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.
Day 1: Willen Lake
I hadn’t run around Willen Lake before, so the night before I spent a few minutes preparing a GPX route to follow.
On the morning, I pulled into what was hopefully the right car park at Willen (there are a few to choose from). I located what I thought was the pub acting as race HQ, but found it to be closed. I pottered around and met a few other runners, one of whom informed me I was in the wrong car park. Another corrected them, and pointed out Foxy’s secret aid station 300m south around the lake. Low key as ever.
Foxy gave the race briefing on his bike whilst leading us to the start. “Keep the lake to your right” was the main message. “Apart from the first section, where it’s to your left”. At the start, he hit the button on his stopwatch, and started pedalling. It took me a few seconds to realise that he was going to lead us around the first lap. Awesome!
I opened up my legs and pulled away from the pack. It was freezing cold, so I intended to lay down a bit of speed to warm up. My gait felt particularly good, and I quietly resolved to shelve my 3:30 plan. Let’s lay down a half-decent time, I thought, and give myself a healthy buffer for the remaining 6 days.
It was just me and Foxy, so I had a bit of a chat as I went. There were 20 people registered for the 7-in-7, I learned, but one had pulled out the previous evening after having run some 140 miles a couple of days prior, and 2 hadn’t shown up. That left 17 competitors. This feels winnable, I thought.
Foxy stopped at the aid station after the first lap, and I set off for my first one solo. The course was marked with flour (self-raising, presumably?) on the path. Unusual, perhaps; but it was perfectly effective, and reassuringly difficult to vandalise. The birds seemed to like it too.
The body of the race was 9 laps of the lake, about 4.5km each. I managed to maintain a pretty consistent pace, aside from a few occasions when I paused at the aid station to delve into my supplies. I did moderate my speed, in light of the 6 remaining days, but I was also making an effort to come in comfortably sub-3, so as to lay down a strong marker for the others.
I finished Day 1 in 2:53:11, and received my first of Foxy’s bespoke Week at the Knees medals.
I left on a high. Then, on the drive back, I got a flat tyre.
Day 2: Willen Lake
I wasn’t feeling so confident going into day 2, after a very unsatisfying recovery, given I spent much of the previous day in Hitchin attending to the repair of my tyre (shout out to STS Tyre Pros for fitting me in, for free I might add).
My knees had picked up some niggles, one of my adductors was tight, and an achilles tendon could have benefitted from a day’s rest. Scraping the ice off of my car’s windscreen, I wondered how the day would unfold.
As I kept myself warm in the pub at Willen, waiting for the race to start, I had a chat with some of the other participants. Richard Wade, who’d placed third yesterday out of the 7-in-7 participants, had already completed a 10-in-10 with SVN, and claimed to feel in good form going into day 2. Furthermore, he had the air of someone who was quietly confident in his own abilities. My own confidence levels weren’t brimming after this chat, given my zero multiday experience, and having probably run a little too enthusiastically on the first day.
After my chin-wagging, there was no time left to warm up before Foxy started us off again. I fell back into lead position behind Foxy’s bike, albeit at a considerably slower pace than the previous day – almost a minute/km slower. I wanted to keep it easy at the start, at least, to see how my muscles responded.
As it happened, they largely warmed up and settled down after the first lap or two. I built up a healthy lead once more. It took a little longer to start lapping people this time – I think it may have been about a quarter of the way into lap 3 – but again, I settled into the regime of shouting out encouragement to all those I passed. One of the pluses of running low key races are they’re really friendly affairs.
I was struggling compared to day 1, with muscular fatigue and restricted range of motion limiting my performance. After stopping to drink some water at the end of lap 6, a muscle above my left knee seized, so I spent a couple of minutes tentatively easing it back into service.
To my surprise, Lauren from my coaching group was waiting for me at the aid station as I passed through at the end of the seventh lap. This put a smile on my face, and gave me a boost going into the last two laps. However, I also made an error here too: I’d resolved not to stop at the aid station because I was certain I had a gel remaining, which I planned to use on lap 8. I hadn’t. I had to settle for chugging down a gel right at the start of lap 9, which just about got me through.
I finished Day 2 in 3:19:28. Not blazingly fast, but still a lap ahead of the nearest competition. My over-enthusiastic exertion on Day 1 hadn’t completely crippled me, and I was still building a healthy time buffer. The rest of the day would be all about the recovery.
To top it off, on the drive back, no warning lights came on. I made it home in good time.
Day 3: Willen Lake
I was better recovered today for the final day at Willen, thanks to a nail free journey home. However, the cumulative muscular load from a sub-3 followed by a sub-3:20 meant it was obviously not going to be a blistering performance.
I was the first off the blocks again, though only briefly: Alice quickly drew up alongside me to chat. She was in great spirits, and looked well up for the day. After 500m, she dropped back, and I was left on my lonesome again. Goodness knows why, I had showered…
Despite the near perfect weather conditions today, frankly, the whole day was a bit of a battle. I consumed an extra gel during the race, but it didn’t seem to perk me up. I made sure to enjoy the southern wood section, which aside from being sheltered from the wind, had a calm, tranquil air to it. The spring sunrays peeked through the sparse tree canopy, bounced off the lush green grass and afforded the scene a vibrant appearance that couldn’t fail to inspire.
