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A Long Running Record
On a hot summer's day, towards the end of June 1988, I was talking to a friend, Tim Graham; the subject turned to running. Our conversation went something like this:
"I'm running a race at the weekend."
"Oh, how far are you running?"
"Did you say eighteen or eighty miles?"
"Wow! How many are running?"
"About five hundred."
"Blimey! Where on earth do you find five hundred people to run eighty miles?"
At this point Tim makes actions to suggest that he may be on holiday from a lunatic asylum. But it's not long before I'm posting my first SDW 80 entry form, for the 1989 event. At this time I was slowly losing an eight-year battle with the foot complaint Plantar Fasciitis. Having gone through several pairs of custom built orthotics (arch supports) I had never been able to train more than 15mpw from within a year of considering myself a real runner, back in the late seventies. In fact, I had achieved the impressive feat of slowing down every year since taking up the sport seriously at the age of 19! Here, at last, I felt was a race that amiably suited me: someone with no speed, who couldn't train, but once started can keep on going. I have always been one of those people who can run a marathon on a schedule that would make the Bruce Tulloh's of this world recoil in horror.
In early 89 I strung together an extraordinary 4 weeks of over 30mpw training and my confidence was high, despite the Plantar Fasciitis which eventually forced me to ease back to my usual 15mpw. With June 89 fast approaching I reasoned that a long run would be a good idea and the Poole marathon seemed the ideal venue. I planned a steady
eight-minute-mile pace and all appeared well as I crossed the line on a scorching hot day in 3:26. It was not until the next morning, while resting my bare feet on the coffee table, when I was struck by the difference in size of my feet. The left was a full 50% larger than the right. Good-bye SDW 80. The first of many DNS's (Did Not Start's). Oh well, there's always next year, isn't there?
The new year arrived and 1990 saw me still engaged in my continuing struggle with the awesome Plantar Fasciitis. I cannot recall how far my entry got that year, only the bitter disappointment at the prospect of another DNS. Two failed starts, no doubt it would be third time lucky!
By this time my keenness to run the SDW 80 had inspired my younger brother, Mike, who also enrolled another victim, John Clavey, along the following lines:
"Are you doing anything on the last weekend in June?"
"You are now, and you owe me twenty quid."
Mike had entered John in the race BEFORE asking him if he wanted to run it! Both were to become regular entrants and stalwart finishers. With my brother and John running I was, of course, even more keen to run the 1991 event. However, the dreaded Plantar Fasciitis was hanging on with the grim determination of an SDW 80 runner. I was reduced to a training average of less than 10mpw for the first part of the year which dropped off in the weeks leading up to the SDW run. You may be able to run a marathon on nothing, I thought, but the SDW 80 is surely in another class. It was one of those rare occasions when good sense prevailed and I reluctantly accepted that it was not going to be third time lucky. So instead of running I decided to support Mike and John.
Now, I know we are very strict about the rules concerning buddies these days, but such things didn't seem to matter too much in '91 and, anyway, Mike and John had no pretensions as contenders so I decided to run the odd section with them. The odd section turned into 65 miles (I didn't run the start) and Mike and John completed their first SDW in a time of 18:40. The greatest potential problem I had during the run was the risk posed by my words of encouragement to two decidedly knackered runners! The next day I scarcely knew I 'd been for a run and was feeling positively downcast at not having been an official entrant. Next year there would be no mistakes!
One very obvious potential problem to a successful run in 1992 was that the predicted birth date of my youngest son Adam was very close to race day. Luckily he arrived early, six days before the race, and so it was looking increasingly likely that I would make the start line this year. Much further than I had ever got before! As usual training had been familiarly meagre and inadequate and so I was confident of a good run. Unfortunately, I had been having some real trouble with IBS (Irritable Bowel Syndrome) over the last couple of years and standing on the start line my stomach was showing its displeasure. The 1992 event was one of those baking hot sunny days, missing from more recent years. Factor 25, or more, suntan-lotion and plenty of water were the order of the day. I was well supported by my older brother Mark and partner Sue. I had that horrible feeling that yet again this may not be my year when only 500 metres over the start line a fly flew into my eye and quickly disintegrated trapping its wings and legs under my contact lens. I ran, eye streaming, in great discomfort to CP1 where I was able to remove its remains with the help of a car mirror. I was well clear of Mike and John, who were much more realistic starters, and casually said to Mark that it didn't matter if he missed me at our next agreed meeting place, so he could wait around and see Mike and John through CP1.
