Tuesday, April 28, 2020

My First Ever 100 Mile Ultra Marathon: Part 2

Picture credits BUTM


I had exactly eight weeks training time, to prepare myself for my first ever 100 mile race, the Borneo Ultra Trail Marathon (BUTM).  Just to give you a bit of perspective, I'd normally recommend training for 12 weeks for a normal 26 mile marathon.  You might think 'you must be a runner already then'.  Nope, I'm not a 'runner', I run for leisure and maybe three times per week at that.  

I have however completed an ultra marathon in the Arctic, three years ago, which was 230km over 5 days.  The longest distance covered in one day was 65km.  So I guess I have some experience of being on the feet for a long period of time (and that's was friggin painful! You can watch my journey on that one here).

As for why I thought this would be a good idea?  Well, I'm always full of bright ones like that.  

Preparation for an Ultra Marathon

As per part 1 of this blog, I went to see a running technique specialist, who picked up certain flaws in in my running pattern and gave me some great tips to improve efficiency and reduce risk of injury.

With regards to training, I continued to do resistance training everyday, Strength & Conditioning (work more suited for a Crossfit workout) and maybe ran x2-3 per week, for an hour or so.  In fact the longest I ran for was, an hour and 20 minutes, which is ridiculous and I would say irresponsible considering the feet of the challenge ahead.

There were a few reason I didn't really take it that seriously:

1: I had ongoing pain in my Achilles tendon, that flared up every time I ran (during and after), so that put me off putting in miles.
2: I like to run to chill out, listen to an audible and get outside.  The fact that I 'had' to run, took the enjoyment out of it.
3:  I knew there was no was I could get 'fit' enough in 8 weeks to run 100 miles.

I had a very assumptive attitude too.  I knew I was going to cross the line no matter what, so in my head, I had already done it.  I was so lackadaisical, I didn't even book the flights, hotel, or buy the necessary kit, until five days before departure from Singapore.

When people are asked me about the details of the race like, 'what's the route, weather or terrain like?', I didn't  know, I hadn't even bothered researching and I was just more focused on work.  In my head I was aiming to complete it in 28 hours and time I plucked out of the air.

On reflection, it was all pretty irresponsible and I would never recommend that sort of attitude to a client, but I personally knew the level of pain and 'mental' I could tolerate after the Arctic Ultra.

With regards to my nutrition, I was mainly eating the same balanced meals as normal, except I increased my carbs by approximately one handful each meal, a week before the race.

For the race, it was recommend that I take a meal replacement called tailwind, so I head to specialist running shop for extra help.
When I turned up and explained the situation and my trailing history, they were sceptical to say the say least.  I don't blame them, these guys were veteran ultra runners and weighing in at 91kgs, I am not a typical looking 'racing snake'.

Race day 

Saturday 14th March 2AM :  Alarm goes off and I'm up, getting a shower to wake me up and doing the final packing before catching the bus, to get us at the start line.

6AM: Off we trot. It's still dark, but sun is starting to rise and everyone's keen and set off a good pace, to get head of the pack...until they're hit with the first 18% incline after 400m, when everyone starts walking and panting heavily up the first mountain.

Picture credit BUTM:  Getting ready for the off

From here I pretty much lose track of time and the whole event starts to blur.  I hope I can dictate the experience well enough, because after the first hour, it starts to get a bit insane...

6:07AM: Ankle starts screaming at me stop!  That's right, almost straight away my achillies starts to play up, as all I can do at this point is to alternate between running for 8 mins and marching for 8 mins.  (I was actually given this strategy by my running coach Aschton).   This is really hard to do when you're ultra competitive, I hate people overtaking me.  I have to fight every fibre of being not to speed up, or catch up.

10AM:  Use my first caffeine/vinegar shot-FUCK ME it's rank! The guy next starts laughing and says 'first time?'.  First and most certainly last, that's 60 odd bucks down the drain.

Anywhere between 10AM-12PM:  We hit the first check point, it's starting to get hot now.  I refill my water bottles and set off again quickly into the jungle.  The jungle is really exciting at first, but the technicality of foot placement, avoiding catching you're eyes of low branches, sticking to the path and pulling yourself up steep inclines with finger nails, takes away some of the excitement. I slip and trip plenty.  I found a piece of bamboo, which became walking stick for the rest of the race (guess what, I neglected go pack my hiking poles).  At least it was  shade from the sun in the jungle, because once I got out of it after midday, it was friggin hot!

See, everyone's happy to get out of the jungle.  Picture credits BUTM

1-4PM: The self chatter was all about numbers, working out how fast I was going.  What was the average mile.  What was my average 10km.  What as my expected finish time etc.    It's hard to measure distance without a map.

