Pushing beyond: My very first Ultra experience
I asked my body the question… and it responded with an emphatic “YES!“…
There are so many ways I could describe my first ever Ultra. My experience is shared below. It’s not a race report, it’s about what I learned up to and during the day.
The Build Up
Friday lunchtime thoughts started wondering to the Saturday and that’s when I seriously began to worry and get excited about what was in store. Would I get round? Was I being stupid even trying? Was I putting people through worry? The answer to all three I knew would be yes. The latter because treasured family and friends knew what I’ve been going through since May 2013 onwards – as my Lyme Disease post revealed. My wife, parents and friends had all ‘had words’ with me saying I should not attempt it if my body was feeling low, or to pull out at a checkpoint if it was too much. I promised them and myself I would – and I really meant it.
Fortunately Train Running Magazine shared this inspiring video on Friday. In it, Matt Williamson, elite ultra runner says: “You’re never going to know what you’re capable of unless you ask your body to do it. And if you ask your body to do it, the amount of satisfaction you can get from that is unlimited.” These words were to ring so, so true.
Pre-event earworms and euphoria
I had words of wisdom on repeat in my head – honestly couldn’t help it. Two earworms in particular looped:
“We were born to run; we were born because we run.” Chris McDougall, Born To Run
“Endurance is what we were built for.” Matt Williamson, Endurance Video
(Note: This doesn’t mean I believe I’m built for endurance!)
After travelling up Friday evening, I knew I’d wake early Saturday so decided to register 07:30. On heading back to my accommodation I felt strangely euphoric – singing my head off in the car as peaks appeared above cloud, a lovely breeze etc. I knew it would be special on many levels. Little did I know how much the heat would take its toll.
What I did know was I was woefully under-prepared in terms of a total lack of regular ultra training and recce runs. With the ongoing recovery, the longest run I’d done had been one half marathon trail run in Coniston! In fact I’d only ever done one marathon back in 2011. Yet, bizarrely that wasn’t really important to me. What was most important was I’d been able to make it to the start line. So I joined five other Rochdale Harriers, each of us ready to undertake something we hadn’t done before.
Fuel regular and often
Nicky Spinks had stressed the importance of eating regularly, even if you don’t feel like it. So I worked on eating something every 30-40 mins, packing 6x date bar slices and 4x power energy balls, plus the banana slices etc I knew I could pick up at each checkpoint. Not forgetting the mini feast the organisers had told us would be waiting at CP5 – Stickle Barn Tavern!
I stuck to this rigidly. On several occasions I didn’t feel hungry at all but knew from every ultra story I’d read that regular calorie intake was critical. Ditto fluids. Sipping water and/or electrolytes very regularly, particularly during uphills. I have never sweated so much, so relentlessly as I did on Saturday. My top half was literally drenched from 5km onwards. Thank goodness for wicking fabrics! Every feed station I made sure of filling my bottle again with either water, Nuun energy drink or half of each. Volunteers at every checkpoint constantly cheerful and encouraging. They really entered into the spirit of things. Over the course I burned about 4,300 calories, so didn’t stop refuelling until 8pm Sunday!
Strategy for the Day
Again, based on advice from Nicky Spinks, the approach was to walk every climb, run the flats and walk some descents. I love rapid descents but had been warned that your quads can suffer massively if you don’t ease off earlier on. I did ease by walking up ‘The Struggle’ to Kirkstone Pass and held back quite a bit on the descent towards Brothers Water and Hartsop. What a view too! That beginning climb of almost 1500 ft was certainly a welcome to ultra territory!
My lack of any recce was a nagging doubt that came to mind on several occasions… Did it make much difference? Yes and No. It would have helped knowing what was in store. But the further you go it just becomes a case of keeping going no matter how far is left or how much further the climb. All ifs, buts, maybes which would make no difference to me on the day so I just got on with it.
The last 10km I felt strangely strong again. 2 big climbs apart (one of which was Loughrigg) there were a number of flat parts. I was really able to get into a relaxed rhythm and build up my pace again – at least that’s what I told myself, my Garmin battery had died at about 50km! Results later revealed, that out of 521 listed starters, 311 finished and I placed 95th in 8:52:59. My fellow Harriers all did better placing between 27th and 53rd.
What Got Me Through?
Matt Williamson’s mindset of breaking things into small chunks worked a treat. I’d began to run for some time with club mates Mark & John and unintentionally ran a little quicker than I should have. Checkpoint 2 (17km) came 10 mins ahead of schedule and the three of us enjoyed a very welcome top up of fluids, some banana and a brief chat. We knew the biggest climb of the day was next so took our time. The initial 400+ft climb out of Glenridding was relatively comfortable, being mostly in the shade of the trees. But after a descent and undulation came the 1200 ft climb past Grisedale Tarn to Grisedale Hause. My quads cramped really badly from about halfway up and I almost fell backwards twice. Remarkable views back down towards were some compensation – as was the fact I knew the pain would subside at some point. Nausea was a sensation I was to experience for the first of several times during each climb. As Robbie Britton has said, it’s part and parcel of any ultra.
