Bringing ultrarunning to the Harriers
Having decided to add an ultra distance to the Bedford Harriers club championship races, we’d settled on the Stort 30 as our inaugural event for 2016. A reasonably local, flat, easy to navigate course, at 30 miles it was perfect for first timers looking to step up from the marathon distance. Having pushed for an ultra to be added I’d also felt I should take ownership of publicising it and encouraging people who wanted to train for a new distance. So one of the unexpected outcomes was stepping up to be a group leader within the club, something I’m still pretty new at, but hoping to enjoy!
The day arrives
After a summer of weekend training sessions – some with others, quite a few of the longer ones on my own – the day arrived and off I went to join the handful of Harriers who had entered the event. This isn’t my first ultra, and having done races of up to 100km before I know how nice it is to have people to run with, as it becomes tough and lonely out there. Sadly though, one of the club members that I’d done most of my training with, George, had picked up a chest infection and so had been forced to pull out, but I still had a couple of Harriers I’d trained with to team up with on the day.
One of those fellow training buddies – Juliet (Ironman/woman extraordinaire) – shared a car with me on the way over and it was nice to have someone to prep with. We’d not discussed it lots beforehand, but having trained quite a lot together I thought it would be nice to run as a pair for a while. Juliet is a bit faster than me normally, but she said as it was her first ultra she wanted to take it steady and make sure she had the energy to get round. Perfect I thought, if Juliet wants to run a steady place, that should suit me too.
We got to the race HQ about 45 mins before the race and caught up with the other Harriers there. It was good to chat a bit beforehand and take your mind off the race, although to be honest, I wasn’t particularly nervous. I figured that I had done the training and I’d completed more than double the distance before, so I just wanted to enjoy it and hopefully do it in under five hours. I’ll let you know how I got on with those two goals later…
Off we go
After the race briefing and a quick group photo (see above), we were all on the start line, chatting about our race plans for the day. In fact Juliet and I were chatting so much the race started before we noticed! Off we went and settled into a routine pretty quickly. Juliet wasn’t looking at pace and distance, wanting to just complete her first ultra and hopefully (given it was a club championship) get first female Harrier home. So we agreed I’d keep an eye on pace for us to make sure we were on track for our target of around five hours, as well as ensure we didn’t go too fast and burn out. We settled into a good pace, a little faster than the 10 minutes per mile we needed for five hours, averaging nine to nine and a half minutes per mile. But it felt good and the miles were ticking off.
The course is really easy to follow, as you are literally just running along the Stort Navigation for 15 miles before you turn round and come back. They give you course directions but I never even took mine out of my backpack! I always wear a backpack on my longer, off-road events. It means I can take my hydration pack and not have to rely on anyone else for food and nutrition. There were checkpoints with snacks and drinks at every five miles on this course, but I know I didn’t have to stop if I didn’t want to as I was carrying two litres of energy drink and some gels / bars in my pack.
Checkpoint one: passed in a blur…
The first checkpoint came really quickly as we were chatting a lot and had picked up a couple of guys that were running the same pace as us. We decided not to stop at checkpoint one because we all felt fine and it was about 20 meters to the left, off the racing line, which would have slowed us down in going there and back..
The only thing of note that happened in the next five miles was that we picked up a man and a woman who overtook us and then settled in a few feet in front of us. I really wish they had carried on past us as the guy was so annoying! He just wouldn’t shut up and had the most frustratingly loud voice. He also seemed to like to use the phrase “it’s just my opinion” quite a lot as he covered topics such as the future of the NHS and obesity. He also kept going on about how he was going to crack his 3:30 barrier for his next marathon, which in hindsight may have been a clue that I was running a bit too fast. 3:30 is well outside my running capability, having only gone under four hours once by three mins!
Anyway Opinion Man and his friend eventually, after checkpoint two (10 miles – also avoided as still feeling good), started to pull away from us. Hopefully nothing to do with me muttering “oh shut up” audibly a couple of times!