A strategy we'd use in the Army was counting paces.  We were taught to pace 100m or the length of a football pitch.  For me a football pitch was approximately 65 paces.  All you have to do after that is, tally the 'football pitches' walked.  Once you'd counted x10 of those pitches, that was approximately 1km.  Some guys would have ten knots tied on a piece of string in a pocket.  That pocket would have a hole where the string was threaded through.  After every 100m, you'd pull the knot through the hole, until you got to the 10th knot.  That would be your 1km.  Clever right!

4-6PM:   I'm still obsessed with numbers, but this time my motivation turns to the doubters and nay sayers.  I girlfriend was really worried for me about this challenge, given the lack of training and preparation. Granted, but something else was bothering me.  A couple of her circle were telling her I couldn't do it and specifically, in the time I wanted to complete it (28 hours).   The pace I was going, was looking at 21 hours!!  'Yesss' I thought, 'I'm gunna smash this'....That's while I was still able to run.  But by nightfall, my legs had had enough running, they were gased and then, it got dark.

6PM-12AM:  I managed to do the first circuit, which was about 45 miles and was back to the beginning, where supplies are.  I feel tired and hungry, thankfully there's a pretty good spread of food laid out for us at the checkpoint.  I stuff my face with potatoes, rice and curry chicken.  Pick up a load more sweets to snack on and set off again...the wrong fucking way.  One of the stewards run after me.  Luckily I'd only done about 400m, but I was angry about the time I'd just wasted.  He re-directed me and it was back up the 18% hill from the beginning.  You're fucking kidding me!

Day 2

12Am-5AM:  I was back in the jungle for most of the night and is eerie as shit!  Also, to make it more fun and challenging, it rained, so lovely and slippy.

Alone in the jungle, I started to think 'why the fuck am I doing this'.  It was almost comical. I could barely take a step without tripping on some vines, scratching my face on low hanging branches and sliding down hill on my arse.

I fairly recently visited Vietnam and did tourist thang and went on a day trip to the tunnels left from the conflict.  Going through the jungle now, made me appreciate what those soldiers (on both sides) had to deal with.  I couldn't imagine having to do that tactically and quietly, they must of been petrified.  it gave the heebie-jeebies just doing it for fun.

I was pacing about 1km per hour from most of jungle and set me back massively.   I was starting to feel mentally exhausted now too, from concentrating so hard.  That really was something, I prayed that was 'jungle phase' done and over with.

5AM-10AM day 2:  I remember at the start/finish line, my colleague Lizzie (also representing Ufit), pointed to a rope bridge you cross to get to the finish line.  That bridge stuck in my mind, as it was going to be the 'home run' I could look forward too at the end.

At the end of the second circuit, you cross that bridge and the end of it is a sign.  'Right to 100km finish' and 'left for 100 mile' (continuation).  You can literally see the glaring lights of finish line,  hear the celebrations and hear the music playing.   I was thinking of every excuse to stop and quit,  'Some sort of injury'.  'I hadn't trained properly'.  'Not enough supplies'.  'You've done 100km mate, that's really well done'.  'You've got nothing to prove'.  I fucking did!  I kinda humorously gave up trying to think of excuses.  "You're going to do it anyway, so shut the fuck up and get on with it" I said to myself and took the left turning.

Near the bridge was the main checkpoint where I the buffet was from earlier.  I thought I'd get some morale from re-feeding and re-fueling, but no joy.   The food had pretty much been scavenged by racers and the fly's were eating the remains.  Great, dolly mixtures and electrolytes for me then.

I did pack the liquid meal replacement I mentioned above.  I was advised to take form the really helpful and 'encouraging' lady from the running shop*.  I had to mix in a bottle of water, to a certain ratio and have another water bottle that I had to split that with.  Then finish a certain amount at certain times in the race, depending on certain...la-la-lah.   As soon as she started giving me details, I totally lost concentration.  It tasted fucking rank anyway, so didn't drink it.  Any other 100 bucks odd wasted.

At this point I was 19th in the field.  'Not bad'  I thought.   I just wanted to get back on the trail and let the other racers waste time eating at the checkpoint.  Where I had cooled dow, I really started to feel the inside of my thighs chaffing.  I knew I'd packed some 'anti-chaff' gel, but could not for the life of me find it on my person, or supply pack.

5:20AM:  I set off (the right way this time) and it was on a nice flat road.  I needed it, as my legs were stiff and needed gently warming up again.  But the chaffing, was getting unreal now.

The 'lovely flat' didn't last more than 500m before I had to take a right turn, up the start of the steepest -longest, fucking-baking slog I'd ever been up (and I only went to Everest basecamp 5 months ago).

