I have found when completing races you tend to reflect on where the journey began. I am going to explain how and why I got into running in the first place and what becoming an ulta-runner means to me.
A couple of years ago my uncle had the idea to run our local half marathon, The Ruby Run. I was still playing football at this time and thought it would be a good idea to run more to gain fitness and build stamina for football matches. Me and my uncle would head out around the countryside doing various routes training for the big day. We didn’t take it too seriously and were only running once or twice a week, a training plan was never thought about. The routes we ran were really enjoyable – Devon is a beautiful part of the country that I should make more of an effort to travel back to. There would always be a few hills to contend with which was good as The Ruby Run course finishes and starts on a hill no matter which way it is being run that year.
The first half marathon me and my uncle did we finished in 1:47 and this was good as it was a new personal best for Uncle Andrew and a PB by default for me. On the first occasion we ran from Hatherleigh to Holsworthy so it was nice to run up the hill into my hometown to be cheered on by the rest of my family. The only dampener on the day, literally, was the rain but having run the race in the heat on my own in 2014 I preferred the weather that day.
After enjoying the Ruby Run we decided to sign up to other various races like the Pyworthy 10k, Bideford 10 miler, Bude Lifeboat 10k run etc.
Whilst doing running events I was still playing football but I was growing frustrated playing in a team that was struggling in the league and arguing amongst itself. I also began to find it annoying that I could have what I would consider a good game and we could, and normally would, still lose. I think this is when I started to become drawn to running. It was refreshing to have the fate of a race/performance in my hands and if something didn't quite go right it was my fault and I could then learn from it. I started to run quite a lot and took part in a few half marathons on my own. The first half I did without my Uncle Andrew was the Bristol Half. It was great fun and inspired me to sign up to more and more races and I've now completed 15 or so halfs in the last 2 or 3 years.
Once I had given up football I started running more regularly. I had a great 11 mile route which was out and back and had a half pipe of hills in the middle. It was nice to run around the countryside and have my own thinking space. It was also a route that I could monitor and compete with myself. In September 2013 I moved to London to work for Sweatshop in the London Marathon Store. I had previously worked in food retail but wanted to work in a sector of more interest. Talking to people about their running and helping them with their kit every day inspired me even more and so I signed up to Manchester Marathon for 2014. I trained a lot and some months I would cover 300 miles. I enjoyed setting myself new challenges building towards the marathon.
The Manchester Marathon didn't quite go to plan for me but it was a great experience and I learnt so much. The atmosphere and support made me want to sign up to more races. Since then I've probably raced about 40 times over various distances.
On Saturday the 11th of July I managed to complete my first ultra, the Race to the Stones 100k 2015. It wasn't easy or pretty but it has to be up there with one of the biggest and best things I've achieved. I'm going to try and describe how I felt along the way, aiming to give some tips to those of you thinking about doing ultras.
I'm going to start by explaining why I signed up to this 100k in the first place. There are quite a few reasons, one of them being that a few friends ran RTTS in 2014. After hearing about other runners experiences of the race I did some research and found out about the great organisation of the race, large number of aid stations (mini heavens) and lovely route along the ridgeway. After looking on the website, almost every time I was online the ad for the event popped up. It was as if something was telling me to sign up and of course I couldn't resist. Another reason I chose to sign up was that it was relatively easy to get to from London. I wanted to do an ultra almost instantly after finishing the Manchester Marathon in 2014. That's quite strange given the fact that I didn't look into nutrition, had a rubbish taper and paced myself terribly for that run. However once I knew I could run 26.2 miles I started to wonder how far I could run. I enjoyed the long runs in training for Manchester, using them as a way to explore London and therefore I wanted a greater reason to go out and do larger mileage weeks.
In early 2015 I signed up to a few races including various 10ks and half marathons. I found this a good way to gauge my fitness and see the gap between where I was and PB shape. I gradually upped my distance with a few key races like Reading Half and Brighton Marathon in the not to distant future. Luckily I had enough time to get in PB condition, managing 1:17:01 for the Reading Half and the GFA qualifying time for London at Brighton doing 3:02:48. These races acted as stepping stones towards Race to the Stones. Having rekindled my love of running again I raced a lot in May – equalling and bettering a few PBs over some shorter distances. If you want to hear about them I have written about most of them in my blog. In hindsight I maybe should've prioritised RTTS more and done bigger mileage weeks in May but I've had such fun racing various distances and on various surfaces.
June was a big month for me. I decided to only do a few races and up the mileage. Some weeks I got in 90 miles. Luckily the running community in London is huge and amazing so I have run with so many awesome groups and people so as not to get bored with my own thoughts. The longest run I did was with Advent Running. It was 58k along the river and you can read about it in my "Stepping into the unknown" post. This was a great run and gave me a lot of confidence having already done around 50 miles in the week before that. However in hindsight running 58k on road doesn't really prepare you for 100k on trail which has a lot more elevation gain. Had I started training for RTTS earlier I would have gone further than 58k because jumping from that to 100k is a fair way. When I say jumping it's more like shuffling thousands and thousands of small steps. Hindsight is a wonderful thing, it can't improve my time of 13:28 but it will help me achieve greater things in the future. In training I regret not hitting the trails more often as I underestimated the mental and physical strength required to negotiate even the not so technical trail.
