Pretty sure I haven’t mentioned it AT ALL, but for anyone who hasn’t been following my progress on this, me and my adventure buddy Gemma (she who persuades me to do mad epic shit) finally got to run our first Ultra. Due to the pandemic and all that that entailed our previous attempts had been postponed, then cancelled. So we weren’t quite sure whether we would actually get there, but there were assurances from the organisers that they would make it really safe (they did) and announcements that it was OK for this event to go ahead (it did). And so after a less than ideal (but not stupidly low either) amount of training, run it we did. I’ve tried to cut this down a bit, but y’know it WAS an Ultra, so it’s probably going to be an Ultra-length blog post.
For some reason both my Mum and my sister got it into their heads that my Ultra (or Mega Marathon as my sister thought it was called. I actually quite like that and think all the events should immediately rebrand because alliteration is cool) was on the Saturday, rather than the Sunday. So I got some lovely supportive messages saying, you must be so relieved to have finished, call me when you get home, so proud of you, etc…. when I was still at home obsessing over my kit, the weather and trying to overcome the usual pre-race nerves to stick pasta that I didn’t want down my face.
Therefore, first important thing I learned from all of this was on the Saturday and the week or so preceding that – and that was that no MATTER how much you obsess over your kit, you can always find something that you DEFINITELY need (you don’t) that you don’t have and totally freak the fuck out about it. Optional trips to Decathlon to purchase said thing that you actually don’t need. I wasn’t so preoccupied by the main two things that seemed to be preoccupying everyone else due to run it, which were THE WEATHER and WHICH SHOES because of THE WEATHER… I just decided early on to run in my road shoes because my ATR’s (hybrid road to trail shoes) gave me a blister SO HUGE that I couldn’t actually wear ANY shoes for two days after a half marathon. No, my obsession was whether I needed a properly waterproof jacket. Or would the pac-a-mac that I got from Uniqlo ‘do’. Now in order to realise why I was obsessing about this, I should point out that I get generally really hot. Always. And no it’s NOT because I’m a woman of a certain age, I’m not quite there yet. That fun is yet to come. I’m just hot (I know right, vain AF…. I don’t mean that kind of hot, not HAWT, temperature hot).
No matter how cold it is starting off any run, I can guarantee that I will be down to a base layer/vest after a mile or so. I KNOW that in Berkshire in May, even with the apocalyptic shitshow that our current weather is in the UK at the moment, I will get hot, not cold. I have NEVER lasted more than a mile or so in an actual waterproof even in snow. All of which I was totally fine with until I went on the events Facebook group and more experienced Ultra runners were being extremely forthright about the fact that we MUST have a waterproof with us in case something went wrong and we had to wait for help. I should point out that while I don’t take things like the essential kit list lightly, this was a 50K (actually 52 – and we managed to actually run 53 – more on this later) Ultra in Berkshire, not a multi-day 200-mile event across the Alps. The feed stations were 4-6 miles apart so we were never really more than 3 miles from help. In the end I went with the lightweight mac that stayed dry for approximately 0.2 seconds when the heavens opened at about mile 20. But I still don’t regret it. Also in the back of my mind, I knew that Gemma had literally EVERY-FUCKING-THING you could think of in her car/bag. She had mooted bringing a mini sleeping bag, as well as the waterproof, foil blanket, a plastic poncho and god knows what else in her bag. I don’t know how it all went in, but I’m pretty sure she got some tips from Hermione Granger’s expandable bag from The Deathly Hallows. Obviously I did carry my lucky Lego Chewbacca, though. I’m not taking risks with that sort of thing.
Just remembered the other thing I was obsessing about the day before. Folks, we need to talk about chafing. Fucking chafing. The bane of my running life. It’s like some vaseline-based game of whack-a-mole on my body. No matter how much vaseline/bodyglide/chamois cream I use on the bits that previously chafed, an area of chafing pops up somewhere else. After one marathon I had a horrible realisation (usually occurs with a scream in the post-race shower when you thought you’d got away with it) that the knot from the drawstring on my shorts had been lodged in my bellybutton. Right on the scar from where they pulled my gallbladder out. Yeah, double grossness in one paragraph. And I haven’t even started on the portaloo stories yet. Anyway, despite a coating of bodyglide over my entire self – KT tape on my neck to stop my pack chafing, and under where my bra clasp had previously rubbed me raw – somehow I missed the spot and still have two little cuts on my back nearly two weeks later. Men might get raw nip-nops but they do NOT know the damage that a badly positioned sports bra can do. Also taking the KT off afterwards was NO FUN.
