It all began a year ago, at a trail race called the Dukeries 10. Having been properly back into my running for a few months, and fresh from a training camp in Portugal, I had a great run around the 10-mile course. I knew that earlier in the day, 30-mile and 40-mile races had started on the same route; unbeknown to me, a parkrun friend was out there running her first ultra. Also unbeknown to me, she was going to make it her mission for it to be my first ultra too!
Fast forward a year, and after a little persuasion and a lot of training, I found myself on the same startline but with a very different goal. Looking around, I could see many hard-core, clearly experienced ultra-runners, but also noticed that there were many first-timers like me too. I felt no nerves inside; having taken part in much longer endurance events, albeit not for a few years, I was pretty confident of finishing. What I was unsure of was how long it might take, so I had set myself several goals:
Goal 1: a sub-6 finish
Goal 2: a sub 7 finish
Goal 3: finish
I knew that my starting pace would be key to achieving any of my goals, so I was very clear that I would set off at a pace I thought I could maintain for pretty much the entire event. I told myself not to worry about what other people around me were doing; I’d stick to my plan and if they passed me, well, I’d probably catch them again later.
At the start…
The first 3 miles of the course I knew very well, from having run the Dukeries 10 twice. Settling into my desired pace, I was surprised to find that the section of the course that had been flooded in February was still underwater and that a couple of hundred metres of wallowing in smelly, muddy gloop would be needed, Nice! Once I’d picked up my rhythm again, I fell into a cat-and-mouse chase with a guy who was run/walking the 40-mile route. I’d get ahead while he walked; he’d catch me when he ran, and I’d hear the beep of his Garmin when he was exactly the same distance from me. This was a good thing, I decided, as it meant I was running a very consistent pace. I had chosen not to wear my proper running watch for the event, as I felt that too much data might not be helpful; I wanted to run on time alone.
Past the first feed-station at 6 miles, the course became a lot quieter, as the 40-mile route had spilt from the 30 there. I had also lost quite a few of the people who had been running near me, as I’d just grabbed a drink, a few crisps and gone, whereas they had stopped for longer. I was running alone for most of the time now, but could see people ahead and behind. The route had now changed from flattish, soft forest trails to rougher field-side paths, with an occasional section of road, but was still incredibly pretty, much prettier than when I’d recce’ed it earlier in the year.
Before I knew it, time had flown by and I was at the 13-mile feed station. I ate a jam sandwich to complement my salted cashew nuts and cheese, topped up my water and was soon off onto the only section of the course that I did not know at all. As the field spread out even further, there were times when I couldn’t see a soul, but I didn’t mind. It was so, so pretty. As we ran into Clumber Park, there were bluebells and amazing tree roots and all sorts of other lovely things to occupy my mind. It was on this section that the first three men in the 40-mile race overtook me, having run 10 miles further than I had in the same time. Respect to them; they were flying!
I was still feeling good as I approached the 22-mile mark and could see my husband and step-son ahead; my top cheerleading crew! I had a good idea that things were about to get harder, and their support was a welcome boost to get me past the marathon mark. As the terrain changed again to dry, ploughed fields, I decided that a woman who had been running near me on and off for a few miles would be my target. I would finish ahead of her. I’ll call her ‘Nathan’, as that was the brand of her race vest! Following a cruel section where I could see the next feed station across the road, yet had to run a few hundred metres the other way to cross the road and then back again, I grabbed another jam sandwich or two and headed off onto the final 7 miles (Yes, the more observant of you may have spotted that the numbers don’t add up; the Dukeries 30 is actually the Dukeries 31!) Just a couple of parkruns to go!
Approaching 24 miles…
In my mind, I could not decide whether it was a good thing that I knew the route to the finish so well or not. On the one hand, the familiarity was reassuring; I knew exactly what to expect and that it was achievable. On the other, the familiarity meant that I knew what a drag the final mile would be long before I got there. The first mile or so from the feed station was when I started to feel really tired for the first time. The route was flat and pretty but I struggled to keep going at much of a pace. ‘Nathan’ had passed me at the feed station and I could see her ahead, but at that point I felt catching her was unattainable. A couple of miles later, my jam sandwich kicked in and I felt great again! I caught and passed ‘Nathan’ and spied a new target ahead, a guy in bright calf guards, who I soon passed on an uphill track.
My energy burst was somewhat short-lived, and having passed both my targets with about 3 miles to go, around the last few fields we started to see-saw. Having walked surprisingly little during the race, I was now needing more and more walk breaks. I’d take a quick walk and ‘Nathan’ would pass me; then she’d walk and I’d catch her again. As we crossed the final road with a mile to go, ‘Nathan’ was far enough behind that I was sure I had it in the bag. My calf guard friend was struggling with cramp and we continued to cat-and-mouse up the long drag (which felt like a mountain-side!) until the final turn for home. This was a good thing as it kept my mind occupied; the only other distraction I had was watching chickens dig holes in a sandy field. I didn’t know that chickens could be so interesting!
As we turned for home I could see my amazing support crew ahead. At first I thought they were at the finish line, but then I realised they were going to run with me to the finish. This was a lovely gesture, except that they both have very long legs; this meant that they walked as I ‘ran’ to try and keep up! I crossed the line in about 6.45, behind my calf-guard friend but well ahead of ‘Nathan’, with the second of my goals met. Was I happy? Definitely! Would I do it again? Yes! In fact, I’d been so sure I’d enjoy it that I entered my second ultra a while ago. It will be a very different kettle of fish though, the 30 miles around the Peak District coming with an awful lot of ascent and descent. Hill-reps here I come!