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Coastal Trail Series

Endurancelife CTS South Devon

Marathon #9 (DNF #1)

Saturday 07 February 2015

Time had flown by since the shoe-destroying trail marathon in Anglesey. The Altras were only a couple of months old and had only completed 440km so I sent emails to the company in the US and their distributor in the UK. They said for me to return the shoes to the place of purchase and they would make a decision about replacing them if there was a manufacturing fault.

Eight days after Anglesey (Sunday), I went for one last run in the Lone Peaks, it was supposed to be a recovery run but ended up being a half-marathon tempo run along the Thames Path to Windsor and back. I was feeling fantastic! My legs started out a little stiff but soon warmed up; funny considering I was running in shorts for the first time this winter! (How much warmth can one layer of Lycra really provide when it’s dry and there’s no wind?) The Thames Path was frozen on the way out but was pretty much thawed on the way back, so a little slippery in places but mostly OK, it’s been much worse! On Monday, I went for another run in shorts and this time I wore my Merrell road shoes along the Thames Path to Cookham for a proper recovery run, an easy 12km but something wasn’t right? Prior to Anglesey I was having issues with my left hamstring and/or adductor, now my left side was fine but my right hammy and knee were sore. I was forced to rest for another week with lots of hot and cold therapy, gentle walks and some stretching. During the rest week, Runner’s Retreat in Marlow were excellent and replaced my Altras for another pair of Lone Peak 2.0, hopefully these ones will last longer than the previous pair.

New (replacement) Altra Lone Peak 2.0
New (replacement) Altra Lone Peak 2.0

After looking at some of the videos from the 2014 CTS South Devon event and with just over a week to go before the 2015 chapter, I reluctantly made the decision to withdraw from the Portland Coastal Marathon. The Anglesey event proved (again) that I cannot recover well enough in just eight days following these tough Endurancelife CTS events. T.S. Eliot famously said, “Only those who will risk going too far can possibly find out how far one can go.” I now have a better idea of how far is too far.

I ran over 2700km in 2014, every month I had a distance target and exceeded every one, without going for a run just for the sake of accumulating “junk” miles. I said to myself that I’d not have distance targets in 2015, but run for my love of running and, when I have one in force, stick to my training plans. Secretly though, I want to run in excess of 3000km in 2015 (with no “junk” miles) so in order to keep the load consistent throughout the year, I needed to run 255km in January. With a slow start following Xmas and New Year, spending some extra time with Tracy whilst she was on a break from work, a niggling injury prior to CTS Anglesey and being a bit leg weary afterwards, for the first time in over a year, I failed to meet my own monthly target (even though it’s a secret target and I tell myself “quality over quantity.”) Bugger. I’ve got the CTS South Devon event (difficulty 4/5 – severe) and the (less tough, difficulty 2/5 – moderate) CTS Northumberland ultra in February; I tell myself now that I’m not going to add January’s shortfall to the February target, but I know it will be in the back of my mind for the entire month.

With only a week to go to CTS South Devon and still carrying this behind-the-knee niggle, I decided I’d attend parkrun Black Park for a 5km test of my legs. When I arrived, it was snowing and the ground was frozen and icy. After nearly having a car accident driving (sliding) into the carpark, I went out to warmup and grab a couple of photos. My legs felt heavy and slow but thankfully they weren’t too sore. I thought 25min would be a good finishing time for the 5km considering my condition and the weather. I laced up my replacement Altras for their first hit-out, they were all clean and shiny, but not for long! During the parkrun, people were ducking and weaving around the puddles and icy slush. I’ve figured that rapid changes of direction places too much strain on my already damaged legs, so didn’t switch on “princess mode” and splashed on through, finishing in 23:14. It was faster than I planned and I felt pretty good… until I got in the car, when my knee started complaining again, loudly. This was not the best preparation; it was playing on my mind and my mood.

parkrun Black Park
parkrun Black Park

After spending the remainder of the weekend and the following Monday resting with ice and heat treatments for all the different areas of pain and soreness, by Monday night I was feeling pretty good and even contemplated going for a gentle test-jog the next morning. It snowed overnight in Maidenhead for the first time this winter, OK, it was only a light covering but snow is snow and still exciting for me especially when it’s 39°C at home! On Tuesday morning, I walked the 2km to Tracy’s work with her, and back; by the time I got home to our apartment, my right knee was sore again and was shooting pain through my quads; no running again today.

