we could. There were a couple of trials and Rachel needed to shift her position in the running order. This meant a shorter rest for us for a bit, but she soon rejoined the running order. Dark trail running is a skill, and made harder when the cloud came down. Short lie downs meant no proper sleep, and the inevitable misery of putting wet running gear back on and getting cold waiting for the returning runner adds mental and physical challenges. Our transitions stayed smooth, and whilst we all slowed down we kept plugging out good consistent laps.

As the sun started to rise we checked our placings again, we had incredibly pulled out a lead against a male team of 8, and were in the overall lead. Both Phil and I had had “bad” laps of over 40 minutes, which in reality wasn’t bad, but really knocked the mental. Was I tiring or had I just eased off? Phil and I got a piece of paper out and started calculating. If we could squeeze a few minutes off each lap, we may be able to eek out an extra lap.

My 7th lap, I don’t think I’ve ever felt so anxious lining up to run. I knew that we all had to push hard, and I felt really uncertain whether at mile 30-35 I was going to be able to pull it out the bag. Linda handed me the wristband, and I went for it. I knew now the landmarks for time this lap. I was steady, not quick, through to the top of the first climb, and then I went for it. It hurt, but not enough to back off. I reached Thomas the Tank with a cramp starting in my left hamstring. But, I knew I could go back under 40 minutes, and hammered the descent, a herd of Elephants I think was the description of that one.  That lap has changed my view of what I can do when tired, and was a big moment when I crossed the line back in the region of 37 minutes.

Salomon Sense Pro sole unit after 600km of abuse.
Salomon Sense Pro sole unit after 600km of abuse.

A brief shout out to my Salomon Sense Pro that came recommended from Run.Coed y Brenin as on the last lap they went through the 600km mark, all quite hard miles. The more miles I run in these, the more I think they are a terrific trail shoe. At 6mm drop they aren’t as racey as the S-Lab Ultra, and whilst I covet the Soft Ground version, these are really capable. After 35 miles of quick running, my feet were in a good state, and I hadn’t felt a slip once on the varied terrain of the Hope 24 course.

Now was all about keeping the team keeping on. We’d taken the pressure off a bit, but the male 8 were pushing and there was some friendly banter starting between us all. Our lead came down to 3 minutes, Phil opened it out to 7. Andrew was feeling the pressure, but again delivered an exceptional lap. It came down to the last lap, Linda was going to run her 8th lap, against a team of 8, who were running their 5th. If she was nervous, it didn’t show. Transition was smooth, she ran the bend out of the startline like a 400m runner. Rachel got ready to pace her up the second big hill, Phil and I got the difference in time, told Rachel. And crossed our fingers that the guy Linda was running against couldn’t match her determination.

Watching Linda and Rachel come back into the event camp, with the “opponent” no where to be seen was amazing. Phil joined them at the tent, I about 200m out and then Andrew about 100m out from the finish line. Tent 96 crossed the line together, and in front. After the two teams covering 180 miles, 4 minutes was the difference. Exceptional performances by everyone.

An amazing team, an amazing effort and a real sense of achievement for the team effort. For me, running 35 miles in 4hrs 23 mins and 13 seconds was an amazing result, made all the sweeter by just pipping Phil by 30 seconds over 35 miles. I know though, if it had been an actual head to head race, and not a time trial like this, would almost certainly be different. We’ll see at Trail Marathon Wales this year…maybe!

Hope 24 Medal
Hope 24 Medal

But, it’s not about finishing first. It felt good, but seeing people achieving what they wanted and feeling equally proud is what this event is about. Of note was Matt Bisco running 135 miles solo, supported by many including Elisabet Barnes (this years winner of MdS) and her husband Colin (owners of MyRaceKit) and Great Dane, Stig. But also, the lady, who signed up for the event 7 months ago, before finding out she was one month pregnant, and completing the event 8 months pregnant. To buzzy bees, to superheroes, to runners, to walkers, to kids, to bus pass holders or sponsored athletes this event captures to me the essence of personal endeavour and joint appreciation of it.

To all the competitors who proudly have their medal, congratulations, and thank you for making a really memorable event!

To the supporters, caterers, masseurs, timing guys, volunteers and landowners you all make a fantastic event. Thank you.

To the organisers and creators of Hope 24, Danny Slay and Pete Drummond. It was an honour to be involved this year. Thank you, great event, fantastic hospitality and ethos.

If you’ve read this far, 14th-15th of May 2016 get on it! Hope 24, 2016, it will only be better than this, and I suspect will turn entrants away.