It seems a long time since I last wrote a race report….8 months in fact, but a new year brings a new start, and what better way to start than 50 miles of mud, intermittent rain, gale force winds, and a couple of friends.
The weather forecast did predict the terrible conditions, so I shouldn’t really complain, but there was a sense of being assaulted from all sides (from above – by the rain, from the sides – by the strong winds, and worst, from below – by the thick claggy mud.) I can deal with one or two of these forces of evil, but to have all three was a rough way to spend the day.
I was running with two friends from the very excellent Thanet Roadrunners, and it is only fair (as they will feature a fair amount in this report) that I spend a moment describing them so that you get the full effect of their personalities on the day.
John is a relatively new runner, who did his first marathon in 2014 and has never looked back. He is somewhat younger than 35 (I’m terrible at ages) and has the legs of a thoroughbred stallion (imagine marathons of about 3.15 or so) and the personality of a Labrador puppy. His total enthusiasm for running is infectious, and having moved on from marathons relatively quickly (due to the fact that you can take an ultra much easier and eat all the time), he did his first 50 miler last year (and loved it) and is doing the Thames Path 100 with me in May. He needs to be held back in the first half of an ultra or will bound away with limitless energy at the start, only to potentially come to a sticky painful ending near the finish (although, to be fair, that hasn’t happened yet). John gets very excited about his beard.
Pam is a slightly different kettle-of-fish, being somewhere north of 55 years old, and about 5’0 tall, she is quiet, retiring, and completely unaware of how good she is. She readily admits that she tends to find the first 20 miles of a long run quite hard, but then, when everyone else starts to suffer and slow down, she just keeps motoring along at a steady pace…forever. Not quickly, but so consistent that she will eventually overtake the quick starters who are reduced to a walk later on. She completed Ring of Fire successfully last year, and also plans to do the Thames Path 100 with John and I in May. As I said, she doesn’t know how strong she is, and worries too much about getting lost, being last, how everyone else is, and pretty much everything. Oh yes, I should also mention that I have yet to hear her swear…and my lifetimes ambition is to push her to the breaking point of getting a good strong “f*ck, f*ck, f*ck” from her.
Anyway, that little bit of character-assassination done, I should probably start talking about the run itself. We’d planned to do it for a while, as a decent test for our legs, and also very much as a recce for the Thames Path run in May. 2 other extremely quick runners from the club (Brad & Shaun) had agreed to drive & crew for us, which was great as it meant we didn’t have to worry about anything (apart from Brad’s erratic driving).
Speaking of Brads driving, it was a cold and rainy morning as we zoomed around the M25 to Oxford. The view from the car window gave a hint of the day to come:
The hotel at the start was actually quite pleasant, although pretty much covered with runners everywhere when we arrived. It was one of those venues that had a very small channel through the middle of a sea of brightly-coloured lycra-clad excitable people that shared a love of putting themselves through tough times. Happy times!
I lost the rest of the guys as I got myself sorted out in record time, deciding in the end (after much thought) to wear three pairs of socks (yes, three) that would keep my feet dry (Sealskins, Xmas present, thanks Mum) and blister free (Injinji toe socks and another pair of thin Nike socks on top). Although this was a first (and a personal best of number of socks worn at the same time during a race) it actually served me really well, and my feet suffered no ill effects at all.
A cheese roll, a quick trip to the toilet, I collected my timing chip and caught up with the others, raring to go. The start was a fairly calm (drizzly) affair, although I’m sure there was a rush at the front from those that wanted to get stuck into the mud first.
