Ultra running debut

The day of my first solo ultra race had finally arrived. I travelled to Walton-on-Trent in Derbyshire on Friday evening with race itself being the following day but due to the 6am start time it was a must for me and the vast majority of the other runners – nearly 400 – to camp (free of charge) the night before.

The format for the race was to cover as many laps of the 10k course as possible in the 12 hour period, which spanned from 6am to 6pm. This was being attempted by all male, all female and mixed teams of 5, pairs and then the really crazy ones – the 25 solo women and 46 solo men, myself included.

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I am no seasoned ultra runner, in fact I have very little experience at all. The only other ultra event I have ever attended was in June last year and I was in a team with 7 other runners then. I only ran my debut marathon last month. This was a completely new challenge for me and one I took on purely to see how far I could push myself.

The format of a set time period rather than a set distance really intrigued me as it gives you a whole new way of thinking; the only restrictions are those that you put on yourself.

After a pretty good sleep, especially considering I’m also a camping novice, my alarm sounded at 5am and I was up straight away and raring to go. The race briefing was at 5.30am and, following the usual pre-race formalities, before I knew it that 6am start was upon me.

I had a target of 8 laps/ 80k in my head. I felt this was ambitious yet achievable but, to be honest, I wasn’t sure if I’d get close to it or not as I’d purposely done little planning regarding what pace to go at or what rests to take. I wanted to just leave it to how I felt and use this to learn things for future challenges.

As I’m used to competing at a good standard and normally find myself towards the front of my regular running races and obstacle course races I found it a challenge in itself early on to hang right back and let those running in teams speed off into the distance. However, I knew if I was going to get anywhere near my target that staying disciplined would be a key factor.

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The first thing I realised was just how tough the course was. It was all off road, it was hilly, the ground was very uneven, some of the trails were very narrow and the terrain varied from rock hard fields to soft grass, woodland to muddy puddles. As if it wasn’t going to be hard enough already!

The start was in the event village which was also the camp site and had all the stuff you needed. There were good, clean toilets and shower blocks, some merchandise stalls, a good catering service and a screen detailing all runners’ data as the race developed. As a soloist, I was also able to position my tent in this area.

We went round a field and then within the first half mile came a very steep hill of around 150m in distance. Once at the top, a narrow winding path through woodland followed before it opened out into areas filled with beautiful purple wildflower. Then came a rare stretch of concreted path but even this was up another hill. This course pattern continued throughout the lap

Other areas worth mentioning are a muddy puddle way too wide to clear with a jump even with fresh legs so meant both feet getting wet and dirty at least once every lap (until around 8 hours in that is when someone kindly placed a wooden crate in the middle of it) and my favourite part where, at the 7k mark, if you looked through the trees you could just about see my tent and the event village. This always gave me renewed hope that I could make another lap at a time when the course seemed never ending and very energy sapping.

53 minutes past 6 and my first lap was done. I nipped to my car to take off the jacket I’d wore as I was expecting it to be a bit chilly at this ungodly time of the morning but it was surprisingly already fairly warm with the sun beginning to break through the clouds. I was soon off on to lap 2. It felt good to have ticked off that first lap but I knew there was a hell of a long way to go.

On lap 2 the runners had spread out enough to mean the narrower paths were no longer an issue and I continued at a pace I was comfortable with completing it in 55 minutes. There was no stopping this time, I was straight through for lap 3 and had encountered no problems so far.

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Another 53 minutes and, again, I ran straight through knowing my first big milestone of 4 laps which signified a marathon (or close enough) and half way to my target was closing in. I reach it with another 55 minute lap.

I had planned to take my first proper break at this point and get some food in my system with well over 20 minutes to spare before the first 4 hours of the race was up but I was weary of stiffening up if I stayed too still so I decided to grab my pot of pasta and a drink and take it in on the go while walking the first part of lap 5. As I set off I heard the announcer say that I was currently in 3rd place. As this was purely a personally challenge for me, I had set no targets on position, and I certainly didn’t expect to be anywhere near this high up the field at any point. This did suggest that I had perhaps gone a bit too fast too early but time would tell.

Even though I had walked part of this lap I still managed a 1 hour 13 minute lap and still felt good. I took another short break to change tops, have a drink and grab my sunglasses as the sun was by now beaming down and then lap 6 was underway. It was on this lap that the fast early pace started taking its toll.

I began to do what I’d heard most ultra runners do which was walk the hills and that gave me a 1. 26 lap. I knew at this point that it was going to be really hard going from hereon in but I was confident I’d reach my target as I still had a lot of time to spare.

Lap 7 involved a similar amount of walking to the previous lap but my running pace had now significantly dropped and this had came in at 1 second over the 1 and a half hour mark. By now I didn’t feel great at all but it was at this point that I saw some friends who had made the journey to support me, and this gave me a real boost to go again. I had so much time to spare that I knew I’d reach my target of 8 laps even if I had to walk the entire lap.

I’d envisioned this lap to feel good knowing I’d done what I set out to do but I was so physically tired and so emotionally drained, having never ran anywhere near this type of distance or for this time period before, that it took a whole lot of will power to just keep going. I eventually got round in just under 1 hour 41 minutes and then had a tough decision to make.

I’d reached my target, I was more tired than I’ve ever been in my life but I had nearly 2 and a half hours to go. After a short period of reflection I knew that if I stopped now knowing I could have gone again, it would have eaten away at me. I remembered why I was here, to see how far I could really push myself – not to stop with time to spare. Questions answered I was off AGAIN.

This time though, I had company. My greatest supporter, my dad, had offered to do the lap with me which was more help than I could ever describe. My legs hadn’t got any worse than they already were but I’d started to feel dizzy and sick. Just putting one foot in front of the other had become a task in itself. By now I knew every step of the course but every single one of those steps hurt.

Counting down kilometres was not a good idea for the past 10 or so hours of this race but this being the final lap every countdown was the last and say out loud “81k done 9k to go, 82k done 8k, to go,” etc. really gave me a sense of achievement and helped me get to that finish line.

Approaching the last stretch of the course I saw another group of friends who had seen the Facebook posts I’d made and took a last minute trip over to give me some support. Again this boosted me and the final call of “89k done, 1k to go” was said and I was there. I even found a bit of a sprint finish from somewhere. Crossing that line just before the 12 hour mark with 90k in the bank felt great. I was tired beyond belief but I’d done even more than I thought I could and also made the top 10 as a bonus.

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I received a huge medal and probably the best race goody bag I’ve ever been given which was actually a drawstring bag filled with a top of the range Adidas technical long sleeved t-shirt, a drinks bottle and all the usual bits and bobs.

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I learnt a lot in the race that I can take into Endure 24 later next month about pacing and resting.

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