Friday, 4 July 2014

Endure 24 Part 6: Race Report


Where do I start? 

Endure24 had the lot: sun, rain, thunder, lightening, mud, puddles, clay, mud, sludge, hills, leaky tent, mud, peat, mud, mud, mud, a fairy and even Father Christmas made a presence!

I set out with a minimum target of 55 miles, which I achieved. I was hoping to complete 85 miles but I ran the last 15 miles on a sprained ankle and it was too painful to continue. This meant stopping around daybreak on the Sunday. It wasn't a sudden sprain; just the continued running over the horrendous terrain that faced all the runners, and more especially the solo runners who had no real let-up from the ankle-twisting, leg-sapping mud.

Did I enjoy it? Damn right I did! 

Will I do it again? Oh yes - already signed up for next year!

So here's my story accompanied by many pictures. I must insert a caveat here: some of the pictures I took; some Colin Brassington, Matt Brown and Kinesis Ttwo took; with the rest taken by numerous runners who posted their photos on the Endure 24 Facebook website (too many to mention). I would like to thank everyone for taking the pictures; they bring back so many good memories....

Friday Preparation
I arrived at the venue (Wasing Park) around mid-day and the first thing I did was wonder over the registration tent to pick up my race number, timing chip and goodie bag. With that done I then pitched my tent (with the help of Teresa from Tadley Runners). I was in a good location right next to the start / finish line which meant if I needed to get anything from my tent / car then I wouldn't have far to walk. It was forecast to rain on the Friday and Saturday but when I arrived the sun was shining and it was quite a warm day. I'd borrowed a tent from a friend - it was a little 1-man tent but it sufficed for what I needed. I didn't plan on spending much time in it.

I then spent the best part of 20 minutes trying to blow up my mattress with nothing but the air in the lungs. This stunt almost killed me. I had a headache for the remainder of the day. Mental note for next time: buy a pump! With the tent up I headed home to prepare what can only be described as a feast. I prepared way too much, but I knew this. The plan was not to eat everything, but to eat a little bit of what I fancied from a wide selection of food. I took with me (and this only a representative sample): sliced pizza, lightly salted sliced potatoes, orange segments, bowl of pasta, gels, fig biscuits, Jaffa cakes, energy bars, salted peanuts, bananas, pork scratchings, salted crisps, Monster Munch crisps, marathon bars, milkshake, Jelly Babies, Wine Gums, Full Fat Coke, Lucozade Sport, SiS Electrolyte powder and enough water to fill a swimming pool. Oh yes, I was taking advantage of not having to carry all this stuff and just taking what I wanted when I needed it. I was determined to get my hydration and fuel strategy right.

That night I couldn't sleep...

Saturday Morning
Andy 'The Machine' Woodman
I arrived on the Saturday morning nice and early. I knew it would be busy and I wanted to make sure I could still park my car next to the tent I'd pitched the day before. I parked up and before I unpacked I went for a little wonder. I bumped into Andy Woodman and his wife (who was cooking some lovely smelling bacon!) and then Andy and I headed over to where the Newbury Runners had set up camp. It was good to see the gang again - it's not often that everyone gets together like this, so it was good to catch up with some friendly faces. At that point part of me wished I'd set up camp with them as opposed to the area where the solo runners are. Maybe next year.

I also bumped into Stouty - the man who unintentionally got me into ultra running. He showed me a bottle of S-caps (salted tablets) and I was half tempted to take some; however I'd brought enough salted snacks to ensure I didn't get cramps, so didn't ask if I could take any. I also bumped into Mike Moors who kindly gave me some tape for my ankle. I wanted to try and protect that tendon as much as possible. After then catching up with a few others and wishing them good luck, I then headed back to my car and tent and prepared to unpack. This is when Andy joined me again. 

Just about to unpack
I decided to put all my food / water in the boot of the car. I have a hatch-back so I could also use the back shelf. This meant not having to bend down all the time to reach things out of the tent. I was starting to get quietly excited about what was about to happen. With the food unpacked and everything "in its place" I then headed out for a little walkabout. 

