After the disappointment of not finishing my first ultra, my sister and I decided that it would be a good idea to run a slighter shorter ultra to help build my confidence back up ready for when I tackle the Race To The Stones again this year. So here we were in the Shoulder of Mutton Pub at about 8.30am attaching our race numbers to our shorts and losing our spare bags ready to go. Am I the only person who thinks it’s weird to get your finishers T-shirt before the race starts…what am I suppose to do with this?
Training had gone slightly better for this race. I was still struggling with a bad right knee so couldn’t really do much more than 10 mile runs, but the fact that I had been doing 2-3 training runs a week was much more promising than it had been for The Stones. I had also spent a lot of the previous night taping up almost every inch of my feet to prevent blisters, lessons had been learnt. Leaving my house at 5.30am and having to travel for nearly 3 hours was a bit of a pain but once my race number was on and we were out in the car park I couldn’t wait to get started….but it was cold…so very, very cold. A gentleman climbed on what must have been a table and I got myself ready to listen to a very inspirational speech. “GO” he shouted and that was it, short and sweet and we were off. Luckily my sports watch found me very quickly and was on as I crossed the start line, no hanging about in the freezing cold, just run…it was perfect.
I wasn’t interested in the ‘race to the gate’, any long strides and my knee lets me know instantly, besides I wasn’t going to win and waiting 5 minutes at a gate wasn’t going to effect my 10 hour expected finishing time. Not so secretly we had agreed that sub 10 hours was do-able and expected so that was our goal….slow and steady finishes the race. After the first couple of gates you are soon out into the country and whilst still lightly covered in snow it was not really affecting our footing, it was just picturesque and really fun to run through. I was starting to get hot so removed my jacket and gloves and stuck them in my backpack, the run was officially on.
After a little while of being out in the country, having marched up a few serious hills and having gone over a huge amount of stiles, some more icy and trickier than others, we hit a wooded area. I have recently decided that this is my new favourite running environment. We were knocking off miles and really having a great time but before I could enjoy it too much we were out of the woods. But luckily for me my second favourite type of trail was next, the good old single track. Unfortunately the single track proved to be extremely muddy and our decision to use road shoes rather than trail shoes was not helping us. Our choice was made due to the very hard toe box of our trail shoes leading to loss of toenails and very sore toes on such a long race….we went with less grip but less painful toes. Despite the conditions I was loving the single track and I mentioned to my sister how glad I was that all the best running environments were coming so early in the race where I still had energy to run them properly and enjoy them. To be honest the first half of the race was great, apart from the mud and puddles it was beautiful. But as we took a few random twists and turns it became clear that you could get lost easily here so we were conscious to keep up with a group of runners who had obviously run this race before and knew where they were going. It was not easy though as they were naturally much faster runners than we were.
We got to the first aid station and was keen to try their famous cake but there were only a few pieces left. My sister quickly grabbed us a piece each and it was gone. The cake was delicious, not dry at all, and we didn’t need to fill up our water bottles so didn’t stop, just ran off eating cake. I was a little worried that if all the cake was gone we must have been at the back of the pack….oh well, there was not much I could do about that.
We got talking to a nice lady on her own who was training for the MDS this year. She was noticeably slower than we were so I was conscious of leaving her behind to keep up with the runners in front without coming across as rude. Unfortunately it was too late, we came to a junction but saw no runners ahead to follow. We had a quick look one way and saw nothing so decided the other way was probably more likely and my sister and I sped off hoping to see some runners ahead. Our pace was much faster than we would have liked but we did eventually see the runners and peace of mind was a valuable commodity at this stage in the race.
As much as we tried we just couldn’t keep up that fast pace and although every now and then on a long straight we would see the runners, we couldn’t rely on them for direction, this became very clear when we hit our second massive wooded area. Ok, where the hell are the other runners? Which path did they take? Luckily two other women ran up to us, one hoping we knew the way, the second having programmed the route into her fancy watch….what kind of amazing watch is this and how much does it cost? It was lucky we met her but even more lucky the actual route was downhill. Again, I was loving running through the woods, it was a very hilly section but at least it had as many down hills as it did ups. This was a bonus I just wasn’t used to.
Having been promised by my sister that it was going to be a lovely sunny day with no rain we laughed as I had to put my waterproof jacket back on due to a massive downpour followed by what was pretty heavy snow. This didn’t spoil the run at all, in fact I think we all found it amusing and had we been struggling this would have lightened our mood. We were making good time and having fun, running doesn’t get much better.
