Kevin's 105-Mile Cotswold Way Run - May 24/25 2008

Prologue

With the last name "Stroud", I've long suspected that my family hails from the Cotswold region of western England, and in recent years I was able to confirm that by tracing my family genealogy to that area, including marriage records between Edward Strode and Joan Gunning in the town of Bristol (less than 30 miles from Stroud) in the year 1629.

Then a little over a year ago, via the magic of the Internet, I found the Stroud and District Athletic Club (SDAC) and, as an avid runner, thought it would be really cool to join and get a club vest with my name on it!

I contacted them, had a little hassle getting my membership dues to them in British Pounds, but joined the club and then would wear my vest occasionally at a race and send photos of "The Namesake Yank".  At right is an example when running The Boston Marathon in April 2008.

During this same time, two foreshadowing events were taking place in the SDAC - a talented young runner, Jonathan Brough, contracted meningitis while skiing in Canada and was ultimately left paralyzed from the neck down; and Martin Humphries decided to run the entire length of The Cotswold Way in May 2007 with a goal of "under 24 hours".  Martin committed to the effort with little time to plan it as a fundraiser, but he did accomplish his goal - suffering mightily during the later miles from blisters.

Kenny Roberts, a member of the board of directors of SDAC, saw the opportunity to have the club assist in making a follow-on assault on The Cotswold Way as a fundraiser for The Meningitis Trust, which provides support services to people and their families effected by meningitis and is headquartered in the town of Stroud.

Planning

Kenny began planning the effort early in 2008 by contacting SDAC members and nearby runners to find those willing to take on the challenge and begin planning a date.  Ultimately, three runners were ready, willing and able - Martin Beale, myself, and Dave Burton (pictured in that order in the picture below at the start of The Cotswold Way).

Martin has great experience at fell running and ultra-distances, including a finish in 32:08:13 of the "Ultra Trail Tour du Mont Blanc" which has a total distance of nearly 100 miles with over 27,000 feet of elevation gain as it circumnavigates the tallest of the Alps.  Sponsored by the Vasque running team, Martin was sure to be well prepared and up for the task.

I've done a fair amount of ultra-running, including numerous 50 milers and a top 10% finish in the Arkansas Traveller 100-miler in October 2007 (which traverses the Ouachita Mountains), but most importantly I'm a member of an informal ultra-running group called "The Buffalo Warriors".  There's a lot to learn about ultra-running, particularly in the area of running nutrition, and the Buffalo are a great source of knowledge and inspiration - particularly the training I've received from Tracy Thomas.

Dave is an excellent marathoner and "shorter distance" ultra-runner with a 50K PR of 3:39 - which many would consider quite satisfactory as a marathon performance even though a 50K is 5 miles longer!  In "very long distance", Dave turned in a sub-24 performance of the 85 mile Hadrian's Wall in 2007.

With this intrepid threesome at the ready, the weekend of May 24th and 25th was decided on as the best dates to coordinate the supporting runners from SDAC, which would be key to the success, and e-mails began flying!

 

The Run-Up to the Run

Sarah, my "middle daughter" of three, enjoyed running for a few years, but now that she's nearing her teenage years her interest has waned.  So, I took this opportunity to offer her an incentive: if she could train up to run a 10-mile leg of the race with me (late in the race, when my pace would be slow) then I would take her with me to England.  With a prize like that, even though it wasn't easy to coordinate with her other activities, she did an admirable job training and joined me for the trip.

We flew Chicago to London, so as to have a direct flight, arriving early on Wednesday May 21st.  We didn't have long in London, but I'd asked Sarah what she'd like to see - expecting to hear something like "Big Ben" or "Buckingham Palace".  What she wanted to see, though, was The London Dungeons, which is kind of a cross between a haunted house and amusement park, and it just happens to be on the opposite side of London from the airport!  It took us three hours of driving to get there, with only one hour "lost" during that time!, but we made it and she had a great time.  I can think of a lot better things to see, but since the trip was mostly about me running I wanted to do some things that she would enjoy.  We arrived at Kenny's home in Stroud early that evening, and it turns out he's quite a good cook as he made an excellent dinner and we dined on the back patio in his garden.

