Running, Anaemia and I

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In 2015 I was diagnosed with anaemia, this was a bit of a shock as although I knew my symptoms matched this diagnosis I was also aware that it was reasonably uncommon in men of my age.

I don’t know when it started, it could have been as early as the previous summer but it was definitely having a negative impact over the Christmas period of 2014. In October and November I was feeling good about my training, I was feeling stronger than I had in a long time and was training consistently. This meant I felt that my plans to do a 70.3 triathlon in June 2015 were well on track, but then going into December things started to go awry.

Leading up to & over the holidays I was struggling with my shift patterns more than normal and was feeling inordinately tired. All of the time. I couldn’t seem to get enough sleep, I would spend 12 hours in bed & it wouldn’t be enough. My performance & attitude at work began to suffer and it was no great surprise that it soon began to affect my training. It became all too easy to make an excuse not to exercise, at first I didn’t even notice it was happening then before long making excuses became the routine.

I noticed that gentle inclines or even climbing a flight of stairs left me breathless and on the rare occasions I did gather the motivation to run it felt that I didn’t have anything in the tank even very early on, knowing I was losing fitness due to my lack of activity I put it down to this and got into a vicious circle of not training because it was more difficult and blaming my poor performance and obvious reduction in fitness on not training.

By April I felt that I couldn’t carry on & finally visited my GP, from the description I gave of my situation and symptoms they originally suspected that I was stressed or depressed but sent me for a blood test to eliminate any physical ailments… and it was a good thing they did too. Because I received a call a few days later to advise that I was anaemic.

I was taken aback, but relieved that it was a physical rather than psychological ailment and started researching what the impact could be, what I could do about it and how it would effect my running. I posted on Twitter about it and Dr Juliet McGratten responded with some great advice and she later wrote a great blog for UKRunChat inspired by my question.

So it turns out I’m anaemic- can anyone shed any light on how that will/does affect my fitness and running?

Effectively anaemia is an iron deficiency and symptoms include tiredness, lethargy & breathlessness. All things I was suffering from, it also commonly causes a pale complexion something else that had been pointed out at the time. This lack of iron causes a reduction in the red blood cells, these help store & carry oxygen in the blood so if you have less then oxygen is not transported to your organs & tissue as efficiently causing the above symptoms but read Juliet’s blog for more information.

I started taking Ferrous Sulphate supplements and within weeks started to feel the benefits and I also changed my diet, including more Iron rich foods such as spinach, watercress, red meat and nuts. I had to withdraw from the Ironman 70.3 as I hadn’t trained anywhere near enough for it… as proven by my last but one position in the Tallington Triathlon but by July I felt strong to get through Lakeland50 but it was a struggle, particularly on the long ascents and I knew I should be able to give much more.

I have never returned to the level I was at when diagnosed but also never identified the underlying cause, which is annoying as this means I don’t know how to avoid it happening again. I had several tests after it was originally diagnosed but all were normal so didn’t establish the reason.

Was it diet? NSAIDS? A medical issue?

I’m still in the dark so I have continued taking Iron supplements in some form or another since to avoid relapsing and again falling back in performance. It has taken me close to a year to finally get to a level close to my previous best so although anaemia doesn’t cause long term damage the impact can be relatively long-term to deal with but if you seek professional help earlier than I did and then follow their advice you’ll be good as new in much shorter time.

North Downs Way 50 – Ultra 5 of 12

Centurion events have got one hell of a reputation within the Ultra Running community, but to date I hadn’t had the opportunity to take part in one myself. A combination of poor planning and working weekends meant I hadn’t signed up before they inevitably sold out…

In a fit of over enthusiasm and confidence I had registered for the South Downs Way 100 after I’d  completed the Lakeland 50 last year, but this meant I needed to finish a 50 mile race in less than 15 hours to qualify, so I also signed up for the North Downs Way 50 to this end. This formed the start of the plans to complete 12 ultra’s in 12 months and the NDW50 became the 5th on the list.

In the weeks leading up to the race I was fairly relaxed, knowing I was running it in company, was capable of completed the distance on tougher terrain and that I had trained far more effectively this year helped put my mind at ease but on Friday night I did not sleep well as the usual doubts started to creep in.

An early start & I rode my motorbike up to the start where I unloaded and changed at the school before parking round the corner. I met Tony, my companion for the day and fairly regular race partner who was completing his first 50 and bumped into both Kev (@KevJKeenan) & Justin @JustinBateman) before I saw Mike Julien (@TailwindUK) who had very kindly agreed to bring some sachets of Tailwind for me, finally allowing me to stop flapping about and get sorted for the day ahead.