On the final pass through these woods, I pulled alongside Alice and chatted for a few minutes, acknowledging her clean gait. For someone who’d just run 8 marathons in as many days, and was leading both the women’s individual race and 7-in-7, she had the air of someone out for a leisurely 5k bimble. Emerging from the woods, I pulled away for my sprint finish.
I finished Day 3 in 3:33:58, my slowest time for the week.
Day 4: Caldecotte Lake (Reverse)
Foxy switches the week up on the Thursday by changing the venue to Caldecotte, which is a slightly larger lake to the south of Willen. The loops jump from 4.5km to 6km apiece, and consequently the number of laps reduces from 9 to 7. There’s also a new starting section to navigate before the loops begin.
Standing on the start line, feeling uneasy after yesterday’s battles with muscular tightness and imbalances, I was faced with Foxy calling me out as the race leader, and directing me personally on the route for the starting loop. There was no option but to take the lead once more. To my relief though, after a couple of kilometres, most of my muscles relaxed, and I was able to settle into a fair, albeit slightly restricted stride.
The south-western stretch was fully exposed to the northerly headwinds, but once I turned the corner heading past the bird hide, I was shielded from the gusts for most of the rest of the loop. I wound my way through the two iconic circular mooring bays (the “boobies” as they’re colloquially known), under the dual carriageway, and around the windy northern section, across the grass, and back toward the Caldecotte windmill and aid station. Aside from that wind on that south-western straight, conditions were nigh on perfect. The sun was out, bathing us in a delightful warmth unbecoming to early March, and really showing off the beauty of the landscape at Caldecotte.
I had a simple nutrition strategy for this race: one gel per lap, which I found relatively easy to stick to. I kept it fairly slow and simple, enjoying the greater variety of landscape that Caldecotte had to offer, and finding the less frequent aid station stops slightly easier to work with.
FVS ultrarunner John Nelms, himself a prior finisher of Week at the Knees, popped down with his dog to cheer me on from the fifth lap. Being well acquainted with the route, he was able to pop up in a few separate spots to offer encouragement, before seeing me over the finishing line. Since I was feeling reasonably good, I opened the tap up at the end, to signify my intent going forward.
Also here supporting me was Lauren, who had entered Thursday’s race on-the-spot just a couple of days prior. It wasn’t long before she also finished strongly, arriving over the line to claim the first woman spot. A successful 1-1 finish for us, which we celebrated with lunch.
I finished Day 4 in 3:28:13.
Meanwhile, a comment that John had made in my and Foxy’s company was still playing in my mind. John had asked about the course record, which Foxy said he thought was held by Steve from the 2014 race. He’d reckoned it averaged around the 3:20s. When I got home, I quickly calculated I’d need to maintain a 3:26 average for the next three days to beat Steve’s record. This was a couple of minutes quicker than I’d run today, but slower than my average over the 4 days thus far. There were three full marathons left to go, and anything could happen, so I certainly couldn’t commit to breaking that record here and now; but the seed had been planted in my mind. Sub 3:26s. Barring injury, I should be able to achieve that.
Day 5: Caldecotte Lake
This morning, I put together a plan to run 3:15, basically a 4:37/km pace, in order to reduce my daily average target time by 5 minutes.
Arriving into the aid station beside the lake, there was a much gloomier outlook than yesterday. The sky was cloudy, the landscape grey and unwelcoming, and I clearly wasn’t the only one who was feeling the effects of the last 4 days.
It was a clockwise loop today, which had a simpler start on the main loop itself. I started pushing reasonably hard so as to give myself a buffer over my target 4:37 pace, fully expecting my pace to drop off in the last third.
This went reasonably well for the first half. I was easily finishing one gel per lap, and in fact my gel timing was moving forward, indicating an acute need for calories. I hadn’t eaten quite as much yesterday as in previous days, and I supposed this was coming back to haunt me.
At the start of lap 4 I pulled a muscle as I moved away from the aid station, which took a good couple of laps to clear. It wasn’t long afterwards that I started to flag. I maintained my gel intake, and ensured my electrolytes were fine; but come the sixth lap, I was on the verge of bonking, and had to chug down more and more gels to keep moving.
The seventh lap, the ‘victory lap’, couldn’t have come soon enough for me, and I picked up the pace as I entered the final k’s to claw back time. Drawing toward the finish, I checked my timings and realised I was approaching my 3:15 target, so put on a sprint finish to come in sub 3:15. Despite my pace varying wildly over the race, and not looking at my timings in the second half until that final k, I somehow managed to hit my target pace precisely: 4:37/k.
I finished Day 5 in 3:14:45.
It wasn’t until I arrived home that I partially solved the riddle of the bonk, when I exited my car and realised that my beaker of Tailwind had leaked and completely saturated my jacket, spare clothes and the car seat. My higher electrolyte intake meant I hadn’t fancied Tailwind as much at the aid station stops, and simply hadn’t consumed as much as I had on previous days.