Thursday, the 22nd, Sarah and I wandered around the town of Stroud during the day doing a little shopping.  We had an appointment that evening to meet up with some of the club runners and a BBC "remote reporter" for a promotional video shoot, and to get in a few miles of running on the Cotswold Way - which would be my introduction to the course.  The video shoot was a live broadcast during the evening news and it went well with people I met later commenting on seeing it.  Importantly, it also drove donations to the JustGiving website

The point we met at, pictured above, is known as Coaley Peak and gives a broad vista of the Severn River valley to the west.  Most importantly, it shows how the Cotswold escarpment towers over that plain and the course we would run is up, down, and along that escarpment.  Seriously intimidating when considering 105 miles...  We did a short 6-mile run that evening on The Cotswold Way and it was definitely an eye opener to me, coming from Illinois which is nicknamed "The Prairie State".

One hilarious incident that evening was when we topped a particularly scenic hilltop and paused to enjoy the view and I let out long yell of "BUFF-A-LOOOO!" which echoed down the valley for what seemed like 10 seconds.  We were a group of about eight runners, and the response from Philip Manning was "Bloody Hell!  What was that?!" - which cracked us all up.  I explained that, while it wasn't typical of American running clubs, it was "the club call" from the Buffalo Warriors and we would often let out just such a yell and then be answered by other members of our "Herd" with the same yell in response.  I suggested they use a similar yell for SDAC, to which the reply was, "But, we don't have Buffalo here" - which cracked me up!  I replied, "No, use some local animal".  Richard Hurdle suggested "badger", since those were quite common in the area forests, but his clipped British rendering of "Baj-Ah" failed to resonate down the valley quite the same as a my ode to the American Bison, largest terrestrial mammal in North America and Europe.

We all had dinner that evening at a local pub, and Sarah was thrilled to see that Philip was able to bring his dog, Sam, into the bar area, where Sam was happy to eat scraps from everyone's plates while we dined.

Friday, the 23rd, was our last full day before beginning the run, so Sarah got to pick an activity for us.  She selected Go Ape! in the nearby Forest of Dean which, from their website, is a "high wire forest adventure course of rope bridges, Tarzan swings and zip slides... all set high up in the tree tops."  And they're not kidding about "high up" as the later courses are about 30' up in the trees.  We had great fun, though, until the rain and hail hit when we were almost done - so we were quite drenched on the drive back to Kenny's house.  We did enjoy seeing Gloucester Cathedral (pictured right), featured in some of the Harry Potter movies, as we drove to and from the Forest of Dean.

That evening we went to visit Jonathan Brough at a hospital facility near Cheltenham, and it was pretty tough...  Like many people, I suppose, I don't spend a lot of time around severely handicapped people and it was tough to see such a vibrant young man wheelchair bound and not even able to turn his head.  He can speak softly between puffs of his ventilator, is able to use a vision tracking computer to write e-mail, and is learning to drive his wheelchair via a cheek-controlled joystick.  What was most touching to me was that he had a picture prominently displayed in his room of himself finishing the Stroud Half Marathon in 2006 where he was in the final sprint towards the finish line, with both feet off the ground and his hair flying, to a very respectable finish of 1:33:38.  Later in the trip I met Jonathan's mother and father, Sue and John, and ran with John quite a bit - very strong, good parents, who are obviously doing all they can for Jonathan.  This gave running for The Meningitis Trust a lot of meaning...

Saturday, the 24th, we'd planned for Sarah to spend the day and night with Tim Walton, a fellow SDAC runner with two daughters nearly the same age as her.  Left is a picture of Lily, Sarah, and Mabel sitting on the curb in front of Kenny's house as they got ready to go on a shopping trip where Sarah got Italian shoes - so she was VERY happy!  They stayed up until well past midnight giggling and "swapping accents".

