There are many reasons for why I decided to attempt to run five ultra marathons in four days.
1. I always like a challenge;
2. It would be great training for my upcoming 100km and 100 mile ultras;
3. I loved the medals;
4. I’m chasing my 26 ultras in 52 weeks challenge; and
5. Running repeatedly up and down the Thames Path is still more fun than being at work.
All five races would start from outside the Weir Pub by the river at Walton-on-Thames. The first two races would consist of 9 laps each of the “Westerly” route, up-river towards Walton Bridge and back. The latter three races would be the “Easterly” route, 9 laps each down river towards Hampton Court and back.
I’m fairly certain I was the only one who ran all five as ultras that weekend. Some ran some days only, some ran halves every day, some marathons for three days etc. Any combination thereof.
Day 1, Ultra 1 – D-Day Land
Day 1 started out strong and would prove, unsurprisingly, to be the fastest of the five races.
The route out towards Walton Bridge is flat, barring a small blue footbridge about three quarters of the way along. The bridge needs crossing twice each lap and seems tiny the first few times you cross it. Less so by the 18th time over it during an ultra.
The race was largely uneventful. It was a hot day but I’d learned well my lessons from a hot ultra the previous weekend so took things steady and made to sure to take on plenty of water with hydration salts when needed.
With my headphones in and an audiobook on, the miles slipped by easily and I drifted in to the finish in 4:14:22 – first place out of those running the same distance.
Day 2, Ultra 2 – D-Day Sea
Day 2 and I was back at the start line, still feeling fresh. The weather was hot again so I was prepared for a gentle pace, to keep heat under control and strength in my legs.
It remained so until just before the start, when the rain came down. On went the waterproof and out we went. By the time I’d reached the other end of the route, the rain had stopped, the sun was out and I was overheating in the coat. Fortunately my coat is designed for ultras and has a helpful popper half way up, meaning you can unzip it to allow yourself to cool down while keeping it fastened across the chest to make sure it’s secure.
I ran the next couple of laps with it flapping open, before the rain started pounding down again, justifying my decision not to take it off.
The rest of the race was much the same, with the weather alternating between heat and rain. A combination of preserving my legs and running into the rain meant my pace had dropped off a lot from the previous day but that was fine. I wasn’t chasing times.
A lot less people were running the Friday and very few (3) doing ultras that day so the course was all but empty by the time I finished in 4:42:36 – still first place from those (2) doing the same distance.
Day 3 AM, Ultra 3 – D-Day Air
Day 3 arrived and it was the day I was dreading. I’ve run ultras which were a lot longer before, and I’ve run 10 ultras in 10 days, but I’ve never done two in one day. My worries were compounded by knowing I’d already covered 95km over the previous two days and had to somehow have enough left for the fifth one the next morning.
I’d also been travelling back home each night and getting the train back each morning. From door to door, it was about a 2.5 hour journey. Having not bothered to work out logistics, it was only on the train on the way to Day 3 that I realised that, if I took the full six hours or thereabouts for the afternoon race, I wouldn’t be finished until 10pm, home until about 1am and then have to be up at 6am to get the train the next morning.
Not liking the sound of that, I messaged Naomi to suggest I book a hotel in Walton for the night. She agreed (thanks!) which at least meant that when the day was done, I could be having a shower within 30 minutes.
Day 3 AM was the first of the races to go the Easterly route. Completely flat with no bridge sounds great, but a flat route with no variation takes a massive toll on the legs as there is no variation in muscle usage. The route is also uneven and varies between gravel, tarmac and dirt which makes shoe selection difficult. In light of the previous day’s rain I opted for trails.
And off I went again. One of the things I love about these types of events, especially the multi-days, is the sense of community and common support you get as you run past everyone else on the laps. There were those doing their first multi-day marathons, some doing a couple of halves in one day, others who were doing various distances over the four races. Everyone smiling at each other, giving each other thumbs up as they passed or generally chivying others on when they were flagging.
Somehow the laps remaining dwindled although my legs were feeling the strain. I was trying to strike a balance – finish fast and I’d knacker my legs before the afternoon race but would have a longer break in between the two – finish slow and preserve my legs but have only 30 minutes from finishing the first to beginning the second.
In the end I brought it in at 4:49:49 – my third 1st place finish in a row for those doing the same distance (a lot more than the two of us the previous day).
I staggered into the pub, ordered some chips which I tried to get down me (I can never eat when I’m distance running – most of the calories I took in during the five days were from pouches of baby food which is about the only thing I can stand).
Less than an hour and a half later I was outside the pub and on the start line again. And I had absolutely no idea how I was going to get around the next 47.5km.
Day 3 PM, Ultra 4 – The KNight Run
Standing on the start line, I felt broken. Physically I wasn’t a complete wreck but the combination of having only dragged myself over the finish line 90 minutes previously and the knowledge that I had to somehow do that again right away felt like a weight around my neck.
I’d done a complete outfit change so that I was at least starting this one as freshly as possible and opted for road shoes as the route had completely dried out. The day was getting on, the wind had picked up and I would be finishing about 10pm so I put on running tights and a base layer under my tshirt.
Within 10 minutes of having started the wind had stopped, the sun had started blazing and I was boiling. I sweated my way around the first lap before dumping my base layer at the checkpoint. Nothing I could do about the trousers.
There were a number of people who had ran the morning race (and others over the weekend) who were staying at the pub that night so had come out to cheer everyone on throughout the evening. That kind of support means a lot, when the only thing you want to do is go home.
I’d started the afternoon race as strongly as I could, to try and give myself some leeway with the six hour cutoff when my legs would eventually and inevitably cease playing ball. That point came during lap four. They refused to run. And so I walked.
