Monday 14 July 2014

My Washie adventure

I headed down to the Washie 100-miler road race on Friday to crew for my friend Asa Cowell. We met running the Namib Desert Challenge last year - the bug bit and days after the race he was cruising the web looking for ultras to run. He settled on Washie late last year and asked me if I'd be available to crew. I was in without hesitation.

Washie is a classic road 100-miler. It has been around for 38 years and is the oldest road 100 miler in the World (by two weeks!). The route takes runners on the road between Port Alfred and East London. 160-kilometres of rolling hills (many BIG ones) and a lot of tar. This road was upgraded at some stage and is the main road but at Chalumna the running route diverts from the main road on to an original section of old road (at around 107km - labelled "Turn-off to Ncora Village" on the profile) and it stays here until about 120km (3/4 station) when it joins again with the main (new) road. This was my favourite section - much quieter! The main road is busy with cars.

On Friday afternoon we met up with our other seconds, Kerry and Lyall. They were great company throughout the night and we got along very well.

We packed the car and headed off to Port Alfred for the race briefing and the start at the Haylard's Hotel.

With the start at 17h00 and sunset at 17h17, the runners didn't have much daylight. The first 15km of the route is a loop through Port Alfred and as we were not allowed on that section, we headed off for dinner and made it back on to the route in time to catch Asa coming through. 

Getting ourselves ready before he got to us, I couldn't find his bag of gels and bars that he'd shown me before briefing. I'd rummaged through his bag and we ripped through the back of the car looking for it.

And then he comes past and asks for one of his bars to snack on at the next stop. Panic station! We drove back to the parking lot to check in case we'd left it on the grass where he'd been getting changed. Nothing. We phoned the race organiser to ask if anything had been handed in. Nothing! 1h30 into the race and we'd lost his bag of snacks! Oh dear. 

We drove up the hill to a petrol station where the lighting was better. While Kerry ripped through the vehicle and bags again, Lyall bought some Enerjellies (he had these on his list as sweets that he liked) and PVM bars from the small store; I waited on the road for Asa to come past. I waited and waited. No Asa. Other runners came past. We weren't sure whether we'd seen them.

I stayed on the roadside while Kerry and Lyall drove a bit down the hill. No Asa. We must have missed him! Arrggghhh.

We sped off, passed him and pulled off a bit further down. "We've got to up our game," we all decided.

Kerry and I got some sandwiches (cut into quarters - very handy) ready as well as a plate with the bars we bought at the garage store. We'd have to confess that we couldn't find his sweetie bag.

"It's a black Comrades bag and it's in the cooler box," he tells us as he comes past.

We rip through the car again. Absolutely nothing. Oh well, we had reasonable, palatable substitutes.

Although the route profile doesn't look too bad over the first part, driving it I couldn't help thinking "I'm glad I'm not running this!". Hill after hill, climb after climb.

At 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 distances were timing stations. Asa logged his first 40km at a perfect pace, covering the distance in an even five hours. Here he stopped to pull on his tights - at 22h00 it was getting chilly.

He clocked through 50km only 65 mins later -  a 6:30 pace. He was aiming for an even 7:15 pace for the race so he was a little quicker on this section.

It must have been around here that he asked for a cup of coke at the next point. I crawled to the back of the vehicle to retrieve the bottles - and found the black Comrades bag containing Asa's sweeties and bars tied up inside the plastic bag with the coke bottles. Phew! As it turned out, he only ate one bar and didn't touch many of the sweets. I was quite pleased because sugar is a demon on ultras. He'd been drinking Energade too and, for me, it's just too much sweet. He changed on his own to more savoury options, which was the best route to take.

Lyall had thought to bring his bicycle along so that he could keep Asa company on the road. I was planning to run with Asa for stretches, especially in those tough hours from one or 2am until after sunrise. I started running earlier.

At about 59km Lyall hopped on the bike, riding next to Asa. We drove ahead and parked four-kilometres along. Kerry and I were chatting up a storm when another crew stopped next to us to say that Lyall had a puncture. We drove back to fetch him. Back at our stop, Kerry and I joined Asa, running with him through to the 71-odd kilometre mark.

His legs were really feeling it and at this stop he was probably in the worst state of the entire race. He stopped and lay down on the ground! I hinted that this wasn't a good idea because even though I'd tossed a blanket over him, that he'd get cold quickly. I took a photo (blackmail material) but didn't post it on his Facebook as I didn't want Bianca (Asa's wife), friends and family to see it. This was definitely not cause for worry.

He sat up and moved to lean against the wheel of the car as he drank down a cup of soup. Within minutes we were off again.