Getting There

At around lunch-time on Friday, we had the car packed and we set off for the trip to the South-West. We started on the motorway, but then because we had such a pleasant trip driving to Anglesey on the lesser roads, we decided to turn off the motorway and be a bit more adventurous. Mistake. Big mistake. The lesser ‘A’ roads were packed with traffic, roadworks and roundabouts. It seemed to take forever to finally get to Devon and there wasn’t much interesting to see on the way (that we hadn’t already seen on previous driving trips in the area.)

We had programmed “Jane” (our Tom-Tom GPS unit) to take us to the start area, which she achieved by taking the smallest laneways and off-roads possible. Despite her directions, we eventually made it to the start at Beesands, on the beach where waves were crashing over the sea-wall and the on-shore wind was “only” gale force! Now that we knew where the start was, we headed inland to try and find our B&B accommodation. On the way out of Beesands, we contemplated how the organisers would control the traffic along the very narrow country roads, bordered by very high hedges.

We arrived at Keynedon Mill just after dark and was met by our host, Stuart. The Mill is a gorgeous place to stay and the hospitality could not be faulted. The rooms were warm, comfortable and clean; there were chocolates and even a decanter of port (pity I wasn’t drinking the night before the race.)

Before we left Maindenhead, Tracy had done some research and located a gastro-pub near Keynedon Mill; Stuart also recommended it to us, so after unpacking we headed off again in the car to find The Millbrook Inn, it wasn’t too far away. We got our table and enjoyed the faire of the French chef; we were disappointed however that a pub doesn’t serve hot chips (even if it is a “gastro-pub!”) The dinner was delicious, rich, but quite pricey; probably better to eat there any time other than the night before a trail marathon!

The Start

I was awake before the alarm went off, not a good sign for me. When the alarm did eventually sound, I got up and started my routine; it’s becoming second nature. Porridge. Tape feet. Anti-chafe. Dress. Check bags and bottles. Coffee.

I joined Tracy downstairs in the lovely dining room whilst she ate her breakfast, served by Stuart, who is not only a gracious host but a pretty good cook too. After eating, we jumped into the car and headed to the start at Beesands. We had looked at a map of the area and decided we’d try a different route to the start than the one Jane took us on the day before. We drove along a relatively more major road, spotting Endurancelife “event” signs along the way; they were making the two roads into Beesands into a one-way system, stopping non-essential traffic quite a distance from the event and providing shuttle buses for runners who were not being dropped off. As Tracy was dropping me off, we drove into Beesands and parked on the sea front. Waves were still crashing into the sea-wall, depositing salt-laden spray over the car. We made our way to the registration tent for formalities and returned to the car to finalise clothing, and having learned our lesson from Anglesey, our plan for meeting during the day.

As in Anglesey where the weather was also cold and windy, I was wearing three long sleeved shirts, a windproof zippered jacket, two layers of Lycra on my legs with three layers around my hips, thick gloves, skull-cap and hat, sunglasses with high contrast lens. My new Altras had only been worn in a parkrun so this was their first real test.

Whilst walking back up to the start area, I ran into Craig, with whom I ran at Anglesey. He said he’d had a reasonable recovery but hadn’t done too much running in the intervening period, I reassured him I hadn’t either. Whilst loitering around the ultra briefing, I saw a few more familiar faces from Anglesey and/or Dorset. A few people said they didn’t feel fully recovered from Anglesey either and had done little or no running since then. It made me feel a little better that I wasn’t the only runner still in the hurt-locker.

Go ultras go!
Go ultras go!

We watched the ultras start and head off into the distance, then went to our own briefing which wasn’t anything new by now. Safety. Headphones and music. Mandatory equipment. Etcetera. A few minutes (eight minutes, to be precise) for a final wee and equipment check and then we were off!

Obligatory pre-race selfie
Obligatory pre-race selfie

The Course

From the start, we would head South on the South-West Coastal Trail, following it as it turned south-west and then finally north-west to Kingsbridge Estuary. Although we would pass a couple of water points and a checkpoint area on the way, we wouldn’t actually have to check-in for the first time until we got to the estuary, at CP2 on our maps, 18.3km. From CP2 we had a little inland loop before rejoining the coastal trail and running some of the same tracks already run in the other direction, before turning away from the coast and heading inland again to the second checkpoint (marked CP3 on our maps) in the village of East Prawle, 25.7km. From CP3, it’s a long undulating slog inland, north to Slapton on the coast for CP4, 40km, and then south along the seaside to Beesands to the finish, 45km or thereabouts, with over 1000m of elevation to be conquered.

