Lakeland 50/100 2014


The lakes:

The Lake District. 885 square miles of fells and incredible countryside. To a Londoner in me, this felt like some kind of mythical place the first time I visited, driving up the M6 some 3 months ago. I had heard so much about it but had never been. Now that I have, I understand why people love it.

It’s beauty and vastness are the main attraction, with unrelenting weather at times that shows you Mother Nature is always boss and views that will take your breath away. It had me hooked.

This was the main reason behind choosing to run the Lakeland 50, my first taster session in running in this beautiful landscape. It was also announced this year that the race was nominated by UKA to be the British Trail Championships this year which made it even more tempting. The opportunity to race amongst the best in Britain, with elites who had and were representing GB, was not to be missed.

With my championship entry place I was excited. But first I had to visit the place, and herein lies the start of this story. Driving up to the lakes for my first time, ready to explore and recce the race route.

Fast forward 2.5 months and again I found myself on that same long stretch of motorway pulling off before Birmingham for some breakfast. 6 hours is a long drive.

It was Friday. The day before the race and I was on my way up, crew in toe, ready for an exciting weekend of racing ahead. The weather was extraordinarily hot (I mean seriously un-British hot!) at 27 degrees and all I could think about was my last experience at the NDW 50 in May where I suffered heat stroke, spending half the race wobbling across the path and vomiting up anything and everything for the next 25 miles. This was not going to happen again!

Walking out the service station I was taken by surprise as I bumped into the ever present gang of Claire Shelley, James Adams and Drew Sheffield. Experienced and talented runners in their own right, however this weekend they were coming to support the race but also James Elson (RD of Centurion Running) on his Bob Graham attempt. It felt like the whole of the ultra community were going!

The Lakeland 50/100:

To say that the Montane Lakeland 50/100 is a large affair is to put it mildly. Arriving in Coniston (race HQ and also finish line of the 50 route) we were marshalled with precision into a massive field of hundred of tents and thousands of cars. Runners were absolutely everywhere. If I didn’t know better I would have mistaken it for a festival. The race’s popularity is shown by it’s size with 400 runners in the 100 option and 600 runners starting in the 50. Far more than most ultras in the UK.

The 100 mile race was starting this evening at 6pm so hoping to watch them off we took perch at the top of the first road where they led out. It was incredible to see. Not only the enthusiasm of the runners themselves but the spirit of the supporters. Crew, marshals and even random locals alike were all line the streets ready for the parade. The noise was loud and the atmosphere electric. Again I was understanding why people love this race so much.

After a relax night at the hotel, I bedded down ready for my turn in the morning.

Unlike most ultras I have run, this 50 started at 11:30am, making me feel odd rising at a relaxed hour instead of the usual crack of dawn. The race started at Dalemain (the half way check point for the 100 milers) and we were to be taken by convoy of bus from Coniston ready for the start.

Arriving in Dalemain, runners swarmed around doing last minute checks, loos stops and saying goodbyes to support crews. It was also starting to get a little hot for my liking. As I glanced around watching people sunbathe, I thought of the route before me, hoping I would fair well.

They’re off!:

Suddenly we were gathering in the start chute and the countdown commenced. 3,2,1 and we were off! A 4 miles lap of farmland fields awaited us around the Dalemain estate before we shot off towards Pooley Bridge.

I was roasting, I mean ROAST-ING. The small top and shorts I was wearing felt too much and I wished I didn’t have to carry such a heavy laden camel back full of extra kit, feeling sweat pour off me.

The first few miles of the route proper are leisurely and flat as we progressed through Pooley Bridge village up to the first minor fell and then down to check point 1, Howtown.

My strategy was to go out steady keeping my heart rate low so I didn’t burn up in the heat and so far it was working. I was enjoying the pace, taking in the views and smiling at the sporadic bunches of supporters who would pop up at random places to cheer you on. It especially helped having a name on your number as the morale boost of someone cheering you on by name personally works a treat. 10 miles in and I was having a great time. Maybe this race will go well I thought 😉

I had chosen to wear road shoes today. The trail shoes I had been testing out for the race had been giving me blister issues and coupled with the fact it was so dry and hot I thought this was a wise choice. I turned out to be right and didn’t get one blister the whole day, good stuff!


Decending into Howtown I was greeted by check point staff thrusting a dibber station at me. The race was recorded my SportsIdent the dibbers we were wearing around our wrists automatically tracked out progress and updated our positions online for friends to see- a good addition to the race.

Howtown was a lovely oasis of a check point but made even lovelier by the presence of a friendly face- James Adams. As I refilled my bottles and got race staff to drown my head in cold water, James took the opportunity to catch me at my finest moment! (See photo). Thanks James! 😉

Feeling completely refreshed, flapjack and jelly babies stuffed in my ‘hamster pouch’ mouth, I shot off ready to battle with the first monster of the course- Fusedale Beck. It really is a beast.

The temperatures were now climbing to there highest of the day, and now in the beck the hot air gathered. I believe one runner’s watch recorded 91 degrees!

The climb up out of Fusedale was slow and arduous. There were a few runnable sections interspersed along the way but mainly just a long hike. It is one of those climbs which is utterly deceiving. You think you have reached the top only for more of it to reveal itself. However, reach it I did and before I knew it I was descending towards Hawsmere Reservoir and with it the next check point.

The path the runs anti clockwise around the reservoir is flat but technical with slate and rocks littering the way. At the tip, far in the distance the check point’s tent stuck out and slowly began bigger and bigger the nearer I got.

Mardale Head:

Another welcome relief. Dibbing in first, I then grabbed coke, cake and biscuits having my bottles already taken care of by the ever helpful volunteers. I downed my head under a bucket of water and ran on, packet of crisps stuff in my top to boot!!

