On Sunday 2nd June I ran my first ultra marathon……
The warmer weather has arrived very late this year, and consequently all of my training runs seem to have been in snow, hail, rain, wind and if I was lucky, just overcast!
The start of my ‘ultra’ week began with 3 solid days of rain, but by Sunday the climate had finally shifted to normal if not warmer conditions. This meant my first long run in 18°C sunshine, and by long I mean my longest ever run – 35 miles of off road countryside for the “Shires & Spires” Northants Ultra 35.
I originally decided to run an ultra after feeling like I could have run further when I finished my first marathon last year. Thoughts of running a 50k soon after were put on hold with the amount of training time I had already consumed. But several months later when I saw there was an ultra practically on my doorstep I had to put the ultra bug to bed!
Training officially started in mid December, when I broke the schedule up into three chunks; a marathon in March, another four weeks later and the ultra five weeks after that. It was the only way I could get my head around training for 35 miles.
Although I felt in good shape in December, I had an unfortunate (read stupid!) incident involving my soles and 13 miles of frost, resulting in major blisters. Two weeks out was a lucky escape and I found I could run (in shoes) once the blister fluid had been re-absorbed. I took the risky approach of ramping up my mileage quite sharply to get me back on track, which mostly paid off. I did suffer a calf strain after a fartlek session one evening in February, missing a mid week 9 mile run, but was able to drop my pace and got 16.5 miles out of the 20 mile weekend long run done in 4mm xero shoes. At this point I was taking part in a barefoot running study so was keen not to miss any runs through injury. Fortunately this was the only one!
The first marathon was tough, but provided some valuable lessons about nutrition and terrain pacing. The second marathon was comfortable up to 21 miles and although it was a training run I wanted to PB. Without gels this wasn’t going to happen though, and I promptly moved on to some ultra marathon specific training.
For me this involved running to heart rate, something I had never tried before. Being tired, it was great having a valid excuse to slow down or walk when my bpm started to rise. I quickly established 150 bpm as the point to slow on the flats and 155 bpm as a cue to walk the hills. On my final 24 mile long run on the actual ultra course I adhered to this rule, and managed a sub 10 min / mile pace without gels and included three decent hills. Over the final three weekends I ran the entire ultra course, which eased any anxiety over navigation, terrain and footwear.
The race started and finished at the impressive Lamport Hall. I felt strangely calm standing on the start line at 8:30 with the other 116 runners. I had every intention to enjoy the entire race, with no unrealistic time goals or wish to go into a zombie state for the final 9 miles of unknown. My gut feeling several months ago was a 6 hour finish (10 min / mile) but having run the course I thought 6 1/2 to 7 hours was more realistic. Once we got started and the atmosphere and temperature pushed my heart rate zones up by 10 bpm I was prepared for a 7+ hour finishing time!
The first 4 miles were offroad and flew by, and we reached the first check point (Cottesbrook) and I refilled my bottle. I had brief conversation about suitable footwear with the marshalls as I was in my tatty fivefinger bikilas and one had been asked if trail shoes were required, and another had tried some barefoot running on grass. Once done though, I whipped off my shoes and continued barefoot myself!
2 1/2 miles, one big hill and a chat with a running club member/spectator later at Hazelbech, and I put my shoes back on as I knew the road was rough having run it barefoot on a training run. I seemed to lose the group of runners around me for a few miles at this point, but it gave me a chance to relax and get my head ready for the many miles ahead. It was here I realised I would struggle to eat the fig rolls I was carrying and had used throughout training. The heat and my elevated heart rate were a real appetite suppressant, so I decided to use the fruitcake provided at the next and remaining checkpoints along with my gels.
At mile 10 the route headed offroad again (Thornby) and I over the next 4 miles I only saw and overtook two female runners. At 14 miles I noticed a couple of runners had missed a turn heading out of a village (West Haddon) so called them back. I was ready for some company at this point and chatted until we reached the 16 mile aid station. This was quite busy with 15 or so runners refueling as it was the only one to offer savoury snacks. I ate two small sausage rolls, another slice of delicious homemade fruit cake, and topped up with water before a group of us set off together, running silently for a few miles. As we inevitably started to spread out, the runners in the lead missed a tricky turning and again I called them back – I had done exactly the same thing in training!