That soup (and coffee) hit the spot and we were ticking along at a good pace; even and steady and not too fast. I ran with him for the next 4km (until approx 75km mark) and then Lyall took over on the bike through to the 80km halfway point.

But by the next stop, 4km away, Lyall had another puncture and no more tubes. The road in this area was really not great for the bike with loads of sharp debris on the shoulder. I pulled on my shell and set off with Asa.

I was really happy to run. It was chilly standing around but perfect for running. The timing was also good for me to hit the big-big climb with Asa. He'd heard from other runners pre-race that the climb could take an hour.

We had a super pace up the hill. The gradient really wasn't too terrible but it just went on and on and on, up to the highest point on the course. We walked sections but ran a lot of it at a steady and even conversational pace. Asa took it beautifully - with 90km already in his legs. A long downhill was our reward, leading to the Chalumna turn-off. It was daylight now.

The night really flew past quickly. As support we were busy the whole night. Drive 4km, stop, prep snacks and drinks, wait for Asa, hand over the goodies, drive 4km, stop, prep snacks and drinks... time flies really quickly and before you know it it is 2am and then 3am and then 4am... Running the time flies just as fast.

This Chalumna section is original road that still remains after the upgrade. It was pleasant and quiet. We knew there was another climb at Chalumna but it turned out to be far easier than anticipated and we ran most of it - almost waiting for the bad part, which didn't materialise. At one point we looked back and down and saw where we'd come from - far, far below. It really hadn't felt that bad (a good thing!) and was nice to see where we'd been.

On the Chalumna Road.
At about 114km I stopped briefly to change from long tights and long sleeve top to 3/4 tights and a short sleeve top. I was cooking. The car dropped me a kilometre or so up the road to join Asa again.

For some hours I'd been carrying a water bottle for Asa. If there's one thing that is an absolute pleasure, it is crewing for a runner who eats and drinks. Asa was good at both.

Asa's wife, Bianca, arrived (maybe around 09h30 / 10h00) with their children, Riley and Skylar, and Bianca's dad. Asa was all smiles to see them.

With Bianca there, Kerry and Lyall shuffled food and goodies to their car and shot off to East London to borrow another bike from a friend. They returned later - maybe by around 125km.

From the later part of the detour route we had another runner near us, John. He has run 14 Washies and is a previous winner. We'd catch him and then when we'd stop briefly at the vehicle he'd cruise past. He didn't stop at his vehicle. His support would hand him a bottle of Energade and he'd hand the empty bottle back a few kilometres further. I didn't see him eat a thing!

A bit later, on the main road again, we did catch him. We also then saw another two guys and they were in our sights for ages (probably hours). We were slowly gaining on them. And ahead was another runner or two.

Asa had been battling with chafing from early on. I suggested that he change his shorts. It must have been around 140km when we stopped for this. Lyall then joined him from here on the bike and I climbed into the car. I'm not quite certain but I think I got in close to 70km throughout the night and morning -  and a lovely run it was. I'm not used to long distances like this on road, favouring trail, and it was very pleasant.

Lyall and Asa - into urban East London. Not far to go now!

With about 8-10km to go, Bianca joined Asa. The clouds had lifted a while earlier, the sky was a beautiful blue and the sun was warm -  a perfect final hour.

Kerry and I went ahead to wait on the esplanade for them to come through. There Bianca invited me to join them for the final few kilometres. Bianca peeled off after a bit to collect their children to meet us at the finish. I very proudly ran through to the finish with Asa and with Lyall on the bike.

100 metres to go! Turning into the gate at the Buffs Club in East London.
21h23 and 17th place. Asa completes his first 100 miler.

Asa's crew - looking a bit tired after almost 36hrs awake. Lyall, Lisa and Kerry.
Prize giving on Sunday morning, Our runner with his hard-earned trophy and tracksuit top.
Being down at Washie was an excellent experience. It's a treat to be with a super crew and good company in the form of Kerry and Lyall. It's also great to second for a runner who is focused and determined.

Asa was a perfect runner to crew for. He runs well. He eats and drinks regularly. He's pleasant company - even when he's tired and fatigued. You can't get better than this.

I'm not certain whether Washie is on the cards for me. I've always shunned road ultras, preferring trail ultras. And I'm not crazy about running on that busy road with traffic - cars and trucks flying past! I prefer the quiet and solitude of mountains and forests. But, I did enjoy the event - running and crewing - and so the seed is planted. Whether it grows or not remains to be seen.


Asa said...

Hey Lisa, just stumbled across this blog. Thanks a million as you've detailed the night for me - since returning so many questions and my replys are vague to be honest as I had no clue what km who did what! thanks a tonne once again. regards Asa

Stanley Tordiffe said...

Stunning write-up.

Stanley - also my first 100miler a long way behind you in just under 26 hours