I knew what was coming. Anyone who knew this course knew what to expect and probably just wanted to get this bit out of the way. It’s a long steep twisting climb up Gatesgarth Path and as I glanced up and then behind me back down I could see the slumped- postured steady hike of the runners and they battled the incline. It wasn’t to be run, but a purposeful hike, at times with hands on knees, eyes gazed solely at the patch of ground in front.

About now I was struggling with stomach issues. I was bloated with sloshing water in my stomach and feeling sick. I knew it was the heat that was getting to me making me unable to get anymore liquid or calories in with them coming straight back up however the problem I was trying to solve was whether I was feeling this way because I was dehydrated, lacking salts or in fact too hydrated?? My mind struggled to decide on the back course of action to claw my stomach back to normality (and in fact prevent my race from finishing early!) I decided if in doubt, just leave it be- better to be a little more dehydrated for a while than the opposite!

On I went, relief at finally reaching the top. I didn’t even turn back to see how far I had come and look at those still climbing, I was too focused on getting back down and onwards to Sadgill.

The decent was sharp but my quads, strengthened from my race in Chamonix seemed to hold up well and before I knew it I was running smoothly and solidly on to Kentmere and the next wonderful pit stop.

However, I was still struggling with my stomach, whenever I tried to up the pace my stomach stabbed with aches and pains. The cramps were bad but I just hoped they would ease soon as I sipped mouthfuls of water bit by bit. I also managed to roll my ankle here, a momentary lapse of concentration which led to some hobbling.

Kentmere village is a quant village tucked up against two mountain sides. Anyone who has driven to it also knows it takes an age to get to making it a quiet and serene town.


The check point was utterly delightful, manned by a great morale boosting team who catered for everything I needed. Bottles refilled- check, bag full of sweets and nuts to take away?- check and a banana to boot. The even had a smoothly maker for runners so you could request what fruit you wanted and get your own smoothie made! Tempting yes but I was cautious of my delicate stomach.

Next up was the last major climb risng out of Kentmere towards Troutbeck Village after a sharp decent over a slate ridden path. It was here I caught my ankle with a sharp piece of algae causing me to scream in pain clutching my ankle watching blood ooze out. That stuff is sharp! I wasn’t so much bothered by the blood but whether I had damaged my ankle. Seeming to be working fine I ran on ignoring the sting of my foot.

All I was doing now was counting down the miles until Ambleside, the next major check point but also the next point I would see my crew.

Running down past the forest into town I was suddenly hit by the noise of it all. The peaceful paths through countryside and woodland were now replaced by roads and people. It awoke my senses and my excitement built as I received such a welcome. The streets were littered with people clapping me past and shouting encouragement. These weren’t just supporters, they were random locals. Their support was so warm I was incredibly touched. It boosted my spirits and my pace as I sped towards the check point.

In the distance I spotted him- Sam, my crew for the day waiting on the other side of the road. I ran up to him as I continued towards the check point and before anything blurted out ‘Jesus Christ, it’s so bloody hot!!!!’

Continuing round the bend, crew never number two, my delightful mother was ‘manning the road’. It seems she had taken it upon herself to be the traffic warden for the day, stopped traffic to let runners zip through. Oh mum how I love you 😉


Ambleside check point. Delightful. Running in to the lane I was greeted by whoops and cheers, loud claps and positive words. Everyone was so friendly and really boosted me on. A quick pit stop for some cola to settle my stomach, bag of crisps stuffed in my top (I was getting quite a collection now) and on I went, waving to James Adams who seemed to get getting everywhere today!

My pack must have been rubbing some what as glancing down at my sides and feeling my back, I noticed I was bleeding and realised the back, ladder with weight and pulled so tight, had rubbed my exposed skin raw. So much for chaffing, it had taken the skin right off! Not much I could do about it now other than try and manage the pain so off I shot into the distance.

Further up the path I caught up with another lady who was going strong up the climb, Joanna Rae. Seizing the opportunity to chat to someone (anyone who’s knows me knows I like a good chat!), I struck up conversation and we ran on together. The miles flew by in the delightful presence of Jo. We talked about all subjects and I discovered she is a talented runner aiming for The Spine race next year. Wish you lots of luck Jo!

Chapel Style:

It didn’t feel long at all before we were dropping in to the next check point, second to last, Chapel Style. The volunteers were catering well for the 100 milers. These guys had been going since 6pm the day before! Already having been through one night and many of then about to go through another. I was simply impressed. You could see the pain and fatigue in their face, yet there’s one thing I’ve discovered about 100 milers- the hardly ever complain! They could be tired beyond belief, blisters everywhere and in agony but ask them how they are and you’ll get ‘I’m doing ok’.

Wanting to get on quickly, I turned briefly to one of the volunteers and asked if I could take the bowl of crisps that was out if she has plenty more. She probably thought I meant a handful but the look on her face as I folded the paper bowl in half and slid the whole bowl of crisps into my mouth at once was priceless. Jaw open for an age and as I ran on trying to dissolve them with any saliva I had left she shouted ‘Ha! Well you definitely went to eticate… school!’ I turned, remembering my ‘schooling’ and curtesied. Oooh such a lady!!

The route from here took a thin path round a large feel curving round anticlockwise before descending down to a road on the other side of a boggy field. Jo and I were running strong passing a few runners ahead.

Once locating the ‘compulsory check point’ and unmanned dibber- station we took off down the road towards Tiberthwaite. I was feeling really strong and with my pace rapidly quickening I bid Jo farewell and shot off ahead hoping to catch up on some time with the flat more runnable section.

Ahead was a group of runners and a female runner who turned out to be Izzie Wykes. I know her well from her GUCR exploits so ran up to join her for a chat. Ever the chatty girl herself we shot off ahead gossiping like a bunch of school girls! Izzie not knowing the route was grateful for my route guidance and company and me, enjoying the conversation was grateful for hers.

I must say at times I think she doubted my confidence screaming ‘Gemma!! This isn’t funny anymore! Is this the right way??’ ‘Are you sure you’re sure??’. It was like running with myself!