South-West Coastal Trail
South-West Coastal Trail

I’d been fiddling with an algorithm to figure out how long it would take me to finish, taking into account effort, distance and elevation. I tested it against the previous CTS and Portsmouth events and the predicted times were pretty close to the actual times; I figured I should finish CTS South Devon in about 5h06m.

Running

We headed out of start area across a paddock and then onto the South-West Coastal Trail. The wind was at our backs and the weather was sunny and dry, so things were pretty good. I was running with Craig again, we had both been at the gastro-pub last night; apparently he heard an Australian accent but didn’t bother to check it out. We chatted about the menu and pre-race nutrition as we ran along the undulating coastline. The trail was mostly pretty good, there was a lot of single track sections, interspersed between fields with gates. There was some sections of compacted mud which was sticky and clogged up the lugs in your shoes making the run a little more slippery; water flowing from within the hills sometimes made the mud wet and even more slippery. I was running well within myself, I felt in control. I stopped every now and then for a photo, as did Craig (and a lot of others.) I was drinking my Tailwind, taking in the right amounts at the right times; things were going really well. The course was tough but scenic and when we were in the lee of the hills and in the sunshine, it was pleasant enough.

Craig running in the sun
Craig running in the sun

At about 12km we got onto the section of the trail where runners would be approaching us from the front. Just as I arrived on this stretch, the first ultra runners were coming through. The first couple of guys were moving quickly, scrambling over the rocks and negotiating the narrow single track pretty well; I thought they looked a little ragged though, a sign of how tough the course was which lay ahead of me now. Not long after I’d seen the lead ultras, I was rounding a small bend on a slightly muddy section and slipped off the narrow path. I stopped myself from sliding the steep slope by grabbing handfuls of grass and hauled myself back onto the track. When I fell, I had landed on the point of my already niggled right knee, ouch! I brushed myself off and started running again. My knee started to feel a little weak, then a little stiff as it started to swell (slightly); it hurt more whenever the track went uphill so I could only walk but was ok on the downhill so I could run (there wasn’t any flat on this course!)

Each time one of the ultras and eventually the first few marathon leaders came through, I stepped off the side of the path to let them through. It meant stopping and starting a lot, which made my knee hurt a little more each time. Craig, who was running a little way behind me when I fell, eventually caught up and ran just ahead of me. Following him, watching where he put his feet made my run a little easier. At about 16km, my niggly hamstring decided it was going to flare up and start hurting too. I tried changing my running gait to accommodate the sore knee and hammy, but it was only a short-term fix and certainly didn’t solve the problem.

South-West Coastal Trail
South-West Coastal Trail

We arrived our first check-in point, CP2, my Garmin said 17.5km in 2h02m so I was pretty much on my predicted pace but my right knee was still sore and my right hamstring was getting worse. Craig stopped to fuel and I went through, walking up the long hill. Although I was walking, I was still trying to keep the pace high, passing a few others who were a lot more leisurely (or had gone too hard from the start?). I don’t remember more than one runner coming passed me on this hill, until Craig joined me just at the summit.

We ran passed a new apartment, restaurant and hotel complex on the cliff overlooking the ocean. It looked deserted, but the views were awesome. What happened here? I’d learn the asking price for a 2 bedroom apartment was in excess of £1million and not many people were prepared to pay that for a small flat on the coast in the middle of nowhere. The hotel was for sale too, and I believe the restaurant was owned by the same people who owned the gastro-pub? Anyway…

Cliff-top view!
Cliff-top view!

Craig and I descended from the cliff-top to almost sea level again. At the bottom of the hill, we traversed a small bridge over a little ravine. On the uphill on other side was a gate. Craig went through first and handed the gate over for me to close. After closing the gate, I turned to face the race direction and something “happened” in my right knee. It wasn’t a pop but it was more than a twinge; I tried to run a couple of paces to catch up to Craig but the pain was intense. We were at about 19km and I could barely walk. I reached into the “only-in-emergency” section of my pack for an ibuprofen. As I scrambled back along the cliffs until the course turned inland, up hill into farming country, I took solace that not too many people were coming passed, I was still moving which was a good thing; relentless forward progress.

When I arrived onto a farmers road, suitable only for tractors, even walking on the slippery mud made my whole leg and knee flare with pain. Realising that my marathon was over, I took another ibuprofen. I started hatching plans to finish the “half-marathon”. If I could make it to the next check point, I could ask about being considered to have completing the half distance (actually, it’s a little more than a half-marathon) and keep my 7X Challenge dream going.

