When I was a kid, Sony introduced a range of electronics called the “My First” range. They were basically simpler versions of things like a Walkman. For those that are too young to understand… these things had something called a cassette tape in, the cassette tape played music. The buttons were big, the colours were bright, it was made out of a robust material and it was safe for kids. When I thought about doing my first Ultra I didn’t pick something safe, I picked something long, 100k long! I entered Race to the Stones (RTTS)!
Back in the summer of last year I knew very little about ultras’. But then, as I started to research training plans it soon became apparent I would need to run 50k as part of the training. So why not do it as a race? I spoke to my friend Dana about this, as we would be running RTTS together, and we started looking into options. Initially all I could find were expensive races that were half of 100ks, but then Dana stumbled across something called “The Weald Ultra 50K” down in Sussex. It was close to home and about 30 days before the big one. This sounded perfect as it was a good price, (£45), elevation easy at about 800m, and was a small friendly looking race. Plus, you got a medal and a mug! How cool is that?
Safe, low key and fun!
This would be “My First Ultra”.
The Ultra Plan started post Paris Marathon and I was enjoying being back on the trails. Dana and I had talked about training, equipment, food and more. We were well underway but as we all know, nothing always goes to plan. Dana got offered the opportunity to go to New York and help launch Midnight Runners there after successfully doing it in Boston and Barcelona. She told me straightaway of the situation and how gutted she was. Initially she thought she could come back in time, but it just didn’t work out. I totally understood and really sympathised, but this was a fantastic opportunity.
I won’t go into the convoluted story, but friends Louise and Elisa had also signed up to do this race and it was around the time Dana was working out what to do. We mentioned to our friend Tom that he could have Dana’s spot as you can transfer for free, (another good thing about a friendly race like this), he said hell yes and that was sorted. Louise then found us a B&B. Then before you know it we had a Whats App group where we started making our plans for a trip to Dicker to run 50K…
Except this plan didn’t quite work out. Poor Louise had been nursing an injury and it turned out that it had been misdiagnosed and 5 days before the race she was told not to run for 3 weeks. We were all really upset for her, especially as she been through a really crap year with other things in her life. Running, or even walking this was not an option though, for her own good.
We Needed a Plan C
Tom suggested his running friend Anneka, (who he had run an ultra already with), she said yes and again the lovely organisers were able to change an entry for us, for free!
Revised team: Elisa, Tom, Anneka and me.
I had ran three 30+ Km training runs in May, experimenting with food and various other items, like shoes. During this time I decided to add 3 new things to my kit, as this was essentially a training run:
- A Buff – for wiping sweat off my face. Weirdly never owned one!
- Two Toms anti chaff – I hadn’t really got on that well with Body glide
- Salt Caps – Tom and I had been talking about these on our “What’s App’ group and decided to go 50/50 on a bottle of 100 to help replace those salts as we both sweat a bit, lol.
Apart from this, I planned, (partly as training for carrying items for RTTS and partly to see what I might need), to carry the following:
Long sleeve top, water proof jacket, first aid kit, foil blanket, scissors, blister plasters, phone charge pack and cable, suntan lotion, sun glasses, soft cup, tissues, insect repellent, hand sanitiser.
Nutrition wise I planned on the following:
1.8L water in bladder, 2 x 250ml soft flasks with SiS electrolyte (plus a spare pouch to refill), 3 SiS gels, 3 x Tribe bars, Dried mango, 2 slices of chocolate Soreen and 2 small sausage rolls.
I practiced packing my bag 3 days before. Well, I actually practiced packing even more so that I could see if I could fit everything in for RTTS, lol! It all fitted, of course it did!
Kit wise, I wore my Mind charity T-shirt, my new fav shorts for trail running: the Salomon Pulse 7”, as they have a perfect phone pocket and other pockets for gels and tissue. They’re the perfect trail shorts for stashing stuff as then you don’t need a belt!
I also wore my Salomon SLAB Ultra’s. I love these shoes as they are a kind of hybrid. Enough grip for the trails but easy to run stretches of road in and cushioning for long distances. No – I am not being paid to say this, I genuinely love this kit!
I also planned on bringing my own breakfast: Plain bagel with peanut butter as sometimes I get a bit of IBS and I know this works.
Something else we discovered from the race site was that the route wouldn’t be traditionally marked for a good part, (30k). They supplied a gpx file, which Tom and I were able to load onto our Garmin’s for navigation, and maps would be provided. I have done quite a bit of running using the nav function on my watch, so I was pretty confident. Elisa meanwhile said she might need an emergency flare! Tom agreed to stick with her for the race to make sure she didn’t get lost, which was awesome of him.
