Yesterday I ran my first ultra-marathon. As a result today I need to learn to walk again! How hard can it be? I just need to get each damaged, grumbling, mutinous muscle in my upper and lower legs booted up and working together as a team again.
The build up hadn’t been auspicious. Severe knee pain after my last long run 4 weeks ago, visit osteopath, fail to heed the osteopath’s advice to rest, try running again, knee flares up, rest and repeat. A week ago I’d made the decision not to race after good advice from very sensible people.
So what exactly was I doing slapping ibuprofen gel onto my knee and then standing next to Alex Bryant on the Weald Challenge 50k ultra start line at 8 in the morning, listening to a man in a high-viz jacket with a megaphone and a wild faraway look in his eyes? Alex is asking the same question. Stuart – the megaphone wielding maniacal race organiser – sadistically explains there’s 720 metres of ascent and the total distance is more like 51k rather than 50k. And there’s no extra charge for the additional kilometre ho ho. Here in the middle of Muddles Green we appear to be surrounded by dozens of very serious and focused athletic types. Stuart introduces one of them. A guy in an orange singlet who won the race last year. He’s young and lean and looks relaxed. Why isn’t he carrying any kit with him we wonder? Oh yes, he’s planning to sprint round the hilly stile-laden 31.5 miles at 7 minute mile pace before it gets too hot. We’re still trying to figure out what we’re doing here when Stuart enthusiastically sounds a hooter and everyone starts moving forwards. Off we go….
5 miles in… everything is dangerously easy. We’re running nice and steady 10 minute mile pace, a chatty lady in front of us is giving us free ultra running advice. We can see Blackboys in the distance on the top of a little hill.
10 miles in… we’re chugging through Buxted Park. Everything is a little less easy. A few miles earlier I’ve had my first experience of an ultra checkpoint a little pop up cafe in a shady dell with fruits, goodies and crisps. Just a banana for me.
15 miles in… just finished the long 500 foot drag up onto the top of the Ashdown Forest. I’d decided to show off my Snowdon acquired uphill technique by running all of this section when everyone around me is walking. Why are these lightweights walking I wonder? At the top of the hill I understand. My heart rate is in the mid-180s and I feel a little hot. If I was a car radiator there would be smoke coming out of me. All the people I passed come back past me studiously managing not to gloat. Here on the top of the Ashdown Forest it’s very hot and humid and the runners are well spaced out. I manage to sprint across the main road and just avoid being taken out by a speeding people carrier. At least the knee isn’t hurting too much.
20 miles in… heading downhill for a bit. I’d done a smart move at the 18 mile checkpoint by only stopping for about 45 seconds – enough to fill both water bottles and have a slice of water melon. This manoeuvre had cleverly moved me up about 6 places. Out past the checkpoint I’m congratulating myself on my racing prowess when I slow to negotiate another stile. As I lift my right leg over its seized by a sudden, violent, immobilising cramp. Doubled over in agony on the far side of the stile, my movements are Frankenstein like. I try to appear casual, like this is a planned stop as those same 6 people come back past me. One of them is feeling helpful – ‘you need some salt mate’. I take his advice and chomp on a dry cracker with ham in it. Not enough saliva but never mind. Off again with something resembling a slow run.
25 miles in… back at the checkpoint in the dell below Blackboys after some picturesque downhill running. A nice volunteer lady fills my water bottles for me while I chomp on some salty Ritz crackers. Are you alright she asks our little group of runners? We exchange a knowing look. Never been better I reply laughing. I head off trying to get to marathon distance inside 5 hours.
30 miles in…. its hot and humid and we’re all walking all the uphills. Other people are walking them faster than me. I exchange pleasantries with a competitive looking bloke in a yellow singlet as he comes past me. I get a rhythm going on a long downhill section. I feel euphoric being able to run fluidly out the other side of marathon distance. I figure when the pain subsides in a few days more I’m going to crave this feeling again. I make some calculations and realise a sub 6 hour time is annoyingly just within reach. I put the idea out of my head though. I’m too tired to try and speed up. I chug through Chiddingly and then after a small rise there’s some people on the verge clapping and it’s a left turn into the finish. I’ve missed sub 6 hours by 20 seconds. Stuart is there with a smile and a handshake and a hand crafted mug. I sit down on the verge in a dehydrated disorganised heap. I won’t be moving for a bit. God knows what state my knee is in now. But I feel a lot of pride. And I know why I did the race. The truth is I’m hooked on running. A positive healthy I FEEL ALIVE kind of hooked. And there’s a reason why my last five races have gone 10k, 21k, 32k, 42k, 50k. You can go slower the longer the race is! And I love the adventure, the sense of freedom and potency as you propel yourself across the landscape for hour after hour. This undiscovered bit of Wealden Sussex has a varied, understated beauty, which you never fully experience in the car. And stretches of the Vanguard Way feel wild and remote and unchanged since the Middle Ages. I’m utterly knackered and it may take me a while to recover but I’ll be back!
Footnote. A major chapeau here to the modest and resilient Alex Bryant. He did about four runs in preparation, none further than 11 miles and still aced it. And joking apart thank you to ace race organiser Stuart Mills and volunteer team from Trail Running Sussex for a brilliant day out.