The Quarantine Backyard Ultra – it’s easy until it isn’t

It’s mid March 2020.  The world is suffering the impact of the Covid-19 virus and most sporting events around the world have been cancelled. The world is in lockdown with restrictions over where people can go, whether they can go to work, whether they can even leave their own homes.

I’m on facebook and I read about plans for a virtual Backyard Ultra race (the Quarantine Backyard Ultra) to be held during the first weekend of April.  The Backyard Ultra races, also known as Last One Standing, are elimination races in which all competitors run/walk 4.17 miles (6.7km) in an hour, every hour, until there is only one person left.  The 4.17 mile distance is 100 miles divided by 24 hours, so 100 miles a day until only one person is left.  The first Backyard Ultra was held in 2011 and there are now well over 100 races of this type worldwide with the ‘world championship’ being held in October every year on the original course in Big’s backyard in Tennessee – Big being the name of the dog owned by race founder Lazarus Lake.

I didn’t need to think about it.  I signed up for the race immediately.  The idea for the virtual race was that competitors would run (or in my case, walk) their own 4.17 mile laps starting and finishing each lap at their own homes, or compete on treadmills inside their own homes.  Everyone would be connected via the internet using Zoom, so that we could check in at the end of each lap and the race organisers could monitor progress.

My plan was to walk a loop on the roads between Kingston and Richmond in south west London but that changed on Monday 23rd March when the UK government announced new lockdown restrictions which included only being allowed out of your house for one exercise per day.  Leaving my house 24 times a day might be viewed as stretching the rules a little, but for a day or two I considered the possibility of using my car as my race checkpoint.  My car is parked on the street, so if I left the house once only, and only returned to the car rather than the house between each lap, that would be OK, wouldn’t it?

Went for a second walk

With the panic about the lockdown and rumours that neighbours had started reporting other neighbours to the police because they were exercising multiple times a day, I started to have second thoughts and started searching the internet for a second-hand treadmill.  I looked for a new one but with most shops closed I couldn’t find one that could be delivered in time for the race.

I was in luck though, finding a £200 treadmill for sale just a couple miles away.  The treadmill was a bit bigger that I would have liked, for our small house, and had to be dismantled to get it up our stairs and into the living room.  It was also a bit noisier than my family would have liked and when I first tested it I discovered that the side of the living room that I positioned it in was immediately above the bedroom of the people living downstairs.  Not a good start.

Too late to give up now though.  I found a rubber pad that one of our sons had bought to go underneath his exercise bike and I moved the treadmill to the other side of the living room, so as not to be above the downstairs bedroom.  I also put a cupboard unit in between the treadmill and the rest of the living room to hopefully reduce the noise level.  Everyone seemed reasonably happy.

And I decided to use the race as an opportunity to raise some money for the Kingston Hospital Charity – the charity that supports our local hospital.

The race:

By race day, over 2,400 people from 53 countries had entered the race which was organised by Personal Peak Endurance in Alberta, Canada.  The race started at 7am their time which was 2pm Saturday afternoon in the UK.  With entrants from all over the world, the race was starting at different times for different people.  Personally, for ultramarathons I have always preferred a mid-morning start as that means I don’t need to wake up too early if I’ve struggled to get to sleep the night before the race (a common problem) and I’m not awake for too long before the race start.  An afternoon race start can mean that by the time we get to 24 hours into the race, I’ve been awake 32 hours or longer.  Obviously, the longer you’ve been awake, the tired you get, so the earlier the start time, the better.  For this race, having woken up at 6am and being unable to get back to sleep, I had already been awake for 8 hours by the time we started.

The race would be different for everyone depending on the time of day that they were starting, their restrictions on movement outside their own house, the weather (if competing outside), etc.  So we all had to take what we were given.

‘Living Room Guy’, as he became known on one of the YouTube channels where the race was been streamed, was running a 30 meter lap in his living room – over 50 laps per hour!

Others were running in their own gardens. One guy was running around tables in what was apparently the restaurant in an Ikea. Many were running on treadmills, and some were on roads and trails near their own homes.  Some were running in snow, others in the heat.  Different conditions for everyone.

My target for the race was 48 hours, but in order to do that I would need to smash my 48 hour best distance by a whole marathon (current best being the 173 miles/278km I walked when winning the Royan 48 hour race in France, in October 2018 – which incidentally was the last time I had a decent race result).  My ‘B’ goal was to beat the 36 hours I achieved when I won Last One Standing England in 2018, and I didn’t really have a ‘C’ goal – maybe just to go further than I had ever gone on a treadmill previously (a marathon which I ran in 2010).

My plan was to just go through the motions for the first 24 hours (100 miles) and then the real race would begin.  That’s not to say that 100 miles in 24 hours is easy, but it is reasonably easy to keep moving for 24 hours before tiredness becomes a factor and I would have been extremely disappointed to be eliminated during day 1.

As it happened, the first 24 hours was relatively easy.  My fastest ‘lap’ was 52:57 in lap 6 when I needed a bit of time between laps for a change of shoes, and my slowest lap was 57:50 in lap 13 when having an ‘easy’ lap.  Total walking time for the first 100 miles was 22 hours and 8 minutes meaning that I had 1 hour and 52 minutes rest during that time.  An average lap time of 55:21.

There is one of the big differences between me walking and everyone else running.  Most of the runners were averaging 45 minutes per lap, or faster, and therefore had plenty of time for breaks.  If I needed a break, for a toilet stop or to change shoes, I needed to purposefully walk faster during my lap to give me the time I needed.  Also, if a runner started to slow down as the race wore on, they had a lot more time to play with than I did.