After the obligatory race briefing from James we made the short walk round the corner to the trail head where the race was due to start. We ended up near the back of the procession of runner so couldn’t see the start line but we still heard the air horn to signal that we were underway and it didn’t take long for us to make good progress down the trail.

We ran for about half a mile on trail and some roads queuing through a number of kissing 2016-05-14 09.51.42gates before I recognised the trail from where Pilgrims Challenge had joined the NDW. It then follows the same mixed trails on undulating terrain for 33 miles.

We made decent progress reaching Puttenham feeling good, I had a strategy for the day and was pushing the pace a little harder than I normally would at the start of a 50 miler knowing that it gets far more difficult from the midway point so wanted plenty of time in hand for the hills. We soon passed under the A3 and headed past Guilford dropping down to the river to be greeted by the now legendary ‘Bacon Boat’ as expected, but the Stormtrooper most definitely wasn’t expected. Heading off across the river & playing fields, bacon sandwich in hand the procession of runners must have looked an odd sight as they passed the few supporters beyond.

Still feeling good we continued pushing on through the next stretch to St Martha’s which seemed to take far longer than last time I ran this way. Kev caught up with us here so we had a chat about the benefits of a mild twitter addiction, which passed the time before we finally reached the sandy ascent to the Church. Rounding the corner we were treated to stunning views and Matt Buck (@RunningBucky) who has had the hard job of coaching me this year. After a quick hello and saying how good I was feeling we set of on the long descent down the other side, where the first of only two issues came on immediately as I started to get cramping in my right calf. Running through the pain we made it to the CP at Newland’s Corner about 15miles in.

We were well looked after as I topped up my bottle and tried to stretch out my calf but as I did I identified the second issue of the day realising my left knee was tight and it hurt to bend, I was now a little worried that with Brighton Marathon & Gozo 55k in the last 4 week s I’d been overdoing it.  We set of again fairly quickly but I was very aware of the pains I had and for the next few miles I struggled, focusing heavily on these issues, after a further 3 miles and Tony comfortably pressing on dragging me forward and regularly dropping me I took some painkillers and continued to plod on uncomfortably. I disliked this long flat section the previous times I’ve run it but in the changed perception from longer race we seemed to cover the distance far quicker and reached the more enjoyable undulating section through the woods and open hillside past the pill boxes just in time for the painkillers to kick in.2016-05-14 11.28.59I was soon running more freely again and as we reached Ranmore Common, found I was able to keep up and even pass Tony again and starting the long steady descent through the vineyards to the A24 I was feeling strong. We despatched the annoying detour under the subway, but it didn’t annoy me as much knowing it was coming and turning into the Box Hill Car Park saw the much needed CP ahead of us. We had planned to sit down here for a few minutes & topping up my bottles and grabbing a couple slices of watermelon and coke gave us time to briefly rest.

I had warned Tony several times about the Box Hill steps and cautioned him again before we set off but we had the stepping stones to despatch first. Hopping over them, forgetting to smile for the camera we made our way up the hill to the steps. Again, knowing what was coming and remembering how many there were meant I pushed on and got up reasonably easily, Tony on the other hand cracked a bit as he made his way up. I reached the top, but it was a few minutes before Tony reached the top, rewarded with the same views I had been treated with while waiting.2016-05-14 12.56.17We then continued on the path past the view point on the top and loads of supporters before taking the surprise ascent just after, I dropped Tony again and waiting after he took ages to appear. When he finally did he told me he’d gone the wrong way. Considering how well the route was marked I have no idea how he managed this, but I made sure I kept a closer eye on him afterwards! We had reached the 25 mile point in a shade over 5 hours and felt pretty good too. The next section is brutal with lots of steep descents followed by quad burning ascents as we zig-zag across country but the tracks are great, I love this 8 miles stretch going the other way but in this direction it seems to be far more uphill than down and progress can be hard. I was still feeling remarkably fresh as we reached the steep climb up track towards Reigate Hill but this took a lot out of me and the ridge was a slow plod as we headed towards aid station 4.

I felt like I was running on empty so polished off a couple sausage rolls and avoided the far too comfortable looking deck chairs basking in the sun outside. Leaving the CP we enjoyed the mile long descent that follows before meandering along the roads past the school and out to the golf course which marked the end of my knowledge of the route.

