The clock says 03:45 on Sunday 22nd May 2011… I decide that I’m not going to get any more sleep tonight – this is it, time to get up and start the day that I’ve spent the last six months training for – the 50-mile Cardiff Ultra!
Back in early November, shortly after finishing my first marathon in Palma I entered the 50-mile Cardiff Ultra as motivation to continue running and not fall back into the bad habits. Little did I know at that time where the journey would lead me. The training had totalled just over 1100 miles, including a 50k Ultra, 4 marathons, 3 20-mile races, several half marathons, numerous parkruns, fell races, etc, etc… I also had joined a running club, made lots of new friends, radically altered my diet and lifestyle, (i.e. I no longer drank myself into oblivion every weekend)…
But – that’s all in the past now, and maybe reflection on that can wait until I look back at the end of 2011.
Back in Cardiff, breakfast had been eaten, the final cup of tea drunk, vaseline applied liberally and final checks that everything was packed and I was off to Sport Wales in Cardiff to meet the bus which was taking us up to the start in Brecon – over 50 miles away. The ULTRArace organiser Rory Coleman met me at the bus and commented that my Raidlight backpack looked ‘serious’ and asked if I’d done MdS this year! That’s the second time I’ve been asked if I’ve done MdS! I laughed and said ‘no’ but was thinking of looking into doing it in 2013. Rory said I could get into 2012 if I wanted to – Hmmm, let’s get today over with first!
The bus left Cardiff at 05:30 – someone commented it was like an ‘evil school trip’, where the teachers drive you to the middle of nowhere and make you run home! We arrived at Brecon theatre somewhere around 06:45 and I picked up my number from Rory’s partner and co-organiser of ULTRArace – Jen Salter and headed into the cafe to chill out for an hour. Our numbers had our names printed on them – a nice touch, and as I was the only ‘Guy’ in the race another runner recognised my name from the ULTRArace forum. “Slow Pete” introduced himself and we chatted until it was time to start.
Rory assembled everyone for a photo, he stood precariously on the canal bank – several of the runners shouted ‘further back Rory’ in an unsuccessful attempt to get him to fall in! We then were lined up at the start and moved back a few metres to the ‘official’ start line – yep, 5 metres is going to make a big difference on a 50-mile race! 08:00 finally arrived and we were off!
The start of ultras are a very relaxed low-key affair! Everyone shuffled off behind the Brecon theatre and then almost immediately took a wrong turn and nearly got lost – after 50 yards! A chap came sprinting down the side shouting ‘Straight On!’ and we all nervously laughed and followed down the canal towpath…
After tapering for a couple of weeks I slowly eased myself into my running pace… ‘Slow Pete’ joined me after a mile or-so – his strategy being the same as mine… 25 minutes run, 5 minutes walk and walk anything steeper than a shallow incline. The first 8 miles to Checkpoint 1 passed very quickly chatting to Pete and we looked to be maintaining around 9:30 running pace which was great news! A chap wearing Vibram FiveFingers passed me somewhere in the first few miles – nutter!
After Checkpoint 1 there was a 7-mile slow, uphill drag on hard packed trail… It wasn’t steep but just seemed to go on forever. We slowed down the pace a bit and eventually got to the top. In these situations, being able to run and chat with other people really makes the time fly past and I was grateful to be able to plod along chatting about our various running adventures with Pete. After the hill we were back onto the roads for a section before turning back onto the trail and I looked back at one point and realised I’d lost Pete and was on my own.
Normally I refuse to run with an iPod, and wouldn’t dream of doing a race with an iPod – but I knew this wasn’t any normal race, and I was going to need something to distract my thoughts from turning against me, so the headphones went on and I set into plodding along again. Back on the trail I passed Mr FiveFingers talking to another runner – he was saying that the first time he’d run in them was a 45-mile Ultra, bravado – or bollocks? you decide!