It was around 11.5 miles in that I said to Juliet that we should probably see the front runners come through soon – we were keeping an eye out for Ian from the Harriers, who we hoped could maybe even win the event today, given his recent ultra results. And funnily enough literally seconds after I said that, the front runner appeared! Sadly it wasn’t Ian, but still very spooky. We cheered the lead runner past us, who looked as fresh as a daisy, bounding along. Ian wasn’t far behind, he was lying in third. Juliet and I cheered and clapped him, not noticing until he sped past us that he was going for the high five – sorry Ian!
At around 13 miles in I started to notice that I was consistently a few paces behind Juliet, who I’d had to keep telling “slow down, we are doing 8.5 minute miling” for the past couple of miles. But I was also really enjoying this section of the run as the runners ahead of us were returning in the opposite direction, and we were all shouting out a mutual “well done” as we went past. I was also (having now got the hang of it) giving the other Harriers a high five on the way past, which was a nice social element to the run.
Raves and reality…
About half a mile from the turnaround we could hear loud music and I thought that must be a little party they had for us! But actually it became clear that the music wasn’t from the half-way checkpoint as we still couldn’t see it, and it was also a bit hardcore. Then I noticed that in the small forest next to us there were a lot of random people with bottles of booze in their hands, some strange clothing and more than one set of dreadlocks. We were obviously going past a rave that was still going from Saturday night – and it was after 1100am on a Sunday! There were some houses not that far away, and with a very noisy go-kart track the other side of the water, I thought – what a great place to live!
Well about a quarter of a mile later we arrived at the checkpoint / turnaround point. I was about 20 seconds behind Juliet at this point and we stopped together to refuel with crisps, flapjacks and coke. I looked at my watch – 2hrs 16min – well within our five hour target at half way.
We stayed there for a couple of mins and saw fellow Harriers Simon and Kirsty coming in behind us. A quick hi, and we left them there, settling off on the way back.
I must admit at this point I thought things were going really well. I felt OK, a little weary, but then I’d done 15 miles at an average of just over nine minutes per mile. If I’d been doing a half marathon that pace would be a bit slow for me, but for the longer 30 mile course this was well under my more realistic 10 minutes per mile target. In fact, this disconnect became evident within a couple of mins of running out of checkpoint three with Juliet. I told her to crack on without me as I realised I needed to slow the pace down a bit or risk falling off a cliff and she was running strong. So, with a quick “good luck” off she went.
Adjusting my strategy
I slowed down my pace a little but still felt good at around 9.5 minutes per mile. I actually hooked up for a while with a guy who had run loads of ultra events and we had a bit of a chat about mutual races we’d done. But again I soon realised I was running just that bit too fast and I dropped off from him, letting him go ahead. The next few miles were relatively quiet, the only thing going through my mind being that as it was a club championship it would be nice not to lose any more places to Harriers, so I wanted to keep Simon and Kirsty behind me if possible. I looked back every few mins but couldn’t see them, so I just assumed they were running a similar pace to me and we’d all meet up at the end.
The only point of frustration came from a runner I was following who was wearing fluorescent orange camo tights. She was on a run-walk strategy, so I’d just about catch up to within a few feet of her when she was walking and then she’d start running again! She was clearly a faster runner than me so she’d run off ahead, which was a bit demoralising. After about 20 mins of yo-yo running I managed to pass her as she caught her breath at a bridge. I was pleased because for some unfathomable reason my rapidly tiring mind was finding this to-ing and fro-ing really off-putting. My relief was short lived of course as any fool could work out she’d run past me once she started again! And run past me she did, right up to the checkpoint at 20 miles.
I stopped here too as by now I knew I was staring to tire and probably needed to take on some food and more coke (a really great energy drink when flat). The only problem was, I hadn’t been there 30 seconds when Simon and Kirsty ran in looking pretty fresh still. Where had they come from?! I had been looking back and had not seen them, so to have come on me so quickly they must be running at a faster pace. Knowing I was slowing, I actually felt a bit disheartened by this. I’d nothing against them personally – they are both lovely people – but I’d set my heart on not losing any more places to Harriers and to try and show up well on the club champs results.