Tiberthwaite and the Finish:

We bolted down the road that lead into the last check point before the final climb. The rain had now well and truly started and the heavens opened.

I was reluctant to put on my waterproof, so close to the finish, thinking maybe I could hold out but soon I was absolutely soaking and not only that, now getting cold. It was getting dark and with visibility down I took the decision to stop, take out my waterproof and headlamp to save risking a bit blind fall on the decent.

Izzie and myself was storming, eager to home and finish this beast. With a few other runners we caught up in toe we descended down towards Coniston and the finish line.

We made a good team, Izzie glad to tag on for directions and myself glad for her floodlight of a headlamp shinning the way making my feeble excuse for a torch seen very inadequate. It worked a treat!

Before I knew it the cobbled road came into view and I was ready to sprint the last mile. I shot off, speed gathering, turning right into town and blasting past the pubs with cheers of support either side. I could hear Izzie somewhere behind but all I could think of was that finish line. How sweet it would feel to cross it!

Spotting the school I went up a gear further and took off. With one final turn I had made it and crossed the finish line. The relief and joy was immense but then suddenly people were shouting at me to dib in! Blimey I had forgotten that! By now Izzie had finished also so we ran over together an dibbed in side by side. A good ending to a great day making new friends I like!

Joint 6th lady in the British Champs, not bad at all. 10:40:24, my final time.

I went over and hugged my two trusty supporters before making my way in to the hall to receive my medal.

Jo Meek, First Lady and this British Champion came in in a incredible 8:43:14 proving she is a force to be reckoned with in the future. Congrats Jo!

In the men’s race, Kim Collison took the win in 7:48:01. A jaw dropping time considering the immense heat of the day and very well deserved.

For me, I see this as a stepping stone towards things to come. I know it’s a race I need to ‘learn’ how to run before I can do it justice. The heat definitely slowed me but I think also my inexperience at fells and the general terrain of the lakes. Hey, maybe next year sub 9! 😉


On a recce a few weeks before


At the start line!


James Adam capturing me at my finest moment!!


The final climb!





I want it all- a race report from the South Downs Way 100 2014

‘I want it all’. This was my reply to a question asked mid race in the South Downs way 100 miler a couple of days ago. By now I was a good 18 miles in and had filled those miles with ample conversation after bumping into Kirsty Reade (you may know her!). Those early miles were made much easier with her presence and the banter we had.

‘Gemma, if you had to pick, what would be your dream race?’ Kirsty asked me after we had nearly covered the globe listing races and destinations on our bucket lists. However, the question stumped me. I didn’t really have a dream race, in fact, what constitutes a dream race?! The location? With vistas of mountains, lakes and gorgeous scenery? Or is it the credentials? Something possibly like Western States, Spartathlon or UTMB? Maybe for someone it’s the performance, the time they complete it in or winning a race, possibly a PB?

The problem was I wanted all of that- all of those were my dreams. I just simply want it all. Everything. As soon as possible. Is that too much to ask? It makes for difficulty when being asked to narrow it down to one single race. I don’t really see my ultra running as a tick box experience with an end goal, I see it as something that I just do because I love it, developing with every step. My dreams are pretty open ended.

So I clarified myself. ‘I would love to compete for GB, maybe in a trail ultra or something. I’d love to win races, become one of the best, do brilliant times, course records, everything! But ultimately I just want to work towards being the best I can be, whatever that is’. Jesus, this is starting to sound like the beginning of some corny American high school film (Glee springs to mind).

I’m not the only one. I know that everyone who lined up at the start of this race in Winchester on Saturday probably wanted the same thing- to have the best race they could, doing the best they could. Many achieved far beyond their expectations and were outstanding being rewarded for all the effort and agony a 100 miler brings. Of notable mention Mark Perkins, the eventual winner of the race who finished it smashing the old course record in a time of 14.03. It’s utterly incredible! Yet he wasn’t the only one to achieve big dreams. Kirsty, herself went on to finish in a spectacular time of 22 hours after suffering nausea for much of the race. She was determined and focused with the goal for the race to be finishing well and injury free in the build up to her A race- UTMB.

The race is one of my favourites. Faultlessly organised with precision by Centurion Running Team ( and on the day, 80 odd volunteers not to mention extra support teams. It’s a hell of a feat of organisation- with 14 checkpoints, 30 hour cut off and some 800 litres of cola alone! The check points themselves are like little kids parties with every finger food and kids treat; you arrive to be treated like royalty with any need catered for straight away and with a smile (even the odd hug). Who needs a 5 star hotel to feel like a VIP?! For a small fee, a bit of mud and fatigue you can get it at the SDW 100.

The South Downs Way itself is beautiful, now with official status as a national park. The route is pretty untouched by road following a meandering trail through forest, field and over some large rolling hills towards Eastbourne.

Yet, the problem this day was I didn’t ‘get it all’. I didn’t get anywhere near my dreams one bit. I got a DNF.

Ultimately, it just wasn’t my day. The race coming at the end of a week of unusual fatigue and every step of the race from mile one to my eventual early retreat was sluggish, stale and exhausting. Nothing dramatic, I didn’t fall down into a ditch and break my leg, I just felt rubbish.

In reflection it’s not surprising. I had been training hard all year completely focused on every race entered but that left me feeling a little less than fresh for this race both mentally and physically. I’ve had lofty goals over the past 12 months and still do. So far I am happy to have had podiums in all my races Casears Camp 50, SDW 50 and NDW 50, even breaking a few course records. However, I got impatient. I was rushing. I wanted ‘it all’ now, straight away- every race became a chance to succeed (or indeed fail) and reach those goals. I was tired.

I realised there and then that you can’t always push yourself to the limit race after race with little break in between. Something’s going to give. I had got greedy and need to take a step back.

So swallowing the bitter pill of those three letters, I went home and reflected. I had forgotten the big plan, forgotten that you can’t have it all at once. The dream race doesn’t come that easily! It needs time!