From the start of the race I got into a three lap pattern of an easy lap followed by a slightly harder lap and a quick journey upstairs to the toilet, and then a second faster lap to give me time to change shoes.  And then repeat.  I wanted to change shoes every three hours because the treadmill doesn’t give you any variation in camber and therefore your foot strike is the same every single step.  This could cause injury and I didn’t want to be eliminated from this race because of injury.  I also quickly realised that, unlike other races, I had to plan my toilet breaks for between laps rather than just when I needed to go.  In a normal race, I don’t need to plan toilet breaks and just stop when I need to.  This wouldn’t be possible mid-lap.

Of the 2,400 entrants, 1,400 started the race.  The race was free to enter so I’m sure that the organisers were expecting a big DNS percentage.  The quality of the field was incredible however, with 5 or more athletes who had completed more than 60 hours in Backyard ultras before, as well as a number of national/world record holders for various ultramarathon distances.  To my knowledge, there was only one other walker entered, Scott Burton from Canada.  Scott, like myself, competes in multi-day races but Scott hasn’t yet completed 100 miles in under 24 hours so wasn’t expecting to do more than a few hours in this race.  Yolanda Holder, the women’s world record holder for the 6 day racewalking event was also entered, but she decided not to start.

The number of DNF’s started to grow right from the first few hours and by 24 hours there were less than 80 of us still in the race.  Most of the top seeds were still there, but there had been some surprises with people like World Champion Maggie Guterl and US 6 day (running) record holder, Joe Fejes, both dropping out in the first 12 hours. Courtney Dauwalter, the women’s world record holder for the Backyard ultra (67 hours) also dropped at 24 hours.

I started to think that there may be a chance of getting on to the elite YouTube feed which was live-streaming the top 20 competitors, but there was still a long way to go before the race would get down to that number of competitors.

At about 20 hours I sent a facebook message to John Muskett, who maintains the New Zealand ultramarathon records, to ask whether there are any NZ records recorded for ultra-distance treadmill achievements.  He replied to say that to his knowledge, no New Zealander had completed 100 miles on a treadmill.

So when I reached 100 miles after 23 hours, 55 minutes and 54 seconds of elapsed time, I set an unofficial New Zealand 100 mile (and 24 hour) treadmill record to go with my NZ ultra-distance race walking records and my M50 48 hour ‘running’ record.  Unfortunately, I can’t claim the record as treadmill records have to be run on calibrated treadmills and for all we know, the 4.17 miles I was completing each hour could have only been 4.1 miles, or it could have been 4.2.  We will never know.

I was still feeling extremely good but while changing my shoes at the end of lap 24 we noticed a burning smell coming from the treadmill.  We didn’t have time to investigate so I decided to put in a fast lap to give us (my son, Jarrad and wife, Ruth) time to investigate and do some urgent treadmill maintenance.  I walked hard, too hard perhaps, completing the lap in 54:08 – my fastest since lap 12 – and then let Jarrad and Ruth do their thing while I sat down for a much needed rest.  The belt on the treadmill had moved to the right and was rubbing against the side of the treadmill, and any lubricant that may have been under the belt was long gone.  They adjusted the belt and applied some lube but that was all they had time for.  The smell was most probably coming from the motor which was overheating.

When I started lap 26 Jarrad went online and order a 12 inch fan from Argos and then drove down to the local Sainsbury/Argos store to collect it.  I was still feeling good and walked an easy 58:08 lap – my slowest to date, but I was completely under control and still feeling good.

I walked faster on lap 28 so that I would have time for a toilet break at the end of the lap but suffered for that ‘luxury’ when I only barely managed to finish the next lap (lap 29) in 58:20, my slowest lap time of the race and the first one in which I had struggled.

For a while during lap 29 I didn’t think I would finish within the 60 minute time limit.  Up until now, walking on a treadmill had been easy, maybe easier than a normal outdoor race.  I had a pacing chart taped to the treadmill dashboard which told me what time I would finish the lap based on my time through each kilometre, and also my minutes per kilometre based on the speed that the treadmill was currently set to.  All I needed to do was make my legs walk at whatever pace I told the treadmill to run at.  Easy.

Quarantine Backyard Ultra - pacing chart

I had also constantly changed the speed and incline of the treadmill every few minutes during the previous 29 hours to try and replicate an outdoor walk where the slight elevation change, wind direction, etc, means that you are never walking exactly the same speed and using exactly the same muscles for too long.

Bad patches come and go during ultra-distance races.  You can feel good and then suddenly you wonder how you will be able to complete the next mile.  I’ve done races where I’ve struggled through a bad patch for 3, 4, 5 or more hours, and then suddenly come right again.  The difference though, was that this race didn’t allow for bad patches.  At least not for me as a walker where a bad patch could easily mean elimination by failing to finish the lap within an hour.  For the runners who were still averaging 45 minute laps, they had plenty of time up their sleeves and losing 5 or 10 minutes per lap due to a bad patch wouldn’t be the end of their race.

As it happened, lap 30 was the end though.  Mentally, I was totally stuffed.  I was struggling to stay on the treadmill.  7km per hour was too fast and I was almost falling off the back.  6.9km per hour was now too slow due to me losing a bit of time by walking too slow at the start.  It was looking like I would struggle to finish the lap in under 60 minutes, although still possible if I could push through the mental pain in the last 10-15 minutes.

But then, at 3.3km into the lap, the treadmill suddenly stopped and I fell forward into the dashboard.  Fortunately, because I was struggling so much, both Jarrad and Ruth were standing beside the treadmill and Jarrad immediately unplugged the treadmill.