2016-05-14 23.04.59Turning left instead of right where I went before the North Downs Way skirts the edge of Merstham and crosses the M25 before reaching the picturesque St Katherine’s Church then soon crossing the M23 leaving that behind by heading uphill across fields. This stretch featured a fair bit of road but also included some spectacular views from the tops.

Finally heading into CP5 At Caterham I saw Ben (@runaaargh)and he came out to run in with me, he handed me the rice pudding I’d put on special order and topped up my Tailwind again with caffeine now to give me a boost in the final stages. We stayed here for a fair time giving our legs a rest and getting some food inside us before hobbling off again.

We only had 5 miles to the final aid station but it was to be the start of the end before we reached the CP.

2016-05-14 23.08.26The route weaved in and out of woodland, with some really pretty spots as we passed glades full of wild garlic and bluebells and I really enjoyed plodding along the single track chatting to various runners as we met.We passed a group of supporters in what appeared to be a random section who really lifted our spirits before we arrived at the final big climb of the day up Botley Hill, at the bottom a guy was sat checking the race list then saying your name as encouragement and as I started to ascend a girl headed down, peered at me then ran away up hill. Then I realised it was Emma (@emmah1506) waiting a bit further up and it was her daughter who’d been looking out for me. After berating them for waiting on a hill we walked up together, in reality the chat as we climbed took my mind off it and it was despatched quite easily and I got to the final CP in good spirits. After getting a pep talk from the guy in a cow hat at the CP I grabbed some water and waited for Tony. And waited. And waited.

At the bottom of Botley Hill he hadn’t been far behind so I walked back to the gate and saw him plodding up towards me, obviously in some discomfort. I shouted support trying to will him on to the top. At this point I was still feeling great, I wanted to crack on and push to the end as a sub 11hr finish was still achievable but seeing  how much pain Tony was in this was reassessed.  We grabbed some pineapple and after Tony sat down to rest before we made our way across the road.

The final section featured more undulations but was mostly across and around fields, Tony was really struggling. I pushed him as hard as possible but he was pretty much done, a couple of the final miles dropped into the 20mins but he kept moving forward and the distance slowly but surely reduced. I kept checking with him to make sure he was ok, sharing my caffeine with him hoping to lift his spirits a little. I was estimating how far we had trying to count it down for Tony, and eventually arrived at a signpost showing Knockholt Pound 1 ¼ miles away so we knew we only had that fair to go. Passing a marshal she advised we only had to head round the next field to the road before we finish, we could then hear the supporters cheering and as we went through the kissing gate caught sight of the finish line, tantalisingly close but yet so far away.

Heading up and away from the finish we circumnavigated the biggest field in the world before we finally arrived at the final style and turned left downhill along the road where we ran a bit again. Walking up round the corner to save Tony’s legs so he could run over the line we turned into the grounds and ran to the line together finishing in under 12 hours which was always the main aim.

After receiving our medals and posing for some finish line photos we went inside for the best cup of tea and hot-dog in the world. Ever. Then I was bundled into the arriving shuttle bus for the LONG journey back to Farnham during which I had a great chat with Garfield and the end of the race day.

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I had an incredible time, the marshals in Centurion events have an almost mythical status and they lived up to this reputation, helping in any way they could and providing humour and encouragement at every stop. With a Stormtrooper in attendance the legend of the Bacon Boat surpassed my expectations and although it repeated on me for miles I am glad I had it and became a part of that legend. The support along the route was amazing, from those I knew (Matt, Emma & Ben) to those I’ve tweeted (Susie, Marina & Rhianon) and those I don’t know at all (lady with pompoms, man getting our names from the entry list, random group in the woods, all the crews) they were all so enthusiastic and full of energy they really helped keep me happy along the route. The route is brilliant, tough for long stretches but featuring fabulous views throughout and some fantastic trails to run on, particularly towards the latter stages and it is incredibly well marked throughout. Additionally we were treated to almost perfect weather on the day which was most definitely the icing on the cake.

I felt really strong for most of it and it’s filled me with confidence for the upcoming South Downs Way 100 in 4 weeks. We finished in  11.40 but with a 50k personal best I could have come in a lot quicker, showing that despite some issues with training over the last couple months I have been making solid improvements which bodes well for the big challenges coming up over the next 2 months.

 

 

 

 

Gozo 55km Ultra-Trail – Ultra 4 of 12

I’d signed up for this race on a whim after a friend who lives on Malta sent me the details, I’d needed an ultra for April and after checking this one out I realised it was cheaper to pay for the flight, accommodation and entry than the alternative I was considering so I registered and didn’t think much else about it. Not until race day started to dawn anyway.