It didn’t take long for the country road to turn into country track, and then into mud trail. I should probably try to describe the mud…it wasn’t liquid and wet, but squelchy and slippery and impressively deep in places. The track was flat in the centre, with steep slopes at either side as you got to the grass margins. Imagine that if you are on flat, your foot will sink in and cover the bottom and side inch or two of your trainer. If you try to avoid the flat by running at the edge, where there is a slope, you risk slipping down into the thicker mud at the bottom, or going over entirely, which would mean you’re would be flailing about in the barbed wire fence on one side or brambles on the other. I think the bigger your feet are, the easier it was, as you had a bit more stability. Certainly, John was galloping on ahead while Pam was struggling a bit behind. I was trotting along in the middle, finding that running in the verge (as near to the edge of the mud) was working for me although every time I ripped my way through a bramble I was risking tearing my clothes.
Within the first few miles, John had disappeared off ahead, and I hoped he would keep himself in one piece, although the mud was a limiter in how fast he could go….I just hope the path didn’t suddenly become smooth pavement and for John’s afterburners to start firing. It turned out he was chatting with a very experienced runner Pete Johnson (100 Marathon Club) who was holding him back!
I was quite conscious of Pam behind me, and waited under a bridge for her to catch me up. She was gamely plugging on, but confessed that the mud was causing her problems. There wasn’t really much to discuss, other than just getting on with it, so we ran together for awhile before I moved on a bit quicker as I was getting cold.
At the first aid station, Brad and Shaun were waiting in the cold, bless them, and I did feel sorry for them a bit. As I said, they’re very quick marathon runners, who had waited for 2 hours for me to run 10 miles, whereas they would run it in about an hour (albeit on a road). Pam caught up and she grabbed some of the supplied fruit cake, pronouncing it very good. She was starting to worry about the cut-offs already, and was understandably finding the mud very tough going (as was everyone). John had speeded through about 15 minutes earlier and looked in good shape apparently.
We left the first aid-station quickly, and moved onto a slightly better path on a forest track. The improvement in morale was immediate and it was lovely being able to run (relatively) properly for a while. It didn’t last for long though, and soon we were back to mud. Oh dear.
I’d gone ahead of Pam at mile 11, so that I could slow at mile 12 for a walk and my customary bottle of fizzy-fat-coke. As always, it gave me a burst of energy and I drank the full 500 ml very quickly. Copious burps later (apologies to anyone walking their dogs in the local countryside at that point, it was very noisy), and a Twix, and I was good & ready for the next 12 miles. I’d also spent the walk deciding whether I was going to stick with Pam to the bitter end, or go on ahead. We were in real danger of missing the cut-offs if the mud carried on (and I believed it would) but I’d suggested to Pam that if we missed the cut-off we’d just keep going, and the support crew could meet us at the end provided it wasn’t too late. Alternatively, I could move on with the aim of getting to the end by myself and then come back to fetch Pam and run the end with her. Hmmmm.
In the end, it seemed a bit pointless to abandon Pam for the sake of a simple 50 mile run, which I’ve done a few of and wasn’t really that special, so I waited for her to catch up with me and see if we could work a way through the mud a bit quicker.
We made slightly better progress running together, and it was fun to watch everyone around us struggle through the mud too. Particularly memorable were a husband and wife, who were clearly both quite good runners but she was absolutely hating the mud and basically was running along telling him how much she was hating it. He was being quite supportive…”It’ll be over soon etc”….but she was having none of it. Later on, he turned up near me on his own, so I guess she dropped out. I wouldn’t have wanted to be in their car on the way home.
About 15 miles in, we thankfully came to a long stretch of fields, alongside the Thames, so it was possible to find a decent route that was runnable. This was clearly the opportunity to catch up a bit of time that we’d lost on the mud. Without wanting to worry Pam, I felt that we needed to push the pace a bit on the better ground, to keep us ahead of the cut-offs for the afternoon. We played a bit of a game, spotting someone in the far distance and then pushing to try to catch them up. The feeling of success of watching them get closer and closer until you overtake them is worth much more than your Garmin telling you that you are going a little quicker.
The footing was much better, apart from where everyone converged to go through a gate, where-upon it was a sea of mud, but I would gallop ahead for 10 metres to hold the gate open for Pam (and get a bit of a rest at the same time) and Pam would just steam straight on, losing no time.
