Entering an ultra race a couple of weeks after over-indulging during the festive period is a great idea, right? I’m sure there were others questioning their decision to sign up for a 43-ish mile race as we gathered in a pub car park in Wendover, ready to tackle what was expected to be a very muddy course.
And it was. I spent most of the journey to the start trying to make an informed decision about footwear. The 7:12am country to capital express from Marylebone station was packed out with runners and smelt of deep heat, and after several changes between road and trail shoes, I opted for what I thought would be comfiest – road shoes. Plus, with so much mud anticipated, trail shoes would probably still be slippy and not best suited for the second half of the race along a canal path.
I had some vague race goals, mainly don’t face-plant in the mud or fall in the canal, but also:
A goal – run roughly 9 minute miles and finish in about 6 hours 30 minutes (after a 35 mile training run in 8:40 min/miles this didn’t seem wildly optimistic)
B goal – finish before it gets dark in around 7 hours 30 minutes
C goal – finish in time to have a quick shower in Paddington station, next door to the race finish, before heading over to a comedy night in Camden at 7:30pm – 8-plus hours
The race can be split quite nicely into two parts. The first half was hilly, across fields and trails through the Buckinghamshire countryside. There was a lot of sliding around in the mud, running through waterlogged fields and a couple of flooded roads. This served the purpose of washing the mud off my trainers, ready for the second half of the race along the Grand Union canal into London. Very nice.
I didn’t get lost on the first half of the race, which wasn’t due to any skills on my part, but by just happening to follow people that knew where they were going. I’m pretty sure I could have navigated if I wanted to though. Honest. The hills made it hard to maintain a steady pace and some really muddy stretches meant putting in double the effort. But overall, walking up them probably helped save my legs for the second half, which was along a flat, straight canal path. It was impossible to get lost on this, although slidey in parts and I nearly fell in a couple of times. When I tired towards the end, I wondered if that wouldn’t be such a bad thing, as I’d have a valid excuse to DNF, which seems a little extreme now.
It was easier to get into a rhythm and zone out for this part of the race. At the 35 mile point, when the runner ahead of me took a phone call (as you do while you’re running an ultra) and told the person on the other end that he’d be another hour and a half, a part of me died inside: I was feeling tired and was in denial about how far was left.
But fortunately, it didn’t take that much longer. There were a couple of killer bridges just before the end, which I walked over. My Garmin decided its laps database was full and wouldn’t show me the time for the last few miles. So it wasn’t until I crossed the finish line, when someone handed me a piece of paper with my time and position on it, that I realised I’d finished in 6 hours 56 minutes, in seventh female position (that was after getting a bear hug from my sports masseuse extraordinaire Simon Lamb and nearly breaking down in tears out of relief that I’d made it).
And what a long, fun, slightly painful journey it was. It was great to finally meet internet buds like Paul, not to mention other familiar faces on the ultra circuit. With the longest stretch of the Atacama Crossing being a similar distance, it was also good to get a feel for this. And while it felt pretty effing painful, if it was easy then the beer waiting at the end wouldn’t have tasted quite so good.