The other thing I did wrong was that I totally screwed up my carefully planned nutrition. I’m a running coach, and I’ve trained for and run 6 marathons, and I still screwed it up. I’ve always, probably irritatingly, definitely smugly, told anyone who is foolish enough to get onto the topic, that I’ve never had to even stop for a pee during a marathon. Don’t ask me why I’m proud of this. It’s probably dehydration but we have to take the small wins in this life, no? That was NOT the case during the Ultra. My initial error wasn’t going against the absolute golden rule of ‘nothing new on race day’, as I had my normal oat-based breakfast with a coffee, but like the absolute bell-end that I am, the ‘second breakfast like hobbitses’ that me and Gemma had planned to have in the car on the way to the race to top up the old glycogens fell by the wayside due to nerves, talking talking talking, and our epic pre-Ultra METAL-TILL-I-DIIIE playlist. I forgot to eat it. So by the time we’d had two pre-race nervous wees and set off, I was frankly starving and my Tribe Active Oats (very delicious new discovery by the way; they don’t pay me to say that – I wish they did – but I don’t think anyone cares what I think about breakfasts) were a distant memory.
So we got the first-aid station at 6ish miles and I wolfed down an energy bar, which hit my empty stomach and started grumbling. Now I’m fairly un-embarassable on the whole and don’t believe there’s any such thing as TMI in running circles, BUT I’m not going to go into the gory details because you never know, there might be some bloke I fancy out there one day who decides to read my blog to find out about me before our first date and I don’t want this to be the image in future imaginary boyfriend’s head. And I don’t know for sure that Jensen Ackles DOESN’T read my blog, so I will errr on the side of dignity. I will just say that I can no longer claim not to have had to use a portaloo. I had to use ALL OF THE portaloos. And that’s all I’m saying. It wasn’t a game changer, I still had literally one of the best days of my life, but that aspect of it could definitely be improved upon.
Still, as our buddy Grundy gleefully told us when he caught us up at mile 11, having started an hour later (he texted us ‘I’ve started!’ I restrained myself from replying ‘Well, I’ve sharted!’, which I hadn’t, I just thought it would be funny) he overheard a po-faced lady at the first-aid station saying, ‘They’re shitting in the woods!’ so it could be worse. I did not have to go full Bear Grylls. God, I’m totally over sharing even though I said I wouldn’t… sorry, Jensen. Normal decorum will (probably not) be resumed.
I’m talking about this in a very stream of consciousness manner but the being overtaken thing was interesting mentally. Both Grundy and our other friend Saeed are unequivocally faster runners than me and Gemma – one of the many things I love about Gemma is that we are so evenly matched in terms of pacing and attitude – and we knew that the two blokes were starting an hour behind us, slightly more in Saeed’s case, but he can literally run twice as fast as me. We were trying to do the maths beforehand regarding what point they would catch us up. Saeed flew past us (at this point Grundy was running with us) at a particularly challenging point at mile 12. The terrain was bonkers at points – I’m not used to doing a huge amount of trail running, although I love it, I’m mostly a road runner, particularly for the long runs. But Saeed breezed past us like a flipping mountain goat. He came first in his age category – we were just extremely happy not to be last! I think it may just have been realising that Saeed would probably be home and showered and fed and had a nap, possibly whittled a canoe like Ron Swanson, while we were still out there!
And talking of timing – we had originally worked out that we thought it would take us about 7 hours. It took us nearly 9… We’d based that on our marathon time (both of us have done sub 4:30 marathons but knew that we wouldn’t be attempting anything like that pace) – throw in walking up hills and stops at the feed stations, and 7 hours seemed quite a reasonable estimate for a run that was 6 miles more than a marathon. I hadn’t anticipated quite how different it is. Firstly the terrain was much, much harder than I’m used to. There was one particular hill, or actually more like a deep V, that you have to go down steps and then back up a steep long muddy hill. And then reverse that on the way back at MILE 29!!! My mantra at that point was ‘It’s SO HARD’ – I don’t recommend it as a motivational tool. Definitely not in the whiney voice I was using by that point. And some trails along the side of a steep drop down to the river, rocky bits, fieldy bits, VERY VERY muddy bits. I never thought I wouldn’t be able to complete it, but I have to say at that point I DID question whether I wanted to.
It can make your brain go a bit funny… when the weather turned at mile 20, and went from glorious sunshine (where we had to do an impromtu suncream stop) to absolutely relentlessly chucking it down, we EVEN stopped talking for a bit. Unheard of. And at another point I was at the front of a small group we were chatting to (not sure how that happened) but there seemed to be an unnecessary number of gates. And due to running brain, I completely lost the ability to gate. I couldn’t work out how to open them. With a crowd building up behind me. THAT was fun. I actually had to have it explained to me by someone how a gate works.
