Tuesday, 28 July 2009

Pre-Lakeland update

Last weekend was a weekend off for me - no event booked - so I cycled down to my local Parkrun at Bramhall Park for a 3.125-mile run under the pressure of competition from schoolkids up to OAPs. I wasn't expecting much from myself. I'd gone to seed, speedwise, since the Western States debacle. (I still have stomach issues that have re-emerged; they could be a legacy of my radiotherapy treatment in 2003, as I was reminded by the doctor at my recent Christie checkup.) I had done no short, fast runs because I'd rediscovered the pleasure (and ease) of blasting to work on the bicycle since the Manchester-to-Blackpool bike ride.

I predicted I'd be about a minute down with my 5k time. I pushed as hard as I could go all the way round but I could sense I was slower than I should be. I felt slow, ponderous and unfit. I wasn't overtaken on the final straight like I normally am but my time of 22:31 turned out to be a Personal Worst on this course and exactly 1 minute down on my PB in May (don't believe the latest times on the website; they're very generous). It was great to catch up again with Andy Shirres again afterwards.

Right, time to make reparations. I started running to work again this week. What a chore! It feels like I'm a beginner, starting running from scratch. Monday was a slog. Today was slightly easier. I hope tomorrow and Thursday are easier still to set me up for the Lakeland 50 at the weekend. I was registered for the 100 but I saw sense and downgraded to the minimum necessary to keep the Vasque Grand Slam dream alive. I expect it to be tough.

Tuesday, 21 July 2009

Moors The Merrier 26.4mi. Sat 18/07/2009

Moors The Merrier
I'm slowly becoming used to the fiddly Calderdale footpaths, even though I had to be pulled back on track several times by Geoff Holburt because I was trying to run from memory of last year's event.

MTM starts from the same location as and is organised by the same group that organises The Hebden in January. Alan Greenwood and Carole Engel plus helpers of Calderdale LDWA put on superb events. Walkers and runners are welcomed. Indeed, it is possible to enter on-line via Runner's World and SportIdent, ensuring full exposure among the running community. There were more speedy runners this year on the second running of this route.

We were sent off by Alan at 8am to run the full marathon distance (actually 26.4 miles) via Dick's Lane in the shadow of the Stoodley Pike monument to checkpoints at Lodge Hill, Hippins Bridge, Rapes Clough, Clough Foot and Gib. The route is challenging, some of it entirely off-path on open access country. One off-path section is reminiscent of the Rhayader Mountain Trail, though on a much smaller scale and with much smaller tussocks! There is no chance of getting bored in Calderdale. If (heaven forbid) you should find yourself getting bored, wait a minute (possibly two) and the scenery / terrain / view / direction will change to reignite your interest. Apart from that, the challenge of always adapting to the varying terrain and conditions in order to give of your best should keep the interest and attention honed to the max.

The conditions were quite challenging this year. Even though it was considerably cooler than last year, 24 hours of heavy rain leading up to the event meant that conditions on the ground were more like we would expect in winter – water and mud everywhere and thoroughly splattered legs by the finish. I have never seen the river so full, not even in January when The Hebden takes place.

This event was most unusual in that I ran it with two other runners, Geoff Holburt and Adam Purcell (a New Zealander, no less!). Normally these events turn into solitary affairs with 'every man for himself' as he gives of his best, speeds never matching. However, this time I was running on Geoff's coat tails, benefiting from his route knowledge. As for Kiwi Adam, this was his first time at this event distance. Not only that (I hope he won't mind me saying), he thought it was a road race when he entered. Shock horror, this couldn't be more off-road if it tried! Unaccustomed to the terrain, route descriptions, maps, compasses, navigation, trail/fell shoes (he was wearing road shoes but I don't think he fell over once) he stuck valiantly to Geoff and me as we made our way round to finish in 5:21. Superb performance Adam! You will go far. It may have been a baptism of fire but I bet you won't want to go back to road running again ;-)

I was amazed to get a PB by 24 minutes over last year's time. “PB Ham” does it again. Many thanks to Geoff for dragging me back on route whenever I got too cocky for my own boots and raced on ahead (always on a downhill) and invariably went wrong.

