I finished. Yes, I bloody well did!
Country to Capital – a mere 43 mile jaunt between Wendover and Paddington.
So, what is it like doing an ultra?
I’ve been told that its not as hard as a marathon. I’m sorry, but I beg to differ. You know that feeling you get in your legs with about 6 miles of the marathon to go when it really starts to get uncomfortable?… well you get that same feeling in an 45 mile ultra… but its for 20 painful miles!… and with a little bit thrown in earlier for good measure.
I had read a few days before the race, that one of the things you need to be prepared for is that with such a long race, expect to have several highs and lows and be ready to work through the lows. That is is so very true that it needs shouting from the roof tops at anyone taking on the ultra challenge for the first time.
Now, that all makes it sound like I didn’t enjoy the race, which would be far from the truth. I loved it. I just think I have learned how much you need to be ready to suffer… and if that whole ‘suffering’ element isn’t something that motivates you, but instead depresses you, then take up knitting instead. To give this all some context, if you are an Ironman veteran, then the last 20 miles are a lot like the last half of the IM marathon… its just tough… but also inspiring. Its where you see the layers peeled off, and see the real strength in people. IM is different in that you have a change of activity, which helps alleviate the pain a little, whereas an ultra just keeps on grinding you down, but they are both the same in really being acts of mental courage, rather than just physical exertion.
So, here is a short chronological report of the race, but rather than a mile by mile review, I am just picking the highlights, and trying to focus on the experience itself.
Arrival was suitable frenetic and low key at the same time. With relatively small numbers of entrants, the ‘Shoulder of Mutton’ pub was busy, but the entire cast was broadly contained within its confines… a whole different experience from a big marathon, or an Ironman. I liked it. It felt special, and that you had, or were about to become, part of a very small group of people who were willing to take on such an event. A sense of being ‘in it together’, not just competitors.
The start was chaotic, as there is a narrow gate just a few hundred yards from the start, which delays all but the quickest, so its a sprint. For some. For entrants like myself, with a complete, not a compete goal, I was quite happy to queue instead!
I’d been quite indecisive about what shoes to wear, with a possibility of swapping half way, but decided in the end to go with road shoes from the start, expecting the trail sections in the first 20 miles to be frozen solid, as it was still at freezing point at the start. Add to that the limited mileage in my trail shoes (under 20 miles) and the attendant risk of blisters, plus the greater ankle support in the road shoes on the potentially rock hard frozen mud, and it seemed the best way. As it i happened, the trail was a lot less frozen than I expected. In fact, much of it was decidedly squelchy mud. So, road shoes weren’t ideal… but I struggled a lot less than I thought, so in the end it wasn’t the end of the world. Plus trail shoes would have been pretty hard going on the later stages alongside the canal where the ground was for, or even concrete in places.
So the undulating muddy fields sapped the energy from your legs, with the short sharp uphill sections, needing to be walked. The scenery however, was lovely, and you travelled through some absolutely delightful little villages that you would never discover other than on foot.. situated just outside and just inside the M25 orbital motorway round London, many of the properties being large multi bedroomed abodes, behind large gates. can only begin to imagine what they must have been worth… certainly more than I will probably earn in my entire career!
Along the way, just to make sure that the race was sufficiently difficult, there was a regular dose of rain, and after a dozen miles, it started snowing… oh joy.
The checkpoints were little miraculous havens. Not because of the food, or fluids, or even the cheery greetings from the (amazing) volunteers, but for the excuse to stop for a few minutes. By 17 miles, the undulations and uneven ground had left my quads in a mess already, so every break was a little slice of heaven. I had, from the start, been running with two friends, and chatting afterwards, we all admitted that each stop instigated by a feed station, or one of us calling for a walk, or a road with traffic that required a pause, was secretly a blessed relief!
Miles 17 to 25 were the toughest for me… my legs hurt all over, and I had to dig bloody deep to keep running… but there were some moments that helped. At mile 21, we left the trails and joined the canal path… which made navigation easier, and the terrain, while still muddy in places, was still a bit easier than the narrow uphill and downhill gullies.
We had also had one extra treat thrown in, with a flooded road. To the extent that there was no way round. 6″ deep water for over 50 feet distance. So that was saturated feet then. Nice. I blame this moment for the start of the big blister on my toe. As ever, adversity draws out some special moments. To the absolute gentleman who I subsequently heard of offering, and providing a ‘piggy back’ to a fellow racer… what a star!
The canal path was long, straight, full of exotic delights like groups of drunks gathered for a fix of Tennants Extra, in large quantities looking at the discarded cans in the bushes, groups of youngsters with some rather exotic smelling roll ups, and a huge quantity of canal boats in decrepit condition.
So, the final turn off the Grand Union, at the sign marked ‘Paddington – 13 1/2 miles’ felt like we were nearly home… just a half marathon to go. Ultras appear to mess with your sense of perspective. By now the three of us had dropped into a routine of run 0.4 miles, walk 0.2 miles…. with each call to walk being like a small glimpse of heaven, and the subsequent call to run just a few minutes later, like an icy dagger to the heart. Each pick back up to run speed, a now paltry 12 min miles, was a nasty experience… it hurt like hell to start running again, but that is where the sense of achievement came from… within a couple of miles of the finish, one of my running partners donned a head torch… we didn’t quite make it in daylight, but close.
And to the best bit of any race, and particularly a race of this magnitude… the finish line. In what I understand to be the norm with serious ultras, it was a low key affair, with a small finish arch and generator powered flood light… and a good few people milling around in various states of broken.
But, that finish line, small as it may have been, was incredible…. the relief of finishing completely overwhelming the sense of achievement. The answer given to that little voice in your head that had been saying “make it stop… please make it stop”.
Within 5 minutes of finishing, I had been reduced to a painful shuffle, my legs having shut down. I wasn’t alone. A casual observer might have thought it amusing to see so many, obviously sporty people, walking like they had lost their zimmer frames.
So… would I do it again. Yep. I loved it. It feels special to have finished a race that makes ordinary people say “45 miles?… seriously?” when they hear what you have done…. and it feels even more special when you find you saying that to yourself!