60 miles and a bag of peas later, I’m now an ultra-runner, with some surprising bonuses (and one unhappy knee).
For my first foray into the world of ultra, I chose a multi-day event, 60 miles of beautiful, rolling, off-road Cotswold Way miles over two days. When chatting to fellow runners about my weekend plans, the most popular response was ‘wow, I don’t know whether that’s worse than doing it all in one day.’ Well, there was only one way to find out.
XNRG (‘extreme energy’) multi-day endurance events started back in 2010 as an answer to there being nothing out there to help those crazy peeps prepping for the desert at the ‘world’s toughest footrace’, the Marathon Des Sables. The XNRG long distance running events follow stunning UK national trails over two to three days, bringing together folk young and old, male and female, novice and seasoned. Yes, they’re perfect for MDS-types looking to test kit and form ‘tent groups’, but they’re also pretty good for those looking to go long for the first time ever — in this case, li’l old me.
There was a distinct lack of training
I headed into my first ultra still in recovery, less than a month on from my ‘A’ race for 2016 — an Ironman 70.3 distance, an off-road Olympic tri and my first two ever cyclocross races. I’d been getting injury niggles and was too tired to run, so I just didn’t. ‘Im going for the rest strategy,’ I said to friends. Sure, I was riding my bike, and I was fit enough to deal with running for 12 hours, but I didn’t have the miles in my legs, which biomechanically just ‘aint good sense. Of course, this detail wasn’t going to stop me trying. I’m far too curious, and silly.
Race weekend — 60 off-road miles ahead!
I’m hesitant to use the word ‘race’ for the event, since it had a wonderfully unpressured and slighly zany atmosphere akin to mad hatter’s tea party, a mix of eclectic personalities, all manner of bright clothing dotted around, frenetic energy of pre-event excitement, laughs, and lots and lots of cake. But to many, a race it surely was, including me — my competitive spirit is my own worst enemy in the face of a serious lack of training.
Ahead of the weekend, and once there, the word ‘trepidation’ kept popping into my mind. I felt pretty blasé on the lead up to the event, but weird packing told a different story. A biro made the kit bag on the basis that it might ‘come in handy’. This sort of activity is usually reserved for pre-flight anxiety (I once ironed everything into exact squares before placing it my suitcase before a flight to Thailand). Yes, I was quietly very nervous indeed.
Day one — 29 windy miles
My longest run to date was 26.2 miles, a marathon. So 60 off-road miles, albeit over two days, was new territory for me. Unfortunately, on event day I was suffering unbelievable gastric pain. A bout of sniffles in the lead-up had cultimated in poor decision making around swallowing supposed lurg-defying herbs on empty tum, and the knocking-back of concoctions such as fresh lemon juice and hemp.
This seemed to have the desired effect on my sinus passages and throat, which by race day were sound as a pound, but to say that my stomach resembled that of a laughing buddah high on life and helium would be fair, and I was suffering the sort of pain that would ordinarily render me horizontal and moany. On this day however, I had to run 27 miles. Lols. Neil, the race director said to me ‘feeling good?’ when I arrived. To which I replied, ‘yes!’ but what I really wanted to say was ‘no. I’ve got terrible wind.’
Pain notwithstanding, I headed out onto the long day, and lied to myself that this was a normal race. “You can run as merrily and as easily as you usually do,” I inwardly fibbed. “There is no reason to worry about the pain or distance ahead! Give us a smile, go on!”
This effortless gliding/lying lasted all of 0.7 miles until the first whisper of a hill, which rendered me walking and panting. Barely a mile into what turned out to be 29 miles of wind, hills, roots, lumpy fields, and yes — incredible, breathtaking views, I came face to face with bumpy reality.
How was I going to do it? Through these thoughts, which were coming thick and fast now, I simply went forward – I just progressed. Over the two days to come I would now and again stop and hang a bit, stretch on styles, crawl on all fours up sheep-pooey banks, cry salty tears on mud, and feel the prickle of elated goosebumps, which came to me frequently when I was totally alone, with just the fields and woods stretched out into the distance, the birds and me, and some acorn signs.
