Race Report: South Downs Way 50

The short version

This was handily supplied by Brian (@BrianDrought) when I was struggling to think of what to write in my blog: “I was really concerned about being able to beat the cutoffs but in the end I absolutely smashed it!”.

This pretty much sums it up, and I’m almost tempted to post a picture of the medal and stop there.

But for those who were after a bit more detail, and to do the experience some justice, here’s the longer version.

The long version

Back in the heady days of last summer, fresh from first ultra success, I signed up for this race and was really excited about it. Only 16 miles more than I’d done previously – that can’t be so hard, surely? In July I had a lovely weekend away in Alfriston, reccying the Eastbourne end of the course which is furthest away from where I live.

Roll on to early 2018 and things couldn’t have felt very different. I’d been nursing an ankle injury since November, and while I hadn’t been told not to run on it, I’d been advised to stick to tarmac and shorter distances to avoid aggravating it. Not the best training for a hilly trail race and not the mileage I need to even maintain fitness, let alone take on a 50 mile challenge. In early February I was seriously thinking of pulling out, but in the end dithered beyond the deadline for getting any refund, so decided I would at least start the race and see what happened. The ankle was somewhat better by the end of February, and I managed several longish runs on the route, meaning there was only a seven mile section that was unfamiliar and I had at least tested all the mandatory kit and food choices. Still, 23 miles was the furthest I had run since Portsmouth Coastal marathon before Christmas, and overall mileage for 2018 was pitifully low.

In the couple of weeks leading up to the race I got increasingly stressed about absolutely everything but mainly the cut off times. The race has a 13 hour overall cut off and individual cut off times for each of the checkpoints. These times sound very do-able in theory, but on scrutinising the times I had completed the sections in while training on them, I found that they were close to (and in some cases slower than) the cut off times. OK, I had not been deliberately rushing, and on some of the days conditions had been particularly challenging (thick sticky mud, and in one case, snow). but I had been doing these on fresh legs, in daylight. How much slower would I be towards the end of a 50 mile race, the last part of which would almost certainly involve navigating in the dark? Add to this the relentlessly wet weather in the couple of weeks leading up to the race, and I had almost entirely convinced myself that it was an impossible task, I was not fit enough, and I would be lucky to get half way without being timed out. The lovely people on twitter did their best to cheer me up but I really had let myself get worked up about the cut offs. Things went from bad to worse as the Wednesday before I woke up with a sore throat and was seriously wondering whether I would be too ill to run by Saturday.

I got very little sleep on Friday, and woke at 4am on Saturday with stabbing abdominal pains (I don’t know what this was about, probably just stress, but I was pretty sure I was dying and wasn’t going to be running anywhere). Anyway, they subsided and we arrived bright and early at Worthing College for registration and kit check. That was all fine but things quickly got too busy and as I was feeling quite disorientated and not very sociable I retreated to the car to eat a banana and stress out in private.

It was a relief to get going. At about 3 miles in I spotted Ally (@photogirlruns) sprinting off ahead, and had a quick chat with Brian, who had also had an injury-plagued build up. I had a bit of a conversation with someone called Jodie from Kent which was also good to settle the nerves. I was still not feeling great at this point – the throat was like sandpaper and was contributing to making me feel dehydrated even early on. The first 11 miles to checkpoint 1 went pretty quickly. I didn’t go mad on the pace, but was pulled along by the crowd rather faster than I was really comfortable with. I was also incredibly mindful of the need to get some time in the bag ahead of the cut offs and had resolved not to mess about at aid stations, not to stop for any photos (I was also worrying about my phone battery lasting) and to try to run as much as possible.

I arrived at Botolphs about 50 minutes ahead of the 3 hour cut off, and pressed on as I didn’t need water. The second section I found one of the hardest – the cut off between Botolphs and Saddlescombe is 1h25 and this took me 1h20 to cover just over 5 miles. It was good to bump into Ian (@Ianb65) who I see a lot at local races. I stopped for water at Saddlescombe but again pressed on as I was feeling stressed about the timings, headachy and mostly just like I wanted to stop and cry. I used my course knowledge to duck into the church at Pyecombe, knowing there was a toilet there (and even tea and coffee if I’d had time to stop). I felt smug but got a very funny look from a passing runner as I left.

Bizarrely, at around 20 miles in things started to improve for me, and I continued to feel more and more positive as the race went on after that point. The course was surprisingly dry, with none of the slippy mud which had previously slowed me down so much, and the early rain shower had disappeared though there was a strong headwind at times. The ankle was totally fine until about 22 miles, and didn’t seem to be getting any worse. There is a long downhill section heading towards Housedean which gave me a boost, and the sun came out slightly too. I hit marathon distance in 5h20 (not speedy at all but far better than I had anticipated) and I got to Housedean at 26.6 miles knowing that I had over 7 hours to do less than 24 miles. (I later found out that the winner had actually finished in the staggering time of 5h44, about the time I was leaving here.) I had a longer stop to sort myself out properly (but made the rookie error of trailing the mouthpiece from my bladder in a puddle on the barn floor, which was probably full of cow poo). The poor volunteer rinsed it off for me and I didn’t have much choice but to carry on drinking from it, convinced I would probably die of a horrible disease but hoping this would occur after I had finished and claimed my medal.