THE DAY BEFORE
We arranged to get to the B&B Saturday afternoon. I arrived first and I don’t know what I was expecting but it wasn’t this. Diane, the lady owner seem very sweet but It was old school lodgings, that’s all I am going to say.
I unpacked in my room and instantly realised an error straight away, I’d left my sausage rolls in the fridge! This was annoying, but I didn’t stress too much at the time.
The others arrived about 20mins after me and I think poor Diane was confused by us needing to get up really early and not needing “the breakfast” part for the deal. It wasn’t helped by me asking to use her toaster for my bagel, doh!
We swiftly headed out to find a pub as it was a nice day to sit outside. I knew Tom and Elisa but had never met Anneka. I had seen her mentioned in Tom’s posts and stories on IG plus knew she was a really good runner. I clicked straight away with her as she has a similar sense of humour, in fact we all did. So, spending the next few hours chatting away about running and life was great, learned loads from Tom and Anneka. Dinner was had, more chat then an early night!
I woke up at 5.20am
Did the necessary.
Had a shower. I like to be fresh before a race.
Toasted my Bagel. Ate my Bagel.
Got my bottles and hydration bladder filled.
Finished my bag packing
We left the B&B at 6.40am.
Arrived at the start just after 7.00am.
1 hour to get sorted!
The start was in a village school and I was pleased to see that, as we were so early there being no lines for collecting race numbers or toilets! Everyone seemed friendly, which is always a great feeling when you are about to do something new. I wasn’t really nervous; more excited to get going on this adventure.
At about 8.50am there was a briefing, which none of us could really hear, then we were walked down the road to a start line. During this time, I met another runner wearing a Mind top, who wished me good luck. Then Tom and I started faffing with our watches to get the route navigation working and before we knew it we were off!
I had said the previous day that I would like to run it in 5hours 30ish, but I didn’t really have an idea, because after all, this was “My First Ultra”! I said I would stick with everyone else for the start and see how it went. And so, we all went over the start line together on our adventure.
I don’t really know how to break it down, as I didn’t really compartmentalise it into blocks as such, I have a bunch of memories and thoughts, which I hope will amuse, inform or even educate.
The Course: Was beautiful. A classic southern countryside run with about 800m of elevation, mostly through fields and woodland, with plenty of stiles and gates. There were some road sections and some crossings of major roads to keep an eye out for. At this time of year, there are also plenty of nettles and brambles to get caught up in, but to be honest after the amount of insect bites I have had lately, they barely hurt anymore lol! There was also a funny rail crossing too, with a large staircase on either side.
The race information said the course would be marked for the half marathon part, which is the first 10k and last 11k-ish. Then we were expected to follow local trail signs and use the printed map, this is why Tom and I had the route on our watches. It turned out that the organisers did an amazing job of marking out the course with signs, ribbon tape and chalk on the roads. It would be pretty difficult to get lost to be honest. We took a couple of wrong turns when not concentrating but that’s it and it only added 20sec on at most, so Elisa def didn’t need the emergency flare!
The weather: Yes, Brits always love to talk/moan about the weather! Well, it got hot, like 28/29c hot, but we were kind of expecting it so no real complaints really, make sure you use decent sun cream and manage your hydration/electrolytes and you’ll be fine. More on that later!
Key Race Moments: We ran as a group for the first 10k. During that time Elisa dropped her sunglasses, then a guy picked them up and snapped them accidently. Not sure what happened but she was a little annoyed as it was so early on. We kept a good easy pace with no major hills, and then as we approached the 1stcheck point I felt myself ready to push a bit harder and didn’t want to stop. Elisa and Tom did though, but they encouraged Anneka and I to go on. So, at this point we wished each other well and split up.
Over the next 40K we had such a laugh. We got to know each other, encouraged and supported through the tough times but mostly just smiled and joked.
Anneka has a couple of injuries though. One was a dodgy ankle, which she went over on 5 times on tree roots. Some pretty spectacular dropping of the C-Bomb, followed each time but she was such a trooper and just got on with it after 10secs walking. Amazing. She also took a tumble – or as she called it a “Cheese Roll”, which could have been bad but ended up just being a small scrape. I almost took a tumble nearer the end but managed to hold it together. Tired legs and tired mind can lead to accidents kids. Apart from that nothing major to report injury wise.
Running Tactics: We had all decided to follow the classic tactic of walking the hills and running the rest. Once Anneka and I were off on our own, we continued this. Sometimes we would even run the first half of a hill. It was during the walking part though that Anneka discovered my inability to walk slowly! Now, my family, most of my friends and my colleagues, know this very well. I am sorry but it’s just hard for me to do. I just tend to power walk and that resulted in Anneka taking the piss out of me. I did slow down a bit on some hills, but it was hard, maybe she needed some kind of reigns for me, lol! Apart from this, we ran nearly the entirety of the course, which I am super proud of. We encouraged each other to dig deep and took turns on calling the start running time, which worked brilliantly.
