Spine Challenger. Attempt #1

Yes, I’ll be back to this race next year! Regardless of the tragic DNF I really felt a connection to this race. I’ve happily passed through the Centurion/Hardmoors/GB Ultras/Lakeland etc machines and they’re are all good operations but in 122 long distance races nothing has felt like this one. I’m not sure if it’s the kit list (huge), the type of competitor it attracts (modest mountain & hardy hiking types), or the terrain and weather (challenging is the mild description), but the parts combine to make it feel more like you’re entering an expedition as an intrepid explorer than a foot race. The fanboys and girls of each of the other race organisers will tell you theirs is the best. Has the best support, has the best checkpoints, has the most ‘family’ feel but now I understand why those involved in the Spine race say it truly is a family and for me far and away the best race I’ve been privileged to be a part of. You are warmly welcomed in right from the off no matter you’re running background or who you are. There are no cliques here and I adore that as it’s something that irks me with all the other set ups. What you’re about to enter is life-threatening in a very real sense and you know you have to cover each other’s backs out there. You feel bonded with all the other participants straight away because of the risk and because of how monumental the thing you are about to do is.

As always for me I rely on a busy but jumbled schedule of marathon or ultra races to form my training plan so inevitably somewhere around 4 weeks before big races like this I have a mild 5 minute panic that it isn’t enough, followed swiftly by the knowledge that it’s too late to do sod all about it anyway. I ran Tour de Helvellyn a 38 mile Lake District romp on 21st December in cold, dark, wet conditions with full Spine pack on and whilst that went without a hitch, that was my last endeavour at training. Cue Christmas and New Year and a general desire to slob. However, I tend to hold miles in my legs fairly well so I was comfortable that I had the distance in me. The bigger issue for me was kit.

The kit for the Spine is famously exhaustive. I think I counted 34 mandatory items on the list – then add your optional items on top! Then add all the stuff you need in your drop bag available at the single checkpoint at Hebden Bridge about 45 miles in. Its a hell of a lot of kit. You need to carry enough of everything to see you through sub-zero temps over 60hours over open fell miles from civilisation in harsh winter conditions. I think the Challenger kit is pretty much what the full Spine participants carry – bar some differences in food carrying requirements. I was late to checking what I did and didn’t have and this was my main concern – I would have to order some items without getting to test them. I could scrape through on most things – but of all the major things I didn’t have ready, it was shoes. Bloody hell.

Out of interest this is what I wore/carried on the day:

  • Montane Trailblazer 30l
  • OMM Kamleika waterproof bottoms
  • Montane Via thermal tights
  • Berghaus overtrousers
  • Montane Fireball down jacket
  • Brynje base layer
  • Montane Allez Micro Hoodie
  • Mountain Equipment Lhotse waterproof jacket
  • Fjallraven poncho
  • Isobaa base layer (spare)
  • Trespass full length base layer bottoms (spare)
  • An old fleece midlayer (spare)
  • 1 pair of Drymax socks (spare)
  • Sealskinz waterproof socks
  • Bridgedale thin liner socks
  • Sealskinz beanie
  • Thermal skiing buff
  • RAB Latok Alpine Goretex gaiters
  • Montane Symphony waterproof gloves
  • RAB powerstretch gloves
  • Inov8 Roclite 345 GTX boots
  • Foil blanket (full size)
  • First aid kit containing plasters, antihistamine tablets, Loperamide tablets, antiseptic spray, personal blister care kit
  • Petzl Nao headtorch + spare battery
  • Kalenji chest torch
  • Whistle
  • Spork
  • Cicerone Pennine Way book
  • Garmin GPS64
  • Silva compass
  • 3000kCal food (Firepot pasta x 2 + various sweets/cubed cheddar)
  • SOL survival bag
  • Alpkit Pipedream 400 (comfort rating 0deg)
  • Inov8 2L water bladder (and started with 1L water in the bladder)
  • Mobile phone
  • Protective eye googles
  • 3cm single blade knife
  • Alpkit Kraku stove
  • 100g of gas
  • Alpkit Mytibowl 300
  • Windproof lighter
  • Alpkit Cloudbase sleeping mat

Told you it was a lot! So I spent what I could to ensure I had mandatory kit and tried to buy as light as I could afford. Thankfully Montane (race sponsors) give you a 20% discount code which saved me a fortune. Almost makes up for the £375 entry price. Still, with bag, food, water and all the gear I weighed in around 8KG on my back. Every kilo makes a huge difference to effort levels and speed. I barely survived 38 miles on Tour de Helvellyn so I had no idea really how I would fare over 108 miles.

Oh yes – shoes. I wear what I have to destruction and only then do I open the wallet for a single new pair. I run almost everything in Altra Lone Peak 4. I had binned my last pair of Inov8 Roclites after the Gatlif 50km race in late November when sinkholes opened up on the uppers of both shoes (they were very old). One pair of Altra Lone Peaks had 2inch long tears down the arches of both shoes. My other pair of Lone Peaks had no grip left as the Tour de Helvellyn route can testify. A lot of runners on the Spine facebook forum were talking about La Sportiva Mutants as well as Inov8 Roclite GTX boots. Boots seemed to have a big following – better at keeping out debris and water and more ankle support. I had done a lot of training in walking boots too and when you finish those hikes/runs with lovely dry warm feet it made total sense to emulate that using a lighter trail running version. I also had always wanted to try Scott Supertracs. I also knew that Altra Lone Peaks fitted well and could be worn for ultra distance straight out of the box. On 5th Jan, 6 days before the race I ended up ordering Roclite 345 GTX boots, Altra Lone Peak 4 Mesh, and Scott Supetrac all in a size up from normal to accommodate feet swelling and thicker waterproof socks + liners, hoping that one would work for me. Scotts had a fairly standard fit, not overly narrow but they just didn’t sit right so they went back, but the Inov8 felt great and so did the Altra. Since the Inov8 were a goretex boot they were my preferred starting option. I knew the course to Hebden Bridge is usually wetter than the stretch on to Hawes so the plan was to keep my feet as dry for as long as possible until the Hebden CP and then switch to the Altras from my drop bag. As it turns out this was working brilliantly until the storm hit over Marsden Moor throwing so much water at us at 70mph that the boots filled within minutes and it was game over in terms of dry feet.

