Suffolk & Essex

Running is a simple sport. It does not require any fancy gear or infrastructure. In essence, it is just a matter of getting from start to finish as fast as one can. This is why Lindley Chambers' Flitch Way 100k race in Essex is a race to my heart. No charity fund-raising, no medals, no t-shirts, no nonsense. Just running, pure and simple. The race is set up as a last opportunity to qualify for the Spartathlon. The course is a simple 10 km out-and-back loop along a disused railway turned bicycle path. It is pretty flat apart from two steep bridges, each of which has to be crossed twenty times. I found out about the Flitch Way event a few days before last year's edition, which turned out to be one of my most painful running experiences ever. After 60 km, the two bridges felt like true mountains, and I struggled to finish in just under 9 hours. It was my weakest 100 km performance since 2001. But I had nevertheless enjoyed the true sportsmanship of the event and was determined to come back and do better the next year.

The rest of 2017 came and went with the usual ups and downs. I did some speed work by including an occasional Parkrun in my usual Saturday morning long run. I love Parkruns because they, like the Flitch Way 100k, reduce racing to its bare essentials. Speaking of 'bare', after experimenting with various kinds of footware in an attempt to recover from a mysterious hip injury in 2012, I settled on £10 aqua shoes from the surfing brand O'Neill. They are cheap, easy to clean and, importantly, unfashionable. Which means that the model does not change every year like regular trainers do. In any case, I have done all my training in these shoes but continued to race in regular flats. Until last year's London Marathon, which went fine until about 30 km when my feet got really tired (duh!) and forced me to slow down to a 2h38' finish. The second race in my fancy new shoes was a 33.1 mile trail run in Suffolk last October, which I won in 3h54' (taking half an hour off the course record) after slipping and sliding my way through the muddy first half, and falling flat on my face on three occasions. Trail running shoes my O'Neills are not! Trail running is a lot of fun though. Whilst watching where you put your feet, time just flies by and you barely feel any tiredness. Road racing is much tougher, as I experienced again last weekend during my second outing on the Flitch Way.

I was not feeling all that great in the weeks leading up to the race. Bearing in mind last year's painful experience, I devised a somewhat unusual game plan. I decided to go out faster than last year and complete the first 50 km in 3h40' no matter what happened. If I felt tired at this point, then I would simply stop and the race could be considered a good training run. If, on the other hand, I still felt good after 50 km, then I would complete the full 100 km. At that point I could afford to have a 40' positive split for the second half, which should be plenty to dip under 8 hours. The race started at 7 am, and during the first few laps I enjoyed the company of Ian Hammett (2017 Spartathlon finisher) and Alastair Higgins (who came from Ireland to qualify for the 2018 Spartathlon). Sticking to my race plan, I pulled away from my companions after two laps and cruised along the Flitch Way at a pace of exactly 42' per lap. After each lap, I would drink some hot soup from a thermos that I had brought from home. I also had two Mars bars and a waffle (the secret of a proper Belgian runner!). After 3h40', I had completed five laps as planned and still felt surprisingly fresh. Which meant that I had to continue. During the second half of the race, I gradually slowed down to 48'-50' per lap. After 70km, I swapped my aqua shoes for regular trainers, which only slowed me down further to 54' per lap. These are pathetic times compared to my sub-7h days, but I was pretty happy still being in control so far in the race. With two laps to go Alastair overtook me, which I did not mind in the slightest. All I wanted was to finish the 100 km in less than 8 hours. Which I managed to do with a time of 7h56'.

Thus I have auto-qualified for Sparta. Which is a pleasant surprise!

With Alastair Higgins, who won this year's Flitch Way 100k in 7h55'.