The first 3 hours had been a mixed-bag of weather, broken cloud, light showers and a bit of drizzle, but a couple of miles from Checkpoint 2 at 20 miles all hell broke loose… The wind picked up, and then cold, hard rain set in – it was just plain nasty. I was soaked to the skin, my feet were wet and I’d lost the use of my hands due to the cold. Physically I felt fine, my legs were OK but I started questioning if I could maintain this for another 30 miles. I chap I’d overtaken previously caught up with me – he was the current leader in the 9bar ULTRArace championships, had somehow managed to get lost at the start and done and extra 4 miles! After the rain he was as dejected as I felt and said his heart just wasn’t in it any more, to be honest I started asking myself the same question…
Checkpoint 2 arrived and who was there but ‘Slow Pete’! He’d taken a shortcut by mistake along with a load of other runners and missed out a 1.5 mile section of up-and-down trail – the git! Why is it that when I take a wrong turn, i always end up going further! Suitably refuelled with malt loaf and coke we headed out towards Merthyr Tydfil – at least it had stopped raining, and it was great to have some company again.
Shorty after leaving CP2 a shooting pain hit me in the right knee, I’ve no idea where this came from as I’ve never had trouble in this area. A quick evaluation of the problem seemed to indicate that if I walked for a bit I could run again for a while which was good. So, my new run-walk strategy became, run until the pain starts, then stop and walk for a bit! A couple of miles later, Pete was slowing down – he told me to go on in front, so I wished him the best, put the iPod back on and carried on…
Halfway passed in around 4:20, then marathon distance in around 4:30 and I was still feeling very strong. My knee was holding up as long as I walked whenever it started getting painful and with hindsight I think that the shorter run-walk sections actually helped. Checkpoint 3 arrived at 30 miles and a Bret, a friendly face from the forums recognised my name and said hello. More malt loaf and coke were demolished and Bret told me around 30 people had gone through in front of me.
The next 12 miles to CP4 were tough. I ran out of water after around 7 miles and knew I was very dehydrated, despite drinking loads judging by the colour of my urine which was dark orange! Fortunately I knew there was a shop on route so jumped in and got a bottle of water and another of Lucozade. These too were empty well before CP4! Despite the dehydration and lots of walking I was steadily catching up runners in front and by the time CP4 finally appeared was told around 20 runners were in front of me. CP4 was very welcome although I was finding it difficult to swallow solids now but managed to force down a slab of Soreen, a bag of crisps and a can of full fat coke. My dentist would NOT be happy that I didn’t floss or brush my teeth afterwards
Leaving CP4, I walked a mile with another runner while eating and drinking – I think he’d blown up and was walking the rest of the way, so wished him well and headed off after a mile. Looking at my watch I thought I was still in with a chance of going sub 9-hours…
So – this was it, the final stretch… Now it was just me and my brain vs 10 miles of the Taff Trail, I cranked up the iPod to block out my thoughts, walked when my knee hurt, ran when it didn’t and just kept putting one foot in front of the other. I was still overtaking people and don’t think anyone had overtaken me since CP2 back at 20 miles. The miles ticked by, I jumped into a shop with 5 miles to go and grabbed a can of Red Bull for the final push.
50-miles passed and I still wasn’t finished! 51 miles passed with 8:50 on my watch and I could taste the finish line, I passed a fellow runner with around 800m to go… Then, there it was – the finish line with Rory, arms outstretched waiting to greet me with my medal! I shouted – ‘Rory – you’ve never looked so good’ as I crossed the line. My watch said 8:54 and Jen told me I’d finished in 19th place!
Rory and I had a chat, I told him I was signed up for ULTRArace Peaks and the Nottingham Ultra later in the year but didn’t think I was ready for the ULTRArace 100-mile race this year. Rory told me he thought I’d be OK – I told him I’d have to sleep on it! I collected my bags, chatted to some of the earlier finishers – the winner came in sub 7 hours, amazing, though apparently he is the UK 100k champion! Then it was time for a shower and off to the pub to share some war stories from the day.
So – now, 2 days later, sitting on a sun lounger in Lanzarote, (still with a sore knee) I’m reflecting on my first big ultra… It’s taken me until now to regain some sense of reality, rehydrate properly and get my digestive system back on track.
Would I do another 50-miler, definitely! In retrospect, apart from the knee problems I actually didn’t find the distance too difficult – it was a lot easier than my first marathon and I’m definitely not in as much pain afterwards.
Would I do a 100-miler? Probably – but maybe next year