Race Report: The Isle of Wight Challenge 2014

Freshwater Bay on the South coast of Isle of Wight
Freshwater Bay on the South coast of Isle of Wight

The 106 km Isle of Wight Challenge was organized for the first time this year by Action Challenge. Starting in Northwood Park, West Cowes, the course mostly followed the coastal path in an anti-clockwise direction. All participants were required to fundraise for a charity, and I chose The Battersea Dogs and Cats Home.

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I knew the Isle of Wight Challenge would be hard. First, it was the distance, spiced with lots of hills. Secondly, I had a knee injury when signing up, and though the pain seemed to go away a month before it meant I had not been able to train properly. I also expected the distance and the tough course profile to make it flare up again at some point. Yet strangely enough, I was still looking forward to taking on this challenge, wearing the blue running vest provided to me by the nice people at Battersea, running in beautiful scenery, and meeting new people just as crazy as myself.

The immediate pre-race preparations did not go too well either. Instead of resting the day before the race, I had travelled from Norway to the IOW. The bus-plane-train-train-boat-bus itinerary also made it difficult to fuel properly. The largest pre-race disaster was however delivered by the caterers hired for the evening meal. I had booked this meal after being assured, in writing, that they would cater for all diets. First, the caterers turned up late, and then it seemed that the food had to be cooked on site. After an hour and a half’s wait it turned out they had no vegan options, and did not even know what a vegan was (unsurprising maybe, as I also observed that one of them had to teach the other how to slice a burger bun). My pre-race evening meal was therefore a pot noodle-type meal with couscous and lentils (250 Kcal) from a supermarket, and a chocolate bar.

Despite poor preparations, I felt calm as I walked up to Northwood Park at 7 am. This spring and summer I have run three ultras and one hilly marathon while injured, I knew I could endure a lot of pain and discomfort. Approaching the race HQ Aha’s «Take on me» blasted out of the speakers. I took being welcomed by Norway’s most famous pop band as a good sign. The nippy morning air made me very happy that I had spent the night in a comfortable bed in a pub/b&b, instead of at the campsite, where tired runners were now crawling out of their tents.

As the time neared 7.30, the starting time for the first group, including me, runners reluctantly made their way into the starting pen, where most stood very still while staring at the poor woman who had been hired to lead an aerobics warm up. I hope she had more luck with the next group.

When the clock struck 7.30 we set off down the hill to the seafront, at the most sensible pace I have ever seen in an ultra race. After a couple of kilometres along the sea, the course, marked at very regular intervals with pink triangles, turned inland. First through quiet residential streets, then we met the first grassy hills as we approached the first aid station at Hampstead Farm (17km).

The aid stations were well stocked, and usually manned by a small army of volunteers. All offered High5 energy drink, water, fruit, energy and protein bars, and various savoury snacks, and maybe best of all; toilets. The only thing I was slightly unhappy about was that some stations served the fruit whole, not sliced, which meant grappling with hard-to-peel oranges and feeling guilty for taking a bite of an apple before throwing the rest away.

Just after the first aid station I had my first incident; running downhill, my foot caught on something, and a nosedive was followed by a two-metre skid along the ground. The dust cloud was probably seen from the other side of the island. Luckily, the only damage was some skin peeled off my hands, and a dent in my mood. Dust also covered from head to toe, and filled my sunglasses, running pack, and drinking tube valve. However, I soon perked up when we returned to the coast and sea views. Running through Yarmouth soon after pensioners walking their dogs cheered us on, which cheered me up further.

First sea view for a while, at 20k
First sea view for a while, at 20k

At around 30km, we approached the westernmost point of the island and the famous landmark the Needles, a row of pointy chalk cliffs sticking out into the sea. The race organizers had promised us a spectacular view here, and they were not wrong. Complementing the view was the red and white tents of the next aid station at 31km.

Needles
Needles

Leaving the aid station, the volunteers warned us that from now on we would run along the cliff edge. They forgot to mention the hills, though. The next section along the South coast was like a roller coaster, up a grassy hill along the cliff edge, down on the other side, through a small cluster of houses, and then up and down the next one. One of the biggest hills of the day was the one at which the Tennyson monument is situated, where we again were rewarded with a beautiful view. Both the course profile and the landscape here were very similar to the Seven Sisters area of Sussex, and I really enjoyed it. At least until the point where I stared feeling nauseous, somewhere between 40 and 50k.