Kenny and I spent the morning taking a quick trip to the Cotswold Outdoors store near Cirencester to pick up gels and powder for Dave (I had brought all my own gels and drink powders from home), and then I got in a short nap in the afternoon as we were starting at 8pm.

The Course

The Cotswolds technically aren't hills, but are an "escarpment" - a tilted bed of honey colored limestone nearly 100 miles in length formed during the Jurassic period almost 200 million years ago.  The slope of the escarpment towards the east is gently sloping, while to the west the "scarp" side drops steeply to the plain of the Severn river.  As you can see in the diagram to the right, it is along this scarp that The Cotswold Way meanders.

You'll see The Cotswold Way listed in various places as anywhere from 102 to 105.5 miles, since the course is changed slightly every few years.  The current incarnation is listed at 105 miles, and considering the slight detours we took to reach our support van, plus getting lost in a field and traversing the same 1/4 mile multiple times, I'm convinced we did every bit of that distance.

There's a regularly scheduled "Cotswold Relay" run as a 10 person relay every year in late June, and we would use the same hand-off points for our support van - which meant we would be mentally dividing the run into 10 legs between 8 and 12.5 miles each.

Most of the course is dirt woodland trail and pastures, although it does pass through a handful of villages along the way.  In places it's a little rocky, in others a little rooty, but never terribly so.  The outstanding feature though, especially for a flatlander like myself, is the constant change in elevation, as shown in the elevation profile below.

The total elevation gain (counting only the ups, and not the downs) is listed variously as between 12,000 and 14,000 feet in the north to south (Chipping Campden to Bath) direction which we took.  Notable points include Cleeve Hill, the highest point in all the Cotswold range, and running UP the side of Cooper's Hill, site of the annual death-defying cheese roll.  Below are pictures of Cooper's Hill as viewed from the bottom (on the left) and from the top (on the right) to give you an idea of the ascents and descents we constantly faced.

   

Stinging nettle (Urtica dioica)Yes, you really should click on the link to the official website if you're not familiar with The Cheese Roll, which we just missed seeing as we ran up the hill on Sunday morning and the annual event was held the next day at noon.

As I was to soon learn, the other outstanding feature would be the never-ending gauntlet of stinging nettles.  I joked during the run that obviously "Cotswold" was Old English for "Stinging Nettles" - but the humor didn't help the constant burning and (attempted) side stepping while trying to run through the numerous patches of this egregious herb!

Start of the Run and Ultra-Running Notes

We began at 8pm on Saturday at the gates of St. James Church in Chipping Campden, with the idea of being relatively fresh for the approximately six hours of night running that would start a couple hours into the run, and a projected finish in Bath of 8pm Sunday evening - plenty of time to pop in a local pub for a pint to celebrate the sub-24 accomplishment!  Click on the picture below for video of the start and hopefully your CODEC supports the audio, which I think you'll find amusing.

We had collectively worked out a schedule beforehand that took into account the various elevation changes of each leg, and also allowed for a slight slowing towards the end.  The schedule also allowed for alternating five and ten minute breaks between the legs.  However, as often happens in ultra marathons, the pace started out quicker than planned.

Richard, one of our pacers, had a GPS watch on and was agog that we were running the first few miles at under 8:00/mile pace.  While that's not a pace that can be held the entire distance, considering we're all marathoners at about 7:00/mile it's not uncomfortable either.  Thus, we finished the first leg of 11.5 miles about 25 minutes ahead of schedule.  The "pause" before starting the second leg was about 10 minutes, instead of the scheduled five, which was longer than I'm accustomed to as I usually "walk through" aid stations.

It was just getting dark enough, at about 10pm, that we turned on our head-mounted flashlights at the beginning of the second leg, which was 12 miles.  Kenny and Richard paced us both the first two legs, while Philip drove the support van to the rendezvous spots between the legs.  The pace continued to be "brisk" and we gained another 25 minutes on the planned schedule.  Notably, Dave's stomach began to get a little queasy.