My race was over.  With hindsight, I could have immediately headed outside to walk another 3.4km, and complete the lap, but I wasn’t thinking clearly mentally, and under the UK lockdown rules, that would have still had to be the end of my race as we are only allowed outside to exercise once a day.  I wish I had done that though, as it would have been nice to finish on round figures – 30 hours and 200km – but overall, I’m happy with my result.

Some other thoughts about the race:

On a positive side,

  • No need to travel to/from the race
    Many of my races are in France or other European countries, especially the race-walking races, and can take 8 or more hours travel in each direction. For this race, I simply walked over to the corner of my living room and got on the treadmill.
  • Climate controlled
    Being indoors, I didn’t need to worry about the weather. No need to put warmer clothes on at night or suffer in the heat of the day.  No wind, rain, or any other uncontrollable conditions either.
  • Support crew
    I very rarely have a support crew in my races – other than the six day races I’ve done – but this time I had a dedicated (some might say ‘trapped’) support crew only meters away for the whole race.
  • No need to carry food
    The majority of the races I’ve done have required us to carry food, as well as other equipment, because it could be anything between 10 and 25 miles between checkpoints. For this race, I had food within arms reach the whole of the race, and a fridge just behind me.
    Even in multi-lap races, I can usually only eat every 2-4km but not in this race.
  • No need for a head torch
    When it got dark, we just turned on the lights. No need for a head torch or for a charger to charge the head torch in between uses.
  • No need for portable chargers
    I had two computers within reach all the time – one for the video feed connecting me to race HQ, and one which I used for watching the YouTube feed of the race, posting updates on social media, watching the donations to my fundraising rolling in, etc.
    For most races I need to take portal USB chargers to keep my GPS watch and phone charged, and for point to point races I need to carry those USB chargers with me.
  • Speed controlled by my mind, not my body
    For most of the race, I used my mind to control my speed – in that I worked out what pace I needed to walk and set the treadmill speed to the required setting. My legs then had to walk at that required pace and I had a dashboard in front of me which was constantly telling me if I was walking to target.  For a normal outdoor race, I get feedback from my watch every kilometre, but it is very easy to drift off pace without noticing until it is too late.

They are the positives that I took from the experience.  On the downside,

  • Toilet brakes needed to be planned
    In a normal race, you just take a toilet break when you need it, but in this race it had to be planned for between laps. If I needed to go to the toilet mid-lap, that wouldn’t be an option.  In some races I have found that as my body starts t deteriorate after 40+ hours, I might need to pee every 10-20 minutes.  I didn’t get that far in this race but toilet breaks at intervals less than an hour (a lap) wouldn’t have been possible.
    Also, our toilet is upstairs, so when I did need to go, I had to walk up and then back down the stairs.  Walking down stairs is not easy after 20+ hours on your feet.
  • Regular change of shoes required
    Because of the lack of variation in terrain, I decided to change my shoes every 3 hours. Normally I don’t change my shoes in any race shorter than 40’ish hours.
    Once my feet started to blister changing shoes also became painful and in order to make time for changing shoes I had to walk a faster lap than I would have liked.
  • Uneven pace
    In order to make time for toilet breaks and shoe changes, I had to walk fast laps two out of every three. Normally, in a race of any distance, you are best to try and maintain a steady pace.
  • Risk of mechanical failure
    I always knew that there would be a possibility of a treadmill failure. After buying the second-hand treadmill we purchased some silicon lubricant and did some basic maintenance to ensure that the treadmill would survive the race.  The manual said that we would need to apply more lubricant every 40 hours, and we planned for that.  But I have since learned that the 40 hours is based on standard use of an hour a day, and that gyms lube their treadmills every day.  We should have been applying lube every 8 hours and should also have had a fan pointing at the motor from the start to keep it from overheating.

Having said all that, I wouldn’t have missed this race for the world.  I loved it.  Out of the 1,400 starters, 33 started lap 30 and by lap 32 there were only 18 runners left – I was so close to the top 20 in a high class field.

And, my fundraising has raised £1,432 (plus gift aid) for the Kingston Hospital Charity – with at least another £70 promised in donations.

I’m writing this on the Monday evening after the race.  At the time of writing, there are still two incredible athletes battling it out.  Mike Wardian, one of the best ultra distance runners on the planet, and Radek Brunner, who has finished in the top 3 in the last 4 Spartathons have been alone in this race since the beginning of hour 47.  They are still both completing their laps in the 40-45 minute range.  This race could go for many more hours yet!

And by the way, whilst Mike is running outdoors in America, Radek is on a treadmill in the Czech Republic.  I’m rooting for ‘treadmill man’!

Some photos:

Quarantine Backyard Ultra - my setup
My treadmill setup
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - pizza
Pizza for dinner
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - early on
Going in to night 1 and feeling good
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - my view
15 hours done
Quarantine Backyard Ultra -near finish
Not looking so good now
Quarantine Backyard Ultra - after finish
Finished!

The Quarantine Backyard Ultra podcast story:

Quarantine Backyard Ultra podcastThis podcast is the story of that race and features a couple snippets from interviews with me before and after the race.

The 15th Greek Ultramarathon Festival – 48 hour race

Last month I visited Athens, Greece for the first time.  I saw all the main sightseeing attractions – The Acropolis, the Parthenon temple, The Acropolis Museum, along with the National Archaeological Museum and the Panathenaic Stadium where the first modern Olympics were held in 1896.