What would I have said to my coaching clients? Probably something wise about periodisation, progression, key races and A goals- learning when to push and when to take a break. 4 weeks after a hard 50 wasn’t enough time race a 100 hard. I should have known that. I should have known better. Ultimately you need to be patient.

We are all rushing to achieve the big goal straight away and be successful as soon as possible, maybe it’s a sign of the times we live in but all too often people jump straight in, too much too soon, without steady progression only to crash and burn (and quite commonly get injured). Motivation and desire can be a powerfully positive thing but don’t let in the way of a bit of rational thinking.

Take the Brownlee brothers, if you followed triathlons, for example. This year their one key focus, dream goal of 2014 is the Commonwealth Champs, nothing else, it’s all about that competition. So in the WTS (World Triathlon Series) which has been taking place for most of the year people have been stunned not seeing them winning and on top. However, they are not concerned at all, saving themselves for the big one, they are wise and know when to peak without instead burning out (and dnf’ing a race!). There is no rush and greediness to still win at every race they compete in. Similarly I’m sure Mark Perkins did the same, focused on this key race, patiently waiting and biding his time.

So I’m guessing I should wrap up with some lesson here. Something about short termism, rushing to achieve athletic goals and being race greedy (who doesn’t wish they were at every race taking place on the planet!). Its a lesson in learning it’s ok sometimes to not succeed, it’s ok to DNF if you are honest with your reasons and not every race is the be all and end all just as long as your still on track and in the right direction to the ultimate goal. In summary- BE PATIENT.

Next month in July I will toe the line at the Lakeland 50 championships knowing that I am fresher for this DNF and wiser, ready to battle those fells.

I still want it all, hungry for it as ever but I’m going to make sure I get it bit by bit, savouring it every step of the way and I hope you do too.





GUCR 145-2014- The Other side

On the weekend of 24/25th May 2015, I stepped over onto the other side for the first time. For the first time, I crewed another runner.

You’re probably wondering why I haven’t before. I have paced runners, swept courses and helped out at events but never have I actually crewed a runner.

This race was a biggy- the GUCR. The Grand Union Canal Race. 145miles of Britain best waterways, travelling by no means as the bird flies, from Birmingham to London.

After 2 years of valiant tries but alas no medals, my runner for the event and good friend Jerry Smallwood (@ultrakent) was standing on the start line, at Gas Street, ready to tackle those 145 miles once again.

I had vowed to crew him last year after his heart breaking DNF due to dehydration and ultimately as a result of having no crew who could have rescued him when his water supplies had run out on what was to be a very hot race year. So that was it, Jerry was having a crew and buddy runner. We were all very excited.

Many an excel spreadsheet, lengthy email of plans and map were created and discussed before the long trek up to Brum on Friday afternoon (of course hitting Friday rush hour). We arrived to find a gathering of excitable runners at the traditional meeting place of the Travel lodge and O’neils bar, bumping into the delightful Paul Ali and Stouty tucking into some monster size burgers ready for the next day.

After final plans and instructions (mine to him, followed by ‘yes mum… Yes mum…. YES MUM!’) we hit the sack and tried to get an early night in this city that doesn’t seem to sleep!

5.30am the next day and a quiet Broad Street becomes littered with colourful Lycra (no, not for dancing!) and heafty drop bags which we a testament to the length of this race. We hung around and tried to stay out of the way feeling a little unsure of what to do.

Normally at this time before a race I would be deep in final preparations both mental and psychological and generally flapping about everything, yet this time I was standing there watching others feeling detached from this, an onlooker. My role now was calming Jerry down, going over last minute bits and generally keeping him positive and relaxed.

Before I knew it they were all lined up on a narrow stretch of the canal path counting down to the off. Sam Robson, another great friend shot off in close second looking like he was sprinting in a park run as a long trail of others followed.

So, my roles as crew-person now commence. They can quite simply be bullet pointed as follows:

•food and water provider
•master of papers and maps
•giver of motivation and assurance
•frantic driver trying to get from check point to check point well in advance of runner
•SATNAV lover (godsend in this sport!)

Jerry and I had decided it would be a real benefit to use a tracker device from iPhone to iPhone (find friends/find iPhone) so we could accurately judge his pace and eta to each check point. This was a brilliant idea and worked perfectly… Up until about 18hrs when both batteries were on less than 5%! Cue panicked searches for shops selling 2 different car phone chargers and then realising we bought the wrong one and having to fit in another emergency purchase mid race.

Another problem with our tactics was the difficulty of accessing the canal at ‘non check pointed’ places. Understandably Jerry was unable to predict his needs and often mid way between our meeting points he needed us… SATNAV, frantic driving and phone tracking later and we were 10 metres from his location yet unable to get to the canal as a thick hedgerow, brick wall or building blocked it. We had to dashing to roads which looked like they joined up on to find out they were dead ends and then miss Jerry as he passes by needing to then go back on ourselves to get ahead of him. It’s at this point I should add, I wasn’t doing the driving, Sam, my followed crew member was. I was just doing the unhelpful screaming ‘YOURE GOING THE WRONG WAY!!!’ Etc etc. We even once drove straight through a show jumping event horses either side… Because ‘that’s where the Tomtom told us to go’ ending up again 20 metres from the check point but alas with 2 locked gates in between (great for a runner, not when you have a car in tow- again all new to me!)

Through the tricky night section I picked up Jerry and buddied up with him to carry him through the hard miles. We talked as the rain pelted down as it had down for the last 20 hours, hard and continuous. Just imagine running for a whole day… In the rain, with pretty much everything you are wearing wet and sodden, most importantly your shoes.

Jerry kept up a rapid pace, walking hard and fast when the tiredness in the legs had kicked in and continued on through into the next day as dawn commenced. We kept him happy thrusting many a pot noodle, Maccy D’s burger and hot chocolate at him whenever we could, timing out purchases correctly so it would be warm but not mouth burningly hot when he arrived. I think I got it down to a fine art (multitasking, I am a woman of course!)