Tractors only
Tractors only

I hobbled on, wincing with every step which slipped on the mud; lots more marathoners were coming passed me now. Eventually, I could see a proper road ahead and other runners, this meant I was very close to the check-point as I observed where the half-marathon, marathon and ultra courses converged. I walked into CP3, Garmin showed 23.5km in 2h59m. It took nearly an hour to get the 6km from CP2 to CP3.

Arriving at CP3
Arriving at CP3

As we had prearranged, Tracy was waiting for me at CP3. I checked-in and then asked the event staff about being considered to have finished the half-marathon distance. At first they said, “No.” After a short discussion, I hatched an idea that if I could walk the 8km of the half-marathon course back to the start/finish, I could ask the Race Director there about being considered. It was a stupid idea; if I did make it without doing more damage to myself, it’d be a miracle. It was far more likely that I’d hurt myself more so retiring at CP3 was a better idea. If I made it to the finish and the RD didn’t approve my half-finish then I’d have gone the extra distance for no result, so retiring at CP3 was a better idea. I couldn’t find a plan which saw me register any sort of finish without risking further injury, so I retired at CP3. My first ever DNF.

As I was handing my timing chip to the race official, he asked if I knew anything about a medical emergency out on the course; a runner had apparently slipped on the course and hit his head, hard. There were other runners with the casualty who was now (partly) conscious after being knocked out for a period. Mobile phone coverage in the region was sketchy at best, so communications between the site, the event staff and the emergency services was difficult. I hadn’t passed anyone in this condition, so assumed it was one of the half-marathoners somewhere on their course before it joined the course I had run. As we were talking, race medical staff arrived so the messages had somehow got through to the race headquarters at the start/finish area. Even though he had an emergency to consider, the race staff was still concerned for me and asked if I was ok to get away from the checkpoint, if I needed anything or needed to contact anyone. I pointed out Tracy and said I was ok, gave him my thanks and hoped that everything would ok for the injured runner. Tracy and I got into our car and headed towards the B&B. Not long after leaving the CP, we met an ambulance in a narrow county lane; it squeezed passed us heading to where we had just left.

Retired Hurt

I wasn’t happy that I had to retire, but I knew it was the right thing to do. If I (channelled Gary Wilmot and) kept walking the 20km from CP3 to the finish… being honest, there was no way I would have made it another 2km let alone 20km. Not having an option is just as bad a situation as having too many options.

Back at the B&B, Stuart helped Tracy and I upstairs with all my gear. After a hot shower and a hot chocolate I was feeling marginally better. As I sat on the bed with an icepack which Stuart kindly provided, I reflected on my run. I had started the run with a slight niggle in my right leg; was it sensible to have started such an event with an injury? I was controlled with my pace right from the start and kept to my hydration and nutrition strategy; I’d never been so close to my plan before. I had no sign of fatigue or cramp (although normally these don’t manifest themselves for a few more miles into an event.) With the exception of the niggle, the fall and the injury, I was having the perfect race! Bugger.

Ice-pack and reflecting
Ice-pack and reflecting

Aftermath

Sunday, drive home and P.R.I.C.E. My hamstring now was feeling like the least of my problems. The pain was more local to the knee region, in particular the back of the knee and the top of the calf muscle. I couldn’t straighten the leg without pain and if I tried to walk on the leg whilst it was mostly straight, it caused even more pain. I started over-thinking the worst case scenarios; blown meniscus, PCL, ACL or other ligament tear.

On Monday, my leg still wouldn’t straighten without pain. I hobbled around with my knees bent, walking like a Thunderbird marionette. After dropping Tracy at the train station (I could still drive) I went to the Minor Injury Unit at the local hospital. I was the first patient there so got to see a doctor very soon. He had a quick poke and prod and said that I’d not done anything too serious i.e. no bones were broken and all tendons were intact. He said some imagery would assist a better diagnosis but they couldn’t do it there and recommended I visit another hospital with an accident and emergency department. I went to the second hospital and after a brief wait saw a second doctor who also had a poke and prod around my knee. This doctor said I didn’t have any broken bones, that my cartilage and tendons were all intact and that I had a tear of the medial head of the gastrocnemius (calf) muscle in my right leg, a “bad” Grade 1 but not bad enough to be classified as a Grade 2 tear. He said it would take 4-6 weeks to heal on its own. He didn’t think he needed to take any imagery. As soon as I got home, I booked an appointment with a local physiotherapist (recommended by Runner’s Retreat in Marlow). It’s three weeks to the CTS Northumberland ultra.

CTS South Devon
CTS South Devon
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