Big Foot!
The sun was still out although it was starting to cloud over. The rain had held off thus far but everyone knew it was on its way; it was just a matter of when. Nevertheless the event looked great in what little sun there was, and there was definitely a sense of anticipation on everyone's faces. In fact it was good to just have this time to myself. I like having a little "my time" before a race; I think it calms me down. With that in mind I decided to snap some shots before then grabbing a bacon buttie and coffee in the "kitchen tent" at around 9:30am.  I could hear everyone chit-chatting and getting excited. There was definitely a buzz in the air (along with some rain clouds!).

Starting straight
Rain is coming...
I finished the bacon buttie and headed back out to take a few more pictures before then walking back over to the Newbury Runners camp for some final 'good lucks'. I caught up with Nathan Darling and Mark Hayes. It was good to have a chat to them - especially Mark whom I'd rarely spoken to before. The three us headed off for a walk and I was tempted to "walk the course" to see what lay ahead of me. I pondered it for a couple of minutes then elected not to. There was no benefit in it; besides which I'd be running it enough times soon enough! I wished the guys good luck in their relay race then parted company and headed back to my tent to get changed.

Getting changed in a little tent was made more interesting as I was also plastering my inner thighs, 'my close member and his little friends', and my feet with Vaseline; I also covered the old nips with plasters. I then heard a familiar voice and as I opened the tent door I heard a voice say "Hello Mr Nicholls".

Some welcome colour..
I poked my head around and there was Robin Killingworth; the fellow Newbury Runner whom I used to run to Hungerford and back with earlier in the year whilst I was training for my first marathon and before I got the injury to my tendon. I knew he was running solo and it just so happened that the small tent pitched next to mine was his! He was joined by his wife and young son and they were erecting a larger tent for them to stay in. This was good news as I'd at least have someone to talk to and share my experience with.

As we chatted I looked up at the sky and knew it wouldn't be long before the rain would come. This was not good. It's one thing getting wet during a race; it something else when you start a race wet and cold, especially a 24 hour race. Within a matter of minutes the rain started!

Pre-Race Rain & Leaky Tent
Oh my god - when it rained it really rained! I dived into the tent as golf-ball sized rain drop came thrashing down. I was in the tent for 30 minutes or so when all of a sudden I was seeing water in the tent. I felt the top of the tent and it was dry. I pushed my hand on the ground sheet and water came pouring through the material. My tent was leaking from the ground!!!! Well this was going to be fun. Thankfully I was sitting on the blow-up mattress, but all the stuff that was not on the mattress was now getting wet! I stayed in the tent for a while longer then decided to get out, put my hydration pack on, and head over to the main solo tent near the start line. As I walked over I could see lightening and hear the thunder and the rain just got heavier and heavier. The announcer made a joke about someone taking a huge photo from the sky (i.e., the lightening bolt being a flash going off). It was vaguely amusing, but I couldn't see anyone really smiling - especially not the solo runners. It's one thing doing a lap then going back to your tent to dry off and wait several hours for your next turn; it's another to have to constantly run in it. I also feared the terrain would be a complete mess after a few laps....and how right I was!

So here I was: in the rain, with a leaky tent and waiting for the start of the race. This was going to be fun....

The Race: First 25 Miles
There was a small delay to the start of the race due to the lightening. By the time we were called to the start the rain had stopped. Whilst at the start I bumped in Matt Walters (another Newbury Runner). He was also running solo and was aiming for 50 miles. We had a little chat and before I knew it we were let lose on the course!

Me at the start - Unknown Photographer
As we headed from the start, the first 1.5km was a mixture of tarmac and compact gravel with a fairly long uphill section. At first I hated this section because it wasn't off-road, but as the event went on I began to love this section! I ran to the first hill and then walked it before then running again to the forest. The first lap wasn't bad - in fact it was quite enjoyable. The course was undulating (i.e., up hills followed by down hills). In actual fact it wasn't as bad as I thought. With the exception of the first hill, the rest were short. As a solo runner who walked the hills this was great. I walked the hill, then run the rest. The terrain was good but I just knew that after a few laps it was going to be a nightmare to run on.