From Housedean to Alfriston I settled down and quite enjoyed things. I’d taken a couple of paracetamol at Housedean which had done the job at seeing off the headache I’d been suffering from. I quite quickly adopted a strategy of walking the big hills, running the downhills, and where it was flat or only gently uphill I would run 40 paces and walk 20. Having short, stumpy legs and being a bit of a wimp when it comes to running down hills, I found that I was being overtaken when walking uphill and when running down, but that I was making good progress compared to others with my walk/run efforts as many people were walking a lot. I also got an ego boost when I caught up with a lady who had been looking strong ahead of me. She had reached a field where there were cows standing on the path and was too scared to go through. I don’t mind cows at all (they’re not scary unless they have babies to protect, or they at least have big horns) so I felt very badass leading a little group of other runners confidently past them.

At Alfriston I was brought a cup of tea by one of the volunteers (the volunteers were all angels, with nothing too much trouble for them). Although I had been mostly eating the food I had brought with me to save on time and use up weight, I also inhaled some crisps and peanuts to keep me going. My watch had been on charge in my pack since the last checkpoint 7 miles back so I had had no idea how fast I had been going, but was pleasantly surprised by how much time I had banked. A 12 hour finish seemed possible, which was amazing as I had been worried about making it in 13.

There is a long climb out of Alfriston so a good long walk and by this time it was getting a bit chilly. By Jevington, the final checkpoint, it was raining and I stopped just to put my waterproof on. I knew there were only a few miles to go and that I wouldn’t have to do the dreaded gully descent into Eastbourne in the dark, as long as I kept moving. The last bit on the downs was shorter than I remembered and there was a volunteer at the top of the hill (and a ton of course marking) to point the correct path down the hill. As it was raining, the gully was indeed very slippery, but far less overgrown than when I’d run it before, so I got to the bottom without mishap. From there you are on paths/roads and there is only about 2 miles left, and I remember thinking that whatever happened I had time and energy to crawl to the finish if I had to. In fact I felt pretty much fine, and ran the entirety of the road section to the finish, which is a nice victory lap of the track. Coming into the finish I was greeted by the most spectacular pink sunset, which seemed a fitting way to end.

My eventual finish time was 11:11:11 (great numbers!) – this really was beyond my wildest dreams and I am so happy I did decide to go for it after all. It was only when we got the coach back to collect our cars at the start that it began to sink in just what a hugely long way 50 miles is, as the drive took well over an hour.

Overall I would definitely recommend this race. It was very well organised and well supported, with excellent course marking and aid stations. The medal and t shirt are very nice and I’m glad I have them as momentos (especially as I didn’t take any photos). Centurion’s good reputation is clearly well deserved and the volunteers were amazing. However, it is definitely a ‘serious’ race, and in hindsight I should probably have picked something more low key and with longer cut offs.

Although on the face of it I had a successful day, I still have mixed feelings about this race. I love marathons/ultras and trail running but the stress leading up to races and the time it take me to recover afterwards (not legs so much, but lingering nausea and fatigue) has prompted me to take a break from the long stuff for now. I wish I had enjoyed the experience more – if I had been less rushed I would have spent more time at the aid stations, sampled the delicious food on offer there, chatted to more people, enjoyed the views and taken some photos. I thought I would be telling everyone about my achievement, but I have ended up hardly telling anyone: in fact I’ve actually felt quite embarrassed about admitting to having done it – 50 miles seems like a crazy distance when you are talking to a non-runner. What I enjoyed most about the whole thing, on reflection, were the long recce runs in preparation for the race and the opportunity that gave me to explore a new area, and this is what I’ll focus on for the next few months.

 

 

 

Race Report: Marathon Eryri

If you want to run Marathon Eryri you have to sign up when entries open at midnight on New Year’s Eve as it sells out fast. The race comes highly recommended (and I now know why) so I was there hitting refresh on the keyboard at 23:59 and was pleased to secure a space after a rather stressful half hour in the virtual queue.

Being the highlight of my 2017 race calendar we planned in a summer of hilly trails to try to prepare for the notorious Snowdonia race profile, with something over 900m of elevation gain.

Sadly things went a bit pear shaped come the autumn. In September I ran the New Forest Marathon with a slightly iffy knee, and finished up with a very definitely swollen and injured knee. After 3 weeks out from running and some physio it was good to go again, and I was just easing back in when, less than 2 weeks out from Marathon Eryri, my calf suddenly went on a slow 4 miler. No warning at all – gutted! All was not quite lost and it seemed to be improving slightly during the week, but the Monday before the race I hurt it again just walking from work to the station. At this point I could barely walk. I was resigned to my A race of the year being a DNS and descended into the obligatory pit of self pity and junk food.

Dave had a place though and the accommodation was all booked, so we headed up to north Wales on the Friday, with the calf feeling fractionally better. I massively underestimated the traffic and we arrived ridiculously late after about 9 hours in the car. Thankfully race number collection in Llanberis was straightforward and the volunteers were kind which was good as I was so tired I could barely string a sentence together. We collected both numbers just in case, and got back in the car again to drive to the cottage which was about 20 minutes away, meaning we eventually arrived about 9pm completely exhausted, stiff and achy, and not having eaten properly all day. Not ideal preparation for a marathon.

