Running on empty: Ultra-marathon lessons learned the Ultra-hard way...
Many moons ago, I used to listen to Phill Jupitus on the 6Music breakfast show, and he would always end by saying, "So, what have we learned today? Well, today we've learned that spiders aren't food..." or some other nonsense based on the show he'd just presented. On Saturday, May 11th, I ran/ staggered the 33 miles of the Sandstone Challenge Ultra Marathon in 8 hours 17 minutes. Let's be clear about this, I'm really disappointed with my time. But, I ran 35 miles. Yes, I know it should have been 33, but I got lost and did a bit extra. Hey, I'm kind of proud of that...
So, what have I learned from running an ultra marathon?
Lesson #1. I need to eat more, earlier in a long run.
Here was my problem. I went out at nine to ten minute mile pace for the first ten miles and hardly ate or drank a thing. Small wonder then, that I hit the wall as hard as I did at around 14 miles.
I'd eaten a Jaffa cake at CP1, not much more at CP2, and at CP3 I was hungry, in need of something salty (Hula Hoops rule), but I think by that point, I'd stopped thinking things through clearly enough. As a result, I still didn't take on enough food, but it was also too late to bring it back. Between Beeston and CP4 at Rock Farm was the worst run, and the worst I've ever felt in my life. I'm not going into quite how bad I felt: it's very personal. I'd been running with Emma and Clare, who left me at Beeston and was passed by John a bit further on, and as he put in his blog I looked a bit rough. When I got to The Rock Farm CP, I obviously looked dreadful, as the kind people there seemed unsure that I was fit to continue. It wasn't until I started making jokes that they seemed to relax. After I'd eaten most of the food on the table, I carried on, feeling much better (well, everything's comparative) but still very sore from an early point onwards and lacking energy.
Lesson #2. Don't get injured beforehand.
I ran about 114 miles in March, my best month yet. However, coming into April, I picked up a tightness in my left Achilles that refused to go away. I had the Hawkshead 17k coming up and didn't want to miss it, so I rested for about ten days, it went away and I ran the race. On a five mile jog, a couple of days later, a blister plaster tore off and ripped open a huge blister on my foot, leaving a lot of raw stuff. If I didn't get this sorted, I wasn't going to be at the starting line for the ultra. As a consequence, my training miles for April were below 45, and I'd only done two runs of about ten miles in that month. I didn't feel ready.
Those are the negative things, the ones that impacted on my running. Here's the lessons that have left me on a high, but only in hindsight - I need to learn to recognise them on the day...
Lesson #3. Everything is a matter of perspective.
On the run, I got caught up in how difficult this bit was, or how far to that field corner, how bad I felt and forgot to enjoy it. In retrospect, there were some truly wonderful points on the run. I love the area around Rawhead and am definitely going back there for more runs. Running past the ponies grazing wild on Bickerton Hill was wonderful, and the views from so the highest point in Cheshire make the climb worthwhile.
I went to work on the Monday after the race, and everyone was in awe of the fact that I'd got that far. People said it was at least 30 miles further than they could walk, never mind run. Even my mum (who, as part of her job description as mum, is biased) said that she's never even met anyone who has run an ultra marathon and in her words, she does "know quite a few people!" 35 miles is a very long way. Especially to run. I need to recognise this and not beat myself up over a time.
Lesson #4. I love being a Spartan.
The support within the club is like being part of a family and I've always known this, but I didn't realise quite how much it meant to me until I got to Barnsbridge Gate in Delamere Forest. The camaraderie in the Community Centre at Frodsham, before we set off, and on the bus was clear. The jokes, the support, everything was the same as ever. When we set off, I knew that CP1 was being ably manned by Spartan volunteers. It was great to see the Spartan flag flying over the hedgerows, and to be welcomed in, but the full impact didn't hit me until much later on. As I've said, I felt really low until I got to Rock Farm, and from there, metaphorically, everything was downhill. Apart from the ups... I walked the hills into the forest, and managed to run the downhills, despite the pain in my quads.
And then I was on home turf. That alone made a massive difference to me. I knew that some of the Spartans had moved from CP1 to the forest and were waiting to cheer people through Barnsbridge Gate. They'd moved the flag there too. I knew where they would be waiting for me, and I walked the hill up towards Old Pale, and then began the run to Barnsbridge, as I was determined to be running when I got there, especially as that was the 26.2 mile marker.
I was very emotional by this point in the day and I'd given myself a fairly stern talking to, but I'm afraid I snapped at Zippy not to be sympathetic when she tried to hug me (Who in their right mind would try and hug someone who smells like they'd just run 26.2 miles?) I was very glad of the cheers that rang in my ears, but also of the water and food. As I left Fay, Claire and Zippy, I looked up at the Spartan flag, waving above where they were standing and that glance brought things home to me. The sight of the flag nearly brought me to tears again, but genuinely, it made me move. I could do it. This was just a short stretch left to Frodsham. I'd just completed a marathon distance run. I am a Spartan!
Lesson #4. I can do far more than I ever thought/ Spartans Never Surrender!
I was under trained, and running on empty. Everything hurt like hell, but there was never any point when I wasn't going to finish, I just wasn't going to do it as quickly as I should have done. After I got to Summertrees Cafe, I knew I didn't have far to go. I may have been swearing with every footfall going down steps, I may not have been able to run very far uphill, but I was nearly there and I was going to keep going. As I left the forest, I felt like I could do anything (just slowly). My mind cleared and I knew, more clearly than ever, that I could make it.
Lesson #5. My family, but especially my kids, are great.
My mum and dad had been waiting for me for ages in the cold in Delamere. My long suffering wife had ferried the kids around all day, and had them waiting at the finish line for me. Then I got lost. I'd run around the Frodsham area before, and remember running up one of the hills there, near the holiday park, so even though my gps said go left, I went right. In the end, I ran an extra couple of miles, but I was kind of euphoric by that point, and didn't really care. My daughter quite rightly told me that I won my race, as I was the only person in my race who ran 35 miles not 33. When I finally got to the finish line, I ran in with my children running alongside me, and as I collapsed into a chair in the community centre, I could just about focus on them telling me how proud they were of me.
Lesson #6. I'm stubborn.
I'm not letting that time stand as my PB for the race. I will be back for more next year, and I'll have other ultra distance runs under my belt before then.