For someone who bangs on about running all the time, it is odd that I still do not view myself as a runner. I never say that I have ‘competed’ in lots of running events, I say I have participated in some days out which involve running with friends. I may have been ‘turning up’ at such get togethers for over 20 years, but I still do not feel like a runner.
You see, real runners look like runners; they wear short shorts and have wiry arms and spindly legs; they sprint if they see a finish line and they invariably stick to a proper training programme. This imposter likes to incase herself in double lycra, has bingo wings and chubby thighs that jiggle when she tries to pick up speed, and she tends to be a bit hit and miss on the training front.
In truth no-one could be more shocked than I was when I heard that I had been persuaded to enter my first ultra marathon. I listened to this news as if I was hearing a story about someone I vaguely knew who was attempting something very foolish. I knew that I had committed publicly – in this blog even – to never run another marathon again, so I felt I would not have been reckless enough to top trump the marathon with a distance of greater length.
When friends asked me how my ultra prep was going, I told them I was really just keeping my neighbour company on his training runs so that he didn’t get bored – everyone knows that I run at the speed of chat. I expressed surprise when he started turning up in a running backpack and then it started to dawn on me that I might also need some specialist running kit.
I decided to borrow kit because I was adamant that it was not worth investing in my own – if I had been foolish enough to enter an ultra marathon, then at least I had more sense than to view this as ‘the start of something new’; no point wasting money on a water reservoir, Gortex waterproof or kinesiology tape. I was only going to keep my friend company after all. I stocked up on some additional bananas and cut back on the red wine a little.
I did complete one training run wearing a back pack and moaned about it the whole way. I didn’t even test it out with the running bladder inside it. Instead, I just asked a seasoned ultra (actually ultra+) running friend if he had a smaller back pack – he gave me his second best one; he would be using his best one on a 100km run around Snowdonia on the same day. He asked me what distance my run would be and I said, ‘it must be just over 26.2 miles – I don’t know what that is in KM – but that will make it longer than a marathon, won’t it?’
He asked me about nutrition and I mentioned my bananas and said I was thinking of trialing marmite sandwiches because my running gels could get a bit sickly after the half marathon point. When I couldn’t answer his question about salt tablets and electrolytes, I sensed he didn’t think I was taking this new venture very seriously.
Anyway, you know by now that I am nothing if not bloody minded and if I say I am going to do something I generally do it. Last Sunday, I dutifully turned up at the Goring Gap Ultra with my neighbour and was relieved to see that there was a little barista van in the field, serving expresso.
All week the Facebook event group had been debating the merits of trail over running shoe on this course, for the weather had been pretty pants of late. Since I only own a very cheap pair of trail shoes which have never run beyond 5 miles, this was one easy decision to make.
My other starting decision turned out to be my downfall. Having never run a long distance in a back pack, I had not even considered the issue of chaffing. Instead, I had been distracted by thinking about the contents of my back pack – plasters, food, more plasters (hate blisters) and more food in the form of various sizes of marmite sandwich, oh, and the water reservoir which, after watching a Youtube video, I had taken pains to fill up without an air bubble – apparently a sloshing water reservoir is the giveaway of a novice ultra runner. As we lined up in our starting wave, I remarked that it looked like the cloud was going to burn off, and I made a last minute decision to strip down to my running vest and ditch my long sleeved top. This was a big mistake.
Things I have discovered that I like about ultra running:
- The food stations.
It is a first for me to eat a bag of Walkers crisps and a slice of malt loaf while running and I will now expect these little oases to appear at 5 mile intervals on any run I may choose to commit to in the future.
- The people
The runners, the marshalls, the people in the pubs along the route – as soon as you don a back pack, it turns out that everyone assumes you are a ‘serious’ runner and they give you support, food and respect in equal measure.
- The route
I am finally convinced that trail running is the way forward (backwards would be stupid) – I have had one previous experience and this event established that it is a golden gift to have to slow down and queue to get through a gate or walk up a steep incline and that it is a golden gift to run in the British countryside, even if it does turn out to be the hottest day of the year and that the Thames Path affords no shade.