Some notes about ultra-running, for those not experienced at this kind of stuff: First, it's pretty surreal to be running in total darkness along woodland trails with only a small patch of light about 10 feet ahead of you bobbing along showing a dirt path with scattered rocks and roots.  And when I say "dark", I mean dark, Dark, DARK in the woods.  If you haven't tried it, you really should as it's invigorating to hearken back to how exactly what our primitive ancestors would have experienced.  One plus of being in the dark is that when you start an ascent you can't see the top - so you can focus on only the trail directly in front of you and not worry about it being a half mile or more to the top!

Second, on long runs such as this, particularly where someone like me doesn't know the course as it meanders through fields, it's vitally important to have pacers along with you.  As you may be aware, the human body burns "glycogen" as energy, until the glycogen runs out (which is when you hit the wall in a marathon) and then the body will burn fat to keep the muscles going.  Of course we try and eat along the way to keep adding to what meager amounts of glycogen might be left, but it's interesting that the human brain uses ONLY glycogen for fuel.  Thus, short-term memory and cognitive thinking ability (such as calculating split times) is severely impacted in a long run - so you literally need pacers to "do the thinking for you."  Besides the obvious experience the SDAC runners have with The Cotswold Way since they run it regularly, good pacers are also "motivators".  Especially late in the race, when the runner might otherwise be inclined to walk, a good pacer will suggest and cajole the runner into running whenever possible.  On that score, I had two standout pacers: Paul Rowley during the middle legs and Simon Barnes for an early leg and then the last three legs.  Without their "gentle encouragement" (translation: ass kicking when I needed it to get up a hill!), I certainly wouldn't have finished in the time that I did.  My sincere appreciation to them for their selfless efforts!

Finally, the key to successful ultra-running is being able to eat and drink "on the run".  At my body weight of slightly more than 160 pounds, 105 miles would burn about 16,000 calories - more than an average person eats in a week - and there's no way to do that without keeping food coming in, which isn't as easy as you might think.  During running, the body shunts bloodflow away from the stomach to your heart, lungs and legs, so your entire digestive tract is working at a disadvantage compared to normally sitting down for a meal - yet greater demands are placed on it to digest as much energy as possible.  Runners will eat "gel", which is similar to honey or maple syrup but with more energy, but all gels are not created equal as many are fructose based which some people, including myself, find hard to digest.  However, even eating only maltodextrin-based gel can lead to diarrhea at distances of more than 50 miles, so some sort of solid food must be lightly added (bananas and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for me!).  Of course it's important to drink enough liquid as you're sweating, but it's equally important to be taking in salt/sodium/electrolytes which you're also losing while sweating or else you run the dangerous risk of hyponatremia, which can cause death.  Figuring out how to balance the right foods, amount of liquid, and amount of salt/sodium/electrolytes is "an experiment of one" that each runner has to figure out based on their own body - and even then it can vary based on the details of the run, particularly the temperature which directly contributes to your sweat rate.  Since, as I joked with the SDAC runners, "this wasn't my first rodeo" I'd brought my own gels (Hammer Nutrition), drink powders (Clip-2) and salt tablets (S! Caps) which I'd determined from prior races work well for me.

The Middle of the Run

We started the third leg of 10 miles about 12:30am with two fresh pacers, Martin Humphries and Jim.  Both are strong runners, which is exactly what we don't need at this point as I knew the pace wouldn't abate...  Now, I don't mind putting a few minutes in the bank - but we were gaining approximately 30 minutes per leg, then taking longer than planned for the breaks between the legs - which means we were overrunning the pace by more than two minutes per mile.  I knew I couldn't run The Cotswold in under 20 hours, but that's the pace we were moving at; and while it's nice to have just a little "in the bank", any runner will tell you that withdrawals from "the time bank" often get made late in the race with accumulated interest!  Thus, while I was having no problem keeping up, when we finished the third leg putting another 30 minutes in that bank, I got vocal about "getting on the scheduled pace and not adding more time to it!"