The wind was starting to increase, and there were some very exposed long stretches that Pam ended up running directly behind me to try to shield her from the worst of the wind. I’m not sure it made much difference, but there wasn’t anything else to do!
At the second aid station, at the Waterfront Cafe, which took another 2 hours to cover 9 miles, we refilled water bottles (having cleverly drunk them dry before arriving) and moved on quickly. As we were perhaps only an hour or so ahead of the cut-off, it didn’t feel sensible to hang around like so many others seemed to be. Pam had added some Tailwind to her drinks, and then struggled to get the tops screwed on (those annoying soft bottles that you can’t really get hold of properly).
The aid stations all had bottled water, which was great, but I was pleased I’d brought my own food as there was only gels, jelly babies and homemade fruitcake available. It takes a harder runner than me to cope with gels for 50 miles, and I am (regretfully) suspicious of homemade stuff while at races, I much prefer to know what is in it! Luckily, I was packing Mars / Twix and other sugary stuff (and a couple of cheese rolls for emergencies) so I wasn’t too fussed.
The next aid station at Streatly-0n-Thames was only about 7 miles further on, which would have put us at about halfway. We had left the previous aid station only an hour ahead of the cut-off, so we could not afford to lose too much time. It was quite simple….if we ran we would be OK, walking would not make it. Unfortunately, the muddy parts were rough here, and the long fields had some of the strongest head-on winds we encountered here. We kept plugging on, overtook quite a few people, but it was clear that everyone around us was flagging (like us). Pam was very very quiet and basically running with her head down, answering when I spoke but not talking much. She said that her legs were sore & tired (understandably), and had taken some ibuprofen earlier, but she kept plugging on. I hadn’t talked to her about the pace and cut-offs in any detail, but made sure that I maintained a constant mantra of ‘constant motion forward’.
Having run the path before, but having an appalling memory, I kept having flashes of “I’ve been here before” that made me think that the trail would improve just around the corner. Unfortunately I stopped sharing this with Pam after being wrong so many times that even I got cross with myself. It was better to let the tarmac path that had just arrived be a pleasant surprise!
I did, however, remember that the path after Streatly was decent (although slightly hilly) and wouldn’t be muddy…that was something to look forward to!
Thankfully Streatly arrived. Brad and Shaun were a lovely sight, and we were both extremely relieved to stand and chat for a couple of minutes. As I was getting water, I saw two people dropping out, and there were clearly some tired people there. Pam was a little bit wobbly on her feet, which gave me an insight how hard she had been pushing to get that far. She gave Brad & Shaun a hug (but not me, her tormentor, I should add). We left the aid station at 2.27pm (having been running for about 6 hours in horrible conditions), which mean we were only 33 minutes ahead of the cut-off. As we crossed the bridge to the other side of the Thames, Pam started talking about dropping out, but how she didn’t want to let me down. Good, I said (unsympathetically), let’s carry on then.
Perhaps I should explain here. I have total belief (and had already explained to Pam earlier that day) that ultra-running is mainly mental, with a small amount of physical attitude required. Our bodies are capable of some extraordinary things, and the only thing that stops most people completing challenging feats is their mind telling them they can’t do it. Actually, they are far far stronger than they think, but generally don’t get the opportunity to discover this. Pam was a classic example of this, that her mind was the barrier to carrying on, rather than her legs (which although hurting, were still working well.)
We were only 33 minutes ahead of the cut-off, both tired and sore after a challenging marathon over terrible terrain….with another marathon to go. The aid-stations would now be every 6 miles or so, which would help by focusing us on the pace we needed, but made the chance of getting behind the cut-offs much higher if the trail was mud for any significant length of time.
Three things happened about now, some good, some great, some not so great…..