At one point I thought I gone the wrong way, because I recognised that I'd already come down this particular stretch in the night.  A Indian guy (running in sandals) came towards me and past.  I was like "no-no, I've taken a wrong turn.  I can't go back and do this again.  I can't'.

I decide to risk it and kept going.  I got to a check point, I was praying they were going to tell me I'd gone the wrong way.  That would've broken me and would've been my legitimate excuse to bail out.  "Is this the right way for the 100 miles".  "Yes-yes.  keeping going that way" the organiser chuckled.  They pointed to another fuck-off incline. "Fuuuck sake!".   At this point you can probably tell, I'm a bit irritable now, but the dawn view, from the top of the mountains, overlooking jungle and Mt Kinabulo was incredible.

Photo credit:  BUTM

10AM-3PM:  I get to another check point and man it is warming up!  They warn me about the day's temperature forecast.  I throw water into my face, and the mild force of the impact, sent my flying backwards, on my now 'stilts' for legs.   A group of guys rushed to help pick me up, but I was all "I got this-I got this"  trying to smile.  They looked concerned as pulled myself together. I probably hobbled about 6 paces and slid on my arse on a mound, not even worthy of a broad step on normal legs.  "I got this" I called out.

From here until night, I was fully exposed to the sun.  There was more fuck-off incline too.  Some parts there was even rope on the trail, to help pull yourself up.  Me and other racer, took turns to over take each other, while the other rested to catch his breath.

I could feel the sun torching the back of my head and neck.  I didn't carry a hat (funny, I didn't prepare for the heat).  It was completely wiping me out.  I finished 3.5-4 litres of water with a 10km distance.  To find some sort of shade, I had to lay in a bush sideways.  It-was-killer and my FUCKING-chaffing issue, was starting to feel like rusty rakes, shredding the inside of my thigh.

I got to 100km and so behind original finish time of 10 AM, it was now looking at 7PM.  "Just get it done Snowy" I said to myself. "Roger that" as I looked up another-nother fuck-off incline.

130km (couldn't tell you the time at his point):  I reached a checkpoint and was in 11th place.  There was loads of fruit, noodles and biscuits.  I smashed as much I could in my face and searched one last time for my anti chaff gel.  Yesss!  I fucking found it.  I pulled the elastic at my pants, dipped my fingers in to the gel and then looked down.  "WHAT THE FUCK!".  It was like I had the bubonic plague between my legs.  The blisters!  It looked like a my groin had leprasy.  I smothered my hand in the gel and dug in. It felt like my hand was rubbing ancient Roman cobbled street, the blisters were enormous.

After that wonderful experience, I now only had 30kms to go.  I was ecstatic, 'only' 30km.  You may think '30km mate?  That's still a long way'.  Well yeah, but not in the grand scheme of things.  In fact, it really gave me a boost and I later found out that the last 30km split, was my fastest 10 km splits.

I set off  into, guess what...more sunshine and more incline!  I got about another hour in and then all of a sudden I was hit by a sensation that all runners fear and dread-'runners belly' (rapid and uncomfortable gastrointestinal movement).

There was no where to go, and there was a lovely(ish) toilet back at the checkpoint.  At the time I though 'it's only 30km to go'.  "You twat", the swearing and hating my life choices becoming more regular.   I literally got to a point where my thighs were ok, I'd had a good feed and was back on a good pace, but now, I was about to shit my pants.  "Fuck it, I've got to go here".  I just went on the side of a gravelly road.  Fellow runners, pedestrians, or cars could've past at any point, but I could not give a sh...

While I stopped, I re-lubed and started running again to make up time.  I was now starting to think I would get 10th, until...back in the jungle.  "You-fucking-fucking-fuck-fuck" and now it was starting to get dark again.

Focusing the path ahead I noticed something on the ground. It was still, but buzzing.  I started get getting lower to get a closer look, when the buzzing sound exploded as a million fly's jumped up at me to then reveal, a fuck-off snake.  "Holll-y shit "I screamed.  "No one said anything about fucking snakes at the start of the race.  You mean to tell me I've running through a fucking jungle, with fucking snakes in it!"  Now it seems ridiculous and obvious, that of course there's going to be snakes-idiot.  If you'd prepared before you come out, you might of read about that and the bamboo with spikes the length of fingers, on I hadn't mention until now.

Maybe 7:30PM?:  I was on the back of another female runner now, she pulled over to let me past so she could get her head torch out.  I was switched on and already had mine out at ready, (the most prepared I'd been for this race). I led for a bit but she was pretty hot on my heels.  I was starting to makes mistakes where I was running her race, so I let pass again. I'd put the pressure on her, but I wanted that 10th place.