I wasn’t there for sightseeing. I was in Athens to compete in the 48 hour race which was just one of the many ultra-distance races that were a part of the 15th Greek Ultramarathon Festival.  Other events that made up the ultramarathon festival included a 24 hour race, 72 hours race and 6 day race which were all happening at the same time as my race, and then the following week the really long races started with a 1,000 mile race, a 2,000 kilometre race and also a 5,000 kilometre race which has a two month time limit!

And all these races are held on a 1 kilometre circuit – 500 meters out, and 500 meters back – at the old Athens airport which was abandoned in 2001 when the new airport was opened ahead of the 2004 Olympics.  Headquarters for the race were in the semi-abandoned Basketball stadium beside the old airport which was used for the 2004  Athens Olympics.  Given that some of the doors inside the stadium still had signs stuck to them that referred to the 2019 edition of the ultramarathon festival, I suspect that the stadium is now only used once a year – for the ultramarathon festival.

15th Greek Ultramarathon Festival

My race:

This was going to be my first serious race since my shin injury and subsequent health problems at the Thames Ring 250 in June 2019.  I had attempted to complete the Lon Las Ultra in Wales in October, but I always treated that as an adventure rather than a race.  But with my shin injury almost completely heeled I thought I could walk at least 300km in the space of 48 hours, so that was my goal.

My only other 48 hour race was the Royan 48 hour race in October 2018.  In that race we had 24 hours of summer followed by 24 hours of winter, complete with horizontal rain and I had covered 278km (161km on day one and 117km on day two) and that was on a course with a total of 500 U turns in the space of 48 hours, so I was confident that on a better course, and in better conditions, 300km was definitely within my capability, even if I probably wasn’t as fit as I was in 2018.

The race started at 6pm on Friday 10th January.  When I booked my flights I decided that the best option was to fly over on the Thursday afternoon/evening – departing Stansted at 6:45pm – and I booked a cheap AirBnB for both the Thursday night and Friday night figuring that that would enable me to sleep as long as I wanted without having to be out of my accommodation by the usual checkout time of 11am on the Friday morning.

The idea kind of worked.  The flight landed in Athens a little before midnight but it was almost 2am by the time I reached my accommodation – which was about 1km away from the race venue.  I got a solid 10 hours sleep which was good – much better than my normal pre-race sleep.  Arriving at the accommodation late meant I was tired and I was able to fall asleep pretty much immediately, whereas often I have problems getting to sleep the night before a race, tossing and turning, thinking about the race.  And I don’t think I have ever had 10 hours sleep the night before a race, so I was happy with that.

On waking I walked down to the race venue to register and set myself up, and then walked 3km to McDonalds for my traditional last pre-race meal, got some supplies (fruit, coke, etc)  from the supermarket across the road, and walked back to the race venue.

This was my only sightseeing – the front of the abandoned airport:

The old Athens airport
The old Athens airport

As usual for a running race, I was the only walker in the race.  There were 23 of us competing in the 48 hour race, 6 in the six day race which started at the same time as us, and 6 in the 72 hour race which started a couple hours before our race.  The 24 hour race started the following afternoon and had 94 entries.  In total there were competitors from 34 countries – a truly international event.

The race course itself started inside the basketball stadium where each lap started and finished.  We walked half a lap around the inside of the stadium on a concrete floor – the original basketball court having been removed some time after the Olympics – before heading out into the evening air.

I actually felt reasonably good for the first 14 hours, and it wasn’t until mid-morning on Friday that I realised that the ‘out’ section of the out-and-back course was actually slightly uphill.  The turnaround point at the far end was about five meters higher than the basketball stadium and whilst this didn’t make any difference in the early stages, once I began to tired I started to struggle mentally with this ‘hilly’ 😊 course.

I struggled all day Friday but at around 3pm (21 hours) I thought I was coming right, only to have a huge mental crash.  At 21 hours I had covered 142 kilometres but it took me another five hours to cover the next 19 kilometres through to the 100 mile (161km) mark.

I started the race intending to walk the full 48 hours without a sleep, and only a few short  sit-down breaks, but the short breaks were not working and upon reaching 100 miles (my 28th time walking 100 miles or further) I decided to have a sleep.  I was really struggling and just needed to get away from the course and hopefully I would wake up feeling refreshed and ready to go again.

I thought I had read on the race website that camp stretchers were supplied for athletes, but I hadn’t paid too much attention as I didn’t intend to sleep.  When I checked out the sleeping areas before race start, it turned out that we were supposed to have brought our own camp stretcher or mattress and we were sleeping in one of the warm-up basketball courts within the complex.  Note to worry, I thought, I won’t be sleeping.

So now that I needed some sleep I found something that was slightly padded and turned that in to my bed, and then proceeded to have an uncomfortable 5 1/2 hours sleep before eventually getting up to continue the race.

My bed at the Greek Ultramarathon Festival
My bed!

On resuming the race at around 1:30am on Saturday morning I proceeded to just go through the motions for the next 8 1/2 hours until I decided to have another short sleep.  I was not enjoying myself but I figured that there was no point in dropping out of the race.  I had three options: 1) drop out and watch the rest of the race, 2) drop out and go sightseeing – I didn’t feel like doing that, or 3) continue walking laps of the course.  Regardless of what I did, my flight home would be leaving at the same time on Monday, and time wasn’t going to pass any faster if I dropped out, so I decided to continue.

To cut a long story short, I didn’t enjoy it, but I continued with a few sit-down rests along the way, and I eventually finished with a disappointing 211km in 48 hours.  Given that I have previously completed 205km in 28 hours (Roubaix in 2015), to only manage 6km further in 48 hours was a huge disappointment, but at the same time, at least I didn’t drop out.