Needless to say, I took some pictures. However I only managed three this time before a “memory card error” put a stop to it. What I did take is linked here.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Manchester-to-Blackpool 100km bike ride. Sun 12/07/2009

This was my first ever organised bike ride and by far my longest, by around 50 of its 62 miles. It was a big journey into the unknown and I was prepared to take whatever it threw at me. Why did I do it? I joined the team put together by my employer, NXP Semiconductors. We rode in a very big team of 130+ to raise sponsorship for The Christie cancer hospital in Manchester. No matter what, I had to do this. The Christie treated me in 2003 when I had testicular cancer. I still need their services for regular checkups (next one is next week). I owe my life to them. I would not be on this Earth enjoying the amazing pursuit that forms the subject of this blog, were it not for them.

I set off walking to work at 6am dressed in my cycling clothes, race number pinned to the left leg of my Lycra shorts and backpack containing water bladder and all the clothing and food I would need for the day. (The food was in addition to whatever I bought along the way – my appetite was rampant after Saturday's exercise and I needed to keep my weight up to 10 stones somehow.) Our team of 130+ was organised by my employer. We were called “NXP4C”, meaning NXP for the Christie. We and our bikes were transported to the start at the Manchester United football ground.

After our group photo and checking our bikes (some had punctures to repair already), we went to the start to join the throng of cyclists inching slowly to the start line. We were due to set off at 08:30. I thought we joined the mass too early, but by the time the staggered starts brought us to the front, the timing was just about perfect.

Eventually we had inched our way to the front and it was our turn to be released, only to stop a few yards later at the first red light. That soon changed and we joined the 1000s of cyclists winding their way on the 100km jaunt via Leigh, Haigh Hall (near Wigan), Chorley, Leyland, Preston, Kirkham, Warton and Lythan St Anne's. I had hardly cycled in the previous 5 months and never anywhere near 100km at any time in my life. I was apprehensive at how I would cope. It didn't go too badly considering my lack of practice or experience. I found myself overtaking most of the time and gliding along without too much apparent effort.

The route was crowded and I felt sorry for the car drivers, who either couldn't get out of the side roads or were trapped among the cyclists (and holding us up in the process, since they could only go as fast as the slowest cyclist). Some cyclists rode dangerously or selfishly, or adopted the herd technique and barged through when they shouldn't – through red lights, onto roundabouts with cars already on the roundabout who had right of way – just because the cyclists in front had already gone through or perhaps they felt their need was greater than everyone else's. I'm sure the Police will have something to say about it. I saw the aftermath of one collision between cyclist and car on a straight piece of road, just as the ambulance was arriving. He didn't look good; I hope he was OK.

The route was well signed with km markers and there were marshals at all important junctions to give instructions and order us to stop when we should do. It was a massive, impressive and well planned operation.

I was glad of my first rest stop at Haigh Hall. My legs felt a little wobbly when I got off my bike. Percy was pointed at the porcelain for some much needed bladder relief and a cereal bar was consumed to keep the wolf from the door. Within 10 minutes I was back on the bike for the long downhill ride along the narrow road in the Hall's grounds through the chicanes (placed there to slow us down and avoid accidents on the slimy road surface, although there were still some accidents), followed by the steep though mercifully short climb to the main road.

With 18 miles to go, my second food stop at Lea County School, Preston was well overdue. I had been ravenous and desperate for food for too long. I was greeted by a scene of scores of cyclists and bicycles sprawled all over the playing field in the warm sunshine. I refilled my water bladder, finished off the previous night's pizza lovingly transported in my backpack, ate a Mars Bar and purchased a cup of tea to wash it all down. Never before have I been able to eat so well while exercising. There's something to be said for cycling – it doesn't jiggle the stomach and upset the digestion. It seems almost sedentary compared to trail running. It certainly doesn't get the heart rate as high (average 134bpm compared with 169 on the White Peak Walk yesterday). Perhaps I wasn't trying hard enough.

After a 20-minute rest and with some high octane fuel in the tank I was off with renewed vigour, only now I was noticing my knees, which were getting more painful and feeling like they might explode every time I pushed down on the pedals. Added to that, an increasingly strong head wind as we approached the coast meant that my gearing and speed had to take a big drop and it was now my turn to be overtaken. We hit the coast at Lytham St Anne's and continued into the wind with the sand dunes and sea on our left. It was becoming a real struggle to pedal. I needed some anti inflammatory medication to calm my knees down. I stopped to get out a 200mg Ibuprofen, only to discover that the blister pack was empty. Oh well, just get on with it and enjoy the pain instead.

The finish came upon us quickly on a closed section of the promenade with the funfair and Blackpool Tower ahead in the distance. I passed the NXP support team on the right as I raced for the line to cross 4hrs 51mins after setting off.