The race start is at 10.30am which made for a very leisurely morning as we were staying so close. I decided to take a chance and start the race as my leg felt surprisingly good, though I really had no idea whether it would just stop working completely after a mile, or worse still, half way round on a freezing Welsh hillside in the pouring rain. I really wanted to do the race (especially having collected the number and t shirt) but with other races lined up for the end of the year and SDW50 next spring I didn’t want to end up seriously injured either. Run/walking the race didn’t seem like a great option: the race doesn’t have an overall cut-off, but you have to reach 18 miles by 2:30 (4 hours from gun time) – normally this would not be of any concern, but it is definitely way quicker than walking pace, and in any case even walking had been painful over the past few days…. so lots to worry about on the start line!

Anyway, putting the tedious preamble aside, the atmosphere on race morning was buzzing. Race HQ is at the electric mountain railway centre which had plenty of toilets, efficient bag drop and lots of excited runners. With a field of around 3000 this really has the feel of a large road marathon, albeit in a completely different setting. The race start is about half a mile outside Llanberis, alongside a lake, giving a taster of the jaw dropping scenery to come. The atmosphere was ramped up by the Welsh/English race briefing and minute’s applause in memory of two of the race’s key volunteers.

image

The first couple of miles are pleasantly undulating and it was impossible not to get swept along by the enthusiasm and bank a bit of time. It wasn’t long however before the road starts the long ascent up to Pen-y-pass. This is all pretty much runnable, but it’s a long drag of relentless energy sapping uphill, very near to the beginning. The calf was feeling cautiously ok, but I didn’t want to risk pushing it and took it steady up the hill and took the opportunity to take some photos. To be honest it was an amazing feeling just to be running again after nearly 2 weeks off, and the mountains were so spectacular that I was just blissfully happy to be there. After reaching the top of the hill (which is full of supporters and a welcome aid station) there is an equally long, runnable down, followed by a rocky off road downhill which is pretty steep, but runnable if you’re careful. By the end of this I knew I had made good time and the leg was holding up, and I began to be more optimistic that I could make the cut off and actually complete the thing. There’s then a flattish section of road which should have been a doddle, but by 11 miles I was feeling the lack of long runs in recent weeks, and was running out of steam. The other leg and foot was becoming a bit sore too, I think because I was overcompensating and running with more of a heel strike than normal as doing that was causing less stress on the calf. I walked a fair bit up the second big climb of the race which falls at about half way. After that I thankfully perked up and ticked off some miles, and was incredibly relieved to see the 18 mile cut off point (Snowdon Ranger Youth Hostel) which I reached with 40 minutes to spare.

After that all time pressure was off, and I started to treat the race more like an ultra – run the downhills, walk the uphills and pootle along the flats at whatever pace I felt like, enjoying the best lakes and mountains snowdonia had to offer and the fact I was actually enjoying being able to run a properly long run for the first time in weeks. The marshals and aid station volunteers were lovely and every village and lay by was packed with supporters ringing cow bells, shouting ‘Da Iawm’ (‘well done’ in Welsh I think) and offering endless piles of jelly babies and other treats. The orange slices were particularly welcome. Even the traffic was friendly, with people hanging out of car windows applauding the runners. The weather was surprisingly warm, but quite cloudy and with a bit of light drizzle. Given how bad the weather can be in North Wales even in summer, this was pretty much perfect, though as the race route is basically a huge loop around Snowdon, I kept looking up at the cloud and thinking that Snowdon must be up there somewhere! There were views but sadly no peaks to be seen. At about mile 22 the hideously steep uphill materialised and we started climbing into the cloud cover, the rain got worse and it got quite cold. There was a really weird atmosphere as you couldn’t see very far and the sound was deadened by the fog. Nearly everyone was walking at this point but I was getting overtaken a lot, as the calf was feeling at its worst when trying to push off uphill. For some reason this was distressing me more than it should have done, so I deliberately struck up a conversation with someone who was going slower than me so I would have a reason to slow down and not risk injuring myself. It turned out it was his 10th marathon Eryri and 96th marathon in total, so we had a nice chat until we got to the top of the hill.

At the top the final aid station appeared out of the mist – this bit was completely surreal as it was a coven of witches offering water and tea and having a bit of a party! I grabbed water from a skeleton and a bit of flapjack out of a cauldron and skipped past the jack o lanterns as we emerged onto another trail section. This final mile of downhill was probably the most brutal bit of the race. It was slick mud and grass, much of it too steep to run anyway, and people kept falling over everywhere. I would probably have run a bit quicker had I been wearing trail shoes, but road shoes were hopeless here. Even back on the tarmac at the bottom it was too steep to run properly. Thankfully that really is the last bit and then you run straight into Llanberis and there is the best support ever at the finish line and I had the most ridiculous grin plastered across my face as you do when you finish a marathon. At the end you get water, a foil blanket and a Welsh slate coaster in lieu of a medal which is a lovely touch. There was also tea and biscuits in the warmth of the community hall for runners afterwards.

image

I was so pleased to finish this race in one piece, with my leg no worse than before. I would definitely recommend it – it is friendly, well organised and has unique scenery and atmosphere. It bills itself as ‘the toughest marathon in the U.K.’ – I’m not sure about that but it’s certainly not your average road marathon. The last 5k took me 50 minutes which gives an indication of how tough the final uphill and downhill are, and my overall time was a clear ‘personal worst’ (not that I care). There’s more trail than I was expecting (probably around 5 miles or so) and the elevation is not to be sneezed at – but having said that, there’s also plenty of flat and a good bit of fast runnable downhill, so if fit a reasonable time wouldn’t have been impossible.