The Greek Ultramarathon Festival:

One of the reasons I went to Athens was to check out the course, the race organisation, accommodation, food, etc, in case I decided to take the opportunity to do one of the longer races in the future.  But I have to say, if I am ever going to do a really long race, it is unlikely to be at the Greek Ultramarathon Festival.

It is possible that my thoughts on this are tainted by the fact that I had a disappointing race, but I think I would go mad (some might say I’m already mad) going up and down the 500 meters out, 500 meters back course for any more than 48 hours.  There is nothing to see other than the other competitors and concrete, and being a self-confessed picky eater, I don’t think I could survive on the food provided by the race organisers for 6 days or longer.

On night one we were given pasta which was good and the only other meal I remember being offered was something Greek (I can’t remember what).  At the end of each lap we passed a table that had some food on it, but this was mainly cut up apples and biscuits.  There may have been a few other items but not really a huge amount of variety.  I think at one stage we may also have had yogurt or custard too.  I mainly fueled off my own food, but that wouldn’t be possible in a multi-day race without a support crew.  The race organisers were great though, and I would consider going back for another attempt at the 48 hour race at some stage.

And the photos below will give you an idea of what the course looked like.

Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
From the start of the lap looking along the first side of the basketball court. Athlete’s food tables and support crews were on the left along all sides of the ‘track’.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Turn left. My table was just around the corner – with the NZ silver fern flag on the end. Easy to access on my way out of the gym.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
At the end of the second side of the gym we turn right through the foyer and out to the open air.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And we are outside. Note the whiter concrete where we have been walking/running. This is from the concrete dust that we have carried outside on our shoes from within the gym. By the end of the race, everything in the gym was covered in a thin layer of concrete dust.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And now we start the slightly uphill ‘out’ section of the out and back course.  The whole course was flood lit and night.  Visibility was never a problem.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
After a slight turn to the left we continue towards the turnaround.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And we continue up towards the turnaround.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
The turnaround was a large circle identified by a series of posts. At the very top there was a timing map to ensure that we walked/ran to the far end of the course.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And then we head back down the course. The slight change in gradient was noticeable the longer the race went on and I found that my pace would increase slightly on the ‘downhill’. The building in the top left of the photo is one of the airport terminals.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Continuing down the course back towards the basketball gym and we follow the fence line for a while. In the last few hours when I was really tired I walked too close to the fence occasionally and got caught on loose wires on the fence.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
The basketball court comes in to view as were turn slightly towards the right.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Almost back to the gym.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Heading towards the gym. Note the portaloos by the entrance to the gym. There were also toilets inside the entrance to the gym.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Back through the foyer. Toilets on the right and down one of teh hallways to the right was the room where I slept.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Back on to the basketball court, heading towards the race organisers food table.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
At the end before the final left hand turn was the food table. Drinks (coke, water, juice) on the right and food straight in front. There was also hot water and a microwave oven, and a fridge.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
The home straight
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
And the timing mat and timing tent at the end. I think the clear plastic wall on the timing tent was to keep the concrete dust off the equipment.
Greek Ultramarathon Festival course
Concrete dust on my leftover food

 

So what’s next?

It has now been six weeks since the race and to be honest, I’m really struggling for motivation.  It turns out that my shin injury from the Thames Ring 250 is still not 100 percent heeled.  It didn’t cause any problems during the race but has been a little uncomfortable since, and I don’t think I will ever be able to race-walk properly again (pulling my toes up as my foot hits the ground in order to lengthen my stride).  The specialist has said he could potentially operate to repair the damaged tendon but because of the blood clots I suffered as a result of the original injury, there is added risk in doing that.

This means that walking sub 24 hour 100 mile races will be difficult but potentially still achievable.  Given time, the tendon may heel itself but in the meantime I think perhaps some non-competitive adventures, or longer races where speed isn’t so essential, may be my best option.  Many of the running ultramarathons |I have done in the past have cut-off times for every ten to 20 miles which require a reasonably quick walking pace in the early stages of the race and I don’t know that they will be possible this year either.

So right at the moment, I don’t really know what’s next – but watch this space because I’m sure that there will be something.

Lon Las CYRMU Ultra – Holyhead to Cardiff

It was 6:30am on Saturday 19th October when I woke up shivering.  I was cold and wet and lying on some hay bales in a barn in the middle of Wales somewhere.  I wasn’t too sure where I was but strangely, I felt like I had been here before.  When I walked down the driveway to the farm about 75 minutes earlier I ‘recognised’ the barn even although I had never been to this part of Wales before.  In fact, for most of the previous 18 hours I had had this strange feeling that I had been here before.  So much so, that at times I wondered whether I had walked in a big circle or was walking back in the direction I had come from.  But no, I had never been here before, and I was walking in the right direction.  This was just some weird experience.  An hallucination perhaps.

The Lon Las CYRMU Ultra:

Lon Las CYMRU Ultra Course mapThis was the second edition of the Lon Las CYRMU Ultra, a 253 mile running race from Holyhead in North West Wales diagonally across Wales to Cardiff, following the national cycle route number 8.  In the first edition in 2017 only six runners had finished within the 88 hour time limit.  They had had bad weather that year and many of the competitors had been forced out of the race due to the cold and wet conditions.

My goal for the race was simply to finish.  Since dropping out of the Thames Ring 250 in June, when a shin injury preventing me completing the last 20 miles, I had spent time in hospital with blood clots and a lung infection.  My shin injury was 90% recovered but I couldn’t race-walk, only power-walk, and my lung infection was more or less 100% cleared up although I hadn’t yet been signed off by the NHS, and I was still due to have a CT scan to confirm that the blood clots had gone.