NXP did us proud with their support as we in turn supported The Christie. There was a big gazebo between the two vans on the finishing straight with barbecue and drinks laid on to rehydrate and refresh us. The NXP riders slowly trickled in and the bikes built up around the vans. I wandered around the finishing field for a while, enjoyed a large Cappuccino purchased from one of the stalls and listened to Stockport Pantonic Steel Band for a while. It was an amazing spectacle, and boy was it loud, without any amplification.

We soaked up quite a bit of sun before our transport took us and our equipment back to our workplace. I sat on the top deck of the coach. That was a mistake. After our arrival I could hardly get down the near-vertical stairs. When it was time to cycle the 2-mile journey home, the simple fact is, I couldn't. I had no problem walking, but pedalling was a different matter. My knees said no, even on the flat. I had to walk my bike part of the way home.

During the following week I was back on the bike for the daily commute. By the end of the week I would not have known my knees had been sore. Good news. It must have been muscular trauma; muscles repair quickly. Now I'll be able to do next weekend's trail marathon :-)

White Peak Walk 26mi. Sat 11/07/2009

This was to be a very busy weekend for me, consisting of this and the 100km Manchester-to-Blackpool bike ride tomorrow. Both had to be booked a long time in advance. A close call and back-to-back weekend was the result.
This event is never advertised. We get to find out about it by word of mouth. Such is its popularity the 300 limit is filled months in advance so entries have to be sent in very early to avoid disappointment. I usually apply for the following year within a couple of weeks of running it.

Predominantly aimed at and occupied by walkers (12 hours are allowed for completion), runners are discovering the delights of this event. The word is spreading. This year saw more runners than I have ever known. As a result, despite getting a P.B. my 14th place finish was my lowest ever ranking. That's good news because it confirms the increasing popularity of trail running in this country. There is no healthy pastime that is more enjoyable, in my humble opinion.

The event consists of 26 self-navigated miles between checkpoints in the gorgeous limestone country of Derbyshire (did you ever get the impression I like Derbyshire?). It starts in Monyash at 10am, which seems quite late considering it is a sedate walk for most, with perhaps a pub stop somewhere along the way for lunch and a tipple or three.

After registration in the Village Hall, we gathered on the village green to await the start. Geoff Holburt had already activated his levitation device, such was his eagerness to burn up the course.

The route takes us via eight checkpoints at the Waterloo Hotel, Brushfield, Bakewell, Calton Lees, Rowsley, Birchover, Harthill Moor and Long Rake. We go through Flagg, along the disused railway line now the Monsal Trail, past Monsal Head and Bakewell, Bradford Dale, Youlgrave and Cales Dale back to Monyash.

I ran for a few miles mid-race with good running friends Vaughan and Anne Wade, which was welcome, since these events are usually solitary affairs when everyone's own pace always seems to ensure isolation. Our conversation soon found its way to stomach issues as Anne and I compared similar experiences. My stomach was complaining from the assault meted upon it two weeks earlier in California.

The day was warm and humid again and the forecast rain was showing no signs of appearing (thank goodness). At the last checkpoint with just over three miles still to go, I had barely half an hour left to equal my previous best time of 4:58. I thought sub 5 hours was out of the question but I pushed ahead as fast as I could go (it was barely a shuffle at times, but it was all I could muster). I caught up with 'Big' Dave Smith, who was plugging away valiantly (Big Dave and heat do not mix), then Colin Travis. Colin reckoned I might get a PB. “Impossible” I retorted. Nonetheless I ran down the irregular steps into Cales Dale as fast as I dared and walked up the other side. I plodded on up the track oh so terribly slowly with Colin close behind (he could easily have gone on ahead but all he wanted was a sub-5-hour finish), over the secret stile on the right then finally downhill across the fields towards Monyash Church with my heart rate hitting 183 beats per minute. I might have been slow but it was eyeballs out dash for my life as far as my body was concerned. I was soon out onto the road then it was a quick right-left to the Village Hall and the finish. I was amazed to have finished in 4:55 – a PB of just 3 minutes over my 2006 effort. Time might be marching on but there's life in the old dog yet (how much longer can this continue?).

An hour or so later on the way back to the car with a belly full of tea and food provided by the excellently organised White Peak Walk, I joined Big Dave for a pint outside the pub. Half an hour's lively conversation ensued with a thoroughly sound bloke. Another brilliant day, but tomorrow looms with its journey into the unknown.....

