My first ultra – There is something about ultra running that appeals. I don’t know what it is but I’m fascinated by runners’ stories about their adventures and the ups and downs of running 50k, 50 miles, 100 miles, 200 miles or events like Marathon Des Sables or the infamous Badwater.
An ultramarathon is a race longer than marathon which is 42.2k/26.2miles. And my first ultra was the challenge I set myself earlier in the year. It was time to bite the bullet and sign up.
I decided I’d start with a ‘short’ ultra, 50k/31miles. I looked at some races and then contacted some folk I know. And the race I selected? The Chiltern Challenge organised by Extreme Energy. Friends had raced with this organisation before and their reports were wholly positive. So I signed up and tried to not give too much thought to what I had done. Call it a case of denial!
Training started post-London marathon – sort of. My denial meant I hadn’t decided on a training plan so panicked when I looked them up. Doing a marathon in training and then running the next day – whaaaat? And when I told folks that I was training for this, the first response was generally ‘hmm, just a few hills’.
And my first ultra went a little like this…
The Day Before
- Obsessive checking of weather
- Obsessive checking of times of trains and confirming I had the correct ticket
- Taxi booked
- Kit with food sorted with a huge thanks to Science in Sport for caffeine shots and gels; plus pretzels, jelly babies and dates
- Poor sleep – as to be expected; waking up every 30 mins or so to check my alarms (yes, more than one alarm!)
I woke at 5am, a few minutes before my alarms screamed into action, and got going. I was bleary eyed as I’m not a morning person so coffee it was, with a couple of slices of toast with honey.
Further obsessive checking of kit to ensure I’d had forgotten anything and to the taxi I go. I was early for the train so more caffeine had.
And the journey begins
I arrived as Princes Risborough at 7.30. I had a start time of 9am. They had originally put me down to start at 10am but in reviewing the times, I discovered that that meant I’d be starting with folks who were likely to be finished in 6 hours or less. This was not me! I emailed and said as much and they very kindly pushed my time forward to start with the bulk of the field.
Picking up my number, a map marked with the route, and the snazzy electronic tag was quick and easy. The tag was on the wrist and we were required to ‘check-in’ at each of the aid stations. There were lots of the team and volunteers on hand.
At 8.45 we all gathered for the race briefing. We were reminded to backtrack if lost, to be careful crossing roads as they weren’t marshalled, to check in at the aid stations, and to enjoy the day. A lot of the field were first-timers like me. We were also reminded to hydrate though we were lucky, the weather was cloudy and mild (17c or so to 20c).
And off we went. Hills, trails, hills, gates, stiles, fields, hills. I started running with Franzi and we chatted as we went.
I had a planned my pace roughly and was going to see how it would go. The plan for my first ultra was to try and treat it like a nice day in the country with some running and eating thrown in! Best laid plans…
People started walking early on – as soon as we hit the hills.
I’d practiced this in training as it has a different feel to marathon training. My marathon training had been you pretty much keep going until you reach your target mileage while walking is minimised. Ultra training – run, run, hit a hill and then walk. This does take a little practice but means I could go a lot further and for longer.
The miles ticked over. Fields, woodlands, running, chatting, eating … it started to rain. What’s a bit of rain?
And on we went.
Done. Pretzels, cordial, refilling of water
And on I continued. By this stage I was running solo, passing those covering the distance walking, speedy folk who started at 10am passing me – I said hello/well done as the miles ticked over. A quick pee behind some bushes, taking measures to avoid all the stinging nettles.
My Garmin entered the Twilight Zone and suggested I was doing 8 minute miles! I reset the Garmin.
Done. Left arm starting to hurt. It was tricky taking off my backpack which was kindly refilled by a volunteer. Pretzels, sandwiches, corn chips – nothing like running along and ramming food into your mouth! So delicate of me I know!
I was on pace to finish somewhere between 7 and 7 ½ hours.
The pain in my arm started getting worse. It was at the top of my bicep. I tried running normally but it hurt. The most painfree position was to rest my arm on my shoulder. The meant running with one arm.