But I was keen on another adventure, and thought this would be a great opportunity to see the Welsh countryside.  Rather than the uneven trails we had in the Thames Ring, this would be on smooth sealed paths and roads.  Much easier to walk on.  I knew that the course would be hilly, with about 17,000 feet (5,200 meters) of elevation change in total, but given that it was along a cycle route I figured that it wouldn’t be too difficult.

The difference, for me, between race-walking and power-walking is that with my normal walking style I pull my toes upwards as my foot is about to hit the ground and I get into a rhythm whereby I rotate my hips a little – kind of like you see the elite race-walkers doing at the Olympics.  As a result, I have a longer stride and my leg turnover is faster.  My average training speed is about 5 miles (8km) per hour but since getting injured in June I hadn’t been able to pull my toes upwards and without doing that I found that I wasn’t able to properly rotate my hips and my training speed had dropped to closer to 4 miles per hour.  Given the ‘undulating’ nature of the race, I figured that I would be fine with the slower pace, and in training I had being practising walking a little harder on the uphills to compensate for my slower overall speed.  My expectations were that I would be well off the back of the field for the first 24 to 36 hours before slowly catching runners during the very hilly section between 100 and 150 miles into the race.  But I wasn’t going to be racing.  I was just in this for an adventure, and to finish.

The race was almost 100% self sufficient in that whilst there were nine checkpoints along the route, the race organisers only provided water at those checkpoints along with limited shelter.  Checkpoints at 100, 150 and 200 miles were indoors.  All others were outdoors.

I had divided the race into five ‘legs’ with leg 1 being from the start through to the checkpoint at 60 miles, which was nothing more than a bus shelter by the beach in a town called Criccieth.

Facebook video showing the checkpoint and the torrential rain:

CP2 now

Posted by Mark Cockbain on Thursday, 17 October 2019

 

Leg 2 was the shortest at 40 miles through to the first indoor checkpoint at Dolgellau, and each of the other legs were 50 miles.

The first 60 miles – Holyhead to Criccieth:

I woke up at 5:30am on Thursday 17th October to the noise of heavy rain outside.  Looking out the window confirmed that there would be no need for us to carry our rain jackets.  We would be wearing them from the start!

The hotel was a short walk, perhaps 500 meters, from the race start by the railway station and with the race due to start at 7am I took my time getting ready.  So much so that I missed the photo of the competitors lined up at the start before the race, but fortunately I was on the start line when the gun fired at 7am.

I started slowly as planned, but not as slowly as two of the other competitors who were also walking, and for the first 20km I was in 3rd to last place – until I missed a turnoff and walked an extra kilometre.  By this stage it had stopped raining and the sun came out and for a while I thought about taking my jacket off – and then it rained again.

Lon Las Ultra - at 3 hours
It stopped raining after a couple hours

Lon Las Ultra - Richard McChesney at 3 hours
Sunglasses with rain on them
A derelict farm house
A derelict farm house – I assume

The first checkpoint was at 30 miles (48km) which I reached in 7 hours and 10 minutes.  My feet had been in wet socks for 7 hours so rather than continuing without stopping which would have been my normal plan, I sat down and changed my socks.  Somehow that managed to take me 13 minutes.  I have no idea why it took so long, and I left the checkpoint wondering how much time I would lose changing socks at every checkpoint if the rain kept up.  However, I figured it was important to change socks regularly if they were wet as otherwise I would lose a lot more time if my feet blistered badly due to the weather.

The view approaching checkpoint 1
The view approaching checkpoint 1

Other than wet socks, I was happy with progress so far.  I had actually missed a second turnoff at around 35km and so far I had probably walked about 2km further than I should have, but that was all a part of the adventure.

I knew that we would pass a McDonalds when we reached Caernarfon (about 60km) and made a short detour to get a late lunch/early dinner – McNuggets and fries but no drink.  I was trying to avoid processed sugar for the time being as I would be consuming plenty of that later on, so I washed my meal down with water.

McDonalds

Leaving Caernarfon we followed a cycle trail for a while and I was stopped by a local asking me if it was true that we were heading for Cardiff.  I guess someone ahead of me had told him what we were doing and he didn’t believe it.  I reassured him that we were sane, and that no one was forcing us to do this 😊

Lon Las Ultra cycle route 8

Another derelict

At some stage after it got dark I caught up with John Steele and we walked the rest of the way through to checkpoint 2, arriving at about 10pm (15 hours).  Again, I changed my socks, but as we got access to our bags at every second checkpoint, I also changed into a dry pair of shoes and got enough food out of my bag to get me through the next 40 miles.  It was bitterly cold and by the time I left the checkpoint with John 30 minutes later I was shaking uncontrollably.  From memory there were a couple race officials at the checkpoint and they told us that we would soon warm up as we had a long uphill section coming up in a few minutes time.  They also told us that a group of runners not far ahead of us had taken a wrong turn, so watch out and don’t walk down the High Street.

60 to 100 miles – Criccieth to Dolgellau:

Getting Lost during the Lon Las Ultra
Lost!

We left the checkpoint and I rang Ruth to update her on progress.  I was so cold I could hardly hold on to my phone, and whilst talking to her I realised that I had forgotten to get my main head torch from my bag.  I decided that I had better head back to the checkpoint as I was using my spare head torch which was unlikely to last me the night.  By the time I finally reached the hill that would warm me up again, it was after 11pm.  I walked hard up the hill and within a few minutes I was sweating under my layers of clothing.  And then I missed another turnoff!  This time I walked over a kilometre before I realised my mistake, losing over 20 minutes by the time I got back to the turnoff.