Photos are here.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Vasque series race 7 - Osmotherley Phoenix 33mi. Sat 04/07/2009

The weather had just cooled down a few degrees from its high at the peak of the heat wave, but it was still into the 20s C and rapidly warming up, sunny and humid as we waited for the 9am start. Osmotherley (a quaint and picturesque North Yorkshire village with just three pubs – always judge the size of a place by the number of pubs – already had a carnival atmosphere with the bunting strung across the roads and the stalls set up in readiness for the start of the summer games in the afternoon.

This was the 7th event in the Vasque / Runfurther series, the previous one (Marlborough Downs Challenge) being 7 weeks previously, so some serious athletes were in evidence again. Jez Bragg was there, ‘fresh’ from his third place finish at the Western States Endurance Run 100-miler on the previous weekend.

The hooter was blown and we were off up the lane and soon onto trails across beautiful undulating countryside. For those who felt sufficiently energetic, most of the course is eminently runnable. I was still recovering from my dehydration session of the previous week and trying to keep dehydration at bay again this week, so completion was my first priority and speed my second.

Early on in the woods, wasps/hornets stung several people. I was one of them. By the time I felt the burning sensation on my left breast, the perpetrator was nowhere to be seen. Over the space of the next half hour the burning increased and changed to a just-punched, bruised sensation that clamped my whole chest. I feared my breathing might be affected next. Thankfully it wasn’t. Within the hour it had subsided and was forgotten about.

There were three routes – 33, 26 and 17 miles. The Vasque event was the 33-miler, which took in 9 Check Points. Some of the navigation across fields would have been tricky were it not for the line of trampled pasture that led to the next field boundary, stile and so to the next. Being well back in the field certainly has its advantages.

At one point while running along a sandy trail with the odd rock sticking up out of it, my left foot contacted one of them in a violent manner from which recovery was impossible. Within a second I was sliding along the trail, hands out and stripping the skin from underneath my left arm. Within another second I was on my feet again and checking in front and behind that no one had witnessed the clumsiness. They hadn’t. Phew. My secret’s safe.

A minor navigational error approaching CP3 wasted 10 minutes or more, but I was soon on my way out of the checkpoint and up the next hill.

The plod up and over Black Hambleton was a long drag. I was truly thankful for the water drop at the self-clip point on the moor, since my water had run out already from the previous checkpoint. By the descent towards Osmotherley, running was not coming easily to me. I ran down to the final self-clip at the footbridge, and then came the short sharp climb up the other side with the wooden handrail. It was hot, humid and stagnant down there in the woods. I suddenly became light-headed and my vision went black. I had to hold onto the handrail for a few seconds for all systems to return before continuing. Several others were affected the same way at that point. It must be low blood pressure after running down to the bottom and suddenly stopping for the self clip. I climbed up the narrow path and descended into Osmotherley to the sound of smashing crockery and jollity amidst the summer games. My time of 6:51 was 6 minutes slower than when I last did this in 2006. Now if I hadn’t made that foolish navigational error….

I spent a good while afterwards relaxing on the grass with other runners and the village’s free-range hens, supping tea and eating the delights provided by and purchased from the locals at the Village Hall. Jez was still there. He had only gone and won, just one week after his podium finish at Western States. That's a full house of 4000 points from AT LEAST 4 wins in the Vasque / Runfurther series. If I'm not mistaken he is the first person to achieve this. There's no stopping that running machine. Well done Jez. Mission accomplished. You can relax now (for a bit).

I had booked accommodation for Saturday evening in the Queen Catherine Hotel, where rehydration and refuelling continued, accompanied by much chilling out. It was a grand end to a grand day.

A few pictures are here.
Seven down, five to go.....

Tuesday, 7 July 2009

Western States Endurance Run. Sat 27/06/2009

Western States 100
This is a long personal story. If you can stick with it I hope I don't bore the pants off you.

My Western States 2009 experience was a bitter-sweet one. The sweet aspects:
- I got to see the four searchlights sweeping across the night sky, drawing the night time runners towards Auburn.
- I got to experience the 'athletes' village' on the sports field of Placer High School, floodlit at night.
- I got to see some of the 'speed merchants', including many sub-24-hour runners, cross the finishing line in their moment of glory.
- The sweetest moment of all was when I checked the results monitor and learned that fellow countryman and good friend Jez Bragg finished third in the unbelievably fast time of 16:54:35. I knew he was good, but for someone for whom there was no opportunity back home to train for heat or altitude to finish so strongly with so much world-class competition is nothing short of heroic. He has confirmed his world class credentials in the most prestigious granddaddy of 100-mile trail races.