With all the other races I was taking part in taking my attention one after the other it wasn’t until mid-April that I finally started to look into the Gozo 55km and I quickly started to question my decision to sign up without researching it first. I read a couple blogs written by previous entrants and there was one common theme… how hard the route was.

Oh dear, with just 2 weeks before the NDW50 what had I let myself in for?!

We arrived in Gozo on the Wednesday before the race and spent a couple days exploring Malta’s sleepy little sister Island, soon discovering that the terrain was… bumpy. And hard. In fact, the whole place is either limestone or volcanic rock and I swear there isn’t a flat spot on the entire Island. The undulations aren’t even gentle with sheer cliffs either side of the bays we visited and knowing the route followed the coast I incredulously convinced myself that it must somehow skirt these towns for a more passable route that I was unaware of. I was wrong, so very wrong.

Myself and 3 other runners (from Canada, Poland and Belgium) were transferred by shuttle bus from Marsalforn to the start in Ghajsalem on the Saturday morning with plenty of time to register, a hassle free start to race day which is always preferable to fighting with public transport in a foreign country. During the obligatory race briefing we were advised to follow the tape and sprayed red dots & arrows, the latter used because the “hunters remove the tape”. Cue nervous laughter from all! Hunters?  I just hoped we weren’t the prey. We then lined up behind the inflatable gantry ready for the local Mayor to count down and at 8am we were off…. by which time it was already getting warm.

From the start the route quickly hits the cliff edge passing the walls of one of the many fortified towns around Gozo giving stunning views of Comino and Malta, then immediately it started to take on the soon to be familiar pattern of rocky technical descent to a pretty bay followed by short steep quad burning ascent. I had set off at a comparatively quick pace and was soon sweating heavily in the early morning heat so slowed a little to a more comfortable speed. The trails were pretty good for the first 6 miles and although the runners were already well strung out the red dots marking the route were clear and easy to follow so I soon reached CP1 in good time & good shape.

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I took on some water and quickly followed the red dots and arrows through the town where I was joined by Sue a local runner who was here for the second time and chasing a sub 8 hour time. We broke free of the town and were greeted by the breath-taking Ta’ Cenc Cliffs, a highlight of the race and I had to stop for some photos losing touch with Sue.

The next 3 miles followed the cliff edge all the way to Xlendi, one of the places I’d visited but couldn’t see how we could possibly get up the sheer cliff side. After passing the restaurants and taking the stairs I’d seen on the far side the red dots that showed the route just went straight up the rock face. Literally scrambling up to the boulders to some steps cut into the rock I rounded the top, but with the concentration and effort required to get up I had lost sight of any red dots. After wandering back and forth for a few minutes I spotted another runner passing me along a track just below me so I crossed to the edge & picked up the route again, but I had lost a substantial amount of time which had allowed several runners that hadn’t been in sight to catch me. We all continued along together, me leading the way until the trail appeared to fade away before my eyes, with no red dots in sight. We fanned out looking for signs of the route, until one of the group pointed out a track off to our right telling us we needed to be on that. The big sign stating “Way Out à” suddenly made much more sense. Joining the trail we were all off again heading inland on gravel tracks & country roads before running into arable land and blindly following the others as they passed a big sign that warned “Private. Stay out or Trouble.” We now weaved between a lot of the hunter hides, some in action with hunters (and their guns inside). We eventually joined a clear trail on the cliff edge again and could soon see Dwerja and the Azure Window for CP2. Dropping down the good track onto the road and dodging buses and tourists to the second place I’d visited since being on the island and CP2 at 13 miles.

The marshals were superb, helping me top my soft flasks up with water, electrolytes & Tailwind – no mean feat in the stiff breeze before I headed on my way. It was a long pit stop, due to all the faffing about but I needed to ensure I had enough fluid as temperatures were now soaring. The route now began a long drag uphill first away from the Sea before picking up the cliff edge and providing absolutely stunning views back to the Azure Window, a perfect location for the race photographer to snap us as we passed.

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The next section was a bit of a mental battle for me, I felt sick, but wasn’t sure why. Was I dehydrated? Had I drank too much? Do I need to eat more? Was it heatstroke? As the questions and doubt pounded my brain we passed through some stunning landscapes, which helped take my mind off the concerns. The limestone had been eroded by the wind & sea creating formations that were like an alien landscape and as I started to feed off the views I picked myself up again and began making good progress again.