The next time I got lost wasn’t too much later.  I arrived in a town called Portmadog (the Welsh do have some funny place names 😊) and then about 30 minutes later I arrived in a town called Portmadog – again!  I was relying on my phone for navigation as being colour blind I found the printed maps difficult to read, and my battery was going flat so I had turned it off.  A costly mistake.  As I had a spare phone I found some shelter from the rain and stopped to get the spare phone from the bottom of my bag, only to find that for some reason I couldn’t get any data on the spare phone.  I decided that the solution to that problem would be to switch the sim cards over from one phone to the other.  Not so easy when your hands are wet and cold, and my Vodafone sim card is still on the ground somewhere in Portmadog!  To make matters worse, once I managed to get my EE sim card into my spare phone, although the phone was unlocked, I couldn’t get any data on the phone so had to switch things over again.  If I had been thinking clearly, I would have plugged the first phone into a USB charger while I was doing this, but I wasn’t thinking clearly and therefore my main phone was still on about 10% battery life.  And when I did charge my main phone it just wouldn’t charge.  I think it had moisture in the charging port.

In the end, I got my main phone working, worked out what I had done wrong, turned the phone off and started walking again.  Another hour lost!

Next up was some of the steepest hills I have ever walked over.  This was supposed to be a cycle route but I couldn’t imagine anyone cycling up these hills.  Steep up, and just as steep going down the other side to where we found checkpoint 3.

Lon Las Ultra elevation graph first 100 miles
Lon Las Ultra elevation graph first 100 miles

I arrived at checkpoint 3 at 5:45am, just as three other runners were leaving and I told them I would catch them up shortly as I needed to refill my water bottles – and as it turns out, I also needed to miss another turnoff and walk another bonus kilometre or so.  As a result, I never did catch the runners ahead of me, and I was caught a while later by David Wright who had been having a short sleep when I arrived at checkpoint 3.  When David caught me I was looking at my phone again and working out that we had both gone off track, although this time if we continued in the direction we were going we would come back on to the correct course shortly.

A while later I stopped again for a few minutes and David went on ahead.  It was daylight now and I think I stopped to try and charge my phone again, but really can’t remember why I stopped.  It turns out that David stopped for breakfast a short while later and I didn’t see him again until he arrived at the 100 mile checkpoint about 30 minutes after me.

It was now Friday morning but it was still raining.  We had a nice walk along the coast and even although I was cold and wet, I was enjoying it.  I think this stretch through to the next checkpoint was the longest I went the whole race without getting lost.

Lon Las Ultra 100 mile checkpoint
100 mile checkpoint

I arrived at checkpoint 4, officially 100 miles (161km) but 173km by my watch (meaning I had done 12 bonus kilometres), a few minutes before 12 noon.  It had taken me almost 14 hours from the time I arrived at checkpoint 2 to complete the 40 miles (64km) through to checkpoint 4.  We had been walking for 29 hours in total.

100 miles through to the laundrette:

Officially checkpoint 4 was due to close at 30 hours so I had an hour to warm up, change in to dry clothing, eat and restock for the next 50 miles.  There were several other runners at the checkpoint when I arrived, at least 4 others, and some of them were still there when I left.  I also learned that many runners had dropped out that there were only around 15 of us left.

I had been so cold during the last 12 hours that I put on a total of 5 layers of clothing on top (Two thermal tops, a jacket, my plastic poncho, and another jacket – the one I had been wearing since the start of the race) and a pair of thermal pants plus waterproof over trousers on bottom.  I also changed my socks for the third time and put on the shoes I had started the race in the previous day.

I left the checkpoint at about 1:30pm with Gary Chapman and we walked together for an hour or so until we got to a long steep uphill and it started hailing.  I told Gary to go on ahead as I couldn’t keep up.  30 minutes later I reached the top of the hill.  The ground was white from the hail and the view was probably fantastic, but not on this day.

The laundrette:

At the Laundrette
At the Laundrette

Around about 7pm I arrived in a town called Machynlleth.  For the previous hour or two I had been feeling a little confused.  I kept feeling like I had already been here.  I ‘recognised’ the scenery and checked my phone regularly to confirm that I was going the right way.  I was cold and wet through.  The plastic poncho had helped to keep some of the rain out but it wasn’t a perfect solution.  I was walking extremely slowly and used Google to find out whether there was a laundrette in the town.  It had stopped raining and if I didn’t dry my clothes and try and warm up, I knew that my adventure would be over before I made it to halfway.

In a re-enactment of the Levi’s TV advert of the 80’s, I stripped off (my top half and socks only) and put everything in the dryer. It only took a few minutes for my thermal tops to dry but it was 20 minutes before my socks were completely dry again.

I then went to the local (only) fish and chip shop and stood in queue for 20 minutes waiting to order my dinner.  I knew that I needed to eat something hot to warm me up before continuing, and I craved some hot chips.

Machynlleth to the middle of nowhere:

While I was in the fish and chip shop David Wright walked past.  He opened the door to say hello but obviously wasn’t hungry and didn’t stay.

I left Machynlleth about an hour after arriving.  It wasn’t raining (for the time-being) and I was warm and eating hot chips.  It was Friday night and I was heading for the halfway mark in another couple hours, or so I thought.  It turned out that it was almost non-stop uphill from close enough to sea level to 500 meters during a distance of about 8 miles (12km).  It took me almost four hours, arriving at 125 miles just before midnight.  I would imagine that the view from the top was amazing, but at midnight you can’t see much.  So much effort and no reward.