The winner was Hal Koerner (USA) in 16:24:55. Second was Tsuyoshi Kaburaki (Japan) in 16:52:06. If the race had been 102 miles, Jez might have caught him as well for the No. 2 spot ;-)

2009 was the first time in the history of the Western States Endurance Run that the top three spots were taken by runners from three different continents. It is a great rarity, probably never to be repeated now that everyone, including foreigners, must go through the lottery due to the exceptionally high demand on this prestigious race. By default, the proportion of foreign participants will plummet after 2009.

The sweet aspects, most notably Jez' success, balanced nicely the bitter aspect; you will have gathered by now that I failed to finish. This was my 11th Hundred, third Western States and first “DNF”. I got a car ride back from Foresthill (62 miles) with the sodium medical research team. Many thanks to Tammi Hew for your care and concern, and to Dr. Rose Bruso for driving this sad wreck back to the finish and letting me sleep for an hour or two in your car.

My race began well. I had detected the familiar acclimatisation of my body to the conditions in the preceding week as I lived, slept, walked, and ran the trails at altitude. The 12+ mile lone run/hike from Sugar Bowl to Squaw Valley on the Pacific Crest Trail, then the 6-mile jog on the Tahoe Rim Trail with Jez, Kiwi Paul Charteris (my WS pacer in 2006) and Simon Mtuy (the familiar WS presence from Tanzania) were paying dividends. The humidity, always very low at 10 – 15%, sucks the moisture out of you, but I kept well hydrated. The temperature, very cool when I arrived, was climbing to a peak for the weekend of the race. It was a little reminiscent of the scorcher of 2006, though this year it only reached the high thirties C instead of the low forties.

At 5am on Saturday I was medically assessed and researched, the gun had fired and we were powering our way up the mountain to Emigrant Pass by the light of the ski slope floodlighting. As always, I took pictures as I went. It was warmer than usual at the start – about 10 deg C, so shorts and vest were comfortable from the outset. The sun was soon rising behind us as we climbed higher and Lake Tahoe was coming into view. I arrived at Aid Station 1 (3.5 miles) below Emigrant Pass exactly on 24-hour schedule. I had decided to try to fuel myself better this year to avoid the premature turning to lead of the legs. I made a point of eating something at every aid station – a little piece of peanut bar. I made sure I stayed well hydrated with “GU2O” (electrolyte drink). I took a “GU” (gel) for consumption later.

Once over the top at 8,750' we were back into the cool shadow of the mountain. The run down the other side along the single track was easy, too slow in fact. The pace was set by the person at the front of the line and my running could not flow. There was no opportunity to overtake. It was a shame because I'm good on the gravity-assisted downhills. Thankfully, the person holding us up soon realised and stepped aside to let us pass. Ahh – into the zone of easy, naturally-paced running again. Before long as I ran in another line, I was overtaken by Steve Ansell, whom I met on Coyote Two Moons last year. He also enjoys the downhills. I took my cue and gave chase, doing some overtaking of my own. Things were feeling good.

The undulating trail brought us to A.S.2 (Lyon Ridge, 10.5mi.). Another piece of peanut bar, some Pepsi, another GU for later, more GU2O for the bottle and I was off. The sun was hot now as the trail undulated up and down along the ridge. I needed my first pee. As I was one of the sodium medical research rats, I dutifully pulled a plastic zip-lock bag from my bum bag, filled it and left it beside the trail for later collection. (The sight of pee bags beside the trail became a familiar sight; there were 20 'rats' in the sodium study. Somewhat later, the punishment imposed by this race upon the human body was shown by a bag of dark brown pee. What that person must have been doing to his body does not bear thinking about.)

I arrived at A.S.3 (Red Star Ridge, 16.0mi.). Amazingly I was still on the 24-hour schedule and I felt as though I had been running well within my capability, but I needed to sit down. Something wasn't quite right. Why did I need a sit-down recovery so soon? I had planned to waste minimum time at the aid stations, and here I was having to sit down at only 16 miles.

I downed a cool Pepsi and another piece of peanut bar before running off down the hill with two freshly filled hand-held bottles. The running didn't last for long. I was soon wasting my first downhill opportunities as the dreaded queasy feeling was making itself felt in no uncertain terms. Running was becoming increasingly difficult. I had consumed two GU gels so far and I didn't fancy any more. I was slowing down and getting consistently overtaken for the first time.

