On Saturday 4 May I took part in the fourth running of the 52 Mile Malvern Hills Ultra (MHU). The course from last year (changed due to adverse weather conditions) remained the same comprising a 52 mile out and back run along the Worcestershire Way and Malvern Hill range, with a total of 8000ft ascent. The organiser had also kept four of the punch-points (eight punched in total). This was my third MHU and having won the previous two times I was of course hoping to make it three in a row and try and get under 7hr30mins (last years time was 7hr49min). The numbers entered were a little higher than last year and I knew there were a few sub3 marathon runners entered so looked like it could be a close one.
The transition from the Green Man Ultra (GMU) in March to the MHU was not the best. I was house-bound for a week with a virus and it took until at least the end of the month to return to fitness. We also had a flat-move during this period. Whether or not this was the catalyst I don’t know, but I’ve recently been diagnosed with a left (inguinal) hernia. I was in two minds about taking part in the London Marathon but treated it as a tough training session, running at around 90% effort until the 16mile mark, and then backing off as the legs stiffened with a couple of stops. I got through the race without a major problem. With two weeks to go until MHU I switched to a protein-rich diet, increased fruit and veg intake and got myself down to race weight once again.
On race day I lined up outside Holt Castle alongside my brother and around 100 other ultra runners including relay and canicross (dog and runner) on what started as a cool, drizzly morning but later became quite warm and humid. Despite the injuries (and taping of) I was keen to race and hoped that just like the GMU I could take a chunk out of my time from last year.
I started the race in the middle of the field but moved up to join Kevin McMillan and a couple of others at the front. I’d uploaded last years race on my Garmin watch so I could race against myself on the tracker function. I found this quite entertaining at times when I could see the little triangular markers battling for position on my watch and seeing where I paused or took a wrong turn last year.
At mile 1 we reached the Worcestershire Road. From here I decided to increase the pace and maintain it to checkpoint 1 (CP1) at 8 miles. I felt a bit stiff and was worried about the hernia but managed to hold the pace throughout and was within seconds of last year the whole way. Thankfully the GPS watch also acted as my guide, so I had no need of the maps. The first two punchpoints were either side of Ankerdine woods and I had no problem finding them. As I ran into CP1 at Martley Car Park I spotted my Dad parked up on the nearside and took the opportunity to stretch out and take a breather before heading to the aid station and topping up with liquid and gels.
CP1 – 59min (2012=55min)
I’d decided that I would race with a 750ml bottle, taking a few extra swigs at aid stations. This turned out to be a mistake because although I worked out I had averaged 700ml/hr, it was an unusually warm and humid day and I was sweating buckets. I should have taken the hint when the peak of my cap was dripping at almost the same pace as my leg turnover. Not long after leaving CP1 I removed my OMM Sonic Smock jacket, rolled it up and tucked it under the back of my top, held up by the waist belt. I had everything else stashed away in various places, one of the benefits of using tighter/compressive clothing. But it did mean I looked lumpy!
Section two had a lot more off-road running including some decent hills, the first being the climb up Ankerdine Hill. At this point in the race I was happy to keep the legs ticking over although I would have probably been just as fast walking. The Worcestershire Way then continued down through Knightwick and back up on to an escarpment and the start of the Malvern Hill range that runs directly south for 3 miles over Crew Hill and Suckley Hills to Longley Green. I was already feeling a little stiff, particularly on the left side but the achilles wasn’t too bad. It didn’t worry me too much as early stiffness is quite common for me.
CP2 (20 miles) was at the New Inn just one mile short of the start of the climb up to the main Malvern Hill range. I decided to keep this break nice and short (<1min), especially as I was told that 2nd and 3rd were only 10mins behind. Overall though I’d run a steady section and was now 4mins up on last years time. I grabbed a gel, filled the bottle and was off. It wasn’t even midday yet but the temperature had really picked up.
CP2 – 2hr25min (2012=2hr29min)
The next section to CP3 was only 6 miles long but involved a lot of steep uphill running and a couple of punch-points. I had difficulty finding one of the punch-points last year, but this time I wasted no time. The first three miles climb around North Hill and then up to the top of the Worcestershire Beacon at 425m. I grabbed a few glances back on the scramble up Worcestershire Beacon and could spot a runner coming around North Hill, but wasn’t sure if it was a competitor. The following three miles were predominantly downhill but involved a number of other sharp ups and downs over the summits. A real test of the upper leg muscles. By the time I reached the turnaround point at CP3 (Malvern Hills Hotel) and 26miles into the race my legs were shot, but I knew I had to do the range all over again. Took a couple of minutes to get my breath back and stretch out before heading back the way I came. A solid section overall when compared to last year, mainly because I ran straight through the punch-points and pushed a little harder on the climbs.
CP3 – 3hr35min (2012=3hr45min)
AT CP3 I was told that the next runner behind me was a relay runner (9mins back) and wasn’t a threat. By checking my watch I could see that 2nd and 3rd (Kevin McMillan and Toby Courage) were both about 13mins behind. So with 26 miles still to run it was open. The great thing about the MHU as well as the testing and technical course, punchpoints etc, is the fact you get to pass all your competitors and give each other a few words of encouragement. Reminds you that you are in a race after all.