Heading out for a long journey - Photo: Colin Brassington
I bumped into Matt Brown (an ex-Newbury Runner) who was also running solo. We chatted and eventually ended the lap together. He dived off after the first lap to get his coat and I continued. I did another couple of laps and the terrain was starting to become muddy and slippy in places. On the third lap I met up again with Matt (in fact I ran with Matt on and off for at least 3 laps) and at the end of the lap I pulled off the course briefly to refill my electrolyte bottle.

Glorious mud 
It got to around lap 4 and the because it hadn't rained for nearly 4 hours the mud was starting to firm up, which was a good thing. I was coming towards the end of lap 5 and I hadn't taken a real break (with the exception of refilling my bottle at the end of lap 3 and spending a couple of minutes taking on water at the Water Cabin half way round the course) so decided to stop to get some food and a hot drink. As I came towards the finishing line I passed the Tadley Runners camp and Teresa kindly offered to make me a cup of tea and bring it over to where I was camped. I crossed the line having run 5 laps (25 miles) and then pulled off the course.

Me around the 22 mile mark
Me around the 22 mile mark
Once off the course I kept my watch running. I looked at it but it hadn't quite recorded 25 miles (GPS a little out due to the woods). However I was well on target. I'd planned approx. 1 hour per lap for the first 5 laps, and I'd completed those 5 laps in under 5 hours.

Probably the best running picture ever taken of me!

It's hard to calculate how long I was actually running for because my watch was on, so it was constantly recording time even when I stopped for breaks. I should have done manual splits but figured I'd forget to the press the button and mess the whole timing up, so I just left it. It's the same problem with the official times. If I cross the line for a new lap and then stop for a break, it still records that "rest time" as part of my next lap top. Nevertheless my official splits (as per the event timing system) for the first 25 miles were:

Lap 1  00:54:35
Lap 2 00:54:00
Lap 3 00:59:16
Lap 4 01:06:25
Lap 5 01:11:05

Andy giving me encouragement after 25 miles
NOTE: Mile 4 was slower than previous miles because I came off the course to refill my electrolyte bottle.

NOTE: Mile 5 was slow because I decided to walk and chat to another solo runner for 5 minutes or so.

Thumbs up and smiling at Colin - Ready to go back out!
I greatly received the cup of tea and had some snacks whilst chatting to Teresa. Then Andy Woodman also popped over to see me. The 3 of us started chatting then I decided to deal with what I thought was the first signs of a blister. I was reluctant to pop any blisters due to the mud and dirty water I was running though and I didn't want them to become infected. Thankfully what I thought was a blister near my right big toe wasn't a blister at all. I have a little bit of hard skin there and it seems my trainer over the tough terrain was rubbing it, which made it feel a little uncomfortable. As it wasn't a blister I dried my feet and put a Compeed plaster over it, which seemed to do the trick. I had been wearing my double-layed socks which help prevent blisters, but I needed to ditch them. I changed them for some bright coloured single layer ones; just hoping they wouldn't give me a blister. I did have another pair of double-layered socks, but I wanted to keep them until Sunday when hopefully the weather would be dryer and I could get more time "in them". 

After cleaning myself up a little, refilling my pack with some energy food and more electrolytes, I then started to relax and prepare myself for the next lap. Both Andy and Teresa were very supportive through the whole event, and I thank them. Before I headed back out we were joined by Colin Brassington (Mr. Photographer and fellow Newbury Runner). We exchanged some friendly chit-chat (mainly Colin telling me I was crazy for running solo) which also cheered me up. However it had been almost 30 minutes of rest and so I decided I ought to get back out on the course. 

Cabin at 5km mark - Photographer Unknown
Next 30 Miles
As I got back on the course (probably around 5:45pm) I headed out towards the first incline and received a huge applause and  encouragement from the various teams lining the track. They cheered every lap but I only really took notice from this point on. I pumped in another lap and took a little break. This started to become the norm hereon in. During every lap I'd stop at the Cabin for water. It was at this point that I started to get into Shot Bloks. I'd never tried them before. I was an SiS Gel Man; however over the past 3 races I've become increasingly sick of them and actually not taken them when I should. I know the risk of trying something new in a race, but I calculated the risk and chewed on a Shot Blok. They were actually really nice and they seemed to do the job. I made it my goal to have one half way round every lap hereon in, and at the end of every lap I'd take a break. Although the mud was starting to dry up it was still tough going on the ankles. 

