Thursday, 26 July 2012

A blur of bright sunshine, blue skies, long grass & pain

Last year, on 28th July 2011, I wrote a blog post about how I'd signed up for the Challenge Hub 50 miler in July 2012 to celebrate my 30th birthday.

In that post, I said: I'm not a huge fan of laps [but] I think this is a safer option for me as a first timer, as it means I can get help or drop out if I have to without it being a logistical nightmare!  There is a cut-off limit of 15 hours and as long as I make it to 50 miles by then, I will be happy - I'm not going to worry about the time, just completing it will be enough for my first Ultra. I do have a very long time to prepare...a whole year...but I have two marathons already booked for September 2011 and April 2012, and I don't want to use those as training runs - I want to try and get a decent marathon time, so I will carry on training specifically for those, and then start following an ultra plan from April 2012.

Now, one year on, having had a 3hr 49min finish at that marathon in April, I'm so pleased to have achieved my year-long goal by completing the 52.4 mile course too. Despite my original misgivings, I loved the laps, and as strange as it seems to many of the people I've told, I couldn't have hoped for a better way to celebrate my birthday (although my present from Francis of a luxury long weekend to Paris is going to come pretty close!) ;)

Anyway, this is what happened over my ultra weekend:-

Francis and I drove down to Chislet in Kent on Saturday, the day before the race, so I could register. We found the start at the Marshside Fishery easily enough with the satnav, I picked up my number (with my name emblazoned across it which made me feel suitably special) and met Mike Inkster (a formidable ultra runner) who organises the challenge.  I was reassured that it wasn't a race, it wasn't about times or sticking to a plan, it was just about enjoying yourself as much as possible and finishing, and that I should leave my Garmin at home!  I agreed, but I couldn't silence the voices in the back of my head reminding me that my plan was to run to each water station then walk for 5 minutes, but that I really wanted to finish in under 10 hours after reading somewhere that to come up with a target time, you should double your marathon time & add two hours!

Anyway, after sorting that out, we took the opportunity to drive to the lovely holiday town of Whitstable for a walk along the front, and caught the tail-end of the Whitstable Oyster Festival.

Whitstable on courtesy of Adam Burt
Francis bought and ate half a dozen oysters, although I recoiled at the look of them, and we had a lovely and relaxing couple of hours by the sea! :) We soon headed back inland though, had dinner at the hotel (pre-race meal of baked camembert, followed by sausage and mash) and then to our room so I could sort out my kit in preparation for a very early start the next morning - I got to bed as soon as everything was laid out and thankfully fell asleep really quickly at about 10.30pm.

Sunday, 4:30am - the alarm went off! How early is that?!?! As it turned out, it was only just early enough. I was out of the hotel by 5.30am, and had barely noticed what an incredibly beautiful morning it was, before I'd arrived, vaselined my feet, pulled my trainers on, waved at Andy & Emma (from twitter & the Engima 30miler who are both in training for the ArctoArch in just 4 weeks) said a quick hello to Kaz (from the Enigma 30miler and both a former & fellow 10in10er) and found myself stowing my cool-box in the kit tent. Mike then launched some sort of rocket into the sky - when it went bang, we were off!  It really did all feel as rushed as that, and it wasn't until I was running that I realised what was actually happening...I was embarking on my year long anticipated, 52.4 mile run! I was however relieved that the morning had gone so quickly, as it meant there hadn't been any time for my nerves to take hold!

I remember initially being blown away by how pretty the countryside looked bathed in the early morning sunshine, although I was a bit concerned about how hot and sunny it was obviously going to get.  That soon gave way to being annoyed with myself that I hadn't done any training on trails or cross-country.  As we progressed round the course, I realised how very different running on uneven grassy tracks is to tarmac - everything I've ever read about running tells you to train on the surface that you are going to race on, but I didn't, and after about 8.5 miles when my ITB started playing up, I realised I was going to pay for being complacent about that.

