Last Sunday was the big one, the Stort30 and my first official ultramarathon. After a foggy drive from Medway to Hertfordshire we arrived in Bishops Stortford just in time to sneak a parking space in one of the sleepy residential streets (and for a power cut, that set off a house alarm and woke up said sleeping streets and it’s inhabitants). The extra hour in bed with the clocks going back had been gratefully taken and I felt fairly awake and relaxed as we wandered to Bishop Stortford’s running club which was serving as race HQ (in spite of the stares from locals who thought we had just committed a burglary…).
Things were a bit less relaxed at the clubhouse as there was lots of people milling about in the dark as the power hadn’t come back on. I registered and got my running number by the light of a mobile phone from one of the race volunteers (21st century tech has it’s more practical uses). The large queue for the loo, again in the dark with lots of milling about and ‘excuse me, can I just…’, was also a bit hectic. But it was over with fairly quickly and I could escape outside to find some space, try and stay relaxed and tick all the things off on my mental checklist.
I was wearing my pack which had over a litre of hydration fluid in it, and three energy bars and a gel. My cap was on, as were my gloves and buff… Erm… Laces were double tied (I wasn’t bothering with gaiters as it was dry and probably too warm for them)… Er… I was finishing a coffee to get some caffeine in my system, and had a largish breakfast despite not being hungry as usual pre-race… And I had even managed to get my running number on with minimal help from Claire, and not stabbed myself in the leg or genitals (big tick)… I’d tapered and done some long, hilly training runs beforehand… I was about as ready as I was going to be.
There was a race briefing but I didn’t hear much of it. The power outage meant everyone was called into the clubhouse, which we couldn’t all fit into, and although we opened some windows to try and hear from outside there were no microphone and valiant shouting wasn’t quite going to do it. I had read the briefing notes again and half heard them say about making sure you got your number recorded at CP3 (which was the halfway and turnaround point) so felt like I pretty much knew what was going on. And I planned on just following the signs and runners ahead to stick on course (and the river of course).
After some more waiting and milling about and ogling other runner’s kit and trainers, which is always a good way to pass a few minutes, we were called to order. The start was two laps of the field and then we were to head off to the river Stort and its pathways. I’d had a think about my A, B and C targets for the race and settled on C) finishing and not hurting myself; B) finishing in under 5 hours (i.e. quicker than 10 minute a mile pace); and A) finishing in under 4 and a half hours (i.e. quicker than 9 minute pace). I was trying to be realistic, ambitious but not too gung-ho and try to sustain too quick a pace and explode in a mess on the floor…
The race plan was to take on water at the 5 checkpoints (which were every 5 miles) to top up what I was carrying, eat everything in my pack and more at the CPs if I needed it and grab anything else I needed from Claire at the halfway point (both nutrition and kit). I had factored in running at about 8:45/8:50 pace as much as possible to give me a minute at each checkpoint to take on supplies, fiddle with kit and flick boogies at passing ducks etc. and still get under 4 hours 30. Well that was my gloriously constructed, well-thought out plan; can you guess what actually happened?
With a goodbye kiss to Claire I joined my fellow runners and we were let go. As we rounded the field and I tried to stay relaxed and get into a rhythm. After the two laps of the field we hit pavement for a bit, which was all downhill, and I got caught up with others around me trying to make a quick start and clocked a sub-8 minute mile to start (I’m sighing as I type). I had already ignored my own advice and that of so many others – don’t go off to quick, run your own race etc. etc….
Half a mile in – already going too quickly
I did manage to slow down slightly as the route flattened out and the field stretched out, and as we got to the river I was moving at around 8 minute and half minute pace. I should have slowed further, but I felt ok and there was lots of green stuff to look at and barges (and even horseys!) and I wanted to get on with it. Looking at my mile times now I can see I was running at a really consistent pace, it was just the wrong one! It was nice and cool and I was in a little group of runners who I wanted to stay with, so I ran at their pace and I would overtake every so often when it felt like the runner in front was slowing down. (Sighs even louder while typing that bit)
What I needed to do was back off by 20/30 seconds a mile and stick to the plan, but I just… didn’t. Not sure why; adrenaline, optimism, stupidity? Probably a mixture of all of those. When I got to CP1 (closer to 6 miles than the advertised 5) I went off piste again – I went straight past it. Despite having plenty of time in hand to stop I carried on, as I had only just started a energy bar and had only taken a few gulps of fluid and wasn’t thirsty so thought ‘sod it’ and ran on. This is probably more forgivable as I didn’t really need anything at this stage, but was another sign of how far I was willing to chuck the race plan in the river and go rogue. But that’s hindsight for you.
Back to the race; I was really enjoying running by the river and getting to see some lovely countryside and wildlife, the barges tottling about and looking all cozy with smoke bellowing from them in the cool air and the occasional walker/cyclist to say ‘Good morning’ to. At mile 8, at Harlow Mill Lock, I managed to meet up with Andy from work who lives nearby for a quick selfie which was a nice boost. It was also a good enforced break to slow me down some, until I ruined it by speeding up a bit afterwards to make up the time… I’m a moron.