Through the next village (Long Buckby) and it was back on road for a few miles until we reached Althorp and the next checkpoint at 23 miles. I had been looking forward to this one as it was on a stretch of smooth road and was another chance to run barefoot. I only managed about 1.5 miles though as my quads had started to cramp. I was worried I wouldn’t be able to get my shoes back on if I went too much further! I’ve never experienced cramping in a race before, and suspect it was due to the temperature, but found a short walk break stopped it before it became too intense. I was also starting to feel tired at this point, but it was a gradual decline rather than the sudden ‘wall’ I had experienced in the last marathon.
At around 26 miles I realised I didn’t feel any more tired than I did an hour ago, and I became more confident of a happy race. I was always 99% sure I would finish, but didn’t know what state I would be in!
The runners around me were becoming familiar. We had similar average paces, but ran at different speeds on the varying terrain and gradients. It was possible to start a conversation, pause it for a mile or two, and continue when we crossed again. Very weird! One highlight was chatting to a previous Western States 100 runner, who was running this race for the third time. He had also run over 130 ultras and had broke a metatarsal trying fivefingers! When the results were published I recognised his name – I had read Nick Ham’s previous reports on his blog when researching this race.
The remaining miles required concentration as I was beginning to tire mentally. Seeing anyone walking on a slight incline now seemed like permission to walk and the minimal attention I was paying to my pace showed it was slipping. The two big hills sandwhiching the final checkpoint around the 29 mile mark required extended walk breaks, but were a good chance to get it together mentally for the final push. Closer to the end we could also see the pub opposite Lamport Hall high up in the distance, which brought the conversation round to cold beer! That was all that was required for a strong and quite emotional push to the bottom of the final hill. This last uphill walk gave me a chance to compose myself for the final run over the hall grounds and across the finish.
I was cramping like crazy but just about managed a smile and victorious arm raise!
Leaning forward to receive my medal brought on instant dry heaving, but crippling leg cramps soon distracted me from actually throwing anything up! Walking around stopped any further spasms, as did clapping in and shaking hands with the next few runners I had been alongside for the last few hours.
So the race plan didn’t quite pan out as I had envisaged. I had worked especially hard on nutrition, which had meant running two difficult marathons on fig rolls and dried apricots. But I think my body used the five gels conservatively as a result. I felt no sudden drop in energy and think the adrenaline of completing my first ultra boosted my energy towards the end.
The cramping was an unwelcome surprise. I experienced intermittant calf twinges towards the end, which took some concentration to relax out whilst running. I also felt my left foot fail to dorsiflex a few times too, but the worst could be walked off.
The nausea stayed with me and I couldn’t face eating until late in the evening. With 3800 calories used during the race I thought I would be ravenous, but that hunger never arrived.
Out of 116 runners, I placed 43rd in a time of 6:17:19 which I am ecstatic about. Five runners DNF’d and a further 37 failed to start. My garmin recorded a ‘moving’ time of 6:05 but to be honest I am just pleased I made it to the start line injury free, crossed the finish line, and remained injury free inbetween.
I’m also pleased to have run about 4 miles barefoot. Not as far as I’d hoped but better than nothing! It helped start up a few conversations later in the race, and got a tiny bit off awareness for barefooting! I also wore my Barefoot Britain / Brighton race T-Shirt, but with my race number (1 as in number 1 not 1st, as I kept telling spectators!) covering the front, only those few runners behind me could appreciate it!
I would love to run another ultra. If I could minimise the cramping and sort out the sickness afterwards, somewhere beyond 26.2 miles would be my favourite distance! I won’t be running another anytime soon though. Training for these takes serious time, which is not something I or my family have a lot of presently…
But hopefully one day!