I plodded into A.S.4 (Duncan Canyon, 23.8mi.) and I was going downhill fast (metaphorically speaking, not in a forward motion sense, unfortunately). Another time-wasting recovery sit-down and refuelling (Pepsi, peanut bar, GU2O) and I was off, plodding my way in survival mode. Soon I heard a Kiwi accent call out from behind. It was Paul Charteris, making strong and steady progress. He was soon gone. The trail eventually descended towards the first canyon and the first real heat. I broke into an intermittent shuffle on the downhill that left me spent by the bottom. I was caught up by one of the medical support runners who was running the race in relay. He soon realised I was not well and he stuck with me like a guardian angel (like an early pacer) until he signed off at the next aid station.

After the long uphill drag and shortly before A.S.5 (Robinson Flat, 29.7mi.), I vomited for the first time. It was black and smelt putrid. I had long since given up running by the bottom of Duncan Canyon. I dragged myself into the aid station to a scene of wild applause, cheering and photograph-taking. I felt unworthy of such applause and wished I was invisible to suffer in anonymity. From two aid stations previously, I had regressed from being on the 24-hour schedule to being almost down to 30-hour pace. I was weighed by the WS medics. My weight was 134 pounds, only one pound down. I was “good to go”. “You must be joking”, I thought. I knew different. Next I was grabbed by the sodium researchers. This was the first of two 'lab rat' aid stations. They dragged a chair into the shade and sat me down to take blood pressure and blood. The first finger-stabbing was not too successful – lots of finger squeezing did not bring enough blood. Another stabbing and more squeezing eventually elicited enough blood to fill their capillary tube, then began the wait while the machine analysed the sample. I was informed that my blood sodium was rather high and I should stop taking salt. I hadn't been taking any. Perhaps I should just stop taking GU2O instead. It then began to dawn on me that I had hardly drunk any water. It was mostly GU2O – at least two litres of the stuff, plus Pepsi, plus a bit of 7-Up, plus some chicken broth soup. The two GU gels, which are very dehydrating in themselves, had tipped me over the edge cruelly early in the race. NEVER TRY ANYTHING NEW ON RACE DAY.

The medical procedure must have taken a good 15 minutes, which would have been bad had I been pushing for a time, but under the circumstances I was glad of the excuse to sit down. Later, after my retirement, Tammi was to tell me that my blood sodium was very high and gave cause for concern, and she did not think I looked in any fit state to continue out of Robinson Flat.

I'm a veteran of ultras and used to a bit of suffering. I've certainly had my queasy moments and I can sometimes recover from them, at least partially. I set off again in blissful ignorance, clinging to the forlorn hope that, eventually, things must get better, perhaps after dark when it cools down a bit. All I needed to do was drink more water and less GU2O. My mind was too mashed to calculate that I had another nine hours to go before dark.

After the climb out of Robinson Flat around Little Bald Mountain, there comes a nice easy downhill run to A.S.6 (Miller's Defeat, 34.4mi.) and through Dusty Corners (38.0mi.), ultimately to the bottom of Deadwood Canyon (between Last Chance (43.3mi.) and Devil's Thumb (47.8mi.)). I had really been looking forward to this. However, by the time I got there, I could not run. I plodded the whole way feeling thoroughly wretched. I arrived at Miller's Defeat well behind the 30-hour schedule. Welcome to cut-off world.

The remainder is a blur. I wanted to drop so many times, but as long as I remained in front of the ultimate cut-offs, I carried on, one aid station at a time, forever hoping that things would improve. I needed a target. My ultimate one became the second and final sodium research station at Foresthill (62 miles). If I could get there, at least road transportation out would be the easiest, since this is the most accessible aid station, and the researchers would be able to get my data.

As I fell further to the back of the field, I witnessed an increasing amount of suffering. My day was positively spiffing compared to the one being endured by some other poor souls. At various points (usually on the steep climbs out of canyons when the suffer-fest was always at its worst) I would hear loud heaving and retching sounds from other men (never women, strangely enough). The aid stations were awash with people (men again) in various states of retirement, some with intravenous drips inserted. Devil's Thumb is a favourite location for this scene after that brutal, furnace-like climb. (It's always nice to meet the Buffalo Chips of Sacramento here – the sister club of my running club, Stockport Harriers. Usually we meet in happier circumstances, for me at least.)