Pit Stops:These were approximately every 10k and had water, some small snacks and Coke. Some had gels, energy bars, fruit or Jaffa cakes etc. Basic, but we were told this in the instructions, so you can’t complain, and I planned for it.
PIT STOP 1: Skipped
PIT STOP 2: Anneka needed a water refill and wanted some fruit. I helped refill her hydration bladder, while she ate. We stopped about 3mins max.
PIT STOP 3: As planned, I needed to refill my bladder with water and both bottles with Electrolyte from a sachet. Anneka helped with the bottles, which was brilliant and I think we were done in about 5mins max
PIT STOP 4 – Didn’t stop
PIT STOP 5 (3K from end) – Stopped for a cup of coke and for Anneka to have fruit
We were both really happy with the way we did these stops. It was something Tom told me: “Just get in and out as quickly as possible!”
Food and drink:So, it was mostly good. I ate 2 of my Tribe bars, a slice of Soreen, some mango and two Gels. At about 35k in though I got a bit of Runger and really craved some real food. It was at this point I remembered about the bloody SAUSAGE ROLLS! I could see them sitting in the fridge at home, gawd dam it!
I drank about 3.5ltrs of water, 500ml of Electrolyte and then shared the other 500ml with Anneka as she needed the energy/salts as well. The other new thing I tested out was the Salt Caps. I took one about every hour and this seemed to really help as I sweat a bit and did I mention it was warm? Taking these is a great alternative to Electrolyte as you just down with water.
Back to the race:We were pretty happy with our tactics and running but the lack of food got to me a bit as it did Anneka I think. We both had a couple of wobbles in the last 10km, stiles became tricky, but we still laughed and smiled and it was at this point I realised that I was really enjoying myself. Yes, our time was looking more like 6 hours, but it didn’t matter really. The other nagging feeling was that I would have to do double this distance in 33 days time, it was kind of scary, but I tried to not let it bother me too much. The distance kept ticking down on my watch, but the finish seemed a while away. I got very confused when we looped back on to the road that we started on. Luckily some runners that had already finished and were sitting in a pub pointed us the right way. That last 500m or so seemed like an age. Then we rounded a corner into the school and across the line.
Anneke and I had a hug, high fived, got our medals and mugs and headed to the kitchen for some squash!
The first thing we thought of is how to get hold of Tom and Elisa and find out how they were doing, but phone signal was bad. I managed to check IG stories though and saw they were both rocking it. We went to my car, so I could grab some stuff to get changed. I wish I had prepared a bag and left it in the school hall though as walking was a little tricky. I also got to try out my new recovery flip flops and they were ace. Taking your socks and shoes off after a run is heaven. Putting them into something soft, supportive and bouncy is even better!
Then we waited anxiously at the finish line, where we met so many lovely people. It continuously amazes me how awesome this community is, the stories and support is brilliant. I also ran into Michael (the Mind runner from the start), it turned out he came 5th, which it’s amazing in its self but just two weeks before he had just completed the “Cape Wrath Ultra”, which is an 8-day 400km adventure in Scotland, wow! Again, he was a super lovely guy out enjoying his running and supporting everyone else.
Anneka and I took turns resting in a chair while we waited. I stepped away for a few minutes then heard some cheering and ran, yes ran back to the finish, just in time to see Elisa and Tom come running through. I was so happy for Elisa and even better she looked really happy too! The merry band was back together, and we had all smashed a 50k.
We chilled out on the grass by our cars and swapped stories of our adventure before saying good bye. What a lovely day!
(in no particular order)
Don’t forget things. You wrote a list Jon, check stuff off!!!
Buffs are great, buy a 2ndone for Stones so you can swap out.
Buy a cap. Sunglasses are great but they don’t keep the sun off your face.
Salt Caps rule
The new suntan lotion worked!
Prep your post-race bag well
Team efforts are needed! It makes it quicker to get in and out of check points. Also, to help support when the other person(s) need encouragement. You also become tuned in to how they run.
So that’s it. My first Ultra is done.
The cherry has been popped.
I feel good, I feel scared about the other 50k though, but I know with Dana by my side we can smash it!
So, much like the Sony, this was a bright and beautiful safe entry into the world of Ultras.
I am now ready to move onto one with auto reverse and a fancy remote control …those that know, know!
I am excited about the challenge of 100k in 30 odd days’ time. Time to press play!