The river kept going, so we did too – over grass, mud, concrete and trail and through fields and woods, along riverside trail and past houses, boats and the river’s locks. There was enough going on to keep you entertained and the going wasn’t too rough (for the moment – apart from a fishermen who tried, but thankfully failed, to garrotte me with his poorly timed cast). At around mile 10 we went past CP2 and I saw Claire which is always a welcome boost mid-race. I stopped briefly for a kiss (sorry to be graphic) but didn’t get any supplies from Claire or the checkpoint – I was still only about halfway through my first bar and had plenty of fluid, so I kept plowing on.
Note terrible heel strike technique…
I was enjoying myself, and loving the route, and got even more carried away at this point; I clocked miles of 8:10/8:20/8:18/8:15 from miles 11 to 14 losing the pacing plot completely(despite a niggle in my right thigh that flared and then slowly faded), culminating in a fifteenth mile of 8:03. I feel like slapping myself for that now, but at the time I just felt like I was making good time and had found a good pace. The end of the fifteenth mile was also memorable for the rave we ran past. We crossed the river again and went past a wooded area and you could hear banging tunes (think that’s the phrase) coming from deep within. Then I started to see people dressed up in Halloween outfits looking dazed, walking around in the trails and on the path by the river. It must have been a hell of a party because it was after 11am at this point. I wasn’t sure who looked more weirded out; us looking at the bleary eyed revellers staggering home, or them looking at the nutters in garish Lycra running around in the cold…
Just as we got over that we went past a go-kart racing track on the otherside of the river, with lots of engine noise as the karts blatted about. It was a bit surreal to have gone from quiet countryside and the gentle roar of the river and muffled rumble of barges, to dodging zombie-fied ravers wandering in packs and kart engines screaming about at full chat but it was certainly an interesting and distracting addition to the course! I then arrived at CP3 and the halfway point. I met Claire (who had not only kindly driven me to the race was also meeting me at the open checkpoints [1/4 wasn’t accessible by car]) and I drank a bottle of pre-mixed, caffeine-laced hydration fluid and put on a non-sweaty buff and had a bit of a stretch. I again didn’t take on any other fluids to take with me as I had just downed a bottle’s worth, or any food as I had only eaten one bar. I should have realised that I was behind on calorie intake at this point but I was caught up in the race and after less than a minute I kissed Claire goodbye again and headed back.
From about mile 13 I had seen runners who had already turned back for home (and said ‘Hello’, ‘Well done’, ‘Stop showing off’ etc.). Now I was running back myself and passing runners and suddenly appreciated how difficult it was. The trail was narrow in places, there were other non-runners on the path walking and cycling and the ground was getting churned up with all the traffic. I was trying to stay at a consistent pace, and achieved it for a few miles, but I definitely was feeling it more. I also then remembered that I was now going upriver and, however subtly, I was going to be going uphill back to Bishops Stortford.
Thankfully after a few miles I started to lower my pace as I realised I needed to conserve my energy (only took me abuot 3 hours to work that out). I could feel my effort levels having to rise to keep up the pace and my legs were getting heavier. The caffeine from the drink didn’t seem to have that great an impact, so I cracked open an energy gel to try and compensate and get some energy back. A mile or so before CP4, at around 20 miles I think but it’s hazy, I saw Claire for the final time for another much needed boost. I didn’t stop for long though and tried to maintain my momentum, I think as I knew things were going to get tougher and soon.
Although I didn’t panic I could feel myself start to slow and my pace drifted towards 9 minute pace in miles 21 and 22.I took on more fluid and started another energy bar but I was beginning to feel rough and my legs heavy and uncoordinated. If it was a marathon I think mentally it would have been easier to deal with, but I had over 7 miles still to go and the creeping ache in my legs was beginning to take hold of my head as much as anything. For the first time since the start a couple of runners slowly went past me as my pace continued to fall. I then made things worse by running right past CP5! I think the damage would have already been done at this point, but why I didn’t stop and try and take on calories/salt/water I can only put down to ‘race brain’ and an urgency to keep going and get the bloody thing over and done with. But it might have saved some pain to have stocked up as best I could and taken a bit of a breather…
Things basically unwound from there; I slowed further in miles 24 and 25 as my legs and hips stiffened and then I started to cramp, firstly in my right thigh at about the 26th mile. It was as bad as at my first marathon (when I ground to a halt in pain) but this time I didn’t panic and just slowed to a hobble until it subsided a bit, and then tried to continue at a slower pace. Every rise and step, which I hadn’t even noticed on the way out, now brought on a wave of pain and fear of my muscles locking up. Cramp then hit my left thigh, then my right groin and then my left calf (it was a pain party of twitching muscles in my lower legs – my body clearly wanted to join the ravers from mile 15). I was now at a much reduced run and having to walk every so often. I’d also run out of fluid (muppet) and couldn’t eat much as I felt ill after every bite (double muppet).