On the descent to El Dorado Creek (52.9mi.) I heard more hideous sounds of illness before rounding a corner to see a man stretched out on the edge of the precipitous trail. He was being watched over by an Aid Station volunteer who had ridden at least a mile up the single track on his trail motorbike, which was leaning up against the cliff wall. I slowed briefly, taking in the scene before me and feeling very concerned for the victim, who was vomiting violently every few seconds. I got a “Carry on, nothing to see here” hint from the official. At around the same time I overtook another competitor who was weaving dangerously along the trail and running the risk of falling off the edge. He already had someone with him. Also at around the same time, a rescue helicopter flew overhead to evacuate a victim to hospital. By the time I reached the aid station way down at the bottom, two officials were starting up the trail with a stretcher to evacuate the victim I had passed at least a mile up the tree-clad, baking hot canyon side.

I could only walk down the hills when I would normally enjoy the gravity-assisted down-hill blasts. When it came to the uphills on the other side, it was a pained plod of barely 1mph, with sit-down rests. Trouble was, as long as it was daylight, as soon as I sat down I would immediately hear the high pitched scream from the attendant swarm of mosquitoes in my wake as they homed in for the kill. I had to keep moving no matter how sick I felt. Any semblance of effort magnified the nausea. The mosquitoes caused more acrid black vomiting, by default. It was total purgatory.

I hoisted my sorry bottom (I think the Americans call it a donkey, mule or something similar ;-) into A.S.11 (Michigan Bluff, 55.7mi.) as it was getting dark, to another scene of manic applause that seemed quite inappropriate – even obscene, by this point. I pretended they weren't there. I have never been here so late. I should have been well beyond Foresthill – Dardanelles or even Peachstone – by this point. I sat down and was treated to a cup of tea with milk by a kindly aid station helper, who managed to conjure up these rare ingredients from somewhere. I suspect she may have raided some personal supplies. It began to revive me; for the first time in many hours I began to sense some bladder action - some liquid was actually entering it. With a second brew warming my hand bottle I was out of there in the dark with 10 minutes to go before the cut-off. Official records state that I spent 18 minutes at Michigan Bluff.

As I trudged my way through the dark along the fire road with Volcano Canyon my next target, I heard the cut-off hooter sound in the distance behind me. That's a sound I thought I would never hear and hope never to hear again.

Volcano Canyon is not a big canyon compared to the previous two, but it seemed huge by this stage. I had never before covered this ground in the dark, not even in 2006 when the world of hurt was so much worse for most runners (except me). I passed another very ill runner somewhere down there. He had someone with him. I seemed to be the only one who was going it alone. I promised to advise the next aid station when I arrived but unfortunately, such was my predicament it had completely slipped my mind by the time I arrived.

I hit civilisation and A.S.12 (Bath Road, 60.6mi.) 1.5 hours behind the 30 hour schedule. I needed another sit-down and some sort of rehydration, but what could I stomach? I settled for two cups of 7-Up with ice. They went down well. I burped some gas, which was even nicer. Then I was persuaded to try an inky-dinky mini wafer-thin savoury biscuit. It was about the size of a postage stamp and you could almost read a newspaper through it, so it couldn't do any harm, could it? (Remember the Monty Python sketch, Mr. Creosote and the "waffer-thin mint".) As I languished in the chair, Dean Dyatt (also met last year on Coyote Two Moons and always dressed to a theme - this time it was co-ordinated flames to ward off a repeat of last year) appeared up the hill out of the darkness to meet his brother, who had been waiting for him. They soon left for Foresthill; the cut-off was getting perilously close. He seemed to be going OK as far as digestion was concerned. As for me, I knew I was done for but the aid station captain tried to give me encouragement, to continue as long as I was ahead of the cut-offs. He had been in my predicament before yet had continued against all the odds to complete the thing with minutes to spare. Slightly encouraged, I got up and began the walk up Bath Road. Within 30 seconds I was convulsed by the most comprehensive, involuntary emptying of my stomach contents so far. I wrenched off my bum bag and supplementary light from around my waist to provide some relief for my cramping abdomen. The multiple soaking of the warm ground at the edge of the road brought forth a damp, humid smell, as if a shower of rain had just fallen. The remnants were still black and putrid. I laid down on the road, head downhill, not my preferred orientation but I was too far gone to move, to let the latest bout of nausea pass. I heard the aid station captain say that he would be back in 5 minutes and if I was still there he would do something (I did not catch what it was).