On those first miles, every step hurt. My tummy was huge; a hurty round rock had taken the place of my torso, and running whilst chomping on malt loaf, nine bars and prezels, whilst sucking on water, juice and later, coke, wasn’t helping any.
Nevertheless, miles did what miles do when you keep moving forward, they rolled around, they knocked off. And as they did so, eventually, my stomach improved, and with it, my mood. There were peaks and troughs throughout, but the general curve of the day was in a satisfyingly upward direction.
The 20-mile lows
There was a distinct low point around mile 20. My calves were cramping up and I kept getting lost, my brain was starting to get confuzzled. It was here that I shed my first tear of the weekend, which happened entirely compulsively without me even realising for a moment that I was planning on crying. I didn’t feel particulatly upset or sad, I was just trying to move forward, but suddenly I couldn’t catch my breath very easily as these silly tears came, not ideal when running.
It didn’t last long — I wiped the tears away as I ran. A couple of miles on and at the hospitality of Checkpoint 3, the final of that day, along with the welcome sight of a chair, invited my second and last bout of tears for the day. I plonked myself down on the plastic seat and cupped my face in my hands. I took a few deep breaths, swigged some coke which washed down a dry pretzel, filled up my water bladder again, laughed with the jovial Checkpoint folk, and headed off for the final 8 miles with a renewed ease in my step as the sun warmed my face and shoulders. “Ok — I can do this,” I thought.
There was climbing in store, with hands on thighs (and at points hands on the grass too, barely bothering to avoid fresh sheep poo). The wind was whipping up, but the sun was still out – I couldn’t complain.
Crossing over a stream at mile 22, I met a fellow runner called Andrew. It was excellent timing. His spirits were dwindling too, and we encouraged each other through those final 7 miles. He navigated me, and in return I provided high fives and whoops and occasional singing of excerpts from power ballads. By now everything was screaming — my glutes especially. When my eyes fell upon the penultimate line of crumpled route instructions, my legs filles with renewed energy — I was headed for the day one finisher funnel, something that I felt many times that day would never materialise. I celebrated with a cup of tea in the shower.
Day 2 — another 32 miles
My legs felt renewed for the 32 miles that lay ahead for the second day, and for the first few miles, I felt fantastic. I was running well, laughing and joking with those around me, high fiving fellow runners as I headed past them (yes, past them!). “I hope I feel this good all day!” I chirped through the first two check points taking me to 13 miles.
The second half of the race was not hand-slapping and running with others. The men drifted off ahead of me, eventually I lost everyone around me, and suddenly I was navigating myself through those ‘final’ 20 miles, having already done an off road half marathon.
At this point I think it’s worth interjecting with the fact that I have been somewhat terrified of being alone in the woods and fields, in fact, anywhere that feels remote, my whole life. Part of the appeal of this event for me was the opportunity to be alone, but on a course with others. In this way, despite how physically tough and mentally challenging those final miles were, they were in some ways the best.
The highs – just me and the plinth and the rain
My most vivid menory from the weekend is running for miles through the woods and seeing nobody, before emerging through a style into a short rain storm, into a field — totally alone. The prickles came here, it was utterly magical. I saw a big plinthe saying ‘Cotswold Way. Bath — 25 miles’ I stopped to have a moment. The emotions of the tiredness, self-navving, elation, nearing-end of the event and sheer beauty of the place culminated in this moment, it was just me and the plinth and the rain.
As I headed up the large hill, tears now present, the wind whipped up, and the tracks in the grass invited me to envisage the runners that had gone before me that day, looking for the signs, on their own journeys.
I got lost, I slowed, I power-walked, I thought it would never end again. But you know what? Miles did again what they do best when you move forward, and they rolled aorund. Suddenly I was there, I could see Stroud below me, the welcome, beautiful sight of civilisation meant the finish line was not far now.
After 32 miles and six and a half hours, I’d finished. Elated. Utterly elated and relieved. A total of 11 hours and 50-something minutes – and I’d won first female place.
This weekend, so it turned out, was so much more than a first ultra-marathon. It was a safe environment to experience my first taste of self-navving, being alone in beautiful woodlands and fields, which to me had been a long (long) time coming. This, all made even more amazing by the people I met over the weekend, each with their own reasons and stories for wanting to take on 60 country foot miles over two days.