Anyway, training was sort of sorted and kit sorted. Registration has to be done on Friday afternoon in Edale – walking into the HQ it was calm, quiet and I was straight to the table for number collection. How cool is this! Quick photo to go against my tracking profile and then ushered on to a table for kit check by Nikki Knappett who was fantastically friendly and calming. I’d read that Lindley Chambers had a system of dictating how many items you had to show depending on the last digit of your race number. 0 was a full kit check and it quickly dawned on me when i pulled number 400 that the rubber gloves might go on and i’d be in for the full works! Apart from a quick double check that my bivvy bag would pass, everything was fine and I was soon out the door having had the tracker taped on to my race pack. So slick, I was so impressed. Then a trot to the Ramblers Inn for a pint before heading to the 5pm race briefing in the village hall. That night was then a huge lasagne and half pack of garlic bread and triple checking I’d packed my drop bag correctly.

Kate and I travelled the short distance to Edale on race morning to get there comfortably for the 8am start. My number one panic is always finding a parking space. Somehow the Edale Village car park right next to HQ and the start line was desolate, amazing! It turns out this is just because so few people enter the race (I think around 135 started). The only job on the morning was to hand over the drop bag and watch the first dawn light to arrive.

Like Tour de Helvellyn I very much enjoyed the low key start. No egos, no general panic or stress from anyone at the start. No list of tasks to complete. We stayed in the car until 7.55am and then had the 30 second walk to the back of the start line. Moments before being let go I suddenly realised – no poles! Christ, I left them with Kate who I can now see is at the back of the spectator throng. I daren’t risk grabbing them off her after I passed the start line – it’s strictly no external support at any point. Can you imagine being DQ’d 3 metres over the start line!!! Better not risk that so dashed over and got them, I don’t think Kate even realised she had them until she saw me hurtling towards her.

Off we went into a so-far dry day up the road to the official start of the Pennine Way. There’s a gate within the first 100m of the PW that I thought could be carnage, especially being back of pack – but no queue at all. Incredibly as you head west across fields to Barber Booth the pack is already spread out – this is within say half a mile of the start. I couldn’t believe it. Plan was to walk/skip the first 3 miles to Jacobs Ladder and force myself to take it easy to avoid overheating and tiring early and I managed to do this. I even remembered to inch up Jacobs Ladder and take a proper break half way up to check phone and take some photos.

By the time I hit the top of Jacobs Ladder the wind was fierce. The race briefing had told us to expect winds to top over 70mph on Kinder and also on Bleaklow. I would love to have a Garmin device to measure windspeed just for these moments. On the way past Edale Rocks and around Kinder Downfall I was running at what felt like a 70deg angle and every footstep I was finding that my foot wasn’t landing where my brain expected it too. The winds were so strong I was literally being blown off my feet – I couldn’t control my legs or feet even moving them just centimetres off the ground and I lost count of how many times my rain cover was blown off the pack. Kinder Downfall was an Upfall by a long way and I stopped momentarily to take some video.

All things considered I was moving pretty well, hitting Mill Hill and turning NE along slabs for the 2 miles to Snake Pass where the first unofficial ‘aid station’ would be (MRT with some water). That stretch had flown by and was about 9/10 miles which i’d done without eating so I briefly had the pack off and got food out to munch on the next leg. The slow climb up to Bleaklow Head cairn passed without mention, and the slow drop down to Torside also was pretty uneventful – stretches of narrow heather-lined peat track with a sharp drop to the right hand side. The winds were strong but the weather was otherwise holding. Pack felt comfy, feet were dry and legs felt good. I knew Torside Reservoir had a proper but still unofficial aid station and this would mark about 16 miles down. I stopped for a water refill, dump rubbish, leg stretch, bit of food and take food out of the bag prepped to eat over the next section.

I knew the next section through Crowden up past Laddow Rocks and Black Hill would be tough from the recce Kate and I did only a couple of weeks prior. It’s a tough climb with a full pack on, one of the biggest ascents in the race alongside Jacobs Ladder and Pen Y Ghent. Just as I turned north away from Torside Reservoir I saw Kate on the track which was a huge boost right before the big climb. We exchanged a few words about how I was coping and what she’d been up to (having breakfast in the warm and dry and a fun jaunt around the hills hmpff!), as all that the race allows, and I marched on. The mile approach to Black Hill is particularly wet, and then the gale force winds started up again. Fighting the strong winds coupled with an exhausting 5mile climb sapped me of all energy I must admit. Luckily from the trig point it’s 4 miles downhill to Wessenden road crossing and I quickly got running. I could see in the distance cars parked up in the layby – perhaps a mile away – and this is when the first sign of heavy rain came in. I came up on to the road crossing hoping Kate would be waiting. I couldn’t keep taking the mobile out so it was difficult to coordinate seeing each other, there was no sign of her until I turned off the main road and spied her car. It was properly pissing down and the wind was howling so we only waved to each other and I gave an ok hand signal. Should’ve been a two finger salute in hindsight for sitting in a warm car! This marked the end of the route that I had recce’d, everything from here on in was new ground. 2 miles of downhill stony track and then a very steep up onto Marsden Moor and this is where the nightmare starts

I had a sit down at the top of the steep climb on to the moor – sky looked ok, it wasn’t raining, just a few miles into the next roadside stop at Stanedge Tunnel. All seemed fine. Then out of nowhere within seconds I was in the middle of 70mph winds again but this time being lashed by freezing and heavy horizontal rain and god was it exposed up there. Couple of lads dived into grasses to stick waterproofs on. I endeavoured to get the poncho over my waterproof but it was impossible. It was acting as a sail and there was nowhere to shelter to sort myself out. Visibility dropped to metres with the rain. I was on the top of a moor in very high winds, unable to see anything and no clear knowledge of where i’m heading (without checking map/GPS) and getting trashed by the rain and the mind games start – fuck this, what am I doing up here suffering this? I know I can endure bad weather and cold but these conditions were breath-taking. I hate the overused word brutal. The weather was raw and powerful and humbling. So as I usually do I keep telling myself every step moves me closer away from what I’m going through and it will improve. Obviously the pace now drops and the 3 miles down to the road take me about 1hr15minutes and instead of reaching the M62 by dark I come down to CP in the dark about 3 miles/1hour short of that target. The conditions don’t improve, they actually get worse as the rain intensifies and I remember laughing to myself in disbelieve. Check point is someone’s van with the side door open and a canvas awning that’s been possessed and is wildly flapping around our heads. There are about 8 other runners huddled and you can tell no one wants to go back out into this. No one is talking. Heads are down and there’s a black metaphorical cloud over us all. Headtorch on, poncho on, water refill. Lets nail this next bit, take it road section to road section. I tag onto a group of 3 others who are leaving at the same time – always easier if someone knows the nav in the dark! Only I’ve only forgotten to pick the poles up again. A dash back to CP and then a race to catch the disappearing headtorches. On Marsden Moor we’d had slabs and track underfoot and some light from the sky. Now we had nothing but bog and newly formed rivers in the pitch black, only you couldn’t see from step to step to assess the best route through it all since the headtorch light was bouncing off the thick rain in front of your nose. And the wind had strengthened. It only took 2 miles in those conditions to finish me! Strangely and unknown to me I was walking through it on 18min/mi pace – ahead of what I’d aimed for as an average in clear conditions! I think a combination of a few things hit me quickly. The decision to stop in my mind was arrived at within minutes and was unquestionable. What was going through my head that led to that decision?