First thing that happened…we worked out how to run through the mud, at a decent pace, without either of us slipping over or either of us getting left behind. Quite simply…we ran holding hands. Daft as it sounds, it gave us both the stability we needed to actually run rather than walk, and also I was able to go slightly in front and keep the pace up (with my big stable feet) while Pam could use me for balance, and not have to worry about anything other than where to put her feet next. Although Pam was definitely less stable than me, due to her smaller feet, she also definitely saved me from going in the river on one memorable occasion, so it worked really well. And most importantly, we kept the pace up through the worst mud I’ve ever run in, overtaking plenty of people, who not doubt thought I was the most chivalrous companion ever.
The second thing that happened is that Pam’s ‘ultra’ legs started to appear. Anytime the terrain was decent (field, track, path, whatever) she would settle into this trot at about 12 or 13 minutes per mile, and just knock out the miles while the going was good. She didn’t slow down, she didn’t stop to walk, she just kept motoring along. The amount of people we overtook on these good sections was massive, and we both knew that anyone behind us was in jeopardy of missing the cut-offs, especially if they weren’t moving well.
The third thing that happened was not so great. Although I’d had an easy day so far, running at far slower than my normal pace, I was starting to feel a bit queasy, my stomach was protesting at feeling empty, and I was resorting to my saviour of boiled sweets to keep my energy (and morale) up. Pam was relentlessly eating up the miles and I was occasionally having to walk behind her (so she couldn’t see!) and have a breather. Not for long, I hasten to add, but I knew I couldn’t let her get out of sight or I’d never catch her up again! I pulled out one of my emergency cheese rolls, knowing that my stomach wasn’t interested in anything sweet, and tucked in. I offered a bite to Pam and was lucky not to lose a finger by the size of the bite she took. It did the job though…..you can’t beat a nice cheese roll.
I think we had a long stretch of good path or roadway here and there was a constant stream of people in the far distance that we eventually overtook. I’d like to say the scenery was lovely, but on that windy overcast and rainy day, it wasn’t great. It will be better in May.
The next aid station was at the bottom of a hill, and once again it was a pleasure to see smiling Brad and Shaun waiting. Pam chugged a couple of paracetamol, we refilled water bottles, and quickly got on our way at about 4pm, still the magic 30 minutes ahead of the cut-off. John (remember him?) was steaming ahead, and in great shape. Great news. Even better was the initial walk uphill, through a housing estate, which allowed legs to recover and stomachs to settle. Ahhh, lovely.
The next (final) checkpoint, at Sonning, closed at 6pm, and it was only 6 miles or so ahead. To maintain our gap ahead of the cut-off we only needed to cover the 6 miles in 90 minutes. Easy eh? I don’t seem to remember much about this stage, other than the relentless forward motion. I know I was sucking my way through my boiled sweets (as was Pam…luckily I always carry loads), and although it wasn’t dark, it was definitely getting gloomy. There were still some patches of mud, but by holding hands we got through them unscathed. Head-torches went on with about 2 miles to go, and it took a while to get used to the artificial light on the mud or trail shining so differently to the sun. It made it very difficult to judge the best route to take, to avoid the wettest patches.
I love running in the dark, without any distractions apart from the small pool of light surrounding me, and this was no exception. I’d stopped Pam earlier from talking about mileages (how far to go, when is the next checkpoint etc) but I found myself doing the same in my head, as I’d reached that tired point that each mile seemed to be passing agonisingly slowly. I was still moving well and felt relatively unscathed (feet dry, legs OK etc) but weary. Pam was, I think, just sore and tired, but was dogmatically pushing on.
The final aid-station arrived, phew! We didn’t hang around, but grabbed what we needed and moved on. We had maintained our pace, and had 30 minutes (still!) ahead of the cut-off…so we now had a full 2 hours to complete the next 7 miles. Unless the mud got particularly bad, we had it in the bag!!