IOWCH01
Just before nausea struck. Freshwater Bay in the background.

I had expected discomfort, and with the lack of fuelling the day before nausea was not a major surprise. I had however hoped that it would not kick in until a little bit later. Arriving at the half way aid station at 54k, after approximately 6 hours, my back ached, I was still nauseous, and the pleasant heat had turned unpleasant. One of the volunteers asked me if I was running the full or the half distance, and for a second or two I contemplated claiming a finisher medal for the 56k race.

The staff at this aid station were fantastic, and actually offered to cook me a vegan meal from scratch. I was happy with a baked potato with some olive oil, hoping the starch would make my stomach settle.

As I was leaving this aid station Flavien, the vegan runner whose ill/well-timed Facebook post was responsible for my attempt at the Thames Path 100 earlier this year, was arriving. He had started in the second group of runners, 20 minutes behind my group. We had a very brief chat, but I expected he would soon catch up with me so that we could chat some more.

I the mid section I kept passing and being passed by this fellow fundraising for the Alzheimer's Society.
One of my favourite views: white cliffs lit up by the sun

After running a few more kilometres in Teletubbiesland, it became clear that not even the starchy goodness of a baked potato was enough to bring me out of the slump. In addition to the nausea my stomach started cramping. From this point onwards, I started using the same tactics as during the TP, i.e. not thinking about the total distance or finish line, but just focusing on arriving at the next aid station. Which was at 65k and sat at the top of some evil steps, halfway up which Paul, a Facebook friend I had not had the pleasure of meeting in the flesh previously, stood grinning. He had come out to support fellow Vegan Runner Noel, and since Noel and I arrived at the aid station together, he made it his mission to ensure we both made it to the finish line.

Sugar and caffeine brought a smile back to my face. Thank you, Paul!
Sugar and caffeine brought a smile back to my face. Thank you, Paul!

We had long since stopped running up the bigger hills, but now we negotiated any incline, whatever gradient, at walking pace. As we ran/walked along the beachfront in Shanklin, we looked longingly at all the tempting pubs and cafes and talked about how good a cold drink would taste. Off Paul went, returning minutes later with a selection of cold drinks. His next job was to run in front on the beach promenade and clear a path through the day-trippers, dogs, kids, and scooters. Despite my fatigue and all the opportunities for becoming really annoyed I was thinking that Shanklin and Sandown looked like nice places, a bit like Brighton, and that I would like to go back to the South Coast of the IOW and just lie on the beach for a few days. I was actually thinking of running down on the beach and jumping into the water there and then.

The 77k aid station was supposed to be just after Sandown. I was hoping to find it down on the beach, but then I spotted it on top of the next hill. They were really going to make us earn that rest. Approaching the top, it seemed as though Action Challenge had copied Endurancelife’s playbook. The tents were right in front of us, but the course markers told us to go right, then double back left again. At the aid station, I had some lemonade, which turned out to be sugar free (????), and a banana, which went down very reluctantly. Spotting the caterers from the night before I decided to pass on the other food options.

Almost immediately after leaving the aid station, I started dry heaving, and then the banana liberated itself along with the coke and the lemonade. As often happens in such cases I felt much better after shedding my stomach contents, but I still could not make my legs run down the other side of the hill. From this point on, we shuffled, jogged and walked, but we did not do anything that could be classified as running. The only detail I remember is running on a causeway through a swampy area, and feeling glad we did not have to negotiate it in the dark. There was also a lot of walking through a boring little town, maybe the only non-picturesque place on the island.

We had turned the Eastern corner and were now moving along the North coast again, heading East back to Cowes and the finish. We arrived at the last aid station at the outskirts of Ryde as the time on our feet approached 12 hours. Since throwing up at 77k, I had only managed energy drink and water, at Ryde I managed to have some fruit, salty liquorice, and a coffee.

With 15k to go and an hour until darkness, it seemed clear that we would not finish before sundown, as we had expected. The pre-race information had been quite vague concerning the kit Recommended kit was listed. It said there was no compulsory kit, and no checks would be carried out. However, as the race rules stated that a head torch and one piece of hi-viz clothing was mandatory after dark, I had brought these items just in case. Glow sticks were also available at the aid station, but we were assured that there would be plenty of streetlights all the way to the finish line and no need to take these.