The halfway checkpoint was nothing more than a van with a bottle of water on a table beside it.  I stopped long enough to refill my water bottles and was off again.  As I was leaving, Rhys Jenkins arrived.  I don’t remember passing him earlier but must have at some stage.  I do remember his wife/partner telling me at a couple hours earlier that it wasn’t far to the top of the hill.  Or maybe it was only a couple minutes earlier.  It felt like hours.

Soon after leaving the checkpoint Rhys ran (shuffled) past me and I called out that he had a good shuffle.  It was raining again, and I was cold, wet and tired.  We were walking past a couple houses and I decided to see if I could find some shelter so that I could have a sleep.  I think this was around 1am and I found an empty garage and lay on the concrete floor, setting my alarm for 20 minutes.

I woke up just before the alarm went off, shaking from the cold but feeling refreshed.  That was my first sleep since waking up in the hotel in Holyhead 44 hours earlier.  I think it had stopped raining and I started walking again, checking my phone to make sure I was walking in the right direction and not going back in the direction I had come from.

Shortly after I restarted Rhys’ wife/partner drove past again and told me that Rhys was going to drop out as his feet were trashed and asking if I wanted to drop out too?  I told her that I was feeling good and would keep going, but if she didn’t mind, could she go and collect Rhys and then come back to check on me.  Sometime soon after they arrived back and I told them that I still felt good and would keep walking.  They drove off and within minutes it started raining again and I started wishing that I was sitting in their warm car.

The rest of the night is a blur of strange memories of thinking I have been here before and wandering along a road somewhere in the middle of Wales, not knowing where I was.  At one stage I found a car park area with some public toilets that were unlocked.  I went in and thought I could perhaps stay here sheltering from the rain and have another sleep.  But I was so cold that I irrationally thought that if I lay down to sleep now, I might never wake up, and knowing that we had no phone reception, I thought I might never be found again.  Completely irrational but cold and tiredness were causing me to lose grip on reality.  I also completely forgot that we were all carrying GPS trackers and the race officials would know exactly where I was.

I remember thinking that it was time to drop out of the race and I turned off my stopwatch.  Looking at Strava it appears that I turned my watch off at around 4:30am but I remember that it was 5:25am when I lay down on the hay bales in someone’s barn for a sleep.  What I did in the missing 45-55 minutes is anyone’s guess.  Maybe I continued walking.  Maybe I didn’t.  I remember walking around someone’s house trying to find some shelter.  Maybe it was the house on the same farm as the barn I ended up sleeping in.  Maybe it wasn’t.

What I remember is looking at my watch when I lay down to sleep on the hay bales at 5:25am and then looking at it again when I woke up freezing at 6:30am.

And then I remember walking back up to the road wrapped in my silver space blanket just as a car was about to drive past.  I remember walking into the middle of the road so that the driver couldn’t get past me, and then when he stopped I remember trying to tell him about my situation but I had completely lost my voice.

I eventually explained to the driver that I was in a race but I had dropped out and could he take me to the nearest town.  As it happened, that was where he was going, and I remember talking to him as we drove and explaining that we had left Holyhead on Thursday morning and were supposed to be arriving in Cardiff tomorrow.  I think he said that he had seen some runners the previous night.

Lon Las Ultra - middle of nowhere

Lon Las Ultra elevation graph 100 to 135 miles

He dropped me in a town called LLanidoes.  On the back of our race numbers we had the phone numbers of the various race officials in case we needed to call them in an emergency, but I had lost my race number many hours earlier.  Fortunately, I had Lindley Chalmers phone number saved in my phone.  Lindley is the organiser of the Thames Ring 250 and I had his number saved from that race.  He is also the person that rescued me when I dropped out of the Thames Ring and in that race he had to give me a fireman’s lift back to his car because I couldn’t put any weight on my foot.  I rang Lindley and asked him to rescue me again.  At least this time there would be no need for him to carry me anywhere.

And that was the end of my adventure.  Lindley collected me a short while later and took me through to the 150 mile checkpoint where I learned that only nine runners were still left in the race – and shortly later there were only eight when a lady rang Lindley to say that she had rescued David.

The end:

In the end, only four runners finished the race with two others making it to the outskirts of Cardiff but without enough time to complete the race inside the 88 hour time limit.

Would I do the race again?

Maybe.  Probably. Yes.

I have now purchased some waterproof socks and waterproof gloves, and now that I know the first half of the course, I’m sure I could complete the whole distance within the 88 hour time limit, even if the weather is just as bad next time.  So I have the Lon Las Ultra on my list for 2021, the next time it will be held.

Cancer Research UK fundraising:

Every year my work, Wolters Kluwer, does fundraising for Cancer Research UK as a part of our ‘values day’. This year values day was the same day that I started the Lon Las CYMRU Ultra so I dedicated my walk to Cancer Research managed to raise £300 for them.

What’s next?

I don’t have anything else planned for 2019.  I have written this year off.  Three DNF’s (Belfast Dublin Return, Thames Ring, and Lon Las) and two sub-par performances (Last One Standing Castleward and the Continental Centurions Race).

Next year can only be better …

 

Video:

April 2020: I recently came across this video of the race.  Watching it made me want to have another go.  I’m sure that I will be on the start line for the next Lon Las Ultra!

I make an appearence in this video on three occasions: 30 minutes, 30 seconds for about 2-3 minutes, 48:20 for about 1 1/2 minutes, and 60:30 for a couple minutes.  But watch the full video.  It will make you want to do the race!!