Back in January 2021, in post-Christmas holiday lockdown, I received an interesting message. Alice had been watching way too many ultra-running documentaries (as we ALL do) and was warming up to the idea of running one. She was even specific on which one, namely the “Shires & Spires 35M”, an event that starts & finishes at the village of Naseby (famous for its 1645 battle). I didn’t think it was a bad idea per se, but long miles in the winter did not excite me either; remember, we were getting snow every other week! It took her only one day to decide to enter it and I suggested I’d run it with her, if she was up for it, but we’d have to do some trial runs to see if we would be able to tolerate each other for more than the regular 1h rep sessions.
Instead of running long, we ran into the usual planning issues, as is usually the case with busy, young people (that’s Alice, not me!). Various commitments, a hip injury, prioritising other runners (I was at the bottom of the list), time was passing by and we finally had our inaugural run scheduled for the end of March.
It wasn’t meant to happen.
While in the middle of an easy 10K, she managed to pull her calf and that was it; her race was over before even starting her training plan (note: the injury was so bad that she still cannot run, 3 months into recovery).
Surely that should have been enough excuse for me to be reasonable and forget about the whole thing. But it wasn’t. I was also a victim of numerous running documentaries and the lack of any type of racing since the Athens Marathon in November 2019. From a planning point of view, the race was in 8 weeks so training would be significantly less of a “burden” compared to the 12-16 week marathon plans (or, at least, that’s how I was trying to sell it to the wife). So, was I going to try it on my own? Only one way to find out; start training and re-evaluate later.
Having never run an ultra before, there were three areas I had to work on while training for this event. First, I had to increase the weekly mileage. After a year of hovering around 30-35M/week, it was time to gradually build some endurance. Following Alice’s plan (8-week for 50K race) seemed achievable, especially since time was of the essence and I didn’t want any injuries to jeopardise my 3-year RED streak. Key to the plan were back-to-back weekend sessions; where on a normal marathon training plan I’d do a short run the day before the SLR, this time I’d have to put more time on the legs on consecutive days. There were also no speed/rep workouts, which was disappointing, as I really enjoy blowing off some steam, but very important to frame my mindset around the second area of improvement, pace. I had to learn to run “slower”, adapt to walk/run change of pace, and try to keep enough energy to ensure I get to the end of the session without feeling completely drained. Running fast up a short hill on reps is good training but running up numerous hills on trails is not something for the novice that I was. The third area of improvement was with regards to the terrain. I never run/train on trails and this race would be 70% on trails (albeit not particularly technical). For this part of training, I had to ask Lorna and the Sat morning gang (Sara, Mathilde, Rebbeca, Fiona) if they would let me run with them to get a taste of how 10-12M in the trails feel. Thankfully, they did not object to me joining along. The proposed technique could be summarised in some simple rules: run the flats, hit the downhills, fast walk the uphills, beware of where your foot lands at all times and, most importantly, do not fall. Naturally, these were all new concepts to a road runner like myself and these sessions were invaluable in adequately preparing me for the race.
Six weeks into the training plan, I felt confident enough to hit the “Register” button.
Race Day (16/05/2021)
Two weeks later, Tony Foy, a good friend of mine and veteran top runner, picked me up at 0600 and 1hr later we arrived at Naseby Village Hall to get my racing number (from the friendly lady who was also running on the day) and timing chip (different queue for that!), as well as the event’s t-shirt (just cotton, I’m afraid!). The weather was still dry but the parking field was soaked from the previous rainy days so I started mentally preparing myself for encountering some amount of mud. Cars and runners kept coming for the next hour and we made our way to the starting area around 0820. There were four events in total (10K, HM, Marathon, Ultra) with 600+ runners signed up and the start was -as expected in Covid times- staggered in groups of threes. In contrast to any race I’ve done in the past, I was completely de-stressed and relaxed. Sure, I had a target in mind but, as a first-timer, my expectations were rather low and, therefore, did not feel under pressure to hit my -arbitrary- target. If there was something I was slightly concerned about, was getting lost; I’m used to road racing with clear marshalling and lots of people running/spectating so wasn’t sure how I’d fare if I ended up somewhere on my own. To alleviate some of my worries, I downloaded the route on my watch beforehand and added additional instructions along the route (around 45 of them!).
[NOTE: It generally worked fine so happy to explain how to do it on Garmin watches with navigation features].
0845 and we are off
First 4.5M were rather busy as HM/Marathon/Ultra runners were all on the same route. That meant some inevitable delay on single file paths and when going through gates and over styles so I quickly realised that some strategy was required (if only one person is ahead of you, overtake; if more, don’t bother pushing, you’ll still have to wait at the crossing). Got to CP1 at West Hadon (6.4M; 00:58:03), waved at Tony, scanned my chip, and carried on right for a little detour (marathon runners went left). I was ahead of schedule but feeling good so kept on the same approach and pace. Reached CP2 at Long Buckby (10.7M; 01:40:02), Tony ran alongside asking how I was and if I needed any water, missed a right turn but only had to backtrack 20m or so. I was still ahead of time so carried on running, trying to get into a flow while applying the strategy: push the downhills and the road sections, gauge when to power walk the uphills. Some sections were quite muddy, to the point of feeling I’d lose a shoe in the mud, so I had to use any opportunity I had to get rid of the mud that had gathered (I was running on normal road shoes, what a newbie!).