Somewhere in the third or fourth leg the course had a short distance on a road (going uphill of course!) and we were stopped by two policemen in a car who were wondering what five guys were doing running around in the dark with lights on their heads - ninja training?  They bought the story that we were running 105 miles and let us continue - so they must not have been TOO smart!

The fourth (12.5 miles) and fifth (11.5 miles) legs were then run right on the predicted time per leg - which wasn't bad considering the rain that had been predicted hit about 3:30am turning much of the trail to mud.  At times the rain was torrential, and when crossing open fields on the hilltops it was vigorously whipping our running jackets - very "man vs. nature" and it was a thrilling experience!  I believe it was at the end of the fourth leg, having covered 46 miles, that Dave Burton retired from the run due to stomach problems and the inability to eat and keep food down.  He'd really been "running on empty" for a while, and then slept quite a few hours in the van as Philip drove to the leg hand-off points.

We finished the fifth leg about 6:00am on the edge of Stroud at The Fifth Dimension Health & Fitness Club where we had a brief respite planned.  At that point we were soaking wet and tired from having run 57.5 miles, but the sun had been up a a couple hours, the rain was abating, and we were over halfway.  Spirits were high for Martin, myself, and the support runners - but the break lasted about 30 minutes (way too long for me) so my body temperature plummeted and I was shaking from hypothermia as I began the sixth leg...

Leg six was only 8 miles - the shortest leg yet, but very hilly - as Paul and Philip paced me.  In a run of 100 miles or so, you're guaranteed to have "down spots" where you don't feel good - that you just have to push through knowing that it's only a phase.  I often refer to "The Black Hole of Mile 70" in a 100 mile race - where you're tired from the distance yet the end is still very far away...  My lowest spot during this run was the end of leg six, at which point I'd been on my feet for approximately 12 hours running 66.5 miles and I was seeing my daughter, Sarah, for the first time in nearly 24 hours.  I never doubted I'd finish, but it did cross my mind at the time that it might not be within the planned 24 hour window.  Something that picked up my spirits was that I was joined by runners from Dursley, as leg 6 ends in their town, and Johnathan Brough's father John, pictured right - it was quite a large group running through the mist for a while, and I was sorry I wasn't able to see the views (the picture at the right is Coaley Peak, the same spot as the "broad expanse" pictured above where we did our earlier video shoot and pre-race training run).

Legs seven (8 miles) and eight (12 miles) went by in a blur to me...  I know that it wasn't a blur at the time, it was just interminable running down hills, running as much of the flats as possible, and then trying to walk briskly up the hills.  I joked that if I got lost then I could just stop, pour some liquid out of my water bottle, and whichever direction the water flowed (downhill) then I could run the opposite direction (uphill) and be assured of going the correct direction as The Cotswold Way, in attempting to be "scenic", makes it a point to summit every hill en route from Chipping Campden to Bath.

Also, from about the sixth leg on, due to glycogen depletion, my brain was so drained that I would ask three or four times during each of the legs, "what leg are we on?" - and Simon always had the answer ready!

This is the End

By the start of leg 9 (another 8 mile leg) I was feeling pretty good - all things considered.  No, I wasn't ready to perform any mental math calculations, but I knew that I'd powered through "the black hole", there was less than 20 miles to go, and a sub-24 finish was looking promising.  Nothing is ever guaranteed, and I couldn't quite "just walk it in" from here, but definitely looked like my goal was attainable.  Besides Simon, I was paced by Richard and his girlfriend Hayley - who hasn't done much running, especially trail running - and it was fun to chat with someone new.  This is also the leg that we'd tentatively planned on Sarah running, but scheduling and the muddy conditions meant that instead she joined me for only the first mile of leg 10.