A comprehensive vomit can work wonders. Within a minute I was feeling a whole lot better and was back on my feet, plodding uphill towards the main road and the left turn downhill to A.S.13 (Foresthill, 62mi.). I was greeted warmly as always. My name was announced on the PA system with great fanfare. I felt such a fraud. Any semblance of celebration seemed so inappropriate. I was weighed. I was not too lightweight, so fit to continue. Yeah, right. I was then greeted by Tammi and her crew of medical researchers. I had reached my goal. I was their last 'rat'; they had been waiting for me. Tammi could not believe I had made it that far after how I appeared at 29.7 miles. I was offered a chair but I found lying down on the warm tarmac to be far more comfortable. They didn't like that because it didn't look good. I sat on the chair and let them do whatever they wanted with me (blood taken, etc. I forget the fine details now). I was waited on hand and foot by so many caring people – food, drink, melted Popsicles, whatever I could stomach. Now that I was sedentary and after my recent stomach-emptying, it extended to just a little more than a wafer-thin biscuit. I sat there and let the cut-off happen, which only took around 15 minutes in total. Most of that was taken up with the medical research. The siren sounded and the merciful release was complete. There was no point in struggling on. There would be no better place to retire, and I surely would have done sooner rather than later. The 62 miles had taken me 18.5 hours to complete.

Immediately, the aid station began to be packed up. Before too much longer, as soon as I was ready, Dr. Bruso was driving me and Tammi down to Auburn. I was in the front seat and trying to adopt any position and think any thoughts to keep the nausea at bay. In my haze, I watched the scanning searchlight beams draw closer as we neared Auburn. In the final few yards of our journey our route joined the race route. We drew alongside a seriously sub-24hr runner as he descended the final hill to Placer High. Dr. Bruso and Tammi shouted wild encouragement to him. He was in the zone and hardly flinched. He had one goal – to finish in the best time possible. Even this encouragement would not deflect him from that goal. I felt so envious. Even on a good day, a sub-24, or to finish in the dark, seems so beyond my capabilities.

As soon as I arrived at the finish I needed to be medically assessed, first by the cardiac researchers (weight, blood draw, blood pressure, ECG) then by the sodium people (weight, blood and post-race DEXA scan to measure bone density, among other things). I found the lie-downs for ECG and DEXA scanning to be quite relaxing.

The nausea continued. I tried to eat and drink to recover while lying down in the medical area. (It would ultimately take me 48 hours to get properly hydrated again.) I watched other people in a worse state than I – many still being sick, on I.V. drips, one collapsing in front of my eyes. Eventually, pressure on the stretchers (or “cots” as the Americans call them) was so great that I had to vacate mine. After all, I was only feeling sick. I tried to continue my sleep on the grass outside but even though it was very warm and dry, dampness was seeping through from the ground. I got up and wandered around again, still on my rehydration and refuelling quest. I wouldn't have been able to sleep anyway. It started to get light around 5am. As I was feeling lost and not knowing where to go to recover, Dr. Bruso kindly offered to let me sleep in her car. I welcomed the hour or so of fitful sleep before the rising sun shone into my eyes to wake me up for good.

I returned to the field to watch and cheer more finishers, escape from the sun as much as possible (it was HOT), eat and drink, chat with different people (including Mo Livermore*, one of the Western States 100 founders), attend the presentation ceremony then get the bus back to Squaw Valley.
*Mo is a very kind and caring person who takes great interest in the runners. She always welcomes me back every year. She has never forgotten how I survived the furnace-like conditions on my first running in 2006 without a single salt tablet. I only drank water between the aid stations and I never ate a single GU. I got my sustenance right in 2006 more by luck than judgment. I now know where I went wrong this year.

I learned that Paul Charteris was forced to retire at 80 miles with a calf injury that eventually prevented him from even walking. I felt very sad for him. Completing Western States had been his dream since he paced me in 2006.

Some big names were forced to retire, including Scott Jurek (who was expected to win), Dean Karnazes and Jen Shelton, among others. The Western States 100 takes no prisoners.

I returned to Squaw Valley to be met most surprisingly my the proprietress of Poole's Guest House, where I have stayed every year for WS. Ann had been following the race's progress avidly and was most concerned when I had dropped. She had envisaged physical injury. Not being used to ultra runners, she was not aware of the stomach issues that can plague the ultra runner if he does not get his sustenance exactly right. I was very grateful for the final uphill car ride from a most welcoming and caring host.

I so wish I could return next year to enjoy such hospitality, drink more water and less GU2O, eat no GU and make a better job of the Western States Endurance Run. To see the projected movies and light display at No Hands Bridge I have heard so much about, and to finish before dawn, would be my dream goal, but having to now take my chances via the lottery means that it will be most unlikely. For the same reason, the familiar yearly appearance of Tanzanian Simon Mtuy will stop as well. The international colour of the Western States Endurance Run will recede after 2009, which is very sad.

Here is my photo album.