I was mildy dehydrated but more crucially I had gone off too fast and then again in the middle, trashing my legs and then not taken on anywhere near enough calories. These were basic mistakes I have made before and thought I had learnt from, but I clearly hadn’t and was paying the price. As I passed the marathon point I looked at my watch and realised I had run probably my third quickest marathon despite slowing the last few miles and realised how far I had overcooked things (triple muppet with sprinkles on). It didn’t help that the route was now more off-road, with slopes that I hadn’t feel before but now caused my legs to do all kinds of weird things. I felt pretty awful at this point, physically and mentally, and knew the next few miles were going to be painful.
But I didn’t even think about stopping, I slowed to a walk repeatedly but somehow kept breaking back into a jog again. The pain was there but I was determined to keep moving forward to try and get home in under 4 hours 30. I tried to jog for a minute or tenth of a mile at a time and then walk. A couple more runners went past me during this point and I went past others in turn, but I couldn’t care about what anyone else was doing and just concentrated on moving forward and trying (and failing) to eat something. Suddenly at around 28 miles in it was quite lonely; I could see runners heading off in front of me and I didn’t want to turn round and see if anyone was gaining on me (but I couldn’t hear anyone) so I felt quite isolated. The miles at this point felt like they were taking forever and even the lovely surroundings couldn’t snap me out of my self-pity and my average pace kept climbing towards 9 minute miles. Basically I had a right face on.
Still I kept plodding forward, with the odd stumble as another bit of cramp hit, and the miles somehow passed. To my relief just as 29 miles clicked past I was off the river and back onto lovely flat tarmac. For about 100 yards. Then the bloody stuff arced uphill and I began the long climb back to the running club and race HQ. A fellow runner overtook me at this point and he kindly said to me that it was all uphill to the field and to not try and speed up. I had no intention of doing that, but I appreciated the advice and warning. I returned the favour by pointing out the final turn to the finish which he thought we had missed and watched him accelerate away. I tried to keep jogging to try and get home in under the four and half hours but had to walk a couple of steep bits that made my legs scream. Thankfully though the club then came into view.
I felt a complete mess as I crested the final git of a hill and came through the car park. But I saw and heard Claire offering me encouragement and tried to speed up a bit and sort my form out. Claire said something about ‘Only one little lap of the field left’ which in that dark hour may have got a quite angry and very sweary response from a tired runner (luckily she didn’t hear me). I could feel my legs even more now and in a detached way I was impressed with the rhythmical pulsing I could feel going through my thighs. If I could harness that on the dance floor I might be on to a winner…
As I started the final lap of the field and went past the small group of people that kindly shouted support I was determined to run that last 400m. I looked at my watch and realised I was going to get under the time I wanted and tried to hurry up a bit, but I don’t think I actually went any quicker – my arms just moved more. As I neared the line I felt a wave of relief and saw Claire was waiting for me. I couldn’t stop myself at the line though and went a few yards past before I eventually came to a halt and then had to just stand there as both my thighs locked up; I must have looked very peculiar. Claire congratulated me in my statue state and after a minute I could hobble about a bit and went back to the finish line to get my medal and a nice blue finishers t-shirt.
I was wrecked and an uncoordinated mess for a good few minutes, but I took on some water and tried to wander about a bit to loosen my legs. Bless Claire, she was there, as always, to get me sorted and brought me everything I needed. She got me a tea, food, protein shake and convinced me to have a shower which was a great idea and made me feel almost human (apart from my thighs which were made out of wooden fire and hurt like a bugger). Post shower I sat in the clubhouse and tried to organise myself. I would discover later I had crossed the line in 4:25:53 for 49th place but at the time it was a slight stunned anti-climax. I was just pleased to be finished and sat down.
Once the pain began to dim a bit and I felt more with it though I was a happy chappy. I’d completed my first ultra! Yes I’d tried to scupper myself by being an idiot, but I had made it under 4 hours 30 by a good few minutes and had kept going when the going really had got tough (thank you Billy Ocean) and was proud of that. Looking at the run data later I could see exactly how I’d gone wrong in terms of pacing, as I’ve described above, but on a general level I had run the first half of the race in around 2:05 and then come back in 2:21. I think if I had taken four or five more minutes for the first 15 miles I could have come home for a 4:20 finish and saved a lot of pain in those final miles…. C’est le vie (when you’re an incurable muppet).
To summarise; I really enjoyed the event – it was a great route, had a good atmosphere and was a good first ultra and would recommend the race to newbies and veterans alike. For my part I re-learnt some painful lessons – pace yourself sensibly and look to run a negative split, have a nutrition plan and stick to it and when everything goes wrong grit your teeth and grind it out because you will get to the end eventually. And I also learnt (again) that Claire is bloody awesome and I wouldn’t do half the stuff, or half as well, without her love and support.
I was really sore for a few day after (thank good I had booked the Monday off work!) and am only now walking down stairs like I haven’t got explosives in my hip pockets. I’ve been gentle in my recovery and only done a couple of gentle jogs, and will keep that up for a week or so to make sure I give my body time to heal. I’ve not got a race booked in now until Bowiethon in mid February so I’ve got time to recover and then plan out some training and maybe some more ‘Adventure’ runs around Medway and perhaps in central London along the Thames… I’ll see what my legs say and of course let you know where we get to.
Thanks for reading, sorry to go on. Enjoy your running. Adam 🙂