The sun was already very strong and with temperatures breaking 25C I was soon cursing my casual comment as my thoughts lingered on a long cool drink. When I reached 9 miles, my agreed meeting place with Mark, I was so relieved to see him standing there, drink in hand, that I gulped down vast amounts of iced water. This was not a good idea as my delicate digestive system soon began its squirming, twisting contortions. The situation deteriorated further until agonisingly painful stomach cramps prevented me from drinking let alone eating. In such hot temperatures the outcome was now certain and I recorded the first of my DNF's, pulling out at about 28.5 miles.
Some say that the pain of stopping is worse than the pain of carrying on, for one thing it lasts a lot longer - at least a year! For me, given my dire record, this was undeniably true. Another failure and, worse still, I had greatly contributed to my own downfall. Next year things must improve, I thought. I felt I deserved a lucky break.
Well, 1993 was soon here and for the second time in a mere 13 years I had managed to string together an astonishing 4 weeks of over 30mpw training. My confidence was at an all time high. Earlier in the year I had completed the 40 mile Mendip Trail Race in 6:50, despite getting lost four times! However, my Plantar Fasciitis was more determined than ever not to be beaten and, regardless of a mere three short runs in the eight weeks after the Mendip Trail Race, I was forced into recording my fourth DNS. To say I was gutted was an understatement. I had put tremendous effort into maintaining my fitness by using weights, swimming and, increasingly, more cycling. It had all had gone to waste. Sob! Sob! Sob! records my training diary on the day I posted my withdrawal. 1993 would again see me in the supporter's role, this time to Ray Masters who ran a 15:38 PB.
I was moved into one more desperate visit to the sports injuries clinic, where I was fitted with my best pair of orthotics yet. They by no means cured my foot problem, but did make a significant improvement. The doctor had declared that the limit of what orthotics could do for me had been reached and suggested that I would be much better suited to another sport, such as cycling. It was something I had been considering for some time. Plantar Fasciitis had won and I was soon out training on a brand new racing bike. Cycling quickly became my number one sport with runs becoming increasingly more rare, sometimes less than once a month. However, I never gave up on my ambition to run the SDW 80.
With the 1994 event to concentrate on, I became convinced that I'd found the path to success. I would do all my stamina work on the bike and just one 6-8 mile run a week, so that my feet remembered what to do with a pair of trainers. What could stop me now? I soon found out, when just days after a 140-mile ride in the pouring rain I contracted a virus that reached the parts other viruses cannot reach. It knocked me out for 9 months and the prospect of a successful SDW 80 run now seemed further away than ever. I couldn't even stay awake through a whole day let alone run 80 miles. Come race day I had, fortunately, regained enough strength to watch the event for some hours and lament that yet again I was not participating. I did not enjoy the day.
August 94 saw great improvements. I was regularly biking 150 to 200mpw and running 3mpw! This was enough to see me through the Otter 40-Mile Challenge and my confidence was again high. I had only to stay healthy and injury free for a certain 1995 SDW 80 success. The injury free bit proved too much when in late January I stamped on a balloon in order to burst it (as one does), and cracked my heel bone. I could not walk let alone run!
Mid April, the 1995 race looming, and I was still unable to walk. Not one to give up easily I decided that help was needed and visited the physiotherapist. I received first-class treatment at very reasonable cost. The physiotherapist was astounded when I revealed my intentions to run an 80-mile race in less than 10 weeks time, but on seeing the rapid progress we were making and my clear enthusiasm for the event she thought that it might just be possible. A steroid injection into my heel really got things moving and with less than six weeks to go I started jogging. Throughout this injury I never lost fitness since I was now a regular cyclist covering 200mpw or more. In the final five week lead up I averaged 10 to 15mpw running, and so for a second time I found myself on the start line.
Now some were sceptical, but I knew I was fit. The only problem was that I had not done much running, which for me was business as usual. Both of my brothers, Mark and Mike, along with friend John were running. In fact, Mike and John had completed every SDW 80 since they first got a taste for it in 1991.
