I did this event as a solo a couple of years ago, so what possessed me to do it again solo? 24 hours, loads of fanfare and noise, camping, 5 mile laps, busy course with lots of fast people passing by and it’s an absolute blast as a team. I’d have to say my first solo attempt left me with a feeling of unfinished business as, not only had I deferred the race due to injury in 2015, I had very poor training going into the event and managed just 60 miles. The only positive thing from last time was I managed that 60 miles including stopping to watch the footy on the big screen and falling asleep for 4 hours when I had meant to have an hour’s nap.
So, having 5.5 hours to play with, a PB should be on the cards. The only thing was, I couldn’t bring myself to actually train for this event as one might for, say, a 100 miler. I just kept up my usual hit rate of marathons/ultras of one or two a month from January through to June, but making sure I was getting in some hilly and possibly hot weather runs in as well. Thanks to my decision to run a few White Star Running events this year, hills and bonus miles were guaranteed and at The Ox 50 I also learned some new stuff about feeding and staying hydrated an longer runs. Still, even with these kind of big events, it’s not what you’d call training and I’d have to say I feel a lot slower than last year. That may just be down to carrying a hamstring and glute niggle into this event and to feeling generally more tired physically. However, I think I am actually stronger and better prepared mentally to just keep going for the longer ultras. Let’s hope so.
So, the plan as usual for this event, was to knock off work early on Friday, get to the venue in lovely countryside just north of the Aldermaston Atomic Weapons Establishment at around 2pm and set up camp. I managed to get a prime spot just next to the road to “Hill of No Return” in the solo/pairs camp. This meant I was no more than 2 steps off the course to my tent and food. I brought my huge family tent, as it’s tall enough to stand up in with loads of room for a bed and space to set out all my gear and food.
MrK also arrived and, having camped together at The Ox races, we set up together to share a gazebo. MrK had brought along his mate Dennis Devey (85yo I think) who was also here to do some solo laps and sink plenty of Prosecco! Having got camp set up for me, I went off to find the Frimley Flyers team to set up a tent for my son Alfred who was running with them and drop off another tent with my club mates, Sandhurst Joggers. With them and the JLPT teams there would be upwards of 50 people that I know running that weekend.
I spent the rest of Friday at home sorting out kit, having dinner and a decent sleep before arriving at about 9:30 Saturday morning to unload the gear and food, get Alf set up with his camp and check in with the Sandhurst teams. I had all my food set up by a chair in the tent and four sets of running kit in the bedroom/changing room. I had compression type shorts, toe socks and calf guards and had decided to run the first and last lap in my club vest, but go for compression tops the rest of the time to minimise chaffage. Shoes were Hoka Mafate Speed 2 trail shoes and Hoka Bondi 4 road shoes. I started in the Mafates. I brought walking poles too.
At 11:45 I wandered over with the other runners to the start, waved a quick hello to WhiteStar Andy and made my way to the back of the field with MrK and a whole load of other solo runners. The 12 o’clock horn went and we were off, jogging past vast cheering crowds of other team’s runners and supporters and out on to the tarmac road to Hill of No Return. The start was a great experience and the noisy crowds make you feel like a hero about to start some great adventure! However, after just 200m it’s just you and the other runners.
The route rises on tarmac road through woodland uphill, which I walked from the first lap, then across a boarded cattle grid on to a wide gravel track past open fields, then a narrower wooded track with another short hill to check point 1 at just past 2k. The route then undulates on a hard packed cambered track before a flat km of stony gravel then grey road chippings to get to 4k and the VDUB bar where Cliff and his mate were banging out some great ska and rock steady tunes.
They also had some tasty apple flavoured energy drink which I had every lap. From this point there was a long mostly downhill km to the aid station where they had water, shot blocks, bits of Cliff energy bar and some kind of supposedly fruity energy drink. I had one mouthful of this chemical disaster and no more. Just past the aid station there were loos – the long drop eco-smelly kind – before a short jog to Heartbreak Hill. Last time I did this it always felt massive and a big struggle to get up this hill, but now it just felt like a pretty short hill that I was always up in just 5 minutes walking. After this big-ish hill there is less than 2 miles to get back to the end of the lap, but it is mostly on pretty woodland trail with a couple of nice technical twisty rooty sections before the race village field and the finish line.