Wasn't even the worse section!
Then it happened! Yes the rain came back and just as bad as the first time. Within minutes the course was a complete mess again, and it didn't help that the light was starting to fade. I managed to pump in another couple of slow laps. I'd started to walk more than run. Not because I was tired but because I didn't want to run in the deep mud and risk injuring myself further. I noticed quite a few solo runners applying this tactic. This was frustrating because it meant I was walking on "flats" and "downhills" - these were suppose to be the sections I made up the time from walking up the hills. By the end of lap 7 (35 miles) the only places I felt comfortable running was the first mile or so up the hill and last mile and a half which was on a solid track. There were small sections elsewhere when I could run, but they were were short and few and far between. I stopped at the end of lap 7 and considered how best to proceed.

Darkness Looms - view from my tent
I had a number of options here, although my target of 85 miles was looking a little on the distant side. It was doable within the time remaining, but my right ankle was starting to hurt and I couldn't move it left or right unless I used my hand. It was starting to get dark and it was still raining. I sat down for quite a while, munched on yet more food, and pondered how the race had gone and what I wanted to get out of it. The conditions were making me reassess my whole approach and expectations. Just as I was about to head back out Stouty caught up with me (I can't remember the time but it was dark) and told me that he'd be doing one more lap and then calling it quits. I think he'd done 50 miles so the final lap would take him to 55 miles. For Stouty to call it quits at that stage, and due to (in his words) "this shit weather", reaffirmed my intention to reassess my goals for this race.I have total respect for Stouty - the man is a running legend and had completed the GUCR a month earlier (135 miles).

Trying to sleep but failing
He suggested I got some kip and hopefully the weather would be better in the morning - then I could get more laps in. Although I was initially reluctant to do this I eventually agreed. I wasn't looking forward to it though. I was caked in mud and my tent leaked. I crawled into the tent, elevated my legs are tried to sleep. But I couldn't. It was a futile attempt - I was so high there was no way in hell that I was going to be able to sleep. I therefore decided to have some more food.

I'd made a bowl of spaghetti and sun dried tomatoes, which I started to munch on. I didn't want to eat too much and become bloated, but I did need some substantial food in me. I probably had around 10 huge fork fulls then called it quits. I could still hear the rain coming down and again tried to sleep, but to no avail. I therefore decided to stay in the tent a little longer and relax as much as I could.

Eventually I made the decision that if I'm going to be awake then I might as well be awake and running! So I got out of the soaking wet tent and changed into some night running clothes. I'd heard that the forest got cold at night (even last year when it was really hot during the day) and given I was wet I didn't want to come down with hypothermia (someone suffered that last year). I changed into my long-sleeved Inov-8 top and then put on a Fat-Fat fleece (I don't have a running fleece so this had to do) and then on top of the whole lot I put on my trusty Inov-8 Windshell jacket (which I'd been wearing most of the day). The jacket was not water proof but windproof, which meant it was soaking wet. However it was lightweight and protected me from any windchill. I also put on my Invo-8 Race Gloves to keep my hands nice and warm. So fully clothed up and my head torch on, I headed back out onto the course.

Getting back out was a little hard. My legs and ankle had started to seize up, so it took a gentle plod for a couple of miles just to get them loosened up again. I'd decided to take each lap at a time. My first target was 50 miles (a good ultra distance) and then 55 miles (the bare minimum target I wanted to hit). In actual fact this approach worked well for me. By "chunking" the race up it made it easier. I also enjoyed running in the dark. I'm used to running in the dark due to all the winter base training I did; I find it more peaceful and there was certainly less people on the course. However there must have still been around 250 people at any one point, so there was always some passing or you passing them. On this first lap back out I chatted to another solo runner whilst walking up the first large hill. It was great to chat to someone again. 

At the end of each lap I took a break and then headed back out. The terrain was just a nightmare. The rain eventually stopped in the early hours of the morning but the damage had been done. By about 11pm I'd done 40 miles. I was heart broken. It had taken me 11 hours to run just 40 miles. Okay my actual running time was a lot less, but the duration was still 11 hours. This was a lot slower than I'd originally hoped to run at the start. This mud was really starting to piss me off. By 1:30am I'd done 45 miles and at 3:40am I hit the 50 mile target! The combination of only running on "solid" ground and taking large breaks between laps meant that my average splits were getting ridiculous (averaging around 2 hours per lap). This was a fucking disaster! I wanted to run but just couldn't take the risk of injuring my ankle further, which was already starting to swell and hurt when I twist it. It was a repeat of Marlborough!