I worked really hard on section four back to the New Inn. I wanted to keep the leading relay team at bay for as long as possible, and get a bigger gap over 2nd and 3rd going into the final two sections. I really looked forward to the miles from around North Hill back down to CP4 New Inn. I was already feeling quite stiff and dehydrated and the steep slopes were slippy in parts but I managed to pull another minute over last year and was still on for a sub7hr30 overall time. It was also quite fun passing the other competitors and exchanging words of encouragement. I remember passing my brother Dean, Nick Thomas and David Hollyoak on my way back over the range all looking pretty strong and in good spirits.
CP4 – 4hr44min (2012=4hr55min)
I’m not sure what happened at CP4. I drank and filled my bottle, but considering the state I was in an hour later and the length of section five, I should have taken a lot more. It may have been the pressing of the relay team (now just 2mins behind and closing) that made me too hasty. For a few miles I entertained trying to beat the relay runner but he was bearing down and eventually caught me at Longley Green. If I’d had any money I’d have dashed straight into the local shop there but as it turned out the relay runner had a spare couple of gels and was happy enough to offer them to me. Because of my state later I never really had the opportunity to thank the relay runner and his team, who offered words of encouragement from their car at various points on the course.
Back along the escarpment through the Suckley Hills and I was struggling! My 750ml bottle was already running low (I’d decided I’d rather drink to thirst earlier in the section and struggle in the final miles, than scrimp throughout) and I was finding myself walking some of the steeper hills. I was also having to apply sun lotion a few times (see prev blogs) now the sun was bearing down. Ankerdine Hill and the following climb up to Easinghope Lane were not pretty, but I knew they were the final climbs of any significance for the rest of the race and I was just a couple of miles from CP5 Martley. I shuffled into CP5 with my head down and immediately headed to the aid station and the water, coke and red bull. I’d finally reached my oasis and I was in no rush to leave! A chat with my parents and two of the relay team members (they were a good 5-10mins ahead at this point) and then I was off with red-bull in hand munching on a 9-bar.
CP5 – 6hr29min (2012=6hr37min)
When I arrived at CP5 I was 12 minutes up on last year. But with a longer break, dehydration and a full stomach I was prepared to lose a lot of time in the final section. Funnily enough rather than any hernia or achilles issues it was shooting nerve pains in the left foot (toes) that caused me to recoil and stop on several occasions. It would come on every minute and I’d be forced to walk. Despite the loosening of laces, stretching, rubbing etc it would take about three miles before the worst of the sensation faded but the foot remained tender. There were plenty of glances over my shoulder during the final section, expecting to be caught by another competitor. The sub 7hr30 target was no longer a possibility, but to be honest I no longer cared. I just wanted to finish.
It was a relief to finally cross the finish line and get the win. Ultra-Running Limited are a great organisation and really look after you. After a shower I was treated to some a home-made chilli con carne in the relaxed, cool interior of the castle before heading out to see some other runners through. I drove back to Martley with my parents to see my brother Dean pass through CP4 and then the finish back at Holt Castle. As always a great challenge and awesome experience shared with a great bunch of people.
Finish – 7hr47min (2012=7hr49min)
A few weeks prior to the MHU I was given the great news that Likeys were going to sponsor me for the next twelve months. I feel both fortunate and privileged to be associated with them as I have been shopping for quality gear from them for several years. A brief on the company:
Likeys were originally created to provide products aimed at those competing in extreme ultra racing events in climates such as arctic, deserts and jungles all over the world. Over the years they have expanded, and now provide an extensive range of products for the wider sporting market including mountain marathons and adventure racing, as well as triathlons and cycling. They also organise the infamous 6633 Artic Ultra and popular Brecon Beacons Ultra.
Check out their website at www.Likeys.com
I am also sponsored by Eladon, and have been using their supplements for several years now. I particularly recommend the Elagen Sport and Beta Alanine products for endurance athletes.
As mentioned in the race report I am currently carrying an inguinal hernia. This was diagnosed recently and I am now waiting for the operation date. Hernias won’t just disappear. They gradually deteriorate over time until an operation is carried out. I have been told I can continue training and racing, with caveats. They are aware of my running but I need to be cautious. At the moment I have continual light stiffness and discomfort (can get worse if fatigued). The muscles around the area (particularly the hip flexor) are working extra hard to stabilise the hernia. It was quite apparent from a recent physio session that the muscles down that side of my body are both sore and knotted in parts (gluts in particular).
I have a 100 mile race on Sat 1 June (Enduroman, New Forest). This will be a very small field and the chance to try out some ‘nutritional strategies’. I may pull out if I feel the hernia is being overly stressed but I also know this could me one of my last races for a number of months so would like to make the most of it. I will need at least 2-3 weeks to recover from the operation barring complications, and the same time again of light training. But this enforced lay-off could serve to give the achilles and other issues a bit of a breather, so not a bad thing.