I completed a lap in about an hour and ducked in to my tent to change to my Captain America top and arm sleeves to head out for more laps.
This I kept up until I had met my first target of getting past marathon distance and finishing 30 miles. I then decided to have a break, see how Alf was getting on with the Frimley Flyers and visit my Sandhurst Joggers club mates. I got the kettle on for a cuppa and found myself drawn to the SJ club cocktail bar for a double rhubarb vodka on ice, before wending my way back after about an hour for more laps.
My laps by now were pretty consistent at around 90 minutes. Feeding again was my big problem. Here’s the food and drink that I brought: Milk, pineapple juice, tomato juice, water, coconut water, bananas, tomatoes, pita bread with hummus, peanut butter and nutella, mini scotch eggs, porridge pots, ambrosia rice, flapjack, jaffa cakes, chocolate and fruit jelly sweets.
What I managed to eat each lap was milk, juice, 1 or 2 mini scotch eggs or 1 or 2 flapjack bites and a bite of a banana. Anything more and I felt really uncomfortable. I also had half a cup of appletizer, a cup of water and 2 shot blocks out on the course and I think I had three salt tablets over the first day when it was warm to help hydration.
Over the 24 race I probably had 5 pints of milk, a litre of coconut water, a litre of pineapple juice and nearly a litre of tomato juice, and I felt that was a good way to get some protein and minerals, as well as energy. By 2am and 50 miles, though I felt really low on energy and rather than get really miserable I decided on a bit of rest
and went to bed for a 2 hour nap.
Up at 4am for more laps. I had breakfast of milk, bananas and flapjack and got out on the course. I was wearing a long sleeve top thinking I might be cold and after 200m regretted it as it was a really muggy morning. I was half way up Hill of No Return by the time I realised and so I had to just sweat through that lap. I had also changed my shoes to Hoka Bondi and, even though I have done over 400 comfortable miles in them I quickly started to feel a hot spot on my left little toe. Both the shirt and shoes were changed back at camp.
The laps ticked by and I thought this could be pretty monotonous, but on every lap there were a few shouts from Sandhurst Joggers or Frimley Flyers runners as they went past or stopped for a few seconds to chat and check up on me and that, along with the general runners calls of “Well done Solo!” really kept me going. I still stuck to my usual plan of having a chat with everyone I caught up with and had a fun little natter with Fetchies Serrendippily and StuH and of course CStar (SJ Charlie). Come 10:30 I and there was definitely time for another lap. I had got to my second target of beating my previous highest distance of 60 miles and reached 70.
One more would get me to 75 miles, so I set off with that in mind as my last lap and made it in to the race village field with time to spare and being in real danger of crossing the line with enough time to start another lap. There was a lot of high fiving to do and stopping to have a few hugs with friends and the supporters who were camped by the course and called out well done for all of my laps. Just before the finish straight I found my wife and daughter for a quick hug and photo, before Elinor grabbed my hand and dragged me running towards the finish line at 23:56:42. But, not wanting to spoil the moment I decided to round it up and call it a day.
After the finish I felt pretty tired and shuffled around in a daze for a few minutes with Elinor and Julia, before heading off to pack up my tent and find out how my other running friends had done. There were a lot of great achievements, particularly Cove Jogger’s MrK and our own SJ Lina Johnson who both reached 100 miles. I got to 75 miles with not a whole load of pain, no blisters and no feeling like a zombie on a death march. I was very surprised to see out of 130 male solos I was 40th, I thought there loads of solos passing me all the time who probably hadn’t been for cocktails at 7 or had a couple of hour’s kip. There’s still room for improvement and maybe 100 miles will be my target next time.