The night was a blur of buddy running and breaks to sleep briefly in my snazzy new bed (aka the backseat of the car) and I welcomed the next day with rebelling hair, enormous bags under my eyes and probably a delightful odour. However, this is nothing compared to the troubles Jerry was experiencing.

After a good 25hrs of flooded canal path, puddles so large they were unavoidable and so muddy your shoes would never be anything other than brown coloured ever again, he began to develop swollen, creased, cracked and intimately incredibly painful feet.

We needed to fix this. One emergency stop later, taping, talc and new shoes seemed to cover up the worst of it but it was pretty dreadful. His feet could only be described as Sam delightfully remarked ‘your feet look like squashed brains’.

Jerry soldiered on, unfortunately with a slowing of pace as the pain took over and the threat of cut off times constantly loomed (made worse by Henk manning them ready to attack 😉 !)

He arrived finally at the 100mile mark a broken man, yet never moaning. We fixed him again and put him out on his way again… His mind set is to be applauded. Never once did he consider quitting because it was tough, wet, or just simply not enjoyable anymore. He didn’t moan about his feet just stated the facts.

But, it simply wasn’t to be, a short while later and the call was made. He knew the reality of the situation and his feet were getting serious- he needed to retire.

What have I learn from this, from being on the other side, as a crew not a runner? Many things, but I now understand the stresses that come along with caring from someone while you watch them destroy their body solely for the purpose of what we ultra runners call ‘fun’. I understand how it’s not so easy as I once thought it could be. The logistics of trying to reliably be whenever your runner needs you in advance of them, with everything they need are mind scrambling. I also now understand how utterly tiring it can be being part of a race without even running! Who’d have thought!!!

If anyone is considering crewing, I urge you to give it a go, you will discover a new found patience for your own crew next time you are the runner.. demanding the most random of requests in the middle of the night!

Well done Jerry, you did us proud.






SDW 50-2014- race report

‘Onwards and upwards’

This day had been along time coming. About 12 months in all honesty. In April 2013 I competed in the inaugural SDW 50 organised by the smooth running machine that is Centurion Running and it wasn’t a good day.

After having suffered for 5 months with pitiformis syndrome and many related injuries I was forced to drop out about half way after running in pain from the first checkpoint and mentally battling with the option of another DNF… This wasn’t, as you would expect, how I wanted this race to turn out! The South Downs are dear to my heart and I wanted to do well.

Roll on 2014, injury free (bar the odd usual niggle we all see to suffer from, especially in tapers!) and I was ready to race. I had spent a solid 6 months solely focusing on this race after Casears Camp 50 in October (which also went very well) and literally thinking about this race every single day… Planning, dreaming and hoping for what was to come. I worked hard and kept my head down. I had some clear goals for this race.

4th April 2014 and the alarm buzzed away at 4:30am. I knew I had a job to do. There wasn’t the usual feeling of nerves or excitement just this feeling of ‘ok let’s go do this thing’. I’d prepared and it was time to put all my efforts to good use. I felt a sense of calm.

Porridge, packing, dragging the other half out of bed and we were off to Worthing at 6am. Picking up my second well experienced crew member (also known as MUM) en route and we arrived perfectly on time at 8am to a much much busier and more structured event that the year before. I guess with twice as many people entered this year (450 odd) it was going to be a bigger affair. I was getting excited….

Runners were scattered everywhere as I tried to spot a few friendly faces in a sea of compression gear and beeping Garmins locating gps.

Over at registration I had the delight of bumping into Gary Dalton who was on kit check, James Adams who was loitering (did you know he has a book out???!) and many friendly faces queuing up- Paul Ali , Paul Navesey and Edwina Sutton to name a few.

I bumped into my old mentor Stuart Mills and we had a good chat about our year’s of racing and training, myself on the up out of last year’s injury and unfortunately himself just recovering from injury and not racing today. Chatting to RD James Elson, I also noticed how much calmer he was this year at the registration. I think having the wonderful ‘Mother of Centurion Running’ Nici Griffin to help organise is doing a world of good!

Once checked in, bib 56 pinned on, I escaped back to the car to stop myself from doing my usual and chatting to everyone so much so that I forget to get ready. Anyone who knows me knows it’s hard to shut me up (sorry!)

8:50am race briefing by Mr. Elson, a quick good luck to David Hegarty and then before I knew it we were counting 10,9,8,7,6….

Strangely I felt completely calm, I felt focused and just totally in the zone for the job at hand. Nerves and excitement, in fact the presence of any emotion had evaporated. I was simply still of mind.

GO! Sprinting off after Paul Navesey and the lead guys, I took 5th position on the lead out and up the first hill (Stuart Mills would be so proud! Ha) though, it didn’t last long as Paul shot off into the distance ahead and I settled into the lead pack.

I remembered to maintain pace, not get swept up in other’s running and their different speeds as a few darted past so stayed steady in about 14th place. The super powerful Edwina charged on ahead as I knew she would and I stayed a short distance behind, there was no need to think about positions at least for 40 miles!

The first 5 miles of the race are a steady climb up to reach the South Downs proper and can be quite difficult to start a race with but are actually not too bad. Soon I was warmed up and feeling a good rhythm, listening to my playlist and just focusing ahead.

Up on the SDW near Chanctobury Ring I felt really good and was ready to surge ahead knocking off a few runners. By this time I had already been passed by another talented lady Helen Taranowski and so made it my short term goal to keep up with her into the first check point.

11 miles in and we decend into Botolphs, keeping on Helen’s wing I pass her over the bridge, roll through the check point with more of a mad dash action (not smooth or pretty!) spilling the plastic cup of water over my face and having great difficulty trying to eat a chocolate chip biscuit and breathe at the same time (biscuit confetti).

After the check point there is one of my favourite hills (yes, sarcasm) and most runners are forced to hike (except Paul N. I’m sure!) so I opted for a run walk strategy to save energy.