Obviously this isn't the actual course....
You don't get mountains in Kent ;)
Anyway, I ran through the long grass, with the stems battering my legs until a few more laps had been run and all those trainers had beaten them down, and around the edge of fields, along concrete sections and down farms tracks covered by large puddles, until the last stretch of glorious, easy to run on, tarmac before getting back to the beginning of the next lap.  I saw Kaz, Andy and Emma a few times and we said our hellos (I'm absolutely loving this new world of actually knowing people at events!) and generally there was great camaraderie between all the runners...even the guys out front who were going at a really impressive pace made the effort to raise a hand as they lapped me :)

There wasn't much shade from a blistering sun and very few clouds in the sky, so it was hard going in the heat, but the water stations and fantastic marshals every couple of miles did a great job at lifting our spirits as well as always being ready with cups of water. The Jelly-Bean Corner water-station, manned by the Thanet RoadRunners, was particuarly impressive, and they looked after me and all the runners so well, making sure we were replenishing salts, had whatever food we fancied (my favourite was orange slices but they were cooking sausages at one point) and were keeping hydrated, as well as spraying me with suncream at one point, and being incredibly cheery and supportive even after they'd been out there for 10 hours!

I need to say a particular thank-you to Jerry for the sage advise (as always) to take a cool box to the race to leave in the kit tent at the start/finish - it made a real difference and it wasn't something I would have done had he not suggested it.  Not only did it mean I could swap my drink bottle for a cold one every lap (alternating bottles of water and powerade) helping me to cool me down a bit, I was also able to have cold milk and icy coke at the end of the last few laps, my snack box (a tupperwear box filled with rolos & salted peanuts) didn't turn into a gooey melted chocolate mess, and when the ITB pain was getting excruciating, I had the ice blocks from the cool box on hand to sooth my muscles.

Also a mention for Allan Rumbles. At the end of one of the laps I was reapplying my suncream (as I was already burning up a treat) when someone walked over to introduce themselves as Ogee, another impressive ultra runner who I know from Twitter.  He'd told me he was going to be there, crewing for someone else who was running, so I'd hoped to meet him, although with his Twitter avatar as a duck, it was pretty unlikely I would spot him in the crowd ;) It was great to have another person rooting for me, and on subsequent laps, he came into the kit tent to make sure I was ok or needed anything - it made a real difference to have the support, so thanks also to him!

So, on and on I ran, with a 12-hour audio book to keep me company for the long stretches where I didn't see anyone else. Bizarrely, my fastest mile was number 30 (which I ran in 10 mins). My Garmin eventually died at about mile 40 (which didn't matter as I'd not really been paying it any attention) and the next ten miles were without a doubt, and unsurprisingly, the most difficult. I had long ago abandoned my plan of running all the way between each water station and then walking for 5 minutes, and was just walking as and when I felt I needed to, as per Mike's advice the day before.  In those final two laps, I found that as I transitioned from running to walking, I started to stumble because my body didn't seem to be able to adapt quickly enough to the change, and at times each running step I took would send waves of pain shooting through my legs or across my back.  I sat down a couple of times at water stations, but not many, and not for long, and tried not to walk too often but still ended up doing it more than I'd hoped to.  I'd been walking for a couple of minutes along one of the grassy sections, and out of the blue, met Francis coming the other way on his bike. He'd spent the day cycling but had come back to the race and done a circuit of the course - it was a massive surprise to see him, but obviously a very welcome one...after he cycled off, I started running again.

Throughout those last ten miles I'm very pleased that I didn't consider quitting - regardless of the discomfort, it was absolutely inconceivable to me that I would fail to complete the distance - after so long planning it, this was my time to do this, and I kept thinking about that - that finally I was actually going to achieve something that for so many years had seemed so out of reach. I  had (pretty easily) come to terms with the fact that I would be outside the time I'd been hoping for, but with every step I knew I would make it round 8 laps even if it took me the full 15 hours. It's great to have learnt that about myself and I hope that self-belief will hold me in good stead for races in the future when it starts getting hard.