8PM(ish): We both got out of the jungle and reached the last 10km checkpoint together.  I felt so relieved, only 10km to go!  "Sip up and get the fuck out' was that was going though my mind.  One of the organisers was trying to tell me something, but I couldn't be arsed listening, as at that particular point of time, I was having to fondle myself with lube down my pants.

Now it was pitch black, but back on the road.  There was still more incline, I was thinking "is there any down hill in this bloody country or what?" Yes there was and I was about to get smashed with it-  pretty much 10km of down hill.  Which by the way isn't as glorious as you may think, due to the impact it has on your thighs and end of your toes.

I was trying to keep up with the lady, but again I caught myself running her race and kept losing my footing and tripping. "Fuck this. Slow down.  You're not gunna finish the race at all at this rate".  I had to stop and gather myself, take a few breathes and wind down.  I was in conflict in my mind, as I wanted that 10th place, but at the same time didn't was to twist my ankle.

I looked up and for a minute or two observed the clear night sky.  I remembered my pal Gareth back in Singapore saying "you're always on the go.  It seems that you're just turning up for this race and coming back to work again.  Chill out and enjoy the experience".  I reflected on that and thought about it.  I been looking down for so long, I hadn't really appreciated what I done, seen or experienced.  So I did.  I went through a bit of a gratitude list.  Then all of a sudden I snapped out of it and said "get the fuck on with it!".  So I started running again.

I got to a point I thought I recognised from a previous circuits, "I'm close, I'm nearly there-yess!"    But I my excitement and the dark, I made three wrong turns and I had to fall back and find the path again.  I started to see the lights (what I thought the finish line lights).  But no. The path directed me right back into the the jungle.  At this point I almost wanted to cry.  I'd been focusing on my pace and counting the steps I knew I was going close to 10km, how the fuck could I be going back into the jungle?

Thankfully I wasn't in there for long, and came out at a river, where I thought the rope bridge was at the start/finish, but it was leading me the wrong way.  I was completely disorientated now and just wanted this to be fucking over.

I kept checking over my shoulder, I swear I could hear '#12' catching up on me.  "I'm not losing this place, no fucking way".  I picked up the pace again.  By now I knew I'd done 10km.  "Where the fuck is that bridge?".  I ran and ran my heart out.  My mind had left my body about 8km back.  It wasn't bothered about pain now. It was as if my mind had taken the reigns and was riding an unanimous object, that the rider didn't give a fuck about.  Pure focus was on staying ahead of #12 and keeping moving.

"Music!  Lights!  Fucking yesss".  I ran harder and saw the rope bridge.  I checked over my shoulder and then took out my phone to film the finish.

"Fuck me, this bridge is shakey. Ok, put the phone away before you loose in the river".  I get to the end and saw the same sign post as before, but this time it said 'Right 100 mile FINISH' .  It was all lit up like the gates of heaven.  I hear clapping and cheering as I head towards the end.  A couple of guys came running over to congratulate, no, catch me crossing the line.

I fucking done it.  One of guys said I was "the first brit to cross the line".  Nice.  I looked up at the clock '39.41:48' and actually I came in 9th out of 188 (that entered the 100 mile race).

I recieved my medal and was chuffed to bits.  I sat and chilled...and seized up.  They said I can go and catch the bus back my hotel at the main checkpoint, another 800m way.  "Is there a shuttle to the check point?" I asked.  "Ha ha no.  You can run 100 miles, you can walk 800m ha ha".  The organiser quipped. "FUCK YOU funny man" I said internally.  Two people then had to lift me up out of the chair.  That 800m book me over 12 minutes.

I walked to the bus stop on my 'peg' legs.  I missed the bus home by 10 minutes.  I had to wait another 2 hours. " FOR-FUCK-SAKE!".

I went back to work the next day and hobbled around for about a week.  My neck peeled like a snakes skin and the top of my scalp was blistered from the sun.  My feet, were in pretty good shape, all things considered, but by the end of the week I crashed.  I was so exhausted, my body could barely function.  I slept for 15 hours straight, I'm told that's normal for Ultra Athletes.

I wouldn't say it was as painful or 'mental' as the Arctic Ultra (as I was running on two stress fractured shins then),   But it was amazing to be able to push my body like that and prove to myself what else is achievable.
Experiences like that, really boost your confidence in yourself and make you think 'if I can do that, then I can do 'X'.

So what's the next challenge...?

...Any ideas?

Keep it real folks


*I actually caught her at the start line.  She was with another guy and was like "this is the guy that came to the shop, that think's he's going to do the 100 miles'.  He's only been training for 8 weeks and does a couple of runs a week".  As if I'd stuck in her head, some heavy-ass english bloke, who thought he could just turn up to a run 100 mile trail race.


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