This weekend was another double ultra weekend, but slightly unusual for me in that they were on a Friday and Sunday, giving me a day off!
Excalibur 6 Ultra Marathon
Friday’s ultra was at Nonsuch Park near Cheam. Phoenix run a couple of races here each year but it was my first time at the course. Arriving bright and early, I collected my race number, chatted to the usual crowd who are always at these races and then took a phone call from my solicitor.
I was (and am) in the process of moving house and we’d been hoping to exchange contracts that day. Five minutes before the start and my solicitor was asking me to send documents which she’d forgotten as a matter of urgency which, being on the start line, I was unable to do. No exchange that day then.
And so five minutes later I set off over the start line in a bad mood and didn’t really manage to shake it off for the rest of the run.
The day was warm but overcast and threatening rain. I’d misjudged the weather and turned up in a vest with no backup. But off we went. The route started along a tarmac path before veering off across the grass, up a short hill through the woods, before looping around the outskirts of a number of fields, across a small bridge and back up and down through another wooded section before coming full circle to the start line.
I ran along at the front of the pack for the first three laps, before deciding that I had absolutely no need to do anything speedy and, with another ultra a couple of days away, I may as well chill out slightly.
I dropped the pace and a few people made their way by me on the next couple of laps. The weather decided it had played ball for long enough and started pouring with rain. Within seconds I was soaked through and still had a good 28km to go.
What was worse was that my wet clothes were starting to drag and, horror, chafe. My bad mood didn’t have much prospect of improving.
Still, I could have been worse off. A couple of guys were running in full rhino costumes for Save the Rhino and were both soaked through and sweating inside them.
By lap six of nine, I was in a raging bad mood, quite a lot of pain from the constant chafing and my legs felt like lead. When you’re brain goes it can have a real effect on your physical state as well and I’d had enough.
I dropped into a walk for a few minutes and pulled up alongside someone who I had been switching positions with two and fro throughout the race. He was walking by this point and we chatted for a few minutes before both deciding we just at least jog.
As we went we had a long chat about ultra running and the upcoming North Downs Way 100 Miles. He would be running it also, and had done it a number of times previously. This carried on until the end of lap eight where he stopped, having completed his marathon. I headed back out for the final 5.2km and to finish off my ultra.
The last lap killed me. I should have been fine – this was my 24th ultra in the last 12 months and I was on fresh legs. But I wasn’t having a good day, the rain had started pouring again, I was in pain and I just wanted it done. I crossed the line and rang the bell. Out of those running my distance I had still finished first but I wasn’t in the mood. I grabbed my medal and headed home. Sunday’s race could only be better.
Space Race Gold Ultra Marathon
Sunday’s race was not better and was rescued by the sole saving grace of running most of it with Naomi.
Having had a day off during which my legs ached far more than they had any right to, we turned up at the Leisure Centre in Walton-on-Thames to collect our race numbers. Usually the race starts at 9.30 but there was a local 10k around part of the same route earlier that day so the start was pushed back to 11am.
The race was the Space Race Gold, celebrating 50 years since the moon landings. The medal (photo at the bottom) is a large gold disk with a 3D “bumb” of the moon lander. Last year I ran the Space Race Bronze (photo also at the bottom) which came with a large bronze disk, fitting around the gold one to create a two tone medal. My bronze medal is currently in a box somewhere (we still haven’t moved house) so I haven’t been able to unite them yet.
Naomi wanted to run a marathon. This was to be her third and I’d run both of her previous ones with her. I needed to run an ultra, as it would be by 25th and I’m then one away from my 26 ultras in 52 weeks medal. But Naomi wanted me to run the marathon with her as she hates running by herself and sometimes needs some encouragement.
This was fine. I’d run the marathon with her and then knock out the final lap while she rested in the pub. The weather however was absurdly hot and climbing, recording a max of 31c during the race.
Naomi: “I think I’m going to be looking at about six hours for the marathon and then you can run your last lap.”
There was a six hour limit. Naomi had thought it was seven. This caused an issue. After a little bit of discussion we agreed that she would need my support more for the latter half of the race than she would the first and thus the plan was born:
It was a 5.2km lap. I would pelt around the first half of the race as fast as I could in the heat until I gained a 5.2km lead, at which point I would lap her and could then fall in beside her and we’d run the remaining laps together. Simple.
We lined up at the start line, the horn went and off I pelted. Myself and one other were way out front, hammering along the 2.6km to the turn point, around and back up the other end. This wasn’t my all out pace – I was running a 4:25 minutes per km which left plenty to spare – I just never run that pace if I’m doing an ultra and especially not on a day with weather like that.
Back out on the second lap and I pass Naomi coming the other way. I immediately started to try and mentally work out how far ahead I was and came to the conclusion that it was either going to take several laps for me to lap her, or she needed to slow down. I wasn’t going to speed up.
On I went and my legs were feeling it. Normally I’m fine running on tired legs. I’ve done plenty of back to back ultras, including 10-in-10 and 5-in-4 but for some reason and despite the day off in between, my legs were still aching from Friday.
Little by little I reeled Naomi in (while gesturing at her frantically to slow it down a bit every time we passed). On the third lap I was passing through a narrow gap on the river front as someone was coming the other way. I stopped to let them through and he grinned as he went passed. I stood for a moment thinking. Was that Mo Farah?
As it turned out, yes! On the way back I passed him again, heading in the other direction. He was doing training runs up and down the same area and had passed through the aid station at the start line, getting cheers from everyone there.
On I went and I was suffering. At the end of lap four (just under 21km) I arrived at the aid station and Naomi was just about to leave. I’d made it! We headed back out for the final five laps.
Neither of us were particularly enjoying ourselves. The crowd was the usual friendly crowd, and the marshals were the usual friendly and encouraging marshals but neither of our hearts were in it and the heat was making it actively unpleasant.
By the time we reached the end of (my) lap five we were taking walking breaks and by my lap six we’d started to divide the lap up into sections: “We’ll run from the aid station to the end of the shade of trees, fast walk from there to the rowing club, run from there to the pub car park, fast walk from there to the blue bridge and then run from the bridge to the turn point.” Rince, repeat.
And we did so, ever slower. It was hot. It was painful. We finished, took our medals and got a taxi back to the train station.
The medal is fantastic, the company was brilliant, the other runners were wonderful as always and I got to see Sir Mo Farah. But despite all that it wasn’t one I’ll look back on with fondness. Sometimes they just go that way and it’ll be one for the spreadsheet and not much more.
I now have two weeks “race free” before the Centurion North Downs Way 100 Miles (actually 103 miles but who’s counting). The intention is to take it easy, refresh my legs and sort myself out mentally before that, which will be the hardest run I’ve yet attempted. Game on.