  • When i got down to the next road section at the M62 crossing i knew i had about 11 miles into Hebden and the forecast was for these conditions to continue. I knew this would mean 3-4 hours and the last 2 hours alone had given me a thorough beating
  • My mental trick of telling myself every step counts and things will improve doesn’t last long if things actually get worse!
  • Irritation that my poncho was obstructing my view and since the winds had ripped all of the poppers apart it was severely hampering movement and use of poles but i couldn’t afford to stop and remove. Sounds small, but was the primary irritant and really really pissed me off!
  • The waterproof shoes and socks were now working against me and holding all the water in. Might as well be wearing water balloons on my feet.
  • I didn’t know the route on this stretch and in zero visibility I was increasing risk levels by being out on the moors (despite being good at nav and having maps, compass and GPS unit)
  • Lack of shelter around the M62 meant I couldn’t easily take stock of the situation – remove poncho, have 5 minutes to regroup out of the conditions, check map to memorise the next section
  • I’m soaked to the bone and cold under full waterproofs and poncho. I’m likely to only get colder if I proceed

Some of the above reasons sound like sensible reasons to stop – poor route knowledge when alone in bad night conditions on open moorland, and cold and wet. I told myself when I officially pulled that I don’t regret the decision and it was the right one so I’ll trust my judgement in the moment, as of course with hindsight I think I was being a fanny and should’ve just had a minute to put another layer on, get the GPS out, ditch the poncho and get moving. Certainly for next year I will put my layers on regardless of being in a storm instead of suffering for the sake of trying to keep dry stuff dry; have recce’d the full route; not bother with a poncho at all; have a chest torch already on me to avoid digging anything out of the bag when moving on the trail. I think with those small corrections I would’ve plodded on into Hebden CP. I always knew if I got to Hebden I could dry, eat, shower, put fresh warm clothes on, sleep – and finish the race. It’s just an arse getting there to start with. Strangely something else I hadn’t figured was that the elevation is heavily weighted to the front half. I did 8’600ft in 33miles – over 50% of the overall climb in 30% of the distance. Knowing this I think would’ve helped me mentally continue too.

Oh well. it was a fantastic experience. I now have the kit and I know what the Pennine Way will throw at me and a little more of what’s needed to finish this race. Sign me up Scottie!

To Infinity and Beyond

It doesn’t feel like I’ve done too much worthy of sitting down and investing the time to write, but I’ve got a little late night space and now seems a good a time as any to cast my mind back. I’m certain there are some gems! Last time I put pen to paper was late Feb2019 after running a local marathon – Lenham Cross Winter Marathon – and in the following 4 months I’ve chalked up another 5 ultras, 5 trail marathons and a road marathon. Lenham was my 101st marathon or above so the last 4months the mood and motivation around races has changed a lot for me. Everything was focused on getting to the 100 and as soon as I hit the magic number the reason for running vanished overnight. Now I had a full year of racing ahead (19 races at least) minus a fire burning underneath me, the thing that made me get up to race in miserable weather day after day when I really didn’t feel like it. But I’m stubborn and committed so I stuck to the plan even when I didn’t want to or need to.

Steyning Stinger 2019. SussexSportPhotography.com, 08:20:44

Photo: Steyning Stinger

First there was Steyning Stinger. I only did this because for me it formed a trio of South Downs races I wanted to complete – Beachy Head, Steyning, and 3Forts. That was all – tick it off a tick list. 90 minute drive, awful awful weather the whole way, drive home. This didn’t motivate me much. Following weekend I travelled the 4 hours north to the West Pennines for my first Howler race – West Pennine Ultra. I know the moors here fairly well and love to be on them. On a clear day you can see Blackpool Tower and the sea from them. Howler didn’t disappoint – unmarked 30 miles all on moorland, a nasty hailstorm followed us the whole way, and because this race was entirely self nav off over untracked territory (lots of lovely bog) I badly twisted an ankle somewhere around halfway jumping a deep sided river in the middle of moorland. Two long shitty weather days out in a week wasn’t helping me mentally push on. The following weekend was Hardmoors50 so another very long drive to North Yorkshire and yet again a bad storm as well as carrying into it the tender ankle. I was just having a really bad run of things. Knackered from work, knackered from driving to races, and facing horrendous conditions week after week.  Hardmoors was a good test though, for enduring the weather for so long. And I did feel a reasonable sense of accomplishment crossing the line. On the route I again twisted the same ankle on a fall and got lost by about 4miles so it was a testing day. Thankfully beyond this point the weather dried and I had 3 weeks totally off running.

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Photo: Hardmoors50

Strangely, having not run at all for 3 weeks I went in to Manchester Marathon really positive. I hate road marathons, but I knew that as my 10th road this would be my last in order to officially qualify for the 100 Marathon Club. I also felt fine in the legs, weather was perfect. I started in a pen towards the back and was just running to get it done but within the first mile or so I was running well at something like 8.5min/miles and cruising past a lot of people and that continued for most of the race and I knew a PB was on. Lack of race fitness showed around mile 22 where I started to slow badly but had done enough to scrape a PB by about 6 minutes for 3.54

 

Another full 3 weeks off running and I arrive at The Fellsman in Yorkshire. A race i’d run in my imagination so many times. One of those races about which you read blogs over and over, pore over maps and memorise the route detail on. 100km and around 13’000ft ascent taking in Ingleborough and Whernside and big chunks over private fell. It was glorious, a real stand out race from the 105 previous races. One of the very best. We had mountains, bogs, woodland, hailstorms, a dark cold night and a warm sunny morning. Completing it was also a gateway to other races I want to do in the future as it’s a recognised as a bloody tough race – crack this one and you’ll find it’s on the entry requirement list for other big races like The Spine.