And that was when the mud got really bad. Just at the point that legs were at their most tired and sore, the path took a turn for muds-ville, and it was deep and thick and even. By that point, we didn’t really try to go round the worst of it, but just sloshed through the centre of the track, in pitch black, trying to stay on our feet (but still holding hands, naturally).
We probably had only 1 to 2 miles of this, but it felt like much much further, and then, when the trail turned to better path or the edge of a field, I was paranoid about taking a wrong turn and going the wrong way. A few times we stopped and waited for some people behind us to catch up to check the correct route, before heading off faster than them when we were confident of the way. There was one memorable field, that everyone was strung out along the left hand side, just torch beams wavering as we all slogged along, when a cry went up that the correct path was on the other side of the field….cue everyone heading off to the other side of the field, to resume the route on a much better track.
The last couple of miles were actually quite pleasant, alongside the side of the Thames in Henley, on a tarmac path. There was a small group of us, enjoying the fact that we were nearly there and we could soon stop running. Amid some joking about a sprint finish, we saw the headlights and gathering of people that meant we’d finished. We followed a slightly tatty finishers funnel, to get a bit of a cheer from the thirty or forty people huddling to stay warm in the cold drizzle, in the shelter of what (from what I could see) seemed to be a big public toilet (but I’m sure it was more than that!)
John, who had finished about 2 hours before us, was with Brad and Shaun clapping us home, which was a lovely sight. We got our medals and rather snazzy timing sheets telling us that we’d finished in just under ten and a half hours (still 30 minutes ahead of the 11 hour cut-off!), and then Pam, to her great surprise, was told she had won her age category. Her first win at an ultra, and she’d done it in style!!
After some faffing with her trophy, an official photo (!), and a hot cup of tea, we stiffly walked to the car to get changed. Pam disappeared off, I skulked in the shadows, and slung all my filthy muddy gear into a bin liner for my wife to deal with (thanks, dear). Then we all crammed into the car for a jovial journey back.
John had a great race, finishing 46th overall in about 8hrs 39 minutes…a very strong time given the conditions. He had a few wobbles, namely when Brad & Shaun put the wrong flavour electrolyte into his drink (these prima-donna athletes!!), and also when he discovered he had the wrong sort of blueberry muffins bought for him (by me, unfortunately). But still a great finish on a rough day. His crowning triumph was to film himself running the last few metres over the line, and then posting it online…sheer genius. If you want a glimpse of him in action, follow @johnvoorhees1 on twitter and experience the genius.
Brad and Shaun hopefully enjoyed their long long day looking after us. Brad is now talking about doing an ultra (but, in his words, only a baby 32 mile one). Shaun has not committed yet. I suspect they’ve both got a few more blisteringly fast marathons in them before they before slow ultra runners.
Pam had a few bruised toes and feet in the following days, but was rightly pleased with her finish (and win!). Hopefully she has a bit more confidence in her ability over the longer distances.
And me? Well, apparently there were 210 finishers (Pam and I were 178th & 179th), and another 80 starters dropped out on route, so I think it’s fair to say we did well just to finish. I’m chuffed to bits at getting Pam round in the time…although I never doubted her legs, I don’t think she would have kept going if she had been on her own. I felt great at the finish, tired but still capable of a lot more, so I think perhaps I’ve learned a different approach to my usual “start quickly and get progressively slower” style. Although there is no easy way to run 50 miles (or 47 as it turned out to be), I felt pretty good the following day.
The day had everything that a good ultra should…and a bit more besides. Mud, wind and rain were always part of the curriculum when I was at school, but not any more. Not that I was any good at sport at school, but I seem to remember being covered in mud after games (now called PE), but that is just showing my age. Go Beyond Ultra put on a decent, well organised and friendly race in nasty weather…but I still think the aid stations could have been a little better (whinge whinge).
And look! You’ve made it through to the end of this race report…well done! You’re probably as tired as we were on finishing…go and get yourself a pasty!!