Lastly, I hadn’t noticed when I booked somewhere to stay but by chance the cottage we were staying in had a hot tub – I can now say this is the best thing ever for marathon recovery and everyone should get one!

 

 

Race Report: The Hangman Ultra

The Hangman is a 54k ultra set in rural north Hampshire, run by ULTRA magazine. 2017 was only the second year but it had already got a good reputation as a friendly and well organised race. The route is an out-and-back along the Test Way from the village of Longparish (near Andover) to Combe Gibbet which is near the Berkshire border. Although not spectacular like the South Downs, it had some sweeping views, pretty villages, shady woodland, farmland and country lanes. The turnpoint (the actual gibbet) offered spectacular windswept views and gave the race its compelling Hangman name. Despite having lived in Hampshire for over 10 years this is not an area of the county I know well, so it was nice to be able to explore somewhere new.

I signed up after finishing my first 50k in July: I wanted to check that one wasn’t a total fluke, and now, after having completed the Hangman, I think I definitely have the ultra bug! Dave and I had managed to recce the first half of the route, Longparish to Hurstbourne Tarrant, and I was really glad we had as it gave me some confidence especially with the route which wasn’t obvious in some places, despite the waymarking. On the day they had done a good job marking the route with tape and extra arrows, but it was nice to know what to expect and meant I only had to consult the map a handful of times, unlike the Serpent Trail where navigation was a constant headache.

There wasn’t really anything to fault with the organisation of this race. It was thoroughly professional despite being a family affair. So professional that the race briefing took the form of a PowerPoint presentation, with handy photos of the tricky bits in terms of navigation. But RD Andy and his son made the one-of-a-kind trophies themselves, and were also out taking photos, and Sarah and his daughter were serving up the delicious homemade vegan soup at the end. This all made for a super friendly race with great checkpoint volunteers and a great vibe, helped by the out-and-back format which meant you got to greet all the other runners as you passed them.

The mandatory/recommended kit list were sensible given that this was a race in August in southern England – you didn’t have to pack the kitchen sink unlike for some races. However we were using this race partly as practice for next year’s SDW50 (eeek) so took a bit extra to test things out.

I’d got cold feet in the week leading up to this, and hadn’t run at all which is very unusual for me. However my mojo returned as soon as I set foot on the start line and got going. It was great to meet the lovely Sinead (@herbalbug) who is a Twitter friend and experienced ultrarunner who was using the race to test out a new race strategy, and also Paul (@Paul408), a former colleague of Dave’s and running machine who eats ultras for breakfast!

My race was pretty uneventful which I think is a good thing. I didn’t run with anyone else for extended periods, but chatted with a few people as we overlapped, particularly one chap who was running in a kilt and kept kindly opening gates for me. CP1 was at 14.5k and I was surprised to see Paul here approaching from the opposite direction – he had got completely lost. He quickly sprinted off ahead though and finished a good way ahead of me. There was then 12.5k to the turnaround (CP2). I hit HM distance in about 2:25 which I didn’t think was too bad given the terrain – nothing technical but a lot of stony/rutted tracks, nettles/brambles, undulation, muddy sections and an assortment of gates and stiles. It was about this time that I saw Dave coming the other way, leading the field along with another runner. This was really exciting and I kept my fingers crossed that he could keep it up. Not long after, as I was struggling up the steepest hill on the route, the first lady came through, looking incredibly strong. I counted at least 2 more ladies on their return leg, so knew at this point that I wasn’t on for a podium place unless something went wrong for one of them. CP2 offered amazing panoramic views and the chance to run a loop around the gibbet to pose for photos.

After the turnaround the way back is broadly downhill, aside from the big climb out of Hurstbourne Tarrant, where I was overtaken by a couple of blokes using sticks which seemed to be a massive help on the ups and downs (I need to look into these I think). Apart from a bit around 35-38k which seemed to be going on forever, I felt good throughout and was managing a steady trot on anything that wasn’t too steep. Things did go a bit wrong on the food/drink front though – I’m normally good at running and eating but for some reason I felt a bit sick after halfway and didn’t fancy anything much including water, and definitely finished feeling a bit dehydrated. I’ll need to rethink that for the future. In the last 10k I started to reel in a few people who had overtaken me earlier which gave me a bit of a boost, though I did definitely resent the extra 4k that the route is over the 50k distance. It was a great relief as always to see the gantry and hear the finish line cheers.

I finished 4th lady in about 6:25, which I was pretty pleased with – slightly quicker than the Serpent Trail and it was about 2k longer. Better than that though was finding that Dave had finished 1st: the person he had run most of the race with had dropped at CP3 with cramp and he had had to sprint the last 5 or 6k to try to hold off the guy in 2nd chasing him down. The ladies’ race was won in the hugely impressive time of 5:11, especially as it was the winner’s debut ultra.

Race HQ in the village hall was a good place to unwind after the race – it took me a couple of hours, some soup, two cups of hot strong tea, and a natter with some of the other runners before I felt up to the drive home.

Race mementos were a buff (my fave) and a quality medal. Dave came away with the trophy and a £50 voucher for his efforts. There were lots of (free) photos which was appreciated, especially as I seemed to be having a rare day where I managed to smile at the right time and not have my eyes shut.