 

Another 5 events came and went without too much fuss including Dukeries40 and last weekend I ran the Kent50. My 8th 50 miler. Never did I think id reach a point where 50 became regularly achievable. My body is conditioned now to comfortably get me through a marathon distance without training or food or post-race aches, and now I finally feel that I’m close to this for 50milers. I think this is more about experience on pacing and managing temperature and energy levels than leg strength. I’d had 2 weeks without running and the day was very hot, I turned up to get to 26.2 and then if I felt able I’d crawl the rest interspersed with beer stops after all the cut off was about 16 hours so lots of buffer for me. Comfortably through 26.2 and then 31 and I thought a PB was possible against my current best of 10.35 at NDW50. I felt strong into 40miles and a sub9 was easily doable but the heat and lack of fitness in legs started to trip me up. Still running but fast walking sections now I came through 50.6miles in 9.38 so nearly an hour chopped off.

I thought reaching 100 marathon club was everything but quickly realised that beneath that target, my love of the mountains and fells and running with pals for fun is still there and a strong driver. It’s a weight off to not have to worry about chasing numbers or need to race when I don’t need to. I can wake up, check the weather and bin off a race if I’m not feeling it and racing for me hasn’t been like that for over 2 years. In the period just gone I’ve managed a marathon PB and a 50 mile PB, completed The Fellsman, and reached 112 marathons/ultras. So I’m still surprising myself and enjoying races I’ve not done before. Its been a really good phase.

What has come to the forefront of mind recently is a strong desire to run longer and to run more mountainous races. I’ve been playing with the list for 2020. Without doubt I will move from running marathons very frequently to putting in a low number of much bigger races and filling the in-between with training. Up until now the frequency of marathons has been my training but this hasn’t been structured, and has no dedicated hill work or speed work built in.

I’ll get a taste of that soon enough as next along is Zermatt Ultra on 6th July. Fly out on the Friday, register, race Saturday morning and fly back Sunday morning. I’ve only raced overseas once for Berlin Marathon so excited to see how it works at a mountain race on the Continent. I primarily chose it because there was an Ultra option that gives the highest altitude finishing line in Europe – one that adds just 2miles beyond marathon but adds 1’686ft climb in those 2 miles for a total race ascent of 8’064ft. I liked the sound of that extra challenge. It all seems to be uphill though!

Zermatt will then mark entry to a new phase of my running. Lots of exciting races to tell you about…

 

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Lenham Cross Winter Marathon Review

New running outfit Hit The Trail Running (HTTR), set up by top utrarunner Tremayne Dill Cowdry (Western States 100 finisher amongst many other races) held its inaugural event Sunday 24th Feb. With warmer weather in the run up to the event, conditions underfoot on the North Downs were looking perfect and on the day we had clear blue skies and a beautiful warm start to the race with highs of 15C. The event sold out prior to the day, always great to see but especially promising for a new company – the route and team behind the race clearly had a strong pull. There were 121 sign ups with 98 runners on the start line and 97 finishers. The event covers 27.5miles with a generous 8hour cut off, starting from Detling village on a north-westerly 7.5mile ‘lollipop’ through shady Boxley Wood and Westfield Wood before returning back to Detling Village to the starting point for the first check point. The route then takes you on an out-and-back south-easterly trajectory along the North Downs Way through Holingbourne for the second checkpoint at 13.1miles and on to the foot of Lenham Cross for the turn-around checkpoint at 17.5 miles before returning you along the same track to the finish at Detling. There’s a decent 4,300ft of climb packed in and 90% of the course is off-road.

Lenham Route

Lenham Profile

There was certainly a warmth and buzz amongst runners in the hall eager to get going on this new race. Registration was dealt with efficiently by the friendly team and it was nice to see a race with a stripped down mandatory kit list – nothing more than a jacket, cup, water bottle and mobile required. As part of registration you are issued with a good looking HTTR buff within your entry price, a great touch and it allows you to wear it on the day. The race kicked off bang on 9am from the pedestrian bridge over the A249 Detling Hill and from there you are immediately on to trail with a moderate climb to take you up on to the ridgeway – nothing too technical, just rolling woodland path from here with some amazing views south towards Maidstone including a beautiful cloud inversion on the day. At around mile 3, leader Stephen Hobbs of Thanet Roadrunners was already at mile 5 flying back past us mid-packers. Stephen went on to destroy the course in 3:21:27 – for a hilly trail (long) marathon that’s a superb time. I came home in 6:02:29 (62nd)

Back into the 7.5mile checkpoint at Detling Village Hall we were greeted by the smiles and cheers of the volunteers – quickly pouring coke, water and squash for those who wanted it. Overall the friendliness and quality of the checkpoints was very good. Largely just sweets on offer but I didn’t hear anyone grumbling that there wasn’t enough choice or volume. The race is chip timed so at Detling you are funnelled through to get your ‘beep’ and off to Holingbourne you go. Enticingly you have the Cock Horse Inn just feet from the check point – a reminder of where you’ll finish up after crossing the finish line! After a very short road section we hit a left hand turn and the view of the long slow climb up Detling Hill meets you. Beautiful and also a hint of what is about to hit you over the next 5 miles. The hills of the NDW are relentless here – this is where they have been hiding the 4,300ft of elevation. I lost count of the steps up and steps down but over the next 5miles there are a series of 9 very sharp calf-busting and then quad-busting inclines and declines. As you conquer each one and catch your breath you remind yourself you have to face this all over again in the last 5 miles of the race! The views along this stretch I would argue are the best on the NDW and it’s not hard to take a minute’s rest to enjoy them.

