Back to SDW100 for a 100M PB, Hopefully!

It was the height of the day in SDW100 2023, and the mercury had hit 30°C. The tarmac road before me disappeared off into the horizon. This was Truleigh Hill: notoriously devoid of shade, and a prime catalyst for DNFs from heat exhaustion.

I was overheating, but I couldn’t drink. I was saving the few sips of water I had left. Why hadn’t I learnt my lesson from SDW100 2021, and refilled my water back at Botolphs in the valley? I was replaying the exact same situation, in the exact same place.

As I castigated myself for failing to learn from prior mistakes, I remembered what stood proud at the summit of this hill. YHA Truleigh. An oasis in the desert, with a shady yard, and all the water one can drink and dowse oneself with. It had saved me in 2021, and now I knew it would save me again today.

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Grand Trail du Saint Jacques

“Je dois… visiter… l’église”, I stuttered, practicing my pigeon French. I was being driven in a carpool, by quite possibly the world’s friendliest driver, who had been pointing out some of the local tourist attractions as he conveyed me to my apartment. The 10th century chapel towering above us, perched atop some sort of rocky outcrop, was simply mesmerising, and I would definitely be visiting it. But that wasn’t why I was here.

Since UTMB sparked controversy by joining forces with Ironman, side-lined the ITRA, and required participants to run “by UTMB” races to obtain their proprietary “Running Stones”, some runners have simply turned their back on it. I may not be entirely happy with this new state of affairs either; but the fact is I still want to run the full UTMB, and so I was in the market for a few extra UTMB Running Stones to top-up my ballot entry. The Trail du Saint Jacques ‘by UTMB’ race was the lowest carbon footprint option available to me, in the time window I had.

It was only a short flight to Lyon, from which I was able to use public transport and carpooling to transit to Le Puy en Velay: the site of the race registration, its finish, and as I’d learned, this quite astonishing chapel.

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Crawley Track 24h: My First DNF

Crawley was a last-minute entry. A fortnight prior, I’d seen a notice on Facebook that a few places in the 24h race had become available, and had jumped at the opportunity for some practice at track running, in advance of Cockbain’s 25h track race later in October. I just hoped I’d be recovered from my Enigma 7-in-7 in time for it. 

In the days before the race, with a couple of lingering muscular issues around the right hamstring and adductor, and some general apathy and fatigue remaining, I had to admit I wasn’t in prime form for my first attempt at running around a track for 24 hours. Hopefully I’d be able to work through it.

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Enigma’s Week at the Knees

After the Arc of Attrition, I felt I could use a different sort of challenge. One that didn’t involve wading through bogs, or slipping down rocky paths in the middle of the night. The answer popped up on my Facebook feed: Foxy from Enigma Running had one place remaining on his “Week at the Knees” 7 marathons in 7 days race around two lakes in Milton Keynes.

I’ve run a couple of Foxy’s MK lake marathons. They are very low key affairs. Most of the participants are either 100 marathon club aspirants, or existing members journeying toward their next goal: 200, 500, 1000 marathons. You’re never far from a finisher’s t-shirt for a 12-in-12, 270 marathons in 52 weeks, or some other absurd achievement.

There’s a timekeeper noting down people’s lap times, a single aid tent with some water and nibbles that you pass on each loop, and some flour on the ground for route marking. The simplicity of the race setup is countered by Enigma Running’s signature medal designs. So, for those looking to notch off another marathon on the flat, and grab a good looking piece of bling while they’re at it, Foxy has the setup down to a T.

Week at the Knees takes this tried-and-tested formula and extends it over a whole week. You can enter individual days, or for a very modest discount, the whole week, with the promise of an eighth Week at the Knees medal if you complete.

I reviewed the winning times going back a few years, and figured that averaging sub 3:30s would likely be sufficient for a win. So I set myself a target to run 3:30s, unless there were any faster runners I had to keep up with. Simples.

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I’ve had a burning desire to run Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, Europe’s premier trail ultra, for some time. Each year, I dutifully entered the ballot; and each year, in short order, I received my rejection.

However, in 2020, my luck changed, and my name was chosen. I didn’t have enough points at the time to qualify for the full UTMB race, so I entered the longest one I could: the CCC.

Then came Covid, and with it, the cancellation of all races. I rolled my place over to 2021, and so began a whole year of stress and uncertainty, trying to navigate the Covid regulation minefield cooked up by the UK, French, Swiss and Italian governments. It’s the only occasion I’ve experienced where making the start line of an ultra was harder than making the finish.

Yet, through it all, I did make it to the start line. Then I pushed on through periods of self-doubt, through fatigue, through injury, and back to the UTMB arch in Chamonix, in a time of 16 hours 45 minutes 48 seconds, putting me in 227th place. For my first race in proper alpine mountains, I was satisfied with that – but it was the experience, and the memories that made it special.

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The Arc of Attrition, a.k.a. That Horrible Pendeen Slog

Over the years, I’d heard various rumours about how tough the Arc was. I knew nothing about the race itself though. I had assumed it was exclusive; that one would have to be selected to run it, or enter countless lotteries to obtain a place. So I had chalked up the Arc under a list of legendary races I’d probably never get to run, like Hardrock, Badwater and Barkley, and never bothered to find out what it actually entailed.

Sometime last year, whilst perusing races for 2022 (no doubt shortly after finishing an ultra), I thought to check the Arc’s qualifying conditions. I was surprised to find it only required a 100km finish, and night-time experience. So I looked into entering for 2022; but It was, unsurprisingly, sold out.

I spotted a waiting list button, casually added my name to the list, and then went on to enter some other races, including the Cotswold Way Century. I forgot all about the Arc.

Then, out of the blue, in November, I received an e-mail offering me a place. I had 3 days to accept. I still had absolutely no idea what the Arc actually was, so I finally read the blurb on the website’s homepage. Cornwall, 100 miles, late January, bad weather guaranteed. I had been looking for a January ultra, and wanted one with a bit of an extra challenge, so this seemed perfect. I entered.

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SDW100: Am I an ultrarunner yet?

Years ago, I read a comment on an ultrarunning forum that stuck with me ever since. It claimed, controversially, that one shouldn’t call oneself an ultrarunner until one has run a 100+ mile race.

That’s tosh, of course: I considered these sorts of elitist inventions pure supercilious drivel, born of a lust for superiority. An ultra is any distance longer than 26.1, and an ultrarunner is one who runs an ultra. Running 100 miles is no precondition to being an ultrarunner.

Nonetheless, that comment niggled at my inner being ever after, because I reasoned there could be an underlying truth to it: 100+ mile races might involve unique challenges that rarely surface over lesser distances. Indeed, when I ran a relatively flat ‘virtual’ 100 miler last year (virtuals don’t count), I had a far more torrid time of it than I’d experienced in any of my 100km races. Should I really think of myself as an ultrarunner, if the real ultrarunning tribulations only emerge over the course of 100 miles?

And so, despite my being crystal clear that there was absolutely no link whatsoever between the 100 mile distance and the term ‘ultrarunner’, I’d never really allowed myself to use the term ultrarunner… not yet anyway, not until I’d finished a real 100 miler, and could comment on the matter with greater authority.

My double-standard could hardly have been more conspicuous. I needed to resolve it, once and for all.

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