I would definitely do this race again. In fact there is talk of a 100k option next year and I have not entirely ruled out the possibility….

Photos courtesy of Toby Bettridge and Andy Nuttall.

Race Report: Serpent Trail 50k

This was my first ultra and I wasn’t sure what to expect. I’d signed up after feeling a bit directionless following Brighton and being inspired by my various crazy ultrarunning friends and acquaintances, both in real life and online (you know who you are…!) I’m not sure where I came across the Serpent Trail Race but I was intrigued – it is a new race from Cornish events company Freedom Racing offering 100k, 50k, HM and 10k distances on the Serpent Trail. I had never heard of the Serpent Trail before but it is a long distance trail on the South Downs, stretching from Haslemere to Petersfield and linking rare heathland habitats. The 50k seemed ideal as it promised to be scenic, well-supported, relatively close to home, and had a 14 hour cut off. Hey, 50k is only 5 miles longer than a marathon. What could possibly go wrong?

I can’t say I had any real idea of how to train for a 50k (and still don’t), so I basically just tried to maintain marathon-fitness after Brighton by running 5-6 times a week and keeping the weekly mileage over 35. I was most worried about the mandatory kit list and having to carry a load of stuff, so I spent a few weeks buying/finding the various bits and pieces and doing some long trail runs with Dave while carrying a bag and practising eating and running (which I’m pretty good at as it turns out, even to the extent of stopping for a cream tea on one run). For one run we did a recce of part of the Serpent Trail as preparation (and had intended to do the other half but Dave hurt his achilles tendon and I couldn’t quite be bothered with the drive and bus trips on my own).

Race HQ and the finish for all distances was at Petersfield rugby club, which was an excellent venue with plenty of parking, proper toilets, and camping for those staying over. Registration was straightforward and we were given a booklet containing the route map and description and a t-shirt (the t-shirts were cotton ones but they are really nice and came in ladies sizes which is always appreciated). As people arrived I was getting more and more worried (I always feel a bit out of place at race start lines, like everyone else knows what they’re doing and I don’t, and this race was even worse than usual – everyone else looked like a proper ultrarunner: tanned and toned with all the latest kit). Following the briefing we got on a coach which was to take us to the race start in Petworth. What actually happened was that we were dumped rather unceremoniously on a grass verge next to an A road. Thankfully the race director arrived a couple of minutes later and explained that this wasn’t the plan, so we walked down the road a bit to the actual start, just outside the town which was apparently for easier navigation. A further briefing and we were off, on the dot of 10am.

2017-07-04 22.56.06

Dave as usual was hoping for a good time and shot off with the front runners. I had no expectations at all other than to just finish and enjoy the day out in the countryside. The weather was pretty much perfect – warm but a bit cloudy and nowhere near as hot as it had been, and I knew the scenery would be a real treat. The first 3 miles were the hilliest of the race, but I was happily running up most of them, though worrying faintly that this was probably a bad idea and I would regret it later when I ran out of steam. Things started to go a bit pear shaped fairly quickly. The Serpent Trail route is quite twisty-turny (technical term) and was marked with permanent waymarking discs which we had been instructed to follow. The provided booklet also had the map in sections, and the organisers had supplied a GPX file of the route in advance. I also had the OS map on my phone (this is a great app by the way). It quickly became clear that some of the signs were pretty hard to spot or were non existent at crucial junctions, and also that following the person in front was not a reliable way of navigating! A group of us ended up having to backtrack/confer/stop and consult the various maps even in the first few kilometres, and it became clear that progress was not going to be rapid. At about 5k we followed a sign to the right, only to meet a group of runners coming back the other way after a few hundred metres. I checked the app and sure enough we were off route and had to retrace our steps. For the next few turns the Serpent Trail signs disappeared entirely but we followed the OS map and thought all was well until we hit an almost impenetrable path across a field of oil seed rape. This was a real struggle to get through (especially for short people like me) and left everyone’s knees and arms shredded and our shoes full of vegetation and spiky grass seed. We declined to brave the nettle infested path and trespassed around the side of a farm instead, taking a clearer track to rejoin the trail. This was all a bit of a nightmare and I was glad to be part of a group for support at this point. I later found that Dave had gone wrong in exactly the same place, the problem being that the OS route and supplied GPX were actually totally different from the marked Serpent Trail route which corresponded with the booklet’s map – Dave was really annoyed about the GPX being wrong but I think it was an easy thing to have got wrong given that the OS map was also wrong. In any case the navigation got slightly easier after that and we were all very glad to reach the first checkpoint at about 14k.

The checkpoints in this race were excellent – there were 5 of them so they were very frequent, the volunteers were very friendly and helpful, and there was a huge choice of food and drinks. I stuck to water and things I knew I was happy to eat (crisps, nuts, flapjack, fudge, bananas) but there was also coke, squash, sweets, mars bars, other fruits including watermelon, sausages, cheese and more. I also took the opportunity to empty out my shoes (and I was glad I did because Dave ended up with puncture wounds all over his feet from the grass seed).