A Tough Decision
I finished the 11th lap (55 miles) and then sat down near my tent. My ankle was really sore. I sat there for quite a while then decided to get into the car and chill whilst I contemplated what to do next. I really wanted to keep on running. With the exception of my ankle I felt okay. My hydration and fuel strategy had seemed to work. I knew if the conditions were good I could go out and run a 1 hour lap, but the conditions were not right and the damage to my ankle had already happened. There was no way I'd be able to achieve my next target of 85 miles, so I'd only be going out and doing more damage. Whilst ponder this for well over 45 mins I heard a knock on the window. It was Andy Woodman. He'd come over to see how I was. When I told him about my ankle and then how many miles I'd done, he told me to stop and that I'd done a bloody good job and that nobody would think less of me if I stopped now. I think that swung it for me. He was making total sense and was just reaffirming what I'd spent the last 45 mins contemplating. It was a heartbreaking decision to stop but the right one. To make sure I didn't go back out on the course I stopped my Garmin (for the first time since the start of the race) and saved my run. That was the end of my race. At that point I wasn't a happy-bunny...I'd failed to push myself; to reach a challenging target. So much potential but the fucking mud had prevented me from doing it. I was happy to have achieved the 55 miles (after all it was the furthest I'd ever run) but disappointed and angry because it was a missed opportunity to really push myself and prove to people (and myself) that I can be an ultra runner.

Post-Run (Horrible Feeling of Failure)
Pondering going back out
Soon after the decision Andy left me as he had another run scheduled. I sat down, quite dejected, and looked at my feet. Although I'd taken my trainers off numerous times to change my socks and check for blisters, I found it particularly hard to take them off this time. I knew I'd be taking them off and not putting them back on again. It just made me feel even worse - a failure.

As I sat there looking at my feet and I did contemplate going back out - yes I may have stopped my Garmin but officially I was still in the race. However the nagging thought of making my ankle worse for no real gain kept playing on my mind. To make matters worse though the sun was coming out and the course seemed to be drying up. 

I eventually took the trainers off and inspected my feet. Given the conditions they'd been running in they didn't look too bad.

Not as bad as they look

Compeed stayed on!

No blisters, which is a good sign

Swollen right foot...
The pictures make my feet look worse than they were. Given the conditions I only suffered from one tiny blister. Usually I pop my blisters but given the risk of infection I decided not to on this race. A lot of friends suffer black toe nails, loss of toe nails or bad blisters. My decision to invest in the NB Leadville trainers really paid off. They were designed for trail ultras and performed excellently! 

After cleaning myself up and changing into my road runners I headed over to the food tent for some breakfast. It was then that I met up with Colin and Elaine Brassington and we had breakfast together. They agreed that I'd made the right decision. They left but I was then joined by Robin Killingworth and his wife and son. Robin was planning on going back out for more laps and wanted to hit the 75 miles. I wish I could have joined him. As I turned to my right I saw an organiser laying out all the finisher's medals. I stood up, walked over and with reluctance and a degree of sadness I handed her my timing chip and received my medal before then hobbling down to the Newbury Runners campsite to catch up with everyone.

The race is still on
I met up with quite a few of them and after they congratulated me and I congratulated them I headed back to my tent. Of course there was still quite a few hours before the race formally finished and I couldn't leave the site until that happen due to where I was parked. I opened up a can of Guinness and reflected on what I'd done. Then Matt Brown walked passed. He'd just had a shower and had completed an impressive 50 miles. For his first ultra that is really good going. Well done mate!

I went for another little walk and then bumped into Stouty again. He's kept his word and only ran the 55 miles. Made me feel a little better that he'd only done 55 miles; not because I wanted him to quit early but because it reaffirmed that I made the right, if painful, decision. We'd both pulled out at 55 miles for the exact same reason, although he did manage to complete the 55 miles much quicker than I did. Well done Stouty! I also saw Matt Walters again, and he was looking to also hit the 55 mile mark, which he did. Well done chap!

