non plus ultra – on dipping a toe into the world of ultra-running

I wish to begin this post with a caveat: my first ultramarathon was an amazing experience. ‘Plus ultra’ is the name of the game, and I want to continue building on what I learnt in Keswick, in order to go further and further. I want to be a skyrunner, to incorporate ‘ultramarathoner’ into my identity, and I want to explore the world around me on two wheels and two feet for as long as I possibly can.

However, we learn from what is not quite done right, and this is a post about learning from my mistakes (at least temporarily).

Shortly after arriving in the UK, I signed up for the Keswick Mountain Festival Ultra-marathon. At 50 km, it counts as ‘entry-level’, and it had the added hook of being located in a beautiful part of the world. ‘That should spur me on to keep running’, I thought to myself as I finalised the booking.

imageA month before the race I ran my first marathon. It was part of the coastal trail series on Exmoor, and I loved it. Just as I had imagined, the camaraderie out on the course was wonderful, and the scenery lifted my spirit every time it flagged. By the end I was tired and hungry, but I was still running up the last hill and had a giant smile plastered across my face as I collected my medal (that looks the same as the one I received for the half marathon in Sussex. I may have to attach a little sticker to remind me). During the weekend that I was in the South, Trail Running UK had a piece about the Keswick Mountain Festival in 2014. The author had struggled with the half marathon because of the terrain and I just thought ‘probably lives in London and never runs up a hill in training’ (ahem…).

I stopped mentioning my plans at work. People either said that I was crazy, thought that I was showing off and got defensive about their own sporting activities, or just looked bewildered. None of these are reactions that you want when trying to settle in to a new working environment, or when taking on a daunting challenge. As an offshoot of that, I also had a hiatus on my blog, effectively removing any opportunity to receive encouragement or support from anyone but myself. Not a mistake to repeat again! Lesson: Don’t let the b@$t&rds get you down, and don’t be afraid to ask for support. It is not a sign of weakness.

I made it to Keswick before the weekend truly began, and I managed to remain calm in the face of the ridiculous journey from London to the Lake District (truly, it would be easier to fly back to Colombia for a race, and possibly cheaper. My next ultra may have to be in Europe). I pitched my tent in a field, and noted the distance from the main site and starting point for the race. There was also a hill.

After setting up in the rain, an angry northern woman came over and insisted that I move it immediately. I did, but felt my long-held assumption about outdoorsey people being eroded. Not to worry, there is always an outlier right? Apparently all of the outliers were in that field. Saturday night they partied loudly and hard, until about 3am, thus destroying any chances of sleep for those with races in the morning. Lesson: don’t camp the night before a race.

On Saturday I walked the first third of the course, and subsequently won a walking holiday and a pair of socks because of it. I was surrounded by amazing scenery, gained an idea of the twists and turns of the first few hills, and built up an appetite for the evening. The only thing that I would do differently is that I would probably recce the entire route in order to mentally prepare myself. The hardest part of the race was the middle third, when I didn’t really know what was coming next.

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Lesson: Be more aware of the route, and have a plan for each section.

On the day of the race I was tired (see partying campers above), and, because information about the race was not really forthcoming beforehand, I wasn’t sure whether there would be water available to fill my racing vest, or how things were going to work. This added to the stress of the day, and meant that I felt flustered and dis-organised right up to the minute I crossed the startline. Lesson: Find out more about race organisation beforehand, and don’t camp before a race!

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I sometimes struggle to get warm once my temperature drops, which meant that I was chary of removing layers, even though I was definitely too warm at times. On the middle third of the race there was a section where you run along the side of a lake. It is sheltered, and the sun was reflecting off the water. I was definitely too hot, struggling to continue, and I felt nauseous (and probably dehydrated). I crossed a bridge and stumbled into a clearing, where a woman sat on a log with a clipboard in hand. It wasn’t an official checkpoint but she was making sure everyone was ok and pointing them in the right direction. She made me sit down on the log and kept me talking. I was really close to just quitting right there and then. I was pale and felt like a failure. Another woman came through and stopped to chat for a moment. She also wasn’t feeling well. Non-checkpoint lady suggested that we continue together, adding that an actual checkpoint was just around the corner. We set off talking, and just jogging through the trees, picking up others along the way before we stepped up to the drinks station. I couldn’t face the stodgy sweetness of nain bars and bananas, and couldn’t imagine what the next hill was going to feel like. One of the marshalls went to his car and brought me back a package of digestive biscuits. Re-hydrated (slightly), and armed with these magical disks, I attached myself to a fellow runner and headed up the hill. I stuck behind him and we talked all the way up, passing bluebells and soaring vistas as I felt better and better. By the time the gradient levelled off somewhat (still going upwards), I felt like I had just began the race. I began picking off fellow runners, and was able to sprint the downhill, whooping my way to the valley below as my poles came into their own on the scree and sharp turns. Walkers cheered on the ‘ladies’ as they stepped out of the path, and bananas were once again appetising once I reached the bottom.

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During the final 8km I was passing those that were in the 25km race. They would chat for a moment, then realise that my race-bib was a different colour, and invariably exclaim something about how long I had been out on the hills before attempting to up their game and jog a bit faster. On the uphills I was alongside┬áa man who runs with Joss Naylor (a hero of mine). He put up with my endless questioning of the upcoming route. I couldn’t hold any information in my head, and he didn’t seem to mind. I didn’t feel fast but he complimented my running style, claiming that I had good posture and my stride remained clean and steady. I took this as a massive compliment, and would have like to have continued at his side, but we parted company as the race hit downhill/flat for the final section as I was able to pick up the pace. The scenery had changed and dappled paths weaving alongside the lake gave way to an urban landscape (as urban as it can be in the lakes) for the last 2 km. I was still running and I was still smiling, but I didn’t have much more to give, and all I wanted was something really really salty to eat, preferably waiting for me at the finish line.

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It took me 8 hours. I was hungry and dirty and tired. I also had to strike camp and try to get to the bus/train station in order to catch the train to London. The hardest part of the whole day came at 2330 that night as I pulled my backpack onto my shoulders, made myself walk up the escalator out of the tube, and struck off across the common for the 25 minute walk towards home.

Lesson: Don’t listen to my colleagues’ mockery, and carry potatoes and savoury food when running ultras. Don’t camp before a race. Run with others, it lifts the spirit and keeps you going. Take off layers when hot. Drink more water.

All in all I’m glad that I did this race. I want to do this distance better, and then add on the miles and continue challenging myself. For now, I am resting a little, remaining active but giving myself a break before beginning a reverse taper and building back up to peak fitness for the next challenge.

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