Be yourself, but with more skill
..said Goffee and Jones and a quote that was stuck up on the wall of a business course I went on recently. It really resonated with me and made me really understand what I was trying to achieve at the time. I was training for my first ultra marathon and in the midst of my 4-month training programme was struggling to understand why on earth I was putting my body and mind through this.
It was only in this business setting that I grasped the simplicity of it all – I was striving to be the best version of me, by doing bigger and better things than what I had done before. After having completed 7 road marathons and my first ever personal endurance challenge Powered by Me the next thing on the bucket list was an ultra marathon.
Here’s my journey on the road to ultra.
The ultra marathon training plan
After registering for the Endurance Life ultra marathon in Pembrokeshire I decided to follow Justin Bateman’s 50km training plan I stumbled across on Run Ultra and began my training in early January 2018. I’d ran a few road marathons before so sort of knew what to expect in the early months. That said, I wasn’t naive to the fact that training for a trail race over a longer distance was going to be easy.
The training plan seemed manageable and in all honesty the long runs to me didn’t seem to be long enough. But I trusted the plan knowing full well the authors of the content had far more ultra running experience than me. After cross referencing the plan with my personal diary and signing up to a trail marathon in Sussex as part of the programme I was good to go, now it was all about getting those miles in.
All the running – come wind, rain, shine or snow!
I must have started my training during one of the hardest winters in London I’ve ever experienced. Endless dark cold nights were followed by weeks of extremely cold head winds and thick snow flurries as we battled a big and mini beast from the east.
The training started to get slightly easier when day light saving kicked in and I swapped the long roads runs for trails. I’d ran a few marathons before, so I was used to the experience of hitting those long runs, the tranquility once you reach that certain level of fitness and the feeling of complete escapism – something that becomes ever more important the more years I spend living in London.
Preparation for the big day – kit, equipment & testing
After receiving yet another fabulous sports massage from Mark Hokan at Purus Active Health, I realised I had yet even more preparation to do other than the training. Mark had recently finished his first ultra marathon and told me that runners needed to carry a certain level of equipment and kit with them in order to not get disqualified during the race.
My mouth dropped and I thought, shit, I better get shopping pronto! I only had about a month to go and needed time to a) find out what the kit was, b) order it and c) test it out on some long runs. I quickly ordered the basic kit required which was; bag, whistle, first aid kit, head torch, wind breaker jacket, foil blanket, base layer and on the day you had to carry minimum 500 ml water and your own food.
It seemed like a lot to carry on your back whilst running, so as soon as my bag and items arrived I started to load it all up and try it all out on some long runs. When you’re running for a long period of time you need to be sure the basics work, things don’t rub and you understand what nutrition works for you. So by doing a lot of trial and error you can find the best solution for you and sleep well with all your kit laid out the night before the race knowing exactly how it’s going to feel on the day.
About a month before the ultra race day I took part in the Endurance Life Event Sussex Marathon. As the day approached I become more apprehensive as I’d never ran that distance before on trail. I also knew the ascent would be brutal, along Beachy Head and the South Downs I was in for some killer hills and if I was being completely honest all I’d done was about 2 hills sessions, one of which was up and down a 100m mound in Bermondsey – hardly replicating what it would be on race day!
And to top it off the week of the race the beast from the east came back to haunt us and absolutely battered the South East coastline. As we parked up at around 7am for registration is clocked minus 6 degrees and was set to snow all day long. I did not want to get out and start running and the only thing that made me do it was the thought that if I could do this, I could do anything. So I got out the car, got my head down and made my way to the start.
5 hours and 24 minutes later thankfully it was all over and I had completed my eighth marathon and this one being the most challenging because of the weather and terrain. And with some gradients up to 25% my pace was all over the shop, from 8 to 16 minute miles, a tough slog to say the least! But I felt stronger and more confident about tackling the trail ultra a month later.
Endurance Life Event CTS Series Pembrokeshire Ultra Marathon
27 April we drove from London to Roch, spending all day in the car in the pouring rain! The weather at least was looking far better for the race the following day. When we arrived at our bed and breakfast, the owner had left a cute message wishing me luck for the big day and throwing in some extra sweets to keep me going – I was ready!
We went to the Victoria Inn pub next door for some food and an early night. After eyeing up the pasta option and ordering I was sadly told that all they had was curry – a runners nightmare! I chose the mildest option, loaded up on rice, naan bread and poppadoms and hoped for the best. We then headed off to bed I did the obligatory kit and equipment display, so I hit the sack knowing it was all ready and waiting for me in the morning.