I started steadily then went through a bad patch between Littleton Farm and Amberley, where John caught me up. Mike and John had run their first three events together, but in 1994 Mike left John trailing when he posted a PB of 14:55. John had been set his target for this year! John and I ran well together, catching a surprised Ray Masters (whom I'd supported in 1993) not long before Truleigh Hill. All appeared to be going very well when suddenly, on the descent to Pycombe, my left big toenail came off and was very shortly followed by the right! Now I had lost toenails before, but they had always come off a few days later, never on the day. What was happening now prevented me from running down any gradient. In fact, I was forced into walking backwards down all the hills. I trudged on for 10 miles. People passed every so often with words of encouragement on seeing my obvious distress. "You'll make it," they'd say, but I knew it was all over as I struggled backwards down the slope to cross the A27 at the Newmarket Inn.
I sat on the chairs at the Newmarket being tended to by the St. John Ambulance folk when Mark and Mike suddenly appeared and sat down beside me. The St. John Ambulance people were very surprised to see three brothers in a row. Could there be something genetic about the SDW 80? Upon looking at the state of my feet it didn't take the St. John Ambulance long to persuade me to pull out. Mark and Mike left, correctly reading the situation after glancing at my feet. "Never mind, you'll be back next year," said the St. John lady. I knew I would, but it hurt nonetheless. Yet another failure - I had now amassed five DNS's and two DNF's. How long could I keep this up?
John made his target, recording 14:41, and Mark and Mike finished together in 16:11, Mark running for the first time.
I was very distressed and saddened to pull out of the 1995 event, but I have always felt it was the correct decision despite my fruitless efforts to complete the race over too many years. It was really no choice at all and common sense should prevail in such situations.
The year could not pass quick enough. The SDW 80 had now become the most important event of my year. 1996 dawned and I was training hard for an End-to-End cycle from John O'Groats to Land's End. This would build up my fitness level higher than it had been for many years. I completed the 940-mile ride on country lanes, unsupported and carrying my own bags, in seven days. Though I was only doing one 8-mile run a week I couldn't have been more confident that this year I would do well. I just had to finish. With the prospect of the 1997 SDW run being the last, if I failed in 1996 the pressure on me for 1997 would be unthinkable. I had no choice; I would finish. Penny (my wife), Ray Masters and Julian were my support team. All members of the Romsey Road Runners and I was running in a Hardley vest! With less than two weeks to go I risked an unprecedented 25-mile run from the start to just beyond Amberley. Things looked good.
Standing on the start line I was chatting to Mark and John about breaking 15 hours. Despite my appalling record Mark showed his surprise at what he obviously felt for me was a modest target, whereas John was very sceptical that I could go that fast. I had also primed my support team to expect 15 hours. But I harboured more ambitious thoughts, though given my dire record did not feel it right to voice them.
I started very cautiously and it was past 10:00am before I reached CP1. Until CP2 (Hilltop Farm) I ran with Mark and John. I was holding back all the way, since it was my top priority to record a finish and lay the ghosts of the past to rest (I really wanted to kick them in the teeth!). Gradually I started passing people. All the time I was wondering if I should push it or carry on cruising. The weight of the past tipped things in favour of taking it easy. My support crew was now expecting me to finish well inside my predicted time. However, on the very same descent to Pyecombe where I lost my toenails last year it became clear that my left big toenail was badly bruised. Visions of an action replay flooded into my mind. My support crew on hearing the bad news and seeing the change in my demeanour mentally put the clock back to 15 hours.
However, things turned out to be not nearly as bad as last year (though my toenails did of course come off a few days later). This was just as well because I cannot be certain that good sense would have triumphed this year.
The miles passed steadily and a successful finish became ever more likely. My cycling experience helped me avoid hitting the wall. I was having a good time, feeling great and my support crew were exceptional. Maintaining a steady pace of just under 10:00mpm, as I had done from the start, I avoided the more usual pattern of gradually slowing down and consequently was overtaking many people. I was aware that my pace was just outside the 13 hour mark but was too scared to speed up in case I tripped over, broke a leg, fell down a ravine or worse. Even on the final rutted descent into Eastbourne I was still expecting to break an ankle. This didn't happen, making it a near certainty that I'd be mowed down at the traffic lights.
After too many years of trying it seemed unreal as I jogged across the field towards the finish area. A time of 13:03, and feeling as if I could run back to Queen Elizabeth Country Park, simply added to the experience. I had done it! Yeah! Fantastic!
Now I have a time to beat.
Postscript: The SDW 80 trail race was last held in 1997.
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