The second aid station appeared pretty quickly, the poor team standing in the freezing cold rain/snow trying to keep the cake and jelly babies as dry as possible. They couldn’t have been more cheerful and helpful, filling our water bottles up for us with massive smiles and joking with us. Again, had we been low this would have been perfect….as it turned out we were fine but was great to see them so cheerful. It would have been nice to add some Tailwind to our water bottles but the lady with the fancy watch and what we thought was her friend were off and we needed to follow so off we ran still stuffing cake in our mouths.
It was here that the trail became less picturesque. As much as I can remember we ran through a few fields and along a few roads, and begun entering a more built up area with homes and housing estates. I can’t remember where we lost the lady with the watch but I noticed the other lady pull up to speak to a friend of hers in a car. “It’s terrible, I’m hating it” she said to her friend….I think it must have been the poor company she was keeping 😉 I was still having a great time then all of a sudden we stopped at a road, there was another runner looking at his map followed by a second man who confirmed what we had thought…..we missed a turning somewhere. The sensible thing to do would have been to turn back and retrace our steps but we all decided to chance it and see if we could cut through the estate. Luckily this is a dull story and we did indeed meet back up with the course pretty quickly so drama averted but we were now looking forward to the canal section. No more navigating, we could just put our heads down and run. Only a few miles left.
The canal came in sight surprisingly quickly, we were way ahead of schedule and now we could relax so we got our phones out a took a few photos and updated Facebook. Things were looking good but keeping up with all the other runners in order to avoid getting lost was taking its toll on me…I was shattered and with no amazing scenery or fun snow to take my mind off running I was beginning to focus on how rough I was feeling.
With everybody else mentioning how dull the canal section was we actually spent quite a bit of our run looking forward to it for reasons given above but after a few miles on it I was starting to see why people disliked it. With nothing new to look at my mind was focusing on all the bad things so I had to do something fast. I was low on energy and everything was starting to hurt from my neck down. I didn’t really want to take a gel yet so I took some pain killers and told myself it would help, and mentally it did for a few more miles. I also needed to pee pretty badly which is more difficult on a canal rather than in the woods (much more difficult for a girl though) and it was a good chance to check my hydration levels. Judging by the colour I was pretty dehydrated, must drink more.
Now I’m not sure what went first, the third aid station or my left knee. I have been suffering with my right knee for nearly a year but I’d strapped that up pretty good and it was holding out well so it was massively annoying for my left knee to now give in. I’ve learnt with my right knee that as soon as you start to feel that twinge of pain to stop instantly and walk for a bit If it starts to feel ok you can maybe have another little run until you feel it again, as long as you keep it nice and slow with very short strides. I felt bad for myself as I was in pain but I always feel worse for my poor sister who trains more than twice as hard as I do but is always held back in races by her fatter, more unfit, much younger twin. So on we shuffled.
The canal is very much as dull as everybody makes out so I don’t have too much to say about it. The people at the aid stations were massively friendly, cheerful and helpful. I’ve never been in a race where they fill up your water bottles for you and a few of them were very amused by my ingenious invention of a cut off top to a soft drink bottle to use as a funnel for our Tailwind (I’ve got the smarts). I’ve also never seen so many swans in one place. Anybody who’s done this race before will know what I’m talking about, we decided it was definitely a good idea to walk through the middle of them rather than running and scaring them into biting us to death, although in hindsight it probably would have put me out of my misery.
Ok, by now you can probably see how this report is going. It’s another ‘I didn’t train hard enough and now I’m going to suffer’ report. Tis true, however at this stage in the race we had found another 5 or 6 runners all in the same boat. They would over take us as they ran and we walked and then vice versa. We quickly started joking and had very brief chats as this very, very slow, painful 6 man race began to heat up. I was almost enjoying myself again, in fact I would say my mood was pretty good throughout almost all of this race despite how much I was struggling physically, which was a far cry from what I went through during The Stones. I had done a lot of reading and listened to some really good podcasts (http://ultrarunnerpodcast.com),. In one Gary Robbins, who is a very experienced 100 miler, was pacing a friend who was complaining that it was hurting too much. Gary’s response was “it’s supposed to hurt this much, congratulations you’re doing it properly.” This one quote was getting me through any physical pain I was feeling….and I was feeling some physical pain.