Soon after, Helen leap frogged ahead, which was to be the pattern of events over the next 18miles as we ran never further than 100 metres away from each other. It was important to me to keep a good position regardless of how much effort it took, just keeping them in eye shot.

It wasn’t long at all before we descended down into Saddlecombe Farm, Cp. 2 at 16.6miles and with my crew waiting just in front on the other side of the road I ran past with a quick smile and wave.

I guess it’s not really all that fun for crew with a day that usually looks something like this… Up early, reassure nervous runner, drive them to start, hover around feeling out of place, jump in car to first cp, wait ..wait… Runner appears barks a few odd words and disappears in 30 seconds.. This repeats for each cp you are required at with the barking and moaning increasing in a linear correlation to distance covered. Oh and then at the finish you have the delight of a happy (if you’re lucky and they have a good day!) but shattered runner that now wants you to be their slave while they whimper in a corner about their legs/ feet etc.. Roll on a happy week!

Err.. Maybe at this point I should say what a MARVELLOUS job Sam and MUM did crewing, they have got this down to an art and could challenge any F1 pit stop in efficiency!

About 20 miles in and I was beginning to suffer. I mean really hurt. I thought this was a bit worrying as usually in 50’s it’s not until 35miles or so but figured I was really pushing the pace this time and not giving myself any slack so it was understandable. However. It didn’t make it feel any better- I know ultra running isn’t meant to be easy, I’m used to it and get it so it’s not a shock but today I was suffering. The hamstrings had already buckled and cramped up stabbing with each foot plant and the quads were on their way out too… Err hang on fellas, we have 30 miles left- THIS ISNT OVER!

So, the problem solving and mental strategies come into full force. There was nothing I could do now other than put my head down, accept the position I was in, forget the pain and focus on just pushing ahead. I refused to slow.

Descending into Housedean Cp.3 at 26.6 and I clipped along with a slightly dubious running gait now, only to glance back and see the gazelle like Sarah Perkins! Wow she was looking fresh! (But then again us runners always think the opposition do don’t we?!)

I honestly felt deflated, with thoughts of disappointment and failure floating around my head… I had tried massively hard to keep 2nd and now I could turn in 4th! ‘Sam will be disappointed, I’ve let everyone down, I’ve failed!!!’ ran through my head.

This reflected in a tough and negative climb up the 6 mile section to Southease. At one point I had slowed to a walk after Sarah passed looking comfortable and was having difficulty regrouping the troops!

However with a few tough words to myself I soldiered on with a run (think more shuffle run really) and just kept her in sight. The black clouds of negativity had really taken hold and the usual pace felt harder, the pain screaming from my body felt louder than before. I wasn’t in control.

However, soon I looked up ahead and saw I was gaining on Helen (who had been in 2nd placed lady) and this spurred me ahead. Maybe all wasn’t lost!

I passed her with a quick chat to hear she wasn’t having a great day so wished her luck and hope she was ok . On I trotted, now with a revived sense of motivation, I was back in the game!

I felt generally good, still in a lot of pain yes but good coming into Southease. There was a wall of noise from the delightful supporters and crews. It’s just so lovely to have someone smile and clap you past- it makes it all so much more bearable.

My crew were waiting here so aware of wanting to keep my place and good time I made a quick dash at the picnic (err.. I mean aid station ‘fuel’) and marched up hill after a few words from Sam. On to Alfriston.

This was one of my better sections. I really was in the zone, relenting from any slowing of pace, I kept myself strong talking to myself and focusing on each chunk of hills ahead. I was glad as this was the section where in 2012 on the SDW 100, after leading in ladies race and doing a cracking time, only a few miles from the end I had to drop due to ankle problems. It’s really stuck with me ever since and I vow to complete this race this year.

Clipping down into Alfriston, I noticed a distinct lack of function in my quads so with a steep decent I just used my calves to absorb impact- odd technique but it worked!

Meeting my crew for the last time I didn’t stay long and was shortly out and on my way, now just focus on ending this pain as quickly as possible! However Sam trying to help updated me on the position of the lady behind (6/7minutes and looking strong) hoping to spur me on. However I completely panicked! ‘Looking strong? How much behind is 6 minutes?? And she might have gained by now!’

I ran scared. Desperately trying to pace myself up the steep hill out of Alfriston. I was near crying and I felt out of control, unable to run any faster, body failing me and feeling like a sitting duck about to be pounced on by the runners behind.

I sobbed and ran my way into Jevington as fast as I could, desperately trying to fend any passing runners off. I did well and actually descending in to the last check point passing another runner ahead. Now in 17th place overall.

Quick dash through the check point and last 4 miles…

Last hill, I kept saying LAST hill. My plan had been to hike this but now in panic mode and with a time to achieve I refused to do anything other than run. Body screaming at me but I was getting to the top. I think I scared a few walkers as behind them appears what looked like a woman possessed (or possibly similar to a dog with rabies panting and gasping away) crawling up this hill.

Finally the top! This was made even better by the sight of a friendly face Drew Sheffield who beamed at me and encouraged me on, down we go..

It’s a tricky technical climb descending off the downs to Eastbourne but I made quick work of it again relying on calves mostly. I was able to pass one more runner in front which gave me confidence and I now took 16th place going into the final few miles of road.

Knowing this route really well I was in auto pilot, completely zoned out, not panicking to get to the end but just thinking about running strong and ticking off each mile. Surprisingly my stats show these were my quickest miles! (7:35, 7:45, 7:32) so that gives me confidence for the future.

Last bend and I’m on the home stretch passing the hospital, head down, keep going….

Turning into the sports track car park I am looking desperately for an indication of which way to run around the track, anticlockwise it is.. Last charge to the blue finish line.

I kept calm all the way, knowing usually I burst into tears today I was too focused for that and just crossed the line with a smile shortly followed by a collapse!


That felt good. Finally a result I am proud of and all the hard word has paid off!!!!