I was just heading off again on my own when one of the ladies from the group I had been running with asked if I would mind if she ran with me. She was concerned about getting lost on her own and wanted some company. I was happy enough doing my own map reading and I was a bit worried that I would end up holding her back by being too slow, but it turned out that this was the absolute best thing about the day. Egle was great company and brilliant at spotting the pesky waymarkers. After we had chatted a bit we established that she was also doing her first 50k and was not after a particular time, but just to finish without getting injured. She had a similar amount of marathon experience to me and it turned out we had similar race times anyway, so I needn’t really have worried about slowing her down. Our steady run pace was well matched and we chatted some of the rime, ran without talking when we didn’t feel like it, and walked where the hills were too steep, the path too sandy, or the route tricky to find. I was surprised at how quickly the kilometres ticked by – 21k HM distance, 25k halfway, 29k and only a HM to go. The distance was also broken up nicely be the checkpoints, which after the 2nd one were the only points we saw any other runners. I was expecting to get a dip around miles 16-19 where I usually get quite demoralised in marathons, but it never came. The route was really nice which helped – heath, woodland, some sweeping views, and some sections of country lane. With 13 miles to go it got a lot easier to follow as the organisers had put out extra signage (presumably for the HM runners who would be running faster, and the 100k people who would be doing that section in fading light). This was also the section I had recce-d previously which made a huge difference (though I still got slightly lost on one bit).

2017-07-04 18.25.38

2017-07-04 22.55.14

We got to marathon distance in 5h31 so not exactly quickly, but we had been running steadily everywhere we could and to be honest I didn’t feel at all bad – slightly sore hips and generally a bit tired but nothing too bad. When we reached the last checkpoint we were amazed to be told that we were joint 2nd ladies, and that the 1st lady wasn’t far in front. I had assumed that some must have set off in front of me and that some of those in the group I was originally running with must have gone ahead. I’m glad I didn’t know earlier as I would have felt under pressure, and as it was we quickly got a move on as we didn’t want anyone to catch us up! Egle was feeling pretty tired by now so told me I could sprint on ahead if I wanted, but we had done nearly the whole thing together and she’d kept me going in the middle of the race, so I wanted us to finish together. We ran the last couple of miles fairly rapidly, and finally crossed the finish line hand-in-hand joint second place in 6h35. It turned out we were actually 13th overall which didn’t seem bad at all (out of 45, plus 3 DNFs). I needn’t have worried as the next lady was about an hour behind us. Dave came 5th and had had a very similar experience to me: having got lost early on he had teamed up with experienced ultrarunner Tony Trundley (great name) and they had run together all the way.

2017-07-01 19.23.59

The wooden medals for this race were beautiful and my unexpected trophy was wood too. We thought it was odd that there wasn’t any food at the end, but maybe this is normal at this kind of race as I haven’t anything else to compare it to. The rugby club were trying to charge £5 for a buffet which no one was really interested is which is perhaps why there wasn’t anything free, and it was easy enough to buy drinks and snacks at the bar, but it felt like a banana or crisps or something would have been good, especially given how much food they had at the checkpoints.

All in all I think my first ultra was a success! I exceeded my own (non existent) expectations for time/position and all the kit and food had worked fine. I had a wonderful day exploring the south downs and I think the best bit was making a new friend.

There were a few organisational hitches with this race, mainly around the route, but as it was the first time it had been done and the organisers didn’t have an easy job with 4 different point-to-point races to deal with at once, I’m sure it could be ironed out for next year and I very much hope it is repeated. Some people thought it was a bit pricy but the entry included the coach travel, t shirt, map, free race photos, frequent and well stocked checkpoints and a really good medal so I thought it was OK. It is a lovely route in a beautiful part of the world and made for a great first ultra.  I would certainly recommend this one.

***All photos courtesy of No Limits Photography***

 

Race Report: Southampton Half Marathon

When Southampton Half rolled round again I wasn’t feeling massively enthusiastic about it. I’d entered because I’d enjoyed last year’s (and got a nice PB) and I had a free place from when I’d volunteered at Winchester Half last year. But it was only 2 weeks after Brighton and I still wasn’t 100% recovered and not really in the mood for more racing. I needed to go though to support Dave who was doing the marathon as his main spring marathon and latest sub 3 attempt. It seemed like I might as well race if I had to go anyway, so I mustered as much enthusiasm as I could.

The day started badly when our train got switched for a replacement bus for the last part of the route, which didn’t turn up. Thankfully Woolston is close enough to walk to the start, but we could have done without the 30 minute walk and it put Dave in a grumpy mood to start with. I’ve no idea why we decided to take the train – driving would have made far more sense.

Anyway, it was easy enough to find the start despite the fact there were 3 different starts for the marathon, half and 10k. The marathon went off first so I watched Dave go and then used the super speedy bag drop and portaloos (there were loads and no queues – big thumbs up there).

This year the route was the reverse of last year’s, with a few tweaks which I assume were to reduce the need for road closures. Personally I think this made for a much harder route – a long but gentle uphill through the common, followed by some downhill and then the killer Itchen Bridge in the last few miles (instead of the first few when you are fresh), and a nasty uphill finish. I rather optimistically lined up near the 1:50 pacers but they shot off through the crowds in the first few hundred yards and it quickly became obvious anyway that my legs were still not recovered from Brighton. I gave up looking at my watch and just aimed to enjoy things, and actually ran the first 10 miles or so reasonably well. There was excellent support on the common and in the residential areas, and some highlights like the band from the local cadets to keep everyone motivated, and the run through the Saints stadium. It was nothing like Brighton but still a warm day, and I was definitely struggling by the bridge and last 3 miles (last year I had clocked a 7:30 mile at the end, whereas this year I was struggling to hit 8:30).