In the build up to the race I lowered my mileage quite drastically doing 60 miles two weeks out and about 20 miles the week before. For once I enjoyed the taper, probably because I hadn't really rested since the Brighton Marathon. I also booked the day off before the race so I could relax and pack thoroughly (and watch the tennis).
On the Friday evening we got into High Wycombe and went for Pizzas and Pasta to fuel up. The next morning I woke up at about 5 o'clock, this gave me plenty of time to get organised and have some porridge. Surprisingly those Quakers oats pots are quite good. Helena (@the_fitadvisor) was my one woman crew for the day. She was a great help in getting organised and making me laugh and distracting me from the fact I had 62+ miles to cover. Before we got picked up by Matt (@thebaldrunner) to head to the start we watched a couple of Salomon Running inspirational videos. In a positive state of mind ready to take what RTTS had to throw at me, Matt drove us to the race village. Being our first 100ks we didn't really know what times we would be capable of. We got our race numbers etc and headed to the start line.
In the crowds me and Matt ended up going separate ways. Matt had a phenomenal run and finished in 11:58 – massive well done!! I on the other hand had a tough and much longer day running. I started in the middle of the pack and stuck to a plan of going off really steadily trying to conserve energy for the second 50k.
To think I could conserve energy and push on in the second half of the race was an incredibly naive thought to pass through my mind. Especially considering I only knew what it was like to run 58k on flat road. Things went to plan through the first 3 or so aid stations. I was a bit slow out of aid station one but once I learnt to put my electrolyte tabs in the soft flask first, instead of fiddling etc, I became more efficient as the day grew older. I picked up bananas, ready salted crisps and granola bars and ate whilst running and walking some of the hills. I was fine with eating on the go but after aid station four I didn't really want to eat crisps or bananas anymore and my stomach was a little dodgy (kind of as expected). Next time I will probably vary the food a bit more and have a Clif bar or two. I'm not sure of the exact mileage but it was good to see Helena relatively early on. It's nice to see a friendly smiley face on the course and she has so much energy it's infectious.
I was really enjoying the run. The first few miles were kind of mesmerising following so many legs it was as if looking through a strange kaleidoscope and this meant having to focus on your every step especially through the trees. Things were going well but then around the 18 mile mark my right hamstring became quite tight. I think this was due to running on a softer surface than what I've trained on and because of the ups and downs of the route. The overall elevation gain for the whole course wasn't huge but running on flat road in London probably wasn't amazing preparation. This means in the future I will head out of London more frequently when training for trail races. When approaching inclines it's funny to see what everyone else does – whether they think "this is runnable this!" or "this is definitely a walking section". What I found is that your emotional ups and downs very rarely match the course profile and therefore, if you feel good, run some ups and, if you have to, maybe even walk some flats.
What made these constant decisions harder was the tight right hammy. I had to keep the finish line in mind for more than 44 miles and coax it home. It was frustrating for this to be the case but I felt lucky that it was great weather and I had some awesome views to take in along the way. Having been running in London for the last year and half plus, it was nice to run a route that reminded me of home.
Luckily fellow ultra runners (I'm an ultra runner now!!) are like minded and are the friendliest bunch of people you will meet. I ran alongside more than 10 people throughout the whole race. The guy, in the photo above, behind me and the other runner passed me about 20 times and we finished roughly together. We discussed trainers, past and future races and he was also struggling with the fact he wouldn't make his goal time of around 11 hours (that wasn't my goal time btw). We could both still appreciate the fact we could make progress and get to the end.
One of my current favourite songs, Perseverance by Technimatic, went through my head a few times in the latter stages of the race and made me reflect on how far I've come in the last few years.
I saw a group of friends at aid station 8 and they went on to finish in a great time. It's cool to share running experiences with inspiring people and runners that are pushing their limits. Aid station 8 was probably my favourite, I now know why lots of ultrarunners love flat coke and bread. It tastes so good! Putting yourself through 100k makes you appreciate the little things. I slowly shuffled my way to within about 4 miles of the finish. Helena having seen Matt in ran out to join me for a few miles before the loop around Avebury Stones and the straight to the finish. Again it was great to have company and once I started running my legs actually loosened up and I managed the last few miles probably at the quickest pace I'd run all day. I could hear the crowds at the finish line from a few miles away. The run through the stones was cool and then a couple turns to the home straight, I felt energised hearing the support from afar and I stepped on the gas (probably 9min miling) to the finish line.
I took a couple quick looks behind me thinking of how far I had run and what an enjoyable day it had been.
I couldn't help but put my arms out and smile my way across the line, it was done. The journey from a slow 5 miles to 100k complete.
I recommend those of you thinking about stepping up to ultras to think carefully about why you want to do it. If the reasons are strong enough your body will be strong enough. As Scott Jurek (the hero that just broke the record for the Appalachian Trail running 50+ miles for 46 days) said "Every single one of us possesses the strength to attempt something he isn't sure he can accomplish"
On that note, what's next!? I'll keep you posted!
You can read more about Steve and detailed accounts of his previous runs on his blog.