However, the weather was still fine, the clouds had now dispersed and it was getting fairly warm, so by the time I got to CP3 at Holdenby (18.7M; 02:58:11), I replaced my head gear with a cap. Tony was waiting 0.5M before the CP and ran a bit with me just to check my spirits and I charged towards the next checkpoint without stopping. Around Mile 20, I met David from Hook Norton Harriers who was making a comeback to ultras after 9 years; we’d end up running together and in tandem until the finish. Mile 20 is where I normally hit my wall at a marathon race but not this time; training had been different, my pace was a lot slower, the muscles were not as tired (yet). Reached CP4 at Cottesbrook (23.5M; 03:47:17) still ahead of target, refilled the water bladder -just in case-, and headed of right (marathon runners went left) for the Fishes Tail, a 10K loop that would bring us back to CP4/CP5. Tony had offered to run this along and I gladly took up on his offer. I was now getting slightly more tired as I was entering the unknown territory of post-marathon distance so had to revert to some walking (10% for a couple of miles?), even in flat sections, adding about 1:00-1:30 on my pace. Managed to eat gel #5 with great difficulty and decided to stop thinking and focus on running behind Tony without any walking until the next checkpoint. Weather turned to drizzle with a headwind for 5-10 minutes but didn’t last long so we got to CP5 (29.9M; 04:59:18) on target. Tony got in the car to get to the finish line and Dave and myself carried on with as much running as possible, since we knew there was a lengthy hill coming up.
Once we got to that point, it was solely powerwalking, trying to jog any bits that were not an incline without cramping (right calf started complaining). Dave charged ahead and, around Mile 33, Tony thankfully came to the rescue, an important moment as I was clearly struggling (last mile before that was at 14:30 pace!). There was still time to hit the target but not by walking, it was time to put my head down and just run as much as possible for the last 1.5M. And so I did, listening to Tony’s encouraging comments and cautionary shouts (“Choose a side, don’t run in the middle of the road!”), putting one foot in front of the other, and cursing the organisers for putting such a large hilly section at the end of an already long course.
Last bend right and, voila, 100m ahead, the finish line, back to where we started from. I forced a smile to acknowledge some spectators and stepped on the timing mat. Took a minute to compose myself, grabbed a banana (mandatory by the organisers), some chips (felt low on salt), and an energy drink I never drink, and walked off very cautiously to find a place to finally sit down.
And then it hit me. Where was my medal? I looked around and I wasn’t the only one without one; in fact, there were no medals in sight. I mustered all my courage and decided to look for them to no avail. The organisers kindly explained that, as per their email (which was sitting nicely in my spam folder), the medals were miles away in a customs depot because… Brexit. I have some sympathy when it comes to customs issues but I am pretty confident that there are medal manufacturing companies in the UK so not entirely agreeing with the organisers’ decision to order from abroad in this climate. Not a huge problem (they promised it will arrive in the post-and it did 2 weeks later) but when you only do a couple of races per year, like I do, you can’t help but feeling slightly disappointed.
At the end of the day, most things turned out OK; the training plan was manageable, race pace was reasonable, the strategy on where to push and where to hold back mostly worked, the choice to not stop at CPs meant no unnecessary loss of time, the calorie intake and water consumption were adequate. In terms of training, I should have probably run a bit longer (a couple of extra weeks should have allowed for a 30M long run, but it was a 50K plan I was following) and probably have experimented with something other than gels (probably enough for this race but wouldn’t work for anything longer). It would have also been a lot easier (and certainly more enjoyable) if I were running with a friend, preferably an experienced ultra-runner, to overcome the low points towards the end (and, maybe, even enjoy the scenery; I have absolutely no clue what I ran through!).
Was it the right event for a first-timer? I think so; moving up from a marathon to, say, a 50-miler, is quite a step (with an associated steeper learning curve). Attempting 35M was very much doable and a good introduction into ultras without risking putting me off of future endeavours. And that’s exactly what this was all about: getting a flavour of a longer distance, of what’s required to overcome it, of understanding what intrigues so many runners. I am taking away some important lessons, even at beginner’s level: learning to control the need for endorphins, thinking less about the time and the pace, taking one step at a time, getting into a flow, combining running on instinct and calculation, moving forward naturally, and, ultimately, enjoying the sport more. I would like to think that I won’t forget these lessons but not entirely sure how to transfer them to shorter distances, where a “go-go-go!” approach seems to be more appropriate when chasing a personal best. But I will definitely try to remind myself and see if/what works in future races.
Will I run another ultra? Probably. I still have to improve my HM and marathon PBs and, if that happens within 2021, I’d be very interested to try a “proper” one afterwards.
To Alice, for dragging me into running the race in the first place. I hope you recover soon and we get a chance to run one together.
To Fiona, Lorna, Mathilde, Rebecca, and Sara, for letting me run with them on Sat mornings around the local trails. There was absolutely zero chance of me going out there on my own so couldn’t have trained without your support.
To Tony, for being the ultimate crew on the day (and beyond). I can’t thank you enough for taking care of all the transport/logistics, such a relief! Perhaps more importantly, your support during the race was critical and got me through some rather difficult miles that I would have otherwise walked. I can only promise to crew/pace for you when you decide to make the leap!
Position: 47/228 (M40+: 14/66)