I was very glad to finish and in the end was only about 3 minutes off my PB. The medal and t shirt from this race are really excellent quality, and there was a welcome Erdinger AlkoholFrei at the end. The bag collection was as smooth as the drop off, and there was a great atmosphere in the city round the finish and event village.

Dave didn’t make his sub 3 but got a big PB. He wasn’t massively keen on the marathon course (2 laps of the half) and had got a bit demoralised on the uphills. He also said the water stations weren’t positioned as advertised so he’d struggled to stay hydrated. I also think there was a bit of an issue with the 3 races overlapping – doing the half I hit the slower 10k runners in the last 3 miles which made things quite congested, and it was a bit of a nightmare for the marathon runners who were lapping the half runners. There were bikes coming through shouting at everyone to keep left but people were ignoring them – I think that at least they should have warned people in the race info that this would happen and people might have been more aware. I still think it’s great that there is a new marathon in Southampton for the first time since the 80s and I’m sure they will tweak things in future to make it better and better.

Overall I’m not sure I would do this one again (not next year anyway) but I would definitely recommend it. It’s good value and a great atmosphere and manages to show off the best of Southampton.


 

Race Report: Brighton Marathon

I signed up for this one last year after experiencing ‘race envy’ of other people’s sunny seaside marathon photos. I fancied having a go at a big city marathon (knowing I’m never likely to get into London) and having a stab at getting a quicker time.

I started training for it in January, with New Forest and Portsmouth Coastal marathons under my belt from autumn 2016. I had the best few months of consistent running that I have ever had, making a real effort to increase my overall mileage rather than just focus on the long runs or get distracted trying to chase parkrun PBs which I think was my mistake last summer. It all went really well and I was clocking 50+ mile weeks running 6 days a week, until about 2 weeks before when I succumbed to knee pain. In hindsight I probably did the sensible thing and backed off running completely, but it meant I did practically nothing for two weeks (except eat ice cream and cake under the excuse of carb loading). The result was that I didn’t feel terribly confident coming up to race day, especially as the weather forecast said it was going to be hot (being ginger I don’t deal well with sun)! I adjusted my expectations from ‘achieve PB’ to ‘just finish without dying’ and felt better about the whole thing.

The first point about this race which I found rather annoying is that they don’t post the numbers out – you have to go to Brighton to collect them on the Friday/Saturday. To be fair they do tell you this when you sign up, but at the time I’d envisaged a weekend away in Brighton or a neighbouring town, not realising that the hotels would be crazy expensive and the public transport completely unreliable. I therefore headed over to Brighton on Saturday afternoon after a gorgeous morning at Fareham parkrun’s 1st birthday run. (I was also awarded the accolade of coming first in the women’s annual points league – the only trophy I have ever received.)

The queues for race pack collection weren’t that bad and I was in and out in about half an hour. I’d gone for the 4h-4.30h wave thinking I might manage to scrape 4.15 with a bit of luck. The expo wasn’t very interesting but I did have a very good chocolate cake ice cream and enjoyed the party atmosphere that was starting to build before heading home.

Race morning started uneventfully enough. We managed the planned 5am early start and the roads were clear so we were almost the first to arrive at the park and ride at about 6.15am. Unfortunately while waiting for the first bus Dave realised he had somehow lost his phone between leaving the house and getting to the bus stop. This was really frustrating as he now had no way of tracking me round the course and I had no way of contacting him at the end. The emergency contact on my bib would also be pretty useless. Still, there was nothing we could do now so we arranged a cast iron meeting up point at the Cancer Research UK tent.

We arrived at the start massively early so I was able to use the toilets a couple of times before any queues built up and generally sort myself out, including applying generous quantities of factor 50. I also managed to meet up with some ukrunchat people from Twitter – it was great to meet them in real life.

2017-04-09 17.55.56

The start was pretty well organised (though some people had obviously managed to get into the wrong corrals).  There was none of the usual chirpy warm up routine, but instead we were instructed to sing Sweet Caroline (totally lost on me I’m afraid, but Darren thought it was something to do with the football team), The toilet queues were ridiculous by this time and I’m glad I arrived early.

As with any big race the start was quite congested, which is never a bad thing as it forces you to slow down and not dash off too quickly. The route starts off with a lap of Preston Park which means there is a sizeable hill in the first mile, followed by a downhill. The next few miles wind their way through the city centre. I was feeling good at this stage – there was a bit of shade from the buildings and good crowd support. Dave popped up to cheer me on which gave me a boost. This section of the race was quite hilly and quite narrow in places with a lot of turns, so my pace was a bit erratic. I passed the 4:15 pacer at about 3 miles but I couldn’t help wondering if they would catch me up later. It was already hot at this early point in the race and my strategy was to stop at every water station (they were every couple of miles) and top up my hand held bottle and pour water on my head to keep cool.

After a few miles the route reaches the seafront and you head out to the east past the marina. This was my favourite bit of the race – slightly undulating but by the sea with views out towards the South Downs. I also enjoy out and back courses as I like watching the runners coming the other way, though I know some people find that demoralising. At about 9 miles I was getting very hot – there was no shade at all on the seafront stretches. I was also getting sore feet, which never normally happens this early on but I think it was due to the road surface being so hot. As I reached about half way the lead runner was coming in to the finish line, with the time on the clock showing 2:23. The support along this section was amazing, particularly from the charity cheer points. I hit the half marathon point in about 2:01 which seemed ok, but by about mile 15 I could tell that my pace was beginning to slow and I put a podcast on to try to distract myself.