Leg 10 is 10.5 miles to the gates of Bath Abbey and I remember it well.  I was paced by SDAC runners Simon Barnes, Louise Little and Fadi Dahdouh and we ran through an awesome iron age fort atop Solsbury Hill, made famous by Peter Gabriel, but all that remains now is the earthenworks.  I looked for a picture of it to post here, but couldn't easily find one.

To the left is a picture right after we ascended a hill, with Louise's husband who'd joined us for a bit, somewhere after the 100 mile point.  Look closely to see what "tired" looks like as it hurt at that point to stand perfectly upright since I was so used to leaning over to go up hills!

One frustrating thing during that last leg was that as we were coming down the hills near Bath we could see Bath Abbey in the city skyline as the towers top 162 feet, yet it took FOREVER to get to it.  Even once into the city proper, The Cotswold Way meanders through a park area and then into a field on the edge of town - complete with stinging nettles - before finally heading towards the great Bath Abbey doors.

The Cotswold Way officially ends at Bath Abbey, where it is customary to kiss the intricately carved doors to mark the end of your journey.  Of course as the doors finally came into sight, I sprinted towards the doors as fast as I could - and then saw that a barrier of a low metal fence had been put up to keep people away from the doors.  Not to be deterred from my mission of liplocking the portal, I continued to run towards it, stutter-stepped at the last second, and then ATTEMPTED to jump the fence - but caught my foot on it and went down in a pile on the other side of the fence.  Undaunted, I jumped to my feet, took a bow, turned and kissed the doors, and then collapsed on the fence.  To see the complete video, click on the image left, which is large and will take a little while to load, and listen for one of the SDAC runners (Richard?) yelling "Buffalo!" at me as I approach the doors.

Official finish time was 23:08 , which isn't too bad for the distance and elevation traversed. So, mission accomplished with plenty of time to spare - but glad to be done when I was.  Martin Beale, who pulled away from me after leg 5, finished in what is believed to be a course record time of 22:44.  My hat is off to him!

Oh yeah - only had one rather small blister on my left "little toe" from the run.  My most serious injury was that I bruised my left big toe in falling over the gate at the very end.

 

 

Epilogue

Immediately afterwards we all went to a nearby pub, but they didn't allow children to even sit inside.  So, with Sarah along, we had to relocate and went to a restaurant close to Stroud - where I had half of a really good steak, as that's all I could stomach at the time.  Finally hit the sack about 11pm and, except for the night sweats which are common after a run like this, slept well.

Took it pretty easy on Monday, May 26th, and Kenny and Richard hosted a party at their place that afternoon and evening which gave us all a chance to get together and reminisce about the adventure.  They were pretty busy getting all the press info together regarding the fundraiser - and we had a great time.

On Tuesday, May 27th, Sarah and I did some final shopping around the town of Stroud, and then we met up with the entire SDAC club that evening for their weekly "Tuesday Run" - where Kenny made a special presentation to me of a Stroud Half Marathon shirt and a book signed by everyone involved in the effort.  We then ran about seven miles on The Cotswold Way, less than 48 hours after my finish - and, if I do say so myself, some of those miles were run pretty hard!

What it all comes down to, though, is the fun and relationships built.  Runners have a great tradition of getting along well with other runners, especially in the Trail Runner camp, and I met some wonderful people through this that I hope to see again soon.  We had a great time swapping cultural differences, with me teaching them how to "put the hay down where the goat can get at it" while they told me what a "cracking" time we had running until we were "bloody knackered!"  Of course they're all invited to my side of the pond.

Below is a picture from the "farewell dinner" Tuesday night (we left early the next morning) with the SDAC crew I'm so indebted to for making the adventure possible.  Left to right: Simon Barnes, Richard Hurdle, Kenny Roberts, John Brough, Paul Rowley, Jo Fifield, my daughter Sarah, myself, and Philip Manning.

Cheers mates - was a topping adventure!!!