Although much of the day is a blur of bright sunshine, blue skies, fields of corn, long grass and pain, I vividly remember the last couple of miles. Running down the track towards JellyBean corner, I was really looking forward to the final energy boost I was about to get, both from the food & drink and also from everyone at the water station being so generally lovely and upbeat. When I reached them, they were as enthusiastic as I'd hoped and they topped me up with flat coke and jelly babies before sending me on my way, my ears full of their congratulations at having nearly done it. Around the corner, the last mile and a half is on a real tarmac road, through the village, and past the pub. I felt great and I couldn't quite get my head around the fact that I was finishing but knew it was fantastic that it was nearly over ;)  It was always such a pleasure to run on the road as it was so much easier on my legs, but I can honestly say that the last mile and a half was my favourite, knowing I was about to finish! ;)

Coming up the last stretch, I saw a runner in front of me. Now I know that this event is all about a personal challenge, and it's not a race, but I still would have loved to have beaten her and I definitely sped up.  I remember feeling so pleased with myself that I was still in a good enough physical condition to alter my speed, but I didn't catch her - she still looked really strong so I had no chance!  In the end, she finished in 10hrs 40 mins, I finished in 10hrs 41mins.  She was 3rd lady home and I was 4th, making me 12th finisher overall out of the 31 men and women who finished the full distance - they are placings that I am incredibly pleased with.

I know this is in my last post but
I love it so thought I'd use it again ;)
So - it was over.  Ogee was still there when I crossed the line and I got a congratulatory hug and a suggestion to wash off all the dead bugs from my face, Mike presented me with my medal and certificate and we all told each other how well we'd done. Smiles all round :D I headed to the kit tent to get my stuff and Francis soon joined me to take medal photos, and then to drive us home.

But it all felt a bit weird....obviously I was over the moon to have completed my ultra, but physically I felt pretty good and I didn't think that was right - surely I 
should have crossed the finish line and collapsed onto the floor?! I wondered if I should have put just a bit more effort in, walked less (particularly early on) and generally run a bit faster.  Yes, I know, some people are never happy ;) I think the explanation is that as soon as I finish any race, I immediately start forgetting the bad bits, particularly the intensity of any pain - in hindsight, as I really think about how hard parts of the run were, I know I did what I had to do to keep going. 
As it was my first time running anything over 30 miles, so much of the distance was unknown and I had to be careful to make sure that I had enough in me to keep going right until the end.

But yes, I finished and in good shape (except for the horrendous sunburn on two areas of my back which I couldn't reach to apply suncream) without a single blister on my feet and still able to walk and just about sit down. Feeling good didn't last though - I should probably have had an ice bath or done some stretching because by Sunday night the adrenaline had worn off, and I felt practically crippled.  Using the stairs was nigh-on impossible, and absolutely every part of my body was hurting...even breathing deeply caused my muscles around my chest to scream.  I'm pleased (and relieved) how quickly that's subsided, and I was able to go to the gym on Wednesday morning for a very easy session and today, four days on from the race, my legs are back to normal.  I can tell my body has been battered though as my immune system is low - on Monday I caught a cold (haven't had one of those for ages!) and I broke out in spots, again something that I never suffer with, and they still haven't cleared up yet despite me throwing loads of vitamins down my neck. The plan is to give running a rest for a week or so (again, thank-you Jerry for the advice) to let my body fully recover, but if catching a cold is my only injury, I'm very grateful to whichever running gods were looking after me at the weekend!

Anyway, today, I've had my medal engraved. I am proud to have finished, proud of my time, and hugely looking forward to going back and having another go next year! :)


  1. Absolutely superb, you should be very proud and next time you will do even better because you will learn from this experience. Great training for TiT - a huge well done!

    1. Thanks so much Heather...and yep, this was definitely a learning curve and can only make the next one better!! :) Now, onto the 10in10!

  2. Great write up, a very well done to you...brilliant

    1. Thanks again Jerry. You see...I do listen to your advice! :)

  3. Unbelievable! You done it, well done, great achievement and blog post.

  4. Fantastic achievement and a great blog. Inspirational.

  5. Hi. Naomi you done really well and should be proud. See you at another event soon.

  6. This is such an inspirational adventure - congratulations on such an amazing accomplishment!