Alison Walker – The Smog Graham Round
The Smog Graham Round is a 297km circumnavigation of all the peaks of the 32 London boroughs. A shorter version of this was completed by the Runners’ World relay team a few years ago. With COVID ruining all race plans and with cases going up, I had no guarantee whether I will be able to race at all for the rest of the year. I had previously achieved the FKT for 4 other routes around London (which all happen to start/finish at my doorstep).
Like many runners, I had grand plans for racing this year. This being the second year of my foray into ultra running, I was hyped and excited about race plans. Thankfully I did manage to race and come third overall in one A race in January (Flitch Way 100k – 9:40). But the rest of the year… less said about it the better really! My training set up was also disrupted through COVID as my coach had moved to the countryside and we weren’t able to train as a group, which meant I got lazy with hill efforts and track sessions (the track has only just reopened).
Anyway, I digress. I wanted to set myself a challenge that scared me and a challenge that I wasn’t sure I’d be able to complete… this delivered. Even then, I still underestimated the route as it involved quite a lot of navigation. The attempt was also brought forward due to an impending heatwave on the original date. Running 300k is hard enough, I definitely didn’t need to make it harder for myself given I don’t have ready access to water unlike in races. Many public taps in London are still shut due to COVID. Crew had to be rearranged, but found that people who couldn’t make it during the week could now help on the weekend. I felt a little stressed as I had been out running filming for two days and hadn’t completed my taper, but I definitely didn’t want to run in 35 degree heat in an exposed route.
Routing through London at 5am helped churn the early miles quickly as we didn’t have too much traffic and my friends Daz and Sam led me to Primrose Hill for a swift handover to Bone and Michael. The first 40 miles ticked through with little hiccups but there was considerably more traffic (foot and crossings).
After that it was a bit more of a blur, had fun with patting donkeys at one point and played with some friendly horses… and then the sun set! A bit of the route included running along A roads with no pavements which was unnerving but we got it done. We also ran along the north downs way during sunset which was beautiful.
The first night was eventful… My friends Gigi and Antonio did the first dark section which saw us getting chased by horses and then cows, which lost us a bit of time. And then the next section had the gpx routing us through some private golf courses which required us to re-navigate and check whether it still met the peaks. All of which I did not foresee when planning and we had lost a lot of time!
The first 24 hours fuelling wise went great – I aimed for 200-250 calories per hour which was mostly Unived gels and some gummy sweets to vary the texture. I also had bagels for lunch and crisps for salt! I hung back on the caffeine until after 24 hours.
The second day went by quickly as well but I had a couple of low points as the temperatures soared and there was little shade. At one point I felt a little dizzy and Ammon swiftly bought me some coke and a fish burger to try and get the calories in. My left knee had swollen quite a bit and was really struggling at this point. Thankfully my friend Joe (who is an osteopath) cycled to see me and gave me a massage on the roadside! After that, I was able to run again! At this point my feet had swelled so badly that I had to use my husbands shoes that was slightly too big width wise, resulting in blisters, but at least I could move a bit better!
The last section was mostly lows. Despite trying to sleep a few times, I was unable to switch off as I kept thinking about what needed to go in my pack and whether my husband had enough rest (he was key driver). As I had reccied the last 50km of the course, I knew what was coming including some rutted sections in the forest. I broke down quite a few times and was very close to just throwing in the towel. There was also a gap in crew changeovers where my husband said look – this is a good time to try and rest, but again, I couldn’t switch off and just ended up shivering in the back of the car. After 20 mins I gave up and said I was going to carry along the course to keep warm.
After many many hours, my friends and I got to the finish line (my flat)… and I was broken!
As a pretty new ultra runner (18 months), I think I had underestimated the logistics in such a big FKT. I should have spent a bit more time looking at the maps and doing a bit more reccie, and also to not try and micro manage what my crew had to do! I was happy with the fuelling and kit that I used (apart from maybe packing a slightly bigger shoe for after 24h). Speaking to other FKT people after my attempt, they also recommended that I had 2 crew on each leg – one to navigate and the other to carry my pack and feed me. They said to never underestimate what the effect of carrying 2kg on your back for 50+ hours would have on you!
Whilst I was disappointed in how long it took, I learnt some invaluable lessons on how to organise the crewing situation and packing of the car so that we didn’t waste so much time faffing! Still need to work on sleep! I’m sure if I had a bit of a nap, I would’ve been a bit less destroyed mentally!
Still, had a pretty big adventure! Maybe I will return if COVID continues to wreck racing plans, but I plan on the Canal Slam in 2021! Much less navigation ?
Written By: Unived Athlete – Alison Walker
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