Ultra Marathon Race Day
On 28 April race day was upon us and we were so thankful the sun was shining and it was set to be a glorious day – not too hot, not too cold and maybe a few showers, perfect for us runners. After attempting to stomach as much breakfast as possible at 5am, we set off on the short drive to Little Haven along the coast line.
When we arrived in Little Haven it was quaint and peaceful and made me feel excited but nervous for the hours ahead. The registration process was smooth and us ultra marathon runners were the first to have our briefing at 9am. The briefing was detailed, covering signage, emergency numbers, the course and more, but made me feel as prepared as I could be before setting off.
After the briefing they got us all down to the shore line to start the race! Legs bobbing up and down, dogs barking and last minute stretches and taking off of layers was happening all around me, as we all huddled together, wished one another luck and set off – here we go!
I set off slow and steady without music to simply take it all in and get into a rhythm and pace I was comfortable at. This worked very well as the first 6 miles or so was high up along the coast line on a single file path. Because you couldn’t over take and the views were simply breath taking, everyone took their time and soaked it all up. Every time I stopped to take a picture a runner would ask if I was OK and I immediately knew that I was in safe hands for when the going got tough later on.
After I got into my pace I was planning my race in my head:
‘Slow and steady,
Try not to stop running unless you have to even if you’re running really slowly,
Stop at every check point for food and drink
Only start listening to music when you feel you really need to,
Enjoy it! You’ve worked so hard to even get here.’
Check point 1 and 2 seemed to be done and dusted very quickly and I knew in total I had 5 for the ultra. I didn’t know exactly how far they were from each other and knew that when it said mile 9.6 at check point 2 that there would be big gaps between some of the others.
Between check points 2 and 3 I felt like my world was moving very slowly, it felt like the check point would never arrive and I also knew that I had to do another loop of this check point for the ultra marathon distance. I was already in quite a bit of pain at around mile 15 but kept my head down and tried to stay focused as I knew it was also about to get a whole lot harder!
Miles 15 through to around 22 seemed to be the hardest for me. My ankle hurt and I was getting some left hip and knee pain. I was struggling on some of the trails where it was a particularly narrow path so meant you couldn’t stride out to get through it, it was short, shuffle like steps – fine if that’s what you’re used to but not me.
When I was approaching mile 26 I had absolutely no idea what was in store. I never ran in training or in a race beyond marathon distance, 26.2 miles. ‘What would happen, how much pain would I be in, would I start to go mad?’ All these things were running through my head. I was hoping that the pain wouldn’t get significantly worse but would just stay bad and low and behold, miles 26 through to 36 was honestly just as much pain as the previous 10 miles – result in my eyes!
Yes you go a bit loopy, yes you start to get hungry, yes you sort of start to have bought of angry running, thinking ‘why me, why did I decide to do this?’ but you also have what feels like endless elation, a sense of belonging, purpose, higher meaning. It sounds bonkers but I was more than happy with going to what I call ‘the other side’ as it pushed me further than I’d ever gone before and alas – it didn’t break me! (well not permanently anyway).
6 hours 56 minutes later from the start
When I was approaching the final mile, I could hear cheers of people getting closer – something that was comforting after having spent so many hours in my own quiet bubble. The approach to the finish line was quite a long open stretch, which was lovely because you had time to adjust to what was actually happening and enjoy it.
I saw my Mum frantically cheering and when crossing the finish line was told by the lady putting on my medal that I was fifth lady. Mum and I started screaming and jumping up and down – I couldn’t believe it! Never did I think I could get top ten for my first ultra marathon. I was honestly full of energy and complete elation, memories I will never forget.
My first-time ultra marathon journey was full of ups and downs – what a cliche but it’s true. You get so many lows, the pain, the suffering, the lonely dark cold runs, sometimes despair. But with that comes these highs that you can’t even explain. For me, the mental highs I experience far outreach the physical.
Yes it’s great to feel strong, look strong and not worry so much about how you look, what you eat, what you drink. But it goes way beyond being about your body and more about your mental state, your frame of mind, knowing that with each step you are growing stronger, more resilient, more at peace even.
As I write this I am full of mixed emotions. Enthralled I even did it, yet not yet being able to shake this feeling that something now is missing. Maybe for me it’s forever going to be about the chase, the challenge, aiming for that finish line, the end up ahead. That’s OK if I have to deal with it like that, because I am so fortunate that I can do these things and these things bring a sense of higher purpose and happiness into my life.
If you’ve enjoyed reading this watch this space as for me, this blog is about my personal endurance challenges and reflections and it has only just started it seems. You can also follow me on Instagram and Strava for my latest sporting updates!