The wheels start to wobble, but just about stay on
In hindsight I can see now that the pace for the first 15 miles, and what I realise was a very poor food / hydration strategy were playing havoc with my brain as I became quite demoralised – way beyond what was proportionate. Seriously, it was just a couple of people who were running well, but to me it symbolised that today was starting to become out of my reach. I had 10 miles left to run, I was increasingly bored of the same riverbank terrain and I was a bit lonely from no company. But I am pretty stubborn when it comes to running so I didn’t give up yet and cracked on – even though I could see Simon and Kirsty bound off into the distance.
The effect on my pace was immediate. Psychologically I slowed down, and physically I did too. My times for the next four five miles were 10:18, 10:24, 11.19, 11.52 and 12:02. My body and mind were struggling and boy did I know it. My quads were on fire now, every step was painful, and I was having to mentally fight the desire to walk. I hate walking unless I have to – in hilly events this is often a good strategy (walk the climbs to save energy), but this was pan-flat. I had to run this whole event or in my head I had failed. I kept saying to myself – I have run way more than twice this distance before, what is wrong with me?!
Eventually I gave in. I allowed myself a stretch of run-walk and did a couple of rounds of run for four mins, walk for one. Then as I came up to checkpoint four (25 miles) I upped that to nine mins run, one min walk because I actually felt a bit better after the relative rest of the previous walking. I made it to the final checkpoint, and took on more food (well actually a few hula hoops and nuts – my stomach was rebelling and telling me it couldn’t take any more).
The final fight
Right: five miles left, four hours 10 mins gone. I could do this I said, I could still do under five hours, I just had to keep a steady pace and not walk. However, I am not sure what my brain was thinking as to achieve the final five miles in 50 mins I would have to run 10 minutes a mile with no stopping whatsoever – something I had not done since mile 19. The chances of me speeding back up were none existent, but it took me another mile or so to realise this.
Eventually though, reality kicked in and I realised my target of under five hours was gone. I had run the first half in just over two and a quarter hours and you would have thought an extra half an hour for the second half would have been enough, but not when you’d gone out too fast and you’d not been eating and drinking right. Schoolboy error really.
So I slogged on. I passed a few folks walking, but I’d decided that I would keep going until I absolutely had to walk again. I wanted to finish this last five miles running if at all possible – whatever pace I ended up at. And run it I did, as I came back into the last mile in Bishop’s Stortford, off the canal and onto the roads I did contemplate walking for a while as it was all uphill to race HQ, but I actually managed to dig in and get back to the field where we had started over five hours earlier.
Oh but at this point can I make a plea to all you race directors out there? CAN YOU STOP MAKING US RUN ROUND A BLOODY FIELD AT THE END OF RACES?!?! I know you often need to make up the last few feet / yards to get the distance spot on, but believe me, coming into a field with the finish line just to your left and then being sent RIGHT around the field is soul destroying. Are you taking some perverse pleasure in this????
Rant over. 😉
In the final analysis
I came across the line in 05:10:54, which is only just over 10 mins a mile on average. If I’d done my own pace from the beginning I’d probably have hit my target. But in reality it is still a great time for an amateur, and I am proud of having completed the 30 miles. I was a bit grumpy with myself and my performance at the time, but I was quickly buoyed up by the great results for the Harriers overall. We had quite a few people who came in the top three for their age group – an important result as it was the UK Trail Running Middle Distance championship. Of particular note were – Ian who came in third overall, and Juliet who not only was the first female Harrier home, but was third in her age group overall. Well done everyone!
MOST importantly, every Harrier that started the race finished it. For many it was their first ultra distance, and that is hugely impressive.
Overall, it was a great event, well organised and a good day out. Personally the course wasn’t for me (I prefer hills and proper off-road terrain), and I had a bad day at the office, having gone off too fast. I had also (I discovered afterwards) only drank half a litre of my two litre reservoir – no idea why.
But it was a success for our first club ultra championship. Just need to work out an event for next year now!