A few kilometres later, between the 95 and 96k markers, I was suddenly in need of my head torch, as I started being sick again. I thought what was coming up had a funny, very dark colour, but that could be explained by the coffee and liquorice. Then a thought struck me; it looked more red than brown. I had not had any red foods all day. The beam from my torch revealed what looked suspiciously like blood spatter on the bushes by the road. Noel and Paul, who were keeping a discreet distance, realised something was wrong and ran back to me. I wondered if I should turn around and go back to the first aiders at the 91k aid station, or call the race HQ for advice. I felt surprisingly good, not at all how I had imagined someone vomiting blood would feel. Noel had twisted his ankle, and suggested we all walked the rest of the way. This seemed like a safe-ish tactic, so off we went. Due to the slowness of our pace I kept looking over my shoulder, expecting to see hordes of runners overtaking us, but only one went past. Flavien was nowhere to be seen (I later found out he retired at the last aid station).

It soon turned out we had been misinformed badly about the streetlights. Having passed through the drunken party crowds in downtown Ryde, we went down several very dark, narrow country lanes. From Ryde onwards the course was marked with both glow sticks and pink reflective markers, but these lanes only had markers at the start and end of the lane. Having been spoilt with very regular markers previously we became nervous that we had gone the wrong way, or that we had missed a path going off through a hole in a hedge. Noel and I therefore spent quite a lot of time standing still while Paul retraced our steps to the last marker to double check we were going the right way. Sometimes we were not, and then it was usually Paul’s fault because he had distracted both himself and us by chatting. Good thing he did too, in the dark there were little else to distract us from our tiredness and aches. Actually, I had surprisingly few aches, except sore feet. My knee behaved very well, I think I can now consider myself injury-free. Finally!

Coming back into Cowes with just 1km to the finish the organizers had another curveball for us: to get from East to West Cowes, and the finish line, we had to take the chain link ferry across the Medina. We arrived just as the ferry left, and therefore had to stand idle for half an hour while waiting for it to return. Forty-five minutes later, we could finally start our dash for the finish line.

Tired runner on the chain link feery from ast to West Cowes
Tired runner on the chain link feery from ast to West Cowes
A sight for sore eyes and legs (and shaky hands)!
A sight for sore eyes and legs (and shaky hands)!

By dash I mean very slow walk past the pubs and wine bars in West Cowes, but I started running again as I turned into Northwood Park. After 15 hours and 14 minutes, of which 6hrs+ were spent going uphill and 5hrs + downhill (according to my Suunto), I had finally finished my first 100k (+) . Unofficially I was second female and 12th overall. I am now qualified to enter another 100 miler with Centurion Running, should I wish to do so, but right now I am not sure. Maybe I will sign up for some nice 5ks instead.

I went straight from the finish line to the first aid tent, where a paramedic checked me out. Conclusion: my bout of vomiting blood was due to overexertion and small tears in my oesophagus from the dry heaving I had been doing. The paramedic seemed more concerned about my body temperature (for some reason I had not thought to put on the extra clothes I had in my pack while waiting for the ferry), but gave me the all clear when told I had a nice room with a hot shower and soft bed waiting for me.

Returning to Cowes the next morning I could see exhausted walkers climbing the last hill to the finish. There were also a few of them on the boat back to Southampton, still in their hiking gear. We all agreed that the IOW Challenge had been a challenge indeed.

PS: As mentioned previously, all this suffering was for a good cause, The Battersea Dogs and Cats Home. I still have not reached my fundraising target, so if you think my efforts merits a small donation; please head over to my JustGiving-page. Thank you 🙂

PS2: During the write up of this report, I received the official results, confirming that I was second female and 12th overall. The fastest finisher completed the 106km in just over 12 hours, while 45 % of the runners DNF-ed.

PS3: I would definitely recommend signed up for an event with Action Challenge. Despite some hard to find information on their website, and the unfortunate choice of caterers, this was a very well organized event. The aid stations especially were impressive. Moreover, if you are considering doing the London to Brighton Challenge, I have heard from a reliable source that this course is much easier than the IOW.

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