By this stage it was starting to suck a little. Every time I tried to use my arm properly, it felt like someone was sucker punching me – again and again and again. My arm was pretty much useless. There was crying, there was a loud sobbing. I was doing a lot of self-talk by this stage – calm down, breath.
I took some Panadol. I kept getting slight headspins – I didn’t quite feel myself. Steep downhills were agony. It felt like the outside of my right knee was being stabbed with a hot poker with each step. It was OK on the flats and uphills. I was seriously slowing down to a shuffle. I had energy in my legs but the pain kept stopping me in my tracks.
Staggering in, being asked how I am – ‘I’ve trashed my shoulder’ – trying successfully not to sob in front of the volunteers. Two cups of coke (heaven), pretzels, cornchips. Not far to go.
The pain was escalating. A steep downhill agony. There were a few yelps on my part.
I’d given up on being anywhere between 7 and 7 ½ hours. I was now hoping for sub 8. I kept doing calculations about the speed I’d need to be travelling at and bargaining with myself – if I can do this miles in 15 minutes, it’ll be fine. Those 15 minute miles stretched into 16, 17, 18 minute miles.
I knew I was close to the end. There was a marker in the distance. I could see the 1 and thought it was 1 mile. There was no way I would do that last mile in 10 minutes. My Garmin died. I got closer and saw I’d misread. It wasn’t 1 mile, it was 1 kilometre.
There was a group I’d passed and they’d passed me etc. One of the guys from the group was 50 metres or so behind. Even if I had to crawl, I wasn’t going to be passed again. Walking, running, staggering.
Finish line crossed. Time – 7:58:26
First ultra completed.
Tearful with pain.
Off to the medic tent. Bruised or sprained rotator cuff. Arm in sling and iced. Couldn’t take painkillers as needed more time before I could take more Panadol. I can’t take anti-inflammatories.
Next step was to take a shower. Sobbing in the shower trying to get undressed and dressed again. The pain.
I faffed, had a coffee, some cake and then the trip home began.
Why didn’t I DNF?
Did not finish (DNF), the words that no runner wants to hear. And I think there’s something about a first ultra that means not finishing would require serious injury.
To be honest, the idea of not finishing did not enter my head. I don’t think I’m particularly tough – it wasn’t about that. For me it was a case of just keep going. Had I sprained an ankle, I would’ve stopped. But it was my arm. I could keep going and I still had it in my legs.
I think the tears at the end were tears of pain. OK, so some of it was being tired – coffee and cake sorted that. But I certainly didn’t get to a point of exhaustion.
First ultra done! A second? Watch this space!
My current priority is recovery and getting my shoulder sorted – it’s feeling a lot better though not 100%.
Would I do this race again?
Yes, yes and again yes. I can’t fault it. An amazing day!
- Details pre-race were timely and answered any questions I had
- Pick-up great – bus was there when the train arrived
- Check-in great – quick and friendly
- Great pre-race briefing
- OK, so a few hills – great variation of scenery, from woods to pastures to crop fields.
- Route well marked – though I almost missed one! It was early on and I was having fun on a downhill and almost kept going. Other folks told me I was going the wrong way!
- The crew and volunteers were amazing throughout. Their enthusiasm was very much welcome at the check points and the few marshalling points.
- Checkpoints well stocked with cornchips, pretzels, sandwiches, sweets, brownies, cordial etc – who knew you could gain weight running 50k!
- Excellent medic on site! THANK YOU. And to the lovely woman who took the photos. Sorry for not remembering your names – brain fog on my part.
So a huge thank you to all the crew, volunteers and the medic who put up with a few tears on my part!
And also a huge thank you to all the support I’ve had from old friends and my many new friends on Twitter and Instagram. And I laughed out loud many times after being told I had ‘done a Kilian’ – I didn’t know this had happened to him until I got home!
NEXT POST: Lessons learned
And can’t leave without a photo of one of my many recovery meals!