Lap 6 01:41:29
Lap 7 01:43:17
Lap 8 02:27:37
Lap 9 02:13:30
Lap 10 02:26:34
Lap 11 02:06:49

I actually came 77th in Category
NOTE: All the above laps had huge breaks in them whilst also involving walking large sections due to the mud

I started to pack up and was just counting down the time until I could leave. I was struggling to walk and although I could have hung around the Newbury Runners for their post-race celebrations and photos, my ankle wasn't up for walking too much and I wasn't feeling totally happy. No sooner had the race finished than I was driving out of the site with mixed emotions.  

Turning Negatives into Positives
Before heading home though I stopped off at McDonalds. Being away from the event allowed me to contemplate what I'd done. First of all I looked to turn the negatives (i.e. having to stop the race) into positives:

  • My tendon (and the niggles and concerns I had prior to the race) never materialised
  • When the mud wasn't bad (i.e., start of the race), I had a good pace that was neither too slow nor too fast
  • Hydration and fuel strategy worked, and I suffered no cramps
  • I managed to sort my feet out as soon as they hinted a blister, and in the end didn't really suffer from them
  • The trainers were an excellent investment: my research and choice had paid off
  • I can now ditch the gels and move onto Shot Bloks (less sickly)
  • I'd run further than I'd ever ran before (prior to the race my furthest had been 34 miles; I'd now covered 55 miles)
  • It's the longest time I'd been on my feet (prior to this race it was 9 hours; I was actually on my feet running for just under 13 hours with a total duration of 17 hours)

So many positives to be taken and things I can take to the next race (whenever that may be, as I have nothing planned at the moment). So as I sat there is MacDonalds looking a mess and smelling even worse I continued to reflect on the event. Running 55 miles in those conditions was a good achievement and there were many solo runners who did not achieve that. I left MacDonald's happier than when I entered and more at peace with myself. Yes it was a lost opportunity, but that is racing and there is always next time!

Next Steps
This is a tricky one to answer because at the moment I have nothing lined up and I promised my wife that I'd take some time out from racing. We are also expecting our second child in December, so my running next year will also be impacted. There are some who say I should give it up (too many female friends have said this, much to my anger), but I think that is too drastic and that a compromise can be found.

My running this year has been time consuming, but that was mainly to get in shape to run long distances (especially the first marathon I did). I'm now in the shape and as long as I don't loose the fitness then I should still be able to enter races without having to put so much time into training. I'm also going to have to be even more selective in the number of races I run over the next year 12 months or so. This year I've only run 4 races (1 complete marathon, 1 half marathon,  and 2 ultras) but they required an awful lot of training to complete. 

I'm going to try and complete one more ultra before December. Will probably look for one around October and I'd ideally like it to be a 50+ mile ultra. That way I can take a couple of months off from training (but still keeping my fitness) and then spend a short amount of time training before entering the race. 

As for next year: well I have already expressed an interest in returning to Endure24 and I'd like another crack at the Marlborough Downs Challenge. The only other race I'd like to do is the Ridgeway Challenge. An 86 mile race over the Ridgeway. The 3 races are evenly spaced with a good amount of time between them. I know I'll be spending the bulk of my time back in dirty nappy hell next year, but we all need to still get on with our lives and I'm a firm believer that compromise is the way forward. Of course non of this I have passed by Mary (apart from Endure24, which she didn't object to as hopefully the whole family could attend, and it would be something Xavier would love). For now though let's just say next years' running has yet to be finalised.


  1. Great blog Mike and brings back vivid memories of the miles of smiles we all enjoyed!
    Also did it as solo and just about manage to grind out my minimum target, was hoping for more but the mud thwarted that so top one of getting the 55.
    Alex Mason.

  2. Hi Alex - yeah they were horrendous conditions and for me it spoilt what was a great event. I was more than a little frustrated to finish on 55 miles, but at the same time very happy I managed that distance given the weather. I'm not running any ultras this year due to a new addition to the family, but will hopefully get back to them next year.

    Also well done on you completing the 55 miles.... Are you going back for more this year?