I had decided that at the next aid station I would swap my knee brace from my old bad knee to my new bad knee and hopefully this would mean running for longer without needing walking breaks. Again, the people at the aid station were great, checking that we were both ok. Initially it worked and we managed to get a bit of a run on but unfortunately my energy level was at an all time low and although we only had 6 miles left I was really struggling with any forward motion. But it was only 6 miles I was not going to drop. Even now my mood was ok but the more we walked the lower I began to get. Then as the sun dropped out of site and we stopped to get our headlamps out of our bags I realised that my oyster card and debt card had fallen out of my bag (probably when getting my phone out as we hit the canal section). Ok, so this is how you really kick a man when he’s down.
Its amazing how much colder you feel when its dark and you’re not running….it’s also mildly amusing that when your breath steams and you have a headlamp on it actually blinds you for a second, not helpful at all. So with 3 miles left to go I had to apologise to my sister that I had absolutely no energy left at all, something had gone very, very wrong and I was gonna have to walk this in. If I was going to over analyse it (and by jove I am) I could say I definitely didn’t take on enough calories, I should have added Tailwind to every drink rather than rushing out of aid stations, not ran so fast the first half of the race, drank more water. I don’t think running in thick mud helped but the truth is I needed to train harder and I just had to bite the bullet and suffer the last 3 miles….the longest 3 miles of my life. With 2 miles left I had no idea how I was going to do this, I was more shuffling than walking and any ups and downs on the canal (very few to be fair) felt like I was climbing mountains. My watch gave up hours ago but my sister’s was still going which was more than could be said for head torch (she had spare batteries in her backpack but our hands were blue and unusable by this stage). So it was a case of “tell me it’s a mile now sis” as I shone my head torch on her watch ….”nearly”, and I would moan about how much pain I was in and how I would have to somehow get home and then cancel my cards cause the world hates me.
“100 yards left” a woman shouted, it was amazing…the greatest thing I had heard all day. There were some people on a bridge above us cheering us on and I somehow managed to muster up enough energy to raise my arm over my head. Then I tapped my chip against the finish post and a medal was put over my head, some guy asked for my chip and gave me a piece of paper that I never looked at again and that was it….were done and I was done in. Erm, can I sit down, er nothing to eat or drink, where’s my bag with spare clothes? For a race that seemed pretty well organised and one that apart from the last 5 miles I mostly enjoyed, I don’t think I’ve ever been in a race that has ended and kicked you out so abruptly. Don’t get me wrong, everybody was so friendly but considering the state I was in a sit down, a hot drink and a Mars bar or such would have really helped.
We found our bags and headed for a pub over the road, not for a pint but just for a brief piece of warmth and to use their toilets. I somehow managed to put my hoodie on and my saint of a sister led us to the tube station. I was barely moving at this stage and any steps leading down were greeted with the pure bitter hatred they deserved…along with a slight whimpering as I descended them. The fact that our train home had also been cancelled due to a broken down train on our line just added to the whole “the world hates me” feeling. So I phoned up my almost supportive but doesn’t want to show it partner and she agreed to pick us up from another station. We were on a train home and drinking our recovery drinks and at last I started to feel human from the neck up….it would be at least 3 days before my body caught up.
In ultra terms 45 miles isn’t that far but I’m amazed at how badly my brain reacts to these long distances. I fully expect my body to give in but my brain should still work shouldn’t it? It happened in the Race To The Stones where you know you need to take on water but can’t be bothered to lift your drink to your mouth. You start worrying about time even though you know you have all the time in the world-ish, you can’t work out time or miles and in this race, even though we were frozen we didn’t get our jackets out our bags or change the batteries in my sisters headlamp. Even the concept of getting home wouldn’t compute in my head, I literally needed my sisters instructions to make it to the tube station and it wasn’t until I had sat down for 10 minutes that my brain started to function again. I don’t know how these people run 100 miles…. I’d end up in a padded cell, which actually sounds really comfy…. mmm lie down…. soft…. sleeeeeeeep.
It’s been a few days now since the race and I have had time to reflect. I think this is definitely a race for serious runners, I don’t think we spoke to anybody who hadn’t run an ultra before this one. This explains why there is so little care at the end of the race, I think they expect you to be able to take care of yourself. Yes, it was massively stressful trying to work out how I would make it the 500 yards to the Bakerloo line (thanks again sis, think I would have just laid down in the street and froze to death without you) and yes the last 5 miles were the worst of my life but all in all, looking back, I really enjoyed the day. Would I do it again? No probably not. Would I recommend it to other people? If it’s not your first ultra then definitely.