3rd lady. 7:32. 55 mins off old women’s CR and a PB of 90minutes!

I was so happy and think I hugged everyone! After a lot of chatting (again, as I said, it takes a large horse sedative to shut me up…not suggesting anything!) with James, Gary, Paul N., Paul A, Sam R. and congratulating Edwina and Sarah on their brilliant 1st and 2nd lady places I collapsed in the car- medal around my neck and smile on my face.

I am ready for more.








NDW50-2014-Learning, learning from crashing and burning

So the NDW 2014 is done and dusted for me with a time of 8:36. A PB for the course (3rd time completed) and 2nd lady, 12th overall (finally on the leaderboard!)

I’m not sure really how I feel about this race upon reflection. It’s an odd one, I feel I did well generally yet I am still quite disappointed in the outcome. I guess it’s all about the expectations I place on myself and my performance on the day and not really the outcome compared to others but to myself and what I feel I could do.

Build up:

My recovery from the SDW 50 where I achieved 7:32, 6 weeks previous had gone really well. I took two full weeks off running as my body needed to recover from the eccentric loading of running while it healed fully and I needed to have a bit of ‘unfocused’ training time. This really worked well and after the two weeks were up I shot up to the Lake District and threw myself in to a long run double in the Lake District hills- bliss! Having never been there before this was an absolute joy and running over the LL50 route was really fun.

Back to normal training, a mixture of tempo runs, easy, long and speed and I was feel good going into my taper. My strength and conditioning coach was happy with my muscle tone and my physio had given me the all clear a few days before the race. Good to go.

I had prepared thoroughly for this race. In fact, that’s an understatement- I had prepared beyond thoroughly; plotting, planning, revising the route and making far too many lists!

I was confident in my body, confident in my prep and my plan for the day- ready for a great performance!

My plan was to go out hard and run a fast race, I know the course so well and knew where I could make good time on it. I additionally was experimenting with new ‘elite like’ tactics such as not stopping at the check points and optimising my fuelling strategy using a mixture of gels, sport beans, sport bars (and a few real foods-bananas etc). I normally just stuff my face with whatever is at the checkpoints (aka human rubbish bin) so this was a dramatic improvement! My hydration would be covered using a electrolyte mix I had with a combination of bladder and Salomon soft bottles refilled by crew at meeting points on the course.

Race day:

Up early at 4:15am and out the door at 5:45am ready to drive down to the start which is now oh so familiar, in Farnham.

It’s always a treat to escape London city and get out into the countryside (‘oh look, green stuff!’) and the North Downs are a big favourite location of mine to run in.

It was really lovely as usual, seeing all the friendly and familiar faces such as Sam Robson (volunteering before his GUCR), Nici Griffiths (doesn’t need explaining who this god send is!), Eddy Sutton (on crew check, who is marvellous and was very supportive) as well as the odd face of a runner I knew.

Speaking to a few of my friends at the start, I was reassured how confident they were in me and how the ‘top position’ was in the bag easily and they were all behind me. No pressure then! I replied saying ‘thank you but you just have to see how the race pans out’ (how right I was!)

I tried to keep out of the main group of runners flapping with their crew and just sit on the side lines, watching it all go on while sipping on my electrolyte drink trying to keep a little hydrated (strangely this tasted awful/ odd but I thought nothing of it at the time). I felt pretty calm bar the odd flutter of pre race nerves.

7:30am and James runs through the race briefing as smooth as ever followed by the walk down to the race start line (5 mins down the road at the actual head of the NDW proper). It was going to be a lovely sunny day, however a hot one for running with temperatures of 20-24 for the main part of the day.

Walking down with my crew (Sam and mum-as usual!), we joked and laughed before lining up. With my intentions of going out hard and fast staying in the lead pack, I was confident in standing right at the front of the line up, slap bang in the middle of two guys who were probably a good foot and a half bigger than me! I knew with my targets in mind and previous race experience going out with the lead top 5 would be no problem and intended on sticking in behind them at lead for the first 15 miles as I have done before.

As the count down commenced, everyone’s hands on Garmins, I gave a smile back to my crew before putting my head down, focused and ready to shoot off hard.

3, 2, 1, GO! I shot off believing to tuck in behind the big boys but before I knew it half a mile down the road and I was leading the entire field! ON MY OWN…!! Stuart Mills- you will be so pleased!

I questioned had I gone off too fast but checked myself and felt completely comfortable and calm running this pace… So I did. This continued for a good 4-5miles running at the front with about a 20 metre gap, I kept checking back every 10 minutes just to check they were still there (it was a surreal experience!)

Finally about two miles out from Putterham the first check point (6.7 miles), the first two came past me and I hung in behind with two more behind me I believe. We briefly chatted as we continued along together up a few short climbs along the muddy path of the NDW.

I was sipping on my electrolyte from early on however I just couldn’t seem to really take it in and immediately had a stitch so stopped for a while.

Putterham CP1-6.8m:

Sticking to the plan I ran straight through the check point giving a wave to the volunteers who were so happy and encouraging. I continued on and instead ate some of my sport beans though still having trouble drinking my liquid feeling it ‘wasn’t sitting right’ in my stomach. I just kept sipping hoping the stitches would pass.

This section is rather lovely and made even lovelier by the ‘unofficial check point’ at the Guildford bridge river crossing manned by Allan Rumbles in his canal boat! He had announced of his plans to give out bacon butties to racers! Not that I was planning to stop but hoping to give him a wave yet alas he was inside still cooking!- too early for the bacon it seems!

Passing over St. Marthas Hill and up towards Newlands Corner check point I felt generally strong still holding position behind the first 4 guys.

Newlands Corner-CP2-14.7m:

What a party of supporters awaited runners! It was great to see so many volunteers, friends and family. I ran again straight through keeping to the plan ready to meet my crew further ahead.