But you know that saying about the best-laid plans and all of that – I ended up carrying for nearly the entire distance a close to death iPhone and the brand new (but tested) portable charger that refused to charge the fucking thing. Can’t even remember at what point my phone suddenly went from full battery life to 20% to 10 to 1. Where it stayed for another 7 hours. Bloody technology. Luckily me and Gemma had already said that we were going to stick together like – socially responsible, half vaccinated, fully covid tested the day before – glue. So I wasn’t worried about my lack of communication device, just really annoyed! As was Gemma as she had to put up with me asking her to take a photograph of anything I wanted to take a photograph of, which as anyone who has ever run with me knows ranges from rude signs, ANY animals, MANY MANY selfies, and any interesting birds, trees and houses.
But I seem to be dwelling on the negatives when my memory of it is overwhelmingly positive. Ultra runners are FRIENDLY. From the most elite aforementioned gazelles to the back of the pack group we ended up running with (and kinda making friends for life, forged in the flames – or rather mud – of doing something that epic and difficult together – Hello, Sarah and Tony!), nobody cares how long it takes you – they just care that you did it. And when you do talk about the fact that in our case it took us 8 hours and 51 minutes, (with something akin to pride about how hardcore it is to be out there that long, not gonna lie) they make jokes about you getting your money’s worth for the entry fee. Literally nobody cares. It’s not about the time it’s the distance. And about the distance – somehow, SOMEHOW me and Gemma ran 33 miles. Which is more than 50K, or even the 52K the organisers admitted it was!
We met Sarah and Tony at the start line as they were just behind us, and ended up do-se-do-ing past each other until we started talking. Carefully at first until we sussed that we were just as rude and inappropriate as each other. And at one point Sarah said something so unexpectedly filthy that I actually hurt my side with the sudden burst of laughter. When me and Gemma were struggling a bit towards the end, because for the last 3 miles we just didn’t seem to be getting any closer, we were soaked and cold and tired and I would have given my car away for a cup of Yorkshire Tea at that point – we FINALLY saw the finish line, all the flags, and could hear the music, but we still seemed so far away, and had to go down a muddy stony path and across a field to get to it. Just at that point we spotted the green Reading club vests of Sarah and Tony crossing the field! It was pretty much the same feeling I got as seeing my parents and kids at the end of Abingdon Marathon, and I’d only just met these people that day! We tried to catch them up, but there was no chance of that. However, it did give us the much- needed burst of energy to get to that finish line. And oh my god, I was SO happy to cross it and get that medal. And the joy of sharing that moment with Sarah and Tony as well as Gemma was amazing. We will DEFINITELY be doing that again.
Epic medal collected, cup of Yorkshire Tea AND chocolate muffins purchased, we headed for the car. I cannot begin to describe how much it was raining by this point. It basically started raining when we got to about mile 20-ish? My viking coach James had given me strict instructions that I was to eat a pizza the size of my head that night, and as many calories as I could possibly cram into my face, and I was to send pictures of it to our whatsapp group… I do feel like I let him down a bit, as hungry caterpillar style (RIP Eric Carle) I ONLY managed the tea, one pork pie, one recovery shake, two mini muffins, a packet of pretzels, half a large vegetable and ham pizza, half a tub of Ben & Jerry’s Phish Food… and she was STILL hungry.
One other thing that I want to say about the difference between doing this and doing a ‘regular’ road marathon (and I already talked about the difference in training here) is in terms of recovery. Now don’t get me wrong at all, I was – and still am a bit – REALLY tired. I didn’t run at all for 5 days, and then took it very gently, sensible reverse taper style. BUT the main difference was that when I got home from the race, after removing the muddiest trainers I’ve ever seen… I walked up the stairs. Two flights in fact, as my room is in the loft conversion. What is unusual about this I hear you ask? I WALKED up the fecking stairs… as in, upright. Like a normal human. Not crawled up them. Not shuffled down them on my bum. My quads actually still worked! After Manchester marathon a few years ago, me and Grundy went back to our hotel room to collect our stuff and faced with steps up to reception we nearly cried. Then we did cry laughing as he crawled up the steps and I pulled myself up the handrail while non- marathon muggles laughed at us from the pub across the road. This is the real reason why runners wear their medals/t-shirts for days after a marathon. It’s not even pride, it’s to explain why we’re walking like that. “Here’s to swimmin’ with bow legged wimmin.” But apart from being bone tired, I felt OK! My legs kind of felt fine. Although cycling back from a (thankfully pre-warned walking, not running) client session on the Tuesday I DID nearly fall off my bike when I had to stop unexpectedly and my legs wouldn’t unbend… so maybe I didn’t get off scot-free.
SO. Would I do it again? Of course I would. In fact for about 48 hours after the race while I was riding the buzz of completing that epic thing, I tried to convince Gemma to do another one two months later… once the post-race buzz wore of I realised that would be an epically stupid thing to do, and that I need to focus on Manchester Marathon in October instead. BUT I will definitely be doing another Ultra next year. We were talking about doing Goring next year like it was a done deal by about mile 16!