- The sense of achievement
Spoiler alert, we did finish the event, and although I have been shattered all week, I have been walking around with a very smug look on my face thinking, ‘bring it on, I am an ultra marathoner, what can you throw at me?’ (Admittedly, I lived to regret this boast at school – it has been a week of carnage – but then I don’t like the truth to get in the way of a good story).
I am digressing from my back pack story, but I promise I will return; I am just spinning the story out to the length of an ultra.
Up to 20 miles my running mate and I were doing quite well. I had blitzed my self-imposed target of speaking to at least three interesting new people by mile 10 – everyone has a story to tell and they have plenty of time to tell it on an ultra. Runners were commenting on how dry the trails were and some of us were foolish enough to gloat out loud that we had chosen road rather than trail shoes. Pride comes before a fall, and it turns out that the section between mile 20 and 21 needed trail shoes. I took a comedy gold, slo-mo tumble face- first into a large section of mud and suddenly I was not feeling quite so smug.
I did try to stand up again but my road shoes could get no purchase and I was flailing around Bambi-style and starting to giggle. I was amassing a small crowd behind me and I was pleased to see that they were enjoying my entertainment. My lovely running mate gallantly checked that I hadn’t injured myself (just my pride) and tried to suction me out of the mire while staying upright himself.
My learning points from this episode are:
- never take yourself too seriously
- ultra runners don’t seem to carry wet wipes in those specialist back packs
- it is handy to run besides the Thames when you need somewhere to wash
- there is a danger that your backpack can knock you on the back of your head and send you flying into the Thames when you bend down to wash.
- running in to the next pit stop, covered in mud, ensures that you will soon speak to total strangers and make them feel better about their own race.
Anyway, let us return to the backpack.
My major learning point on this run is that if you run in hot weather – wearing a back pack and a running vest – you will soon get rubbage on your shoulders. I realise this about 10 miles in and a lovely St John’s ambulance man does his best to fashion a layer of plaster across my shoulder blades. By mile 15 I can also feel the top of my running reservoir pumelling a nice bruise at the bottom of my spine because I hadn’t thought to position the lid to face away from my body when I packed my flipping back pack. I am a tad squeamish, so I decide that the best approach is to soldier on and not look over my shoulder to examine any epidermal damage. At least my feet are holding up. At least I had the sense to fall on my front into the mud so I have no back pack wounds to clean.
At mile 28 I contemplate hitting my ultra wall. It is then that any euphoria about passing beyond 26.2 miles starts to wear off. It is then that I start to ask questions about an imperial conversion for 50k. ‘32.5 miles? You are having a laugh! I am sure you never mentioned this when you talked me into signing up!’
By mile 30 I am starting to weary of Walkers crips and my beloved marmite sandwiches. I am feeling a little sickly and am starting to sulk. I am not so chatty now. We concoct a clumsy walk, run, walk type of approach to keep me focused. Then we glimpse the finishing flags in the distance, but realise that some clown has decided that we need to run a lap of honour around a gigantic field before crossing the finish line. We vow that we will start running again as soon as we hit the field; my back has been rubbed raw but my pride is still strong.
We cross the finish line together – sharing both a finish time and a forward slump onto the grass besides the beer tent.
Let me just say that I will be sleeping on my front for some time to come and that I am indebted to the First Aid lady at school for gifting me some gigantic bandages this week (I promise I will declare them on my tax return). Let me also say that I am flipping proud of my running partner and I; we are feeling ultra proud. I am not sure yet if I am ultra foolish enough to ever complete another marathon+ event, but if I do, I will certainly show my back much more respect.
Strangely, I still don’t think I am ready to consider myself to be a ‘proper’ runner. My neighbour? Why, naturally I view him as an elite athlete who invested wisely in an appropriate back pack. I will just need to stay away from him for a while in case he suggests we up our mileage.
One Comment Add yours
Well done you!! You should be ULTRA proud of yourself, what a great feat/feet 😂!!
Maybe Britain’s strongest woman next? You would positively storm to victory if it was determination/bloody mindedness/tenacity /mind power !!
Seriously though, the girl done good…brilliantly in fact! Xx