Back home, what looked like a sore on my lower leg developed into a somewhat painful muscular injury. I was unfamiliar with this particular type of problem, but reckoned it didn’t bode well for my CR attempt. Time would tell.
Day 6: Caldecotte Lake
After a night’s sleep, my mysterious leg injury was no better. I couldn’t work out whether it was a sign of significant muscular damage, or just a bite from something nasty like a horsefly.
“Are you going to win again today?” was the question I was repeatedly asked at the start line. I glanced down at my leg, wondering whether it would get me around the course.
I started slowly, allowing a couple of other runners to lead, whilst I assessed my leg. This prompted questions from those around me: “Are you ok?”, “Slow start?” My gait wasn’t too bad, so I sped up, and overtook my way back to the front. However, it wasn’t long until a single-dayer in a black top pelted past me at a decent pace, possibly on for sub-3. There was no way I was trying to keep up with him on day 6. For the first time in the week, I’d been overtaken, and it was frankly quite a relief: the pressure to win every individual day was off!
It was a pretty windy day, and whilst theoretically running the course clockwise provided more wind cover, in reality the wind from the SE seemed to gust into our faces around most of the track. The stretch of tailwind around the south-western corner just didn’t make up for it.
I managed the first 10k fairly comfortably, with my injured leg seeming to recover the further I went. Thereafter, though, things got trickier as various muscles in my legs grew both tight and tired. I’d quietly tasked myself with running sub 3:30 today, and whatever pace I was managing, it wasn’t going to be good enough.
Another runner in a bright orange top was tracking me about 100m behind. He sat on my tail for kilometre after kilometre. As frustrating as I found it, my muscles weren’t really permitting me to speed up, but nor did I want to slow down.
As I passed the halfway mark, I decided I’d had enough of this situation, and sped up a little. My orange companion didn’t respond, so that was the last I saw of him. I maintained this pace until the penultimate lap, when I felt my muscles were settled enough to lay down a little more speed. For the final lap, I managed to open the taps a little further.
As I turned onto the final straight to the finish, I saw a chap in a black top halfway between myself and the finish line. Was this the single-dayer who overtook me at the start? I didn’t think it could be; but if it was, he must have badly miscalculated his pace and lost a lot of time in the later stages. I didn’t want to take the chance of missing out on 1st place by a hair’s breadth, so I shifted gears into a 200m sprint pace, and quietly chased him down, pipping him a few metres shy of the line.
As it turned out, this wasn’t the original black-top overtaker. He had DNF’d some time earlier with one lap to go. Regardless, the result was I got to to take first place yet again.
I finished Day 6 in 3:21:37.
The consequence of this was that simply finishing tomorrow’s race would give me the overall win; and if I ran sub 3:44, I’d take the course record. This felt eminently achievable.
Day 7: Caldecotte Lake (Reverse)
Standing on the start line, I was feeling confident in my ability to take the record, so I set myself yet another goal: to win all 7 individual days. That meant beating everyone who’d turned up today, including the single-dayers. Foxy started us off again, and I led the first section as usual; but as I merged back onto the main loop, another chap drew alongside me, and another sat behind. “Are you running all seven?” asked my competitor. “Yep”, I responded. He didn’t follow it up, but I thought I saw a slight grin, and could sense his unspoken satisfied reaction: “Your legs must be wrecked. You’ll drop off soon…”
I maintained my pace, whilst my confident competitor dropped into my slipstream for the blustery south-western stretch, presumably biding his time for the overtake. This continued for a couple of k’s, until I decided to test the pair of them by raising the tempo by 20secs/k. That was the last I saw of either of them.
The rest of the race was a case of focussing on the task at hand. I vaguely fancied the sub-3, but I was cautious about applying too much speed, just in case I pulled something in the final furlong. It was mine to lose. So, it was a case of keeping the pressure on to keep my two rivals at bay, whilst juggling gels, electrolytes and pace changes to make it as comfortable as one can on the seventh day of marathoning.
I finished Day 7 in 3:05.
And with that, I won the Week at the Knees, breaking the course record by over 30 minutes. So as to make it a proper job, I won each individual day too, the first time that’d been done.
This was my first attempt at the multiday format. I think it went fairly well.
On the final day, Steve Ryatt tried to coax me into running a 12-in-12. It’s probably not for me. For one thing, sustaining this sort of effort consistently day after day is rather an imposition on one’s musculature. Mostly, though, the issue is the time commitment. When you’re working full time, taking two weeks off for a race is a bit of a problem.
That said, the multiday format does make for excellent type-2 fun. It’s as much a game of strategy as it is of endurance. So if you haven’t given multiday a go, consider it: it’s a distinctive format, very different to single stage. You might find you enjoy it. There are shorter races available, like 4-in-4s, and remember that each race counts toward your 100 marathon club tally.
Looking back over the week, it was a fantastic experience. Thanks to Foxy and the team, all the runners for making it such a friendly event, and apols to Steve Edwards – but you’ve achieved so, so much I doubt you’ll even notice this one falling 😉