The next km I plodded on, trying to give them a chance to recover. I had to run the majority of the rest of the race to keep within cutoffs but sometimes a km of walking can give you enough rest to keep pushing for a few kms more after. Rinse and repeat.
And then, at the end of lap 4, I came out onto the tarmac which runs past the pub and to the checkpoint and Naomi was sitting on the wall waiting for me. From that point on she became my mental tether. Knowing she was at the checkpoint every 5km was enough for me to stagger on and then back to her, lap after lap.
Until the end of lap 8. I emerged onto the tarmac and she wasn’t there. And my mind shattered. At that point of exhaustion there’s no point in trying to rationalise thought processes, because there aren’t any. I just knew that she had been sat on the wall for the last four laps and now she wasn’t so what was the point in carrying on. I staggered to a stop.
The marshal at the turn point saw me looking around desperately and pointed towards the checkpoint, at which point Naomi’s head popped around the corner of the gazebo where she was staying out of the wind. “Oh, that’s ok then” my broken brain thought and I started running again.
As I approached Naomi I started gesturing, trying to say that I needed my head torch for the final lap. I didn’t need to as she already had it in her hand, waiting. She gave it to me and pushed me back out again. 5.3km left.
By the time I reached the turn point at the far end, the sun had set and the head torch went on. The entire route follows the River Thames and the journey back wasn’t pleasant – thousands of midges hovered over the entire path, attacking my face and flying into my mouth. I tried to breath through my nose and ran the final 2.5km waving my arms about wildly in front of my face, which isn’t really helpful at that point in proceedings.
When I hit the final 500 metres I sprinted – my legs somehow had it in them and I hurtled across the line for a 5:38:15 finish.
“Is there anything you want me to get you?”
“Yeah, a taxi please. I’d like to go to bed now.”
But I couldn’t, not quite yet. On arriving at the hotel I was in agony. I managed to get my shoes off and just about managed to peel my socks off but the pain in my feet was unbelievable. I’ve never experienced it before but every step I took felt like I was standing on needles, with sharp pains lancing up from the soles of my feet.
I showered off and fell into bed, where I lay awake for most of the night. I never sleep well anyway but I almost never sleep when I’m doing multi-day events, no matter how tired I am. I think my body just has no idea what’s happening to it so just goes haywire.
Day 4, Ultra 5 – Thames Path Potter
I rolled myself out of bed the next morning to find that nothing had improved. Each step still shot pain through the soles of my feet and my legs were cramping and tight. I could barely stand, let along run.
I said to Naomi that I didn’t know if I’d be able to run. It wasn’t looking for sympathy or bluster. Walking was agony. 47.5km of running seemed genuinely impossible.
But I said I stand on the start line and when the clock started I would tell my legs to move. They either would or they wouldn’t and if they did I’d keep moving until either they failed me completely or I got timed out. Nobody could ask any more of me than that and, more importantly, I couldn’t ask any more of myself.
Naomi was running that morning too and aiming for a half marathon (4 laps) which I would attempt to run with her. I positioned us about two metres back from the start line and everyone else joined the scrum – behind us. Starting at the front – just what I needed.
The timer counted down, the siren blared and… we went. My legs started moving and then picked up speed and a bit more. And they felt broadly fine. The pain in my feet had gone (I’m never sure when there’s a lot of pain and it suddenly disappears whether medically speaking this is a good thing or a bad thing – but at the time I was grateful).
By the time we reached the turn point at the far end there were only about five people in front of us. Not how I expected the day to be going! This lasted for the grand total of about two laps.
On lap my legs started to feel heavy. They were moving but I could feel them dragging. Naomi hadn’t been feeling 100% and we paused to quick march a couple of times while she regained her breath. By the time we reached the end of lap three I was worrying about cut off times. Naomi insisted that she would run her fourth and final lap by herself, so that she could walk or catch her breath where needed.
My mind had pieced together some kind of strategy, crude as it was. Basically, try to keep running until five laps were done. That would leave a half marathon of four laps. Those four laps I would run, with strategic walk points between pre-identified markers. Run 1km, walk between that big rock and the green gate 300 metres-ish further up, run another 500 metres, walk between the fallen over tree and the turn point then start running.
Repeat four times and I’d be done. Broadly speaking it worked. I stuck to running where I said I would and forced myself to walk when I reached those identified markers. The brief walking interludes were a good opportunity to take on water and salts as the sun was still beating down.
The penultimate lap was slightly different. I got chatting with a fellow runner and it was only when we reached the turn around point that I realised I hadn’t taken any of the scheduled walking breaks – which goes to show how much of distance running takes place in your head. If you can distract yourself sufficiently well, your body will often forget to complain.
Eventually I reached the final lap. The first half came and went and then I was on my way back. With 1km to go I figured that there was no need to hold anything back and sprinted.
I shot passed a fair number of runners, to a fair few shouts along the lines of “What the hell are you doing?” and crossed the line.
I went into this weekend with no idea what would happen. I knew the first couple of days would be fine, as well as Saturday morning. It would be the Saturday afternoon, the “double day”, that was unknown territory.
I’ve done 10 ultras in 10 days before, but I think this was harder. The lack of any time for recovery whatsoever between number 3 and 4, and the severely curtailed rest between 4 and 5 was just relentless and decimated my legs.
But it’s done and has been perfect training for the Cotswolds Way 100km Ultra in three weeks. I attempted the Cotswolds Way last year as my first ever ultra marathon and crashed out at 94km.
I’ve completed 23 ultra marathons since then and am 100% ready for a grudge match. I might just have a little rest first.