Thankfully once you’ve done the first round of hills you drop into Holingbourne for the next checkpoint – sneakily positioned next to The Dirty Habit pub to add temptation to the range of emotions you’re feeling. The last few miles to the turn-around at Lenham Cross are all on Pilgrim’s Way – a little stretch of road feeds into a dusty farm track skirting along ploughed fields before becoming a more rutted muddy stretch used heavily by tractor by the looks of it. This in turns becomes undulating road passed the wooden sculpture of sleeping pilgrim Brother Percival. Inscribed is “Pilgrim bound by staff and faith, rest thy bones”, I’m sure a good number of runners took heed and joined Percival on the bench. This entire stretch from Holingbourne to Lenham Cross is a welcome opportunity to get the pace up, a really enjoyable and runnable few miles. A quick stop at the checkpoint below the towering chalk cross and then back the way we’ve just come.

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It’s a pretty punishing course – those final 5 miles of sharp climbs up and steep stepped descents will challenge most people but at least the final descent off Detling Hill is a fantastically fast blast and a flat few hundred metres of tarmac to bring you back home to cheers from finishers drinking their well-earned pints at the pub at the end. Inside the hall at the finish there was stacks of cake – I heard nothing but glowing reviews of the bakes. Superbly organised and staffed, great medal and buff, and a really fantastic course with outstanding views. I think this will be a winter classic for years to come.

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2019, I’m coming for you

All being well I shall wrap up 2018 with lifetime stats of 9 road marathons, 53 trail marathons, and 32 ultra marathons so a total lifetime marathon count of 94. Not bad when I started the year on 42. When I set out to join the 100 Marathon Club back in 2016 I vowed to do it as quickly as possible. The thought of taking a lifetime to reach a goal didn’t interest me at all. I like to set a target and get it done; done well and done quickly. And so having rampaged through 2018 with 52 races I wanted to ease off the frequency in 2019 – simply to get to 100 (but still quickly) and to focus on a handful of ‘bigger’ adventures. As soon as one target slips into the shadows, another one takes the limelight…

So here’s my 2019 gamble:

  • 6 marathons between January and the end of February to reach 100 at the Lenham Cross Winter Marathon
  • Run Greater Manchester Marathon in April to meet the entry criteria for 100 Marathon Club (you must have 10 road marathons within your 100), even though at this point I should be on 106
  • Complete a beautiful overseas race (Berlin Marathon is the only international race I’ve attended) – diary clashes mean Jungfrau marathon will wait, so Zermatt Ultramarathon is in. The ultra distance is only 2 miles longer than the marathon but packs in a ridiculous 1’650ft of elevation over those 2 miles. That’s a crawl at best
  • Run The Fellsman – a race I’ve admired for years. It’s low key, it’s largely across fells and private land opened up just for this race, it is entirely self-nav and requires self sufficiency, it has over 11’000ft of climb over 62miles around the Yorkshire Dales, and it has the very best medal – your clipped tally from the race. It’s like an LDWA run on steroidsfellsman
  • Complete another Abbott World Major marathon (of the 6, I have London and Berlin in the bank) – Chicago or NYC are the options. Maybe even both if lucky
  • Run the two big 50 mile races in the Lake District – The Lakeland 50 (LL50) and Lakes in a Day (LIAD). Both wild, rugged, with serious elevation and serious vistas. I missed LL50 entry the last 2 years because it sells out so quickly, this year I was lucky. For me it ranks alongside the Centurion races for appeal and respect within the ultra-running community so it was a bucket list race. LIAD is its overshadowed sibling but packs almost 30% more elevation over the same distance. Gnarly!
  • To run an entire National Trail from start to end. Might as well pick a shorter one! Ridgeway86 comes with outstanding feedback. Following the chat on their Facebook page is reason enough to sign up. This race is the 62 miles of Race to the Stones with the first 24 miles of the Ridgeway bolted on the front – 86 miles of the wonderful Ridgeway National Trail. Great finisher t-shirt and buffs too!R86
  • And finally, King Offa’s Dyke Race (KODR). 185miles non-stop and pretty much a trace of the England/Wales border from South to North. Starting Chepstow Castle and finishing Prestatyn. I love the sense of history that comes with this race. I love the sense of adventure from carrying everything on your back including your bed, and map reading your way through our beautiful and sometimes bleak countryside. Rest when you want, run when you can – complete freedom so long as you make the finish by foot within 90 hours. And the elevation – 29,806ft. That’s 777ft more than the height of Everest

kodr

Put all of that together and here’s the whole 2019 shabang…

races

 

 

52 marathons in 52 weeks

November 2017.

I had run 11 marathons and 10 ultra marathons by this point in the year. Closing down 100 Marathon Club membership was the primary goal but I also wanted to grind out 10 marathons in 10 days as a personal challenge. But somewhere in between the two things I secretly craved placing on the 52 marathons in 52 weeks table. I had been running events in 2017 with a small handful of people there in 52in52 shirts and it was bewildering to think of how they achieved it. Having pushed so bloody hard to get to 21 that year through a mammoth commitment in time, money and effort that to get much further would be impossible, let alone reach 52. There are fewer than 100 people in the UK logged as completing 52 in 52 and that really didn’t surprise me. Often marathon addicts will tell you that there are fewer people who have run 100 marathons than climbed Everest (4,000). Just imagine then how few have done 52 in 52. This feat really puts people well into the 1% club. The 0.0002% club perhaps?

Capture

Most probably I was shuffling along a seawall in Kent, might have been Margate or Deal. Cold and drenched in miserable November conditions during my 10 marathons in 10 days attempt I made a call that 52 in 52 would be on for me in 2018. What better start towards the 52 than already bagging 10 races? The 10 in 10 sadly faded to 5 in 5 because of tendonitis, but the dream was still burning bright. It was still a superb start.

I managed to recover quickly enough through an intense couch potato plan to be back out 2.5weeks later to land 2 more marathons before the year closed. The leg-rest worked a treat and also gave me ample time to run the numbers and do the research for the 52 target. The entries flew in. Firstly it pained my bank balance, then I had a queasiness about what I was taking on mentally and physically, then I thought oh god how do I square this off with the wife. After all, doing this challenge is a particularly selfish thing to do. But I knew with the 7 races already logged it was now or never. Stringing out race entries allowed me to manage the cash investment, queasiness turned to determination and doggedness, and if I drip fed the races on to the kitchen calendar I might swerve an early death and/or genital loss.