The route then turned inland again, doing never ending loops round residential and shopping areas. The support from the crowds was really good though and I was getting lots of shout outs due to having my name on my top and high fives from the kids. There was loads of people offering jelly babies and even orange slices. At this point I was getting fed up and had slowed down a lot, partly due to the heat and stopping for water all the time, and partly due to having to dodge other runners who were by this time stopping to walk a lot. I also needed the loo (probably also due to drinking so much water), and although the water kept evaporating from my head and shoulders my midriff was soaking with my clammy t-shirt sticking to me and my damp plait flicking me uncomfortably. At mile 18 I gave up and dived into a portaloo – I felt much better after the brief pit stop and was able to re-evaluate. I worked out that so long as I could run quicker than 10 minute miles (after factoring in the water stops) I would get my planned 4:15.

Soon after this you rejoin the seafront and continue to head west towards an industrial estate. I had heard a lot about how awful this section would be, with no support and a prevailing smell of rotten fish! I actually didn’t find it that bad – I had started to find the crowd a bit overwhelming, and now I was 20 miles in I was feeling fairly strong and quite happy to keep ticking off the miles, even though it wasn’t very scenic. There was also a little more shade and a couple of sprinklers which were welcome. I’d tried to work out my likely time and it now seemed possible that I could get under 4:10 so I was a lot more positive. It was very apparent that the conditions were taking their toll on people – the poor St John ambulance staff were rushed off their feet and there were collapsed and staggering runners all over the place.

The last couple of miles bring you back towards the finish along the seafront. Although the early parts of the race were very well marshalled with crossing points for spectators, this bit was a total free-for-all with the general public encroaching on the runners and crossing in front of them, so it felt quite hazardous. I felt ok though and was actually speeding up. The last mile seemed to go on forever as always but the crowds were amazing and I managed a bit of a sprint to try to squeeze a bit more from the anticipated PB. I ran the last minute of the race feeling increasingly nauseous, and as I crossed the line I was so sure I was going to be sick that I staggered to the side to avoid throwing up right in front of the timing mats. This concerned people a bit and a St John ambulance lady came over and checked on me and walked me over to the medal area while I recovered.

The finish area was well organised and the medal and goody bag were really excellent. There was a proper cloth bag, a nice tech tee (that even came in XS), foil blanket, water and a selection of snacks. I gave my foil blanket to a lady who was looking very worse for wear and helped her find her bag. I didn’t use the bag drop but it all seemed very efficient. After the finish you exited into the beach-side race village, which was packed and very chaotic with runners and spectators all trying to go in opposite directions. I made it to the Cancer Research UK hospitality tent to wait for Dave but wasn’t in a great state by then. The Cancer Research event team were brilliant and found me water, food and a chair while I waited – massive thanks to them for being so lovely. Dave eventually showed up – he’d been waiting at mile 24 but had missed me and didn’t know whether I’d finished or not. As he was worried about his missing phone we decided to head home so caught the park and ride bus back.

Overall, apart from the weather being too hot for me, I had a great day at Brighton. The start, race village, expo and park and ride were all well organised and straightforward, and I was delighted with my eventual time of 4:06:04 (a PB of 20 minutes). If I hadn’t had to stop so much at water stations and been slowed down by the heat and dodging round walking runners I think I could have been a few minutes quicker still.

However I heard much less positive stories from other people afterwards. I’d started in the 3rd wave of 5, but those in the last wave experienced a lack of water/cups at water stations, and a lack of water/foil blankets/T shirts at the finish. In hot conditions this was inexcusable and downright dangerous and probably contributed to the number of collapsed runners and DNFs.

Overall, I’m not sure I would do this one again, but I would recommend it to others. It’s a great location course (with definite PB potential) and the crowd support is fantastic.

2017-04-10 14.16.14

Brighton Marathon was part of my 2280 miles in 2017 challenge raising money for Cancer Research, in memory of my father in law. If you would like to sponsor me my fundraising page is https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/Alison2017RoadTrip

Race Report: Portsmouth Coastal Half Marathon

I had done this one in 2016 and really enjoyed it, as well as clocking my first sub-2 half. It fell mid way through training for Brighton Marathon and Dave wanted to have a shot at his half marathon PB so we decided to give it another go.

Basically it’s the first half of the Coastal Marathon course which I did back in December – out along the promenade to the Eastney lifeboat, then across the muddy beach (taking care not to lose a shoe in then mud), up the coastal path then turn and back through such landmarks as the ‘bog of doom’. It’s dead flat but not an easy course by any means, but made up for by the friendliness and great atmosphere.

I decided to to treat this one as a training run rather than a race, so aimed for a consistent steady pace all the way round. I was really happy with the way it went, as I felt good all the way round and couldn’t resist picking up the pace a bit in the last couple of miles and blasting past people. For February on the coast the weather wasn’t too bad, but i did make a bit of an error in just wearing a long sleeved t shirt – given the planned steady pace I should have gone with a jacket as I wasn’t going quickly enough to stay warm.

In short, I would highly recommend this one – the bling is superb and it’s a friendly race with an interesting route. And Dave got his PB so he was happy too.