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Reaching the Salt Pans I knew from the blog I’d read we were nearing Marsalforn and I reached CP3 at 19.5miles feeling good again and on for a sub 7hr finish. I began chatting to a Swiss runner and we stuck to the road through Qabbar and down to Marsalforn, passing the bemused British and Polish tourists filling the restaurants along the seafront. At the end of the row of hotels there are a few steps… and then you enter Hell. The trail ascends abruptly and with the hill blocking the wind it was hard and hot work, but the reward for this was a fun stretch of single track carved out of the hill side. Following the dots I passed into a patch of bamboo, enjoying the sudden cool in the shade, coming out the other side 2 runners came down towards me, telling me they were lost. We went pack into the bamboo, and there was a marker… out of the bamboo, nothing. We wandered up and down trying to work out which way to go before seeing Sue making her way along the beach below us. We eventually discovered a reasonably safe way to drop down to the beach and again picked up the route. We all heading along the beach over the rocky edges before the trail climbed very steeply up to a ridge overlooking Ramla Bay.

I cracked on this final climb and dropping down the path to the beach I was suffering in the heat, making my way onto the sand I heard Anna calling me and I shuffled over to see her. Downing a few big slugs of water I deliriously wobbled away down the beach. To escape the torturous sun trap of Ramla Bay required a long slow steep climb up to the welcome cool shade of Calypso’s Cave where I sat for a few seconds. Legend has it this is where Odysseus stayed with Calypso during his Odyssey, so if it’s good enough for him to take a break then it’s good enough for me too! Leaving the cave through a door way in the back we now made our way along a serious of enclosed roads and tracks that undulated like a roller-coaster which soon raised my temperature again. I took some painkillers to ward off the growing pain in my legs and continued to move forward, slowly. It had taken so long to cover the last 6miles I had run out of fluid and was now worried about the 10 hour cut off, never mind 7hrs! After another 1.5 miles the road surface improved and we reached a good descent that allowed me to stretch my legs a bit and as we hit the coast again the wind picked up cooling me a lot. Reaching CP4 I was finally starting to feel OK again.

The marshals again helped me with my soft flasks adding caffeine infused electrolytes and Tailwind for an extra boost during the final leg. I downed a bottle of Isotonic and plodded off up the road. Passing onto steadily rising trails I was feeling sick again, I’m pretty sure that it was Iso drink sat on my stomach that made me feel bloated so I took my time until the sloshing subsided and I’d taken on the fluid. I finally started to feel OK as we passed yet another fort and I started to push on knowing I was only a few miles from the finish. I was following the red dots as they passed between a couple large boulders and appeared to disappear, looking around a little bewildered I realised the route dropped straight off the side down a loose rocky scramble. I clambered down and as I started making my way on a female runner behind me continued straight past, I was shouting for her & realised that a male runner was behind me saying no because the route again appeared to disappear. There were markers all round us but it took a few second for us to realise the dot went straight over the side of a huge rock blocking our way, so another climb was necessary. After another couple scrambles and crossing a couple beaches the route took us up a metal rung ladder over a final rock face before we settled into better progress along a single track.

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By this point I was smashed to pieces but pushing on as I wanted to get it over with and for the final couple miles of trail I played leapfrog with one of the MTB entrants, he would pass me only for me to catch him in a section he couldn’t ride just to be passed again seconds later. I passed him one last time as we reached the road and didn’t see him again until the finish line as I soon left the road to head up the steps and slopes in enclosed back alleys towards Ghajnselem. I passed the line in 8.08, I was a little disappointed to be over 8 hours but it was a bloody hard day that I found thoroughly enjoyable.

Despite getting lost on several occasions having lost the route I didn’t really find this a negative, the support from the marshals was spot on & they couldn’t do enough for me at the check points. The views and terrain were spectacular and it was an incredibly welcoming and friendly event with runners from all corners of the world which all added up to be a true experience. The only negative was the runner who miraculously appeared ahead who I suspect used local knowledge to take a shorter route. I know that really they’re only robbing themselves and the organisers have done what they can to stop this by having a number of spot checks around the course but it is still saddens me to see it happen.

To finish off a great day the organisers also put on a pasta party at a nearby country club on the cliff top overlooking the Mediterranean so I joined many of the runners from the day in the evening for a good meal, a recap of our days exploits and the presentation ceremony… a fitting end to an unforgettable day.

  • Travel to Malta is quick and comparatively cheap, with flights starting from as little as £25 and taking less than 3 hours. Accommodation on Malta (and Gozo) is plentiful and well priced so it makes perfect sense to make your running trip here into a holiday giving you time to explore the islands and their sights and sites.