I bookmarked proper holidays away. There weren’t that many. Every weekend that wasn’t a holiday was a race. When you look at a year stretched out it seems like forever doesn’t it, and then realising that the vast majority of it was work and then marathon or ultra racing it was like a black cloud before I’d really begun. Just about every week it meant finishing 5 days of work, then running all weekend, and then returning back to work, ad infinitum. What if I got injured? What if I was ill? What if unplanned family commitments appeared or if I was just desperate for a weekend off to slob about? Would I ever finish putting up my mum’s fence? There just wasn’t room for any of this. When I commit to something there is absolutely no stopping unless I physically am unable. I think its the only way anyone can make the 52 happen.

As if the 52 in 52 didn’t seem tough enough I also wanted to pepper the schedule with a bunch of bigger races I’d been kicking down the path from missing the previous year. I’d heard that the 45 mile Country to Capital race was great, as was the LDWA Winter Tanners 30 mile run so they went on the list….I’d also read about Pennine Barrier 50 mile from Dan Thompson, and Imber Ultra 33 miler from Jeff Mitchell. I really wanted to race Stour Valley Path 100k as well as Snowdonia Trail marathon (as part of my plan to race the 3 marathons that include the summits of Britain’s 3 highest peaks, having already completed Scafell Pike marathon in 2016). Then along came Serpent Trail 50k which sounded interesting. To crown it all I wanted to race the 4 Centurion Running 50 mile events (South Downs Way SDW50, North Downs Way NDW50, Chiltern Wonderland CW50, and Wendover Woods WW50) – to complete the 50 mile grand slam in one year. It felt like a gloriously impossible challenge and I thrived on the challenge of nailing so many big races alongside 52 in 52.

By March I was 5 months in to the challenge and 15 races down. I felt like I wasn’t far enough ahead albeit I was on plan…and then snow hit in mid-March wiping out my LDWA Sevenoaks Circular race. I was gutted, not only because every race missed blew a huge hole in my schedule, but because this was a race on home turf starting a couple of miles from home and covering trails and byways I love and run regularly. My home advantage would go begging this year.

SDW50 came and went, then NDW50. The Grand Slam was on track. Both races meant meeting up with loads of cracking runner friends from real life and Twitter. Pennine Barrier became the next towering hurdle to overcome, but you turn up and get the job done to stay on track. And so it was; a long day but a great day and another big race ticked off with the excellent company of Helen Bullock. Serpent Trail 50k with Claire Foley and Spencer Millbery was astonishingly tough. The heat, positively not the conversation. Then Snowdonia Trail marathon where I gladly tagged on to Paul Thompson at the start of the Snowdon ascent, who was running the Ultra distance; a few weeks later SVP100 with Kate Allen and a glimpse of Lyndon Cooper before the start line for an epic 14hour shift on the trails to earn the superb green SVP shirt before a long drive home. By the time I reached the 3rd Centurion race (CW50) in September I was at 45 races and knackered! Running again with Claire Foley and having some great miles with Con Wild, I got to the end but almost didn’t. It was by far the toughest race of the year for me with my kidneys yet again failing and only scraping through thanks to Claire who jettisoned her own race for me – having done exactly the same thing (with brother Dan) in 2017 at Race to the Stones which is how we first met. Both races on the Ridgeway. Both races saved by Claire. Both races my kidneys gave up, only this time without the trip to A&E! I’m only a little nervous about returning to run Ridgeway86 in 2019, honest!! In amongst these races I ran 36 marathons with SaxonVikingNorman (SVN) events with my regular marathon family!

I made it to 52 in 52 on 21st October at Ranscombe Autumn Challenge having completed 13 ultras and 49 marathons in 47 weeks. No medal for getting there early though. Traviss, the brilliant Race Director, giving me a small announcement before the race and gasping with foreboding seeing that I was wearing the 52in52 shirt prematurely for my final race. I loved that final race on a great course in great weather with great friends from the SVN family. I knew I’d made it. Somehow I had remained largely injury free and kept a 100% record of turning up and getting the job done despite in some instances running double marathons one weekend followed by a 50 miler the following weekend.

1,551 miles raced. 113,000ft climbed. 11 double marathons, 1 triple, and 1 quintuple. 3 pairs of shoes. 98th person listed in the UK to complete the challenge. My proudest running achievement to date.

So that leaves two question marks…. the Centurion Grand Slam which I hope to complete this Saturday at Wendover Woods. I’m very excited to be running it. And secondly, if I’ve already completed 52in52 why an earth wouldn’t I look to complete 100 marathons in 100 weeks, I’m already over half way there!  🙂