As I met them I remember desperately asking for water but all they had was more electrolyte mix (my fault, my instructions!) so asking for more later on, I grabbed a banana and shot off. For some reason my appetite had completely gone but I tried to get it in.

Checking my time I was completely on target (aiming for old women’s record) so was happy to see that I wasn’t feeling Ill affects. The next 9 miles are beautiful and also a relief as this section is mostly sheltered from the sun within forest making it easy to zone out and just focus on keeping a good rhythm. This section cruises through Surrey hills and overlooks all of the countryside below- stunning, especially on a day like this with clear blue skies.

Descending into Box Hill through Denbies, I suddenly became very aware of my dehydration and touching my arms, face and chest noticed how dusted in salt crystals I was! I knew I would have to stop at the Box Hill check point for water as I was starting to feel rather dizzy from the sun.

Stepping Stones CP3-24m:

Necking some cups of water I flew through the check point ready for the ascent of the half way point that is Box Hill steps.

All was going really well until half way up I felt overwhelmingly light headed and paused for a second or two to catch myself. I was really panting now and not at all with it but hey it’s a hill! It’s meant to be tough! So I just thought nothing of it and continued on.

Well, obviously something wasn’t right because a mile or so after the summit as I entered the woodlands and I suddenly felt my vision go blurry before seeing stars and everything went a bit black! I wobbled and hit a tree before falling into the bushes next me (better than the sharp decent on the other side!).

It took a good minute to work out what on earth happened and it was all rather surreal- did I just faint or not, what was that!?! I think the shock of it all encouraged me to just get up and get on moving not really sure what had happened. I think I mostly felt anger towards myself and the situation- ‘Damn it Gemma! You’re slowing down, get a move on and stop being a pathetic little girl!’ I said to myself, ironically while sobbing out loud and hyperventilating unable to breathe (I guess really quite funny to watch).

I think it was at this point another runner came past asking if I was ok. I shrugged it off saying not really and tagged on behind desperate to get to my next crew stop for some water although I was still having problems absorbing food and liquid- nothing was staying down!

I was starting to feel pretty dejected now and worried that my goals for this race may be unattainable. I was really struggling, I could hardly keep a straight line let along a good running pace and as we’ve all experienced those demon thoughts really fester when we aren’t feeling well!

Reigate CP4-31miles:

Thank god! My crew and water!! I made sure to hold myself together and give a smile going through the check point and ran on past to where my Sam was waiting. Away from the public eye and I burst into tears, I cried then hyperventilated again then cried some more telling him what had happened and how I felt awful, being sick constantly and desperate to cool down yet unable to drink or eat. He was brilliant and reassured me, pulled me together and got me back on my sorry way, unfortunately only half the version of the runner before.

It was about this time I started to think about the runners behind as I was starting to feel vulnerable and slowing down. A few miles later and low and behold a lady comes up beside and slowly passes me- Annabelle Stearns. She was having a cracking day and well done to her, but at the time I just felt like I’d failed.

I had really put my heart into doing a good time and securing first lady, I really wanted to make people proud and see what I could achieve and now I was a sorry state of a runner dragging myself as best I could to the finish. I must say with the way I felt, I was terribly hard to fight the constant thought that it would be sensible and possibly a healthy decision to quit. But I just couldn’t, I couldn’t accept that.

Caterham CP5-38m:

Luckily Caterham, the next check point was only 7 miles after Reigate and before I knew it I arrived to a welcome party and lots of smiling faces. I tried to sip water and eat a slice of banana but I was having difficulty to say the least, in keeping it down and continued on. I was 4 minutes behind Annabelle but try I might, I couldn’t close in the state I was in.

The next 12 miles is all a bit of a blur as I didn’t feel well at all, I can’t remember much of it. I don’t really remember much of the last check point other than the wonderful hill that precedes it! I also have to apologise to the runner who I eventually caught up with who tried to strike up conversation, I wasn’t at all able to talk and replied with monosyllabic answers which were half mumbled. I think he caught me at a bad time, sorry whoever you are!

The last 6 miles are a little like a final home straight, though they are neither straight or near home.. It was a long hot slog.

There was a funny moment where I was snip to pass two old ladies out walking. I called ‘excuse me’ ahead but still managed to startle the old woman as she jumped and gasped. She then commented ‘ah you must be the stragglers, there were some people out looking for you last ones’. I had to chuckle, knowing I was still roughly in the top 10-15 and that there would been another 180 odd runners passing. Who knows, maybe The straggler reference was just on my appearance!

Those fields seemed to go on forever and I know that the course is a mile or so long but wow, so many fields! Finally I reached the road, I now know so well and attempted a sprint finish but honestly I had no energy and slowly crawled round the corner to the finish line (trying to hide my teary face from the delightful Claire, Drew and RD James!-sorry guys, it wasn’t pretty was it?!)

I crossed the line and fell to the floor in relief. Wow, that was a tough day at the office!

After chatting to a few faces I knew, collecting my medal and cooling down in the village hall, I bumped into Eddy and Nici and promptly burst into tears (they do give great hugs!). Needless to say I wasn’t feeling my best so after congratulating Annabelle and a few I others I retire to the car for the journey home, which ended up being spaced out with sporadic emergency stops shall we say!

I guess races don’t always go to plan do they? Even the most prepared and ‘on-form’ athletes can have bad days. I feel pretty disappointed with the result but I guess I should take credit from the fact I was able to get myself to the finish line in the state I was in.

After spending half the race being intermittently sick, unable to keep anything down and having ‘a bit of a wobble’ half way I guess I can take some things away from this but I also think there are many lessons to be learnt:

-was there something wrong with my electrolyte mix or my stomach?
-should I have prepared better for the warm weather and done more warm training (most of my runs are very early in cool temps)
-could I have saved my race better and regained hydration as well as fuel?
-was my strategy to go out hard wrong?

I now have a lot of learning to do while I look towards what is next.

However, I am now even more hungry than ever to get the break through performance, and on the back of this and the SDW I know it’s coming… Soon!