The descent from Grisedale Hause saw us drop about 1600 ft in around 6.5km. The marshall at the top ensured I didn’t mistakenly take the 110km route and offered a friendly warning to take care on the descent with it being very rocky and in places slippy, despite the incredibly hot weather. So I took my time though my quads took another bashing. Cramps again heading downhill and I wasn’t even halfway round the course 🙂
By the time I reached Grasmere I was in a pretty bad way. Trying to relax very tight thighs, calfs and hamstrings while trotting along part of the A591 south, I was nearly overtaken by an enthusiastic 5 year old! Had a laugh with his dad about it because again this encouraged me to keep going. Same as kids applauded myself and others as we ran across the lush field just before getting into the Grasmere checkpoint. That stop at 29.3km was so welcome. It was at this part that I did question whether or not I could continue. So I took time to consume and top up fluids, grab a bite and briefly chat to fellow runners. Yet again, feed station volunteers, particularly the little girl, were infectious in their enthusiasm. Part of me genuinely wanted to stop here but I resisted this and made myself step out of the school building. Two friendly faces in the shape of Chris and Karen gave me the chance to stop, say hello, ask how the others were doing and to adjust my laces. (Anything for a few extra seconds rest!)
Chatting to a fellow runner I discovered I wasn’t the only one questioning myself at this point. In her case, her other half walked with her out of Grasmere and reminded her how much she’d achieved getting this far, so to continue. We soon passed one fellow runner who said the heat was simply too much for him. I’d already decided to just deal with each section, in this case Silver How which was a bloody climb of about 600 ft in around 1.5km-2km! At this point, we reminded ourselves the next checkpoint was only around 8km away. This helped me deal with each and every undulation I was to ascend / descend. Hardly any flat here and plenty of slate scree. The marshall was revelling in the incredible 360 views up here, proudly suggesting he’d got the best spot of the day. It was hard to disagree 🙂 One fantastic moment of distraction came when hearing and seeing overhead fighter planes. Someone, somewhere kindly videoed this and shared on Twitter.
— Antony J Cross (@antonyjohncross) June 27, 2015
From just before the halfway point, my mantra became “Ask the question”. At every incline I’d walk. Then on approaching the crest, my inner voice would utter “Ask the question” and I’d force myself to jog off again. Every single time I made my body respond. The ultra really became a metaphor for life – and for my own journey since May 2013. Breaking things down into achievable goals: The next checkpoint; drink; over the next boulder; to the top of the ridge; drink; get to the next gate; food; run past applauding spectators; one foot in front of the other…
At every opportunity I tried to encourage others, whether they passed me or I passed them – sometimes repeatedly with the same participants. Just before checkpoint 4 at Langdale my mate Luke caught me up and after a brief chat seemed to effortlessly pull away – git 🙂 We wished each other luck at the checkpoint while enjoying another top up of fluids and fuel food.
Sucking up more suffering was inevitable. Blisters had been forming on my right foot and I took the opportunity to tend to them – and have a 5 min sit down! Not sure what the passing tourists made of me snapping a pic of my foot?! Many fellow participants were to endure similar.
Approaching Stickle Barn was another very difficult phase for me. Across very boggy ground, up bridleways, down steep very rocky terrain. I felt like I had very little left physically. But like others, I was determined to push on… “Ask the question“. Lakeland day trippers applauded us into the pub. I fuelled up with flat coke (I never usually drink coke), some leek and potato soup, plus a few fat chips! Sat down and chatted to a few 110km participants and voiced my admiration. So I felt the least I could do was get through the final 12km over Loughrigg and into Ambleside. I will never forget leaving Stickle Barn to the sound of cowbells and cheers ringing in my ears. Neither will I forget the bloke behind me muttering “Now that climb is just taking the piss!” as we began ascending the penultimate major ascent 🙂 Slightly less of a surprise was James Kirby hiding in the bushes ready to take a snap – he’d been on duty for about 24hrs!
Let me finish on a huge positive:
I’ve always felt there is a joy to running with and against others. But I now know the true meaning of Chris McDougall’s words: “The reason we race isn’t so much to beat each other,… but to be with each other.”
Every single clap. Every smile of a pub goer or rambler. Every child shouting out “Keep going!” “Well done!” as they held their arms out for a high five. How I enjoyed returning the favour every time!
As I came back towards Rothay Park, I still didn’t know whether I had 1km or 400m left. But one little girl made a massive difference and I will never forget her enthusiasm. Standing on the grass verge, she clapped me and shouted “The finish is just round the corner!” I smiled and said “Thanks!” Immediately I was running between lines of spectators who all applauded and shouted encouragement. I turned the corner around the hedge and there it was: “Ultimate Trails” writ large on the big black inflatable! My eyes scanned the finish to check I was really at the end – and to the right I saw my wife and kids star jump, massive smiles on Louis & Izzy’s faces as they shouted “Dad!!”. The MC welcomed me back and said something along the lines of it being an epic achievement for me given what I’d been through – my face as the medal was placed around my neck was probably one of immense pride, relief, fatigue. Anne Marie’s face was pure relief and she thrust a latte and flapjack into my hands. For some reason I developed a Latte craving that next 24hrs!
I later discovered the last finisher came in around 01:40 Sunday morning. What an achievement to get through! Fellow Harrier Jill completed the 110km with Davina – a feat I struggle to get my head around…
Would I do another ultra? Well I certainly haven’t uttered the words “Never again” so perhaps I will 🙂 I’d kept telling myself I was no Ultra runner but actually I got round, got through severe quad cramping, nausea etc etc. People got me through it and I hope I helped others achieve too 🙂 Ultra marathon entry next year then?
So to every single marshall, to every volunteer, to every person in the parts of the Lake District we passed through: “Thank You!”. There was the fella I saw on a bike three times. The lady I saw three times in the last 15km: She appeared at the top of the last climb before Stickle Barn Tavern, clapping and shouting encouragement. She was there when I exited Stickle Barn. She was there clapping me at the finish line. I began to wonder if I’d been hallucinating! Possibly having run 58km of mountain terrain…
My main thought from the experience? “Ask the question.” You’d be surprised at the answer 🙂
Yours in sport!