Date Race Name/Venue Dist. Elevation (ft) Count
Fri 24-November-17 Samphire Hoe Challenge 30.0 2,076 1
Sat 25-November-17 Fudgeathon 30.0 2,061 2
Sun 26-November-17 Saxon Shore 26.2 215 3
Mon 27-November-17 Hugin Challenge 26.2 694 4
Tue 28-November-17 Relativity Run 26.2 1,603 5
Sat 16-December-17 Usual Suspect 26.2 1,755 6
Sat 23-December-17 Dymchurch Marathon 26.2 640 7
Sat 13-January-18 Country to Capital 45.0 1,498 8
Sat 20-January-18 Ranscombe Winter Challenge 26.2 2,794 9
Sun 21-January-18 Winter Tanners 30 30.0 2,540 10
Sat 10-February-18 Olympic Run Challenge 26.2 1,657 11
Sat 24-February-18 Ghost of Roadrunner 26.2 430 12
Sun 25-February-18 Mods & Rockers 26.2 430 13
Sun 04-March-18 Mega Challenge 26.2 2,717 14
Sun 11-March-18 Imber Ultra 33.0 2,940 15
Sat 31-March-18 Darnley Challenge 26.2 1,657 16
Sun 01-April-18 RAF100 Challenge 26.2 1,341 17
Sat 07-April-18 SDW50 50.0 5,899 18
Sat 14-April-18 Betteshangar Marathon 26.2 509 19
Sat 21-April-18 Wonderland Caucus 26.2 2,245 20
Sun 22-April-18 The Reject Run 26.2 2,245 21
Sat 12-May-18 Bewl Water 26.2 2,176 22
Sat 19-May-18 NDW50 50.0 5,984 23
Sat 26-May-18 Mega Challenge 26.2 1,258 24
Sun 27-May-18 Mega Challenge 26.2 1,258 25
Sat 02-June-18 Coastal Viking Challenge 26.2 170 26
Sun 03-June-18 Dambusters 26.2 2,036 27
Sat 09-June-18 Black Phoenix 26.2 189 28
Sun 10-June-18 Thames Path Potter 26.2 189 29
Sat 23-June-18 Pennine Barrier 50.0 8,507 30
Wed 27-June-18 Black Knight 26.2 2,717 31
Sat 30-June-18 Ranscombe Summer Challenge 26.2 3,102 32
Sun 01-July-18 Ranscombe Ramble Challenge 26.2 3,102 33
Sat 07-July-18 Serpent Trail 50k 31.0 2,297 34
Sun 15-July-18 Snowdonia Trail Marathon 26.2 5,528 35
Sat 11-August-18 SVP100 62.1 2,992 36
Sun 19-August-18 Cyclopark Series 26.2 1,341 37
Mon 20-August-18 Cyclopark Series 26.2 1,341 38
Tue 21-August-18 Cyclopark Series 26.2 1,341 39
Thu 23-August-18 Cyclopark Series 26.2 1,341 40
Sat 25-August-18 Cyclopark Series 26.2 1,341 41
Sun 26-August-18 Cyclopark Series 32.8 1,341 42
Sat 01-September-18 Black Hugin 26.2 715 43
Sun 02-September-18 Kent Coastal Marathon 26.2 1,599 44
Sat 15-September-18 CW50 50.0 5,600 45
Sat 06-October-18 It’s a Numbers Game Marathon – Day 1 26.2 189 46
Sun 07-October-18 It’s a Numbers Game Marathon – Day 2 26.2 189 47
Wed 10-October-18 Cardiac Challenge 35.1 6,000 48
Sat 13-October-18 Kangaroo Kanter 26.2 2,502 49
Sun 14-October-18 Owl Amble 26.2 2,502 50
Sat 20-October-18 Beerathon 26.2 3,102 51
Sun 21-October-18 Ranscombe Autumn Challenge 26.2 3,102 52

 

SDW50 Race Report

Saturday 7th April: 50 miles, 5’700ft

Could I beat the CP cut offs and my 50mile times of 12.47 for Gower50 and 12.41 for Grand Tour of Skiddaw (48miles)? I’d got round 46 miles of Country to Capital earlier in the year in 9.01 so that seemed very possible but 50 miles is a long way and lots of unexpected things can crop up. That’s all I could think about the night before. At these longer distances the chances of failure really seem to be amplified – you can weather rain and cold for a marathon but the effect on you over 50 miles is that much greater; a niggle in your body is bearable at shorter distances but over 12 or so hours of running, forget it. So for me the SDW50 was a balance of looking after the legs and mind to get me round but push on fast enough to have a couple of hours of buffer against the DQ time of 13 hours. If I managed that almost by default I’d get a PB time for 50 miles.

The night before I’d clocked off work and with a 90minute drive to Eastbourne and a hotel check in time no later than 7pm I was already racing about. The room – well I thought I’d walked into a Mark Rothko abstract painting. Best keep the lights off in this pit. I thought I’d get over to Worthing for kit check and bib number collection. Registration was open until 8.30pm, plenty of time but it took me 10 minutes of driving to work out that I’d have 3 hours of round trip driving just to get a number I could sort in the morning. You plank Chris. At least that got me out in the car so I could get food. Passed a McDonalds and to save driving round in circles looking for something better dived in for a Big Mac meal and a hamburger.

So back to the room of doom, got the burgers down and cracked on triple checking kit. Belly full, legs not too bad after last weekend’s double marathon, and kit packed. Sorted. And then pal Spencer gives me a free pass – a 7am lift to the start. Fantastic! Pulled back the duvet ready for bed, linen is full of rips – gross. Opened the window so I didn’t wake up dehydrated – the squawk of a seagull colony perched on the roof that was there when I went to bed, and was there to wake me up at sometime around 5am.

Weather seemed great in the early hours and the forecast was saying chance of light rain for a few hours just after lunch. This could be perfect racing weather conditions but with rain on the horizon kept the waterproof bottoms and gloves in my vest. I don’t do breakfast on race day so the only decision to be made now was shoe choice. I’d brought along Invo8 Roclite and Terraclaws – but I find they’re both unforgiving over long distance and on hard packed ground. The alternative was to take the chance on the new kids in town – the Altra Lone Peak 3.5s I’d picked up 3 days ago. Felt comfy in the shop, loads of cushioning – take the extra cushioning for the risk of new shoes killing me? Yep, had to – just couldn’t imagine often flinty/stony hard tracks over 50 miles in the Inov8. Worth the gamble I figured. So with 0 miles on the clock, on they went. Ready…..

Spence and the Wandering Milbery’s arrived dead on time and let me ride shotgun up front. Got to Worthing in bags of time so straight to the front of registration, 60 seconds to get through showing waterproof top (taped seams were checked!), survival blanket, headtorches – very slick. Usually I don’t see anybody at races but here I was spoilt. First Ally, then Kate, got to meet Ben Goddard for the first time, and then Jane Carter also, then Paul and Karen from SVN marathon circles…then Dan, and Paul, and Mark Thornberry. No one had managed to spot Brian though. Superb crowd.

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Before we knew it the shouts went out – “race briefing, get to the start”. Here we go!!! No time for nerves, this is happening. A short rain shower had just ended, a great buzz filled the air from competitors, and swarms of well-wishing families gave the start area a real sense of occasion. I was aiming for 11.30 min/miles for the first 24 miles so was happy to sit at the back of the pack and Dan seemed to be on a similar pacing so we ran out together.

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I’d been told the route was wide and open so I was looking forward to runnable stretches from the first to the last mile, but the first couple of miles were single-track pathway so as many stop-start sections from runners finding pace and fighting for positions as you’d find on the NDW with its gates and stiles. It always takes me about 6 miles to warm up and bloody hell the first 6 were hard work as the body got up to speed. At this point we started to get on to the SDW proper with ridgeway views coming thick and fast. This was a great boost. The running was flowing, the views were excellent, the ground was perfectly soft and superb to have Dan’s company.

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The route is brilliant, the hills are evenly spaced and rolling, largely the CPs are evenly spaced and the support along the course is top notch. The race never feels like it’s going to overwhelm you. I’m terrible with remembering details from within races, but Dan and I did a good job at filling the time with chat, picked up a couple of fallers (who then wiped the floor with us in the race), and kept pushing each other to run when walking was the easy option. Got to 26miles very comfortably and started the countdown to 30miles, knowing that beyond that we had a stop at 34miles, and then we’d be at 40 and into the home stretch and single digit miles. Nice easy chunks.

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Time flew. First thing I really remember is being at the Southease CP at 34miles. No rain yet – instead we had a good 20minutes of hot sun. The meadow birds were singing, legs were completely fresh, had fresh drinks on the go – I remember saying “this is heaven”. Southease was probably the toughest climb of them all in my opinion. Not very steep, but steep enough and very long. I liked the fact that after every CP there was a big hill. Meant you could stop for 2 minutes to refill bottles, rest the legs and then drive on up the hill and get it done quick after the break.

thumbnail_IMG_1755Top of climb out of Southease

We pressed on and by about 45miles had it cracked – we had climbed the final big hill around the back of the Long Man of Wilmington and had Kate a few hundred metres ahead in our sights now and Spence closing in about half a mile behind us. The weather here was closing in and getting much colder. But just a mile to the final CP and then the last 4 mile canter into Eastbourne to finish. Just before the CP we met up with Kate and ran in together.

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We had a sub-11 on the cards but none of us was particularly fussed by it – and a final hill climb helped snub out our chances anyhow. 2 miles to go – a slippy rutted chalk track down off the hill and a boring pavement section through town to bring us out at the Eastbourne Sports Centre where we entered to applause as the rain started to fall and the sun set an unbelievable orange and crimson. No one behind us so we plodded round, phone cameras in hand to record the finish of a cracking day.

thumbnail_IMG_1753Photo courtesy of Ben Goddard

11.09 on the clock. that comfortably beat my previous times. The new shoes were a dream despite being fresh out of the box. My legs still felt like they had another few hours running left from the easy pace we’d taken. Felt great. Shame not to have a 9 or 10hour something but I was just happy to have had a great day out running with Dan and Kate. There’s always the NDW50 or CW50 later in the year for a quicker time if I can be fussed. The camaraderie in the finish hall rounded off a top event – few photos, got the shirt and medal, had a free cuppa (bliss!), chatted to rest of the gang who were there – one of the best races I’ve ever done for all round enjoyment. Got back to the room of doom with a takeaway curry and reflected on marathon 53: a Randall 10/10.

Next up: Betteshangar Marathon next Saturday 14th April

Kit List:

  1. Altra Lone Peaks 3.5
  2. Drymax Cold Weather Crew socks
  3. Inov8 Race Ultra Gaiter
  4. Ronhill shorts
  5. Chaffree boxers
  6. Inov8 race ultra mitt
  7. Isobaa merino base layer
  8. Karrimor XLite midlayer
  9. Inov8 Race Ultra Pant
  10. Montane Minimus Jacket
  11. Unilite PS-HDL6R
  12. Kalenji chest light
  13. Ultimate Direction PB Adventure Vest 3.0
  14. Sea to Summit collapsible cup
  15. Anker A1211 power bank
  16. Suunto Ambit 3 watch
  17. Mountain Fuel, Clif Bloks, Jelly Belly Sports Beans

Centurion Running SDW50

Having long been an admirer of the Centurion ethos and a lover of the SDW and NDW it was only a matter of time until the money went down on entry fees for the 50milers. As running only re-surfaced in my life around 2015/16 I don’t remember Centurion events hitting my radar until 2017 at which point spaces had long vanished. So by the end of 2017 I’d heard lots of gushing talk about the races and lots of opportunity to do the digging and quickly had my heart set on ticking off the 50mile Grand Slam of South Downs Way, North Downs Way, Chiltern Wonderland and Wendover Woods. I’m OCD on races – just like the misery of my incomplete 1986 Panini album, if I enter one race in a series it’ll niggle that there’s unfinished business. It had to be all 4 or nothing.

So these 4 went down in the diary and the rest of the race calendar parachuted in over the top for my 2018. I’ve run just one official 50miler – the 2016 Gower50 with RunWalkCrawl. That had 4,400ft of ascent and felt like a very tough slog almost the entire distance. I’m hoping that this was down to a very technical cliff-hugging first half and lots of energy-sapping beach running because the SDW50 will be about 5,700ft. I’ve been out on the SDW a few times and the hills don’t often stop but the route is straight, rolling and runnable for the most part. Gower50 was also my 10th marathon so now that I’m up at 33 marathons and 19 ultras I can rely on a ton more experience and better pacing ability

Plenty of reassuring emails out of Centurion is great, and what else is great is the stripped down mandatory kit list. Maybe it’s a hangover from my mountain ultras but nice to look down the list and not think how the hell will I squeeze all that in a race vest.

As usual for me – flying by the seat of my pants – there’s a last-minute realisation that…

  • I have a hole in the sole of my Drymax socks
  • My limited and knackered shoe line-up of just Inov8 Terraclaw and Inov8 Roclite probably won’t cut it
  • I’m almost out of Clif Bloks and don’t remember seeing any MountainFuel lying about
  • I meant to buy folding Leki poles weeks ago but made excuses about finding the cash for them

So all in all I feel a bit exposed. Not in the least bit helped by finding my local running shop has started stocking Altras…. on Wednesday…. that fitted like a glove when tested on the treadmill. Knowing I need a new pair of runners I went ahead and splurged the cash but will I risk new shoes on a 50 miler? Could I fit the Old Faithfuls into my vest as a back up if the Altras start to hurt?

I also ran a double marathon weekend last week after 3 weeks out, not even a dash to the car to avoid the rain in that period, so that killed something rotten. The hamstrings came out stinging. Got straight off to a sports massage Monday night and that’s about the best I could do to have the legs ready for Saturday.

Whatever happens I’ll be at the start line 8.30 Saturday and dead excited at the prospect of racing my first Centurion event. Also excited at the prospect of a beautiful course (do I take a short detour for a photo of the Long Man of Wilmington?). Also looking forward to meeting a long list of running superstars from the Twitter community (but not so much the pressure to keep up with their pace). One way or another I’ll also be there at the finish line.

Cannot wait.

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