Note: again, if you want to see some pictures of the event, use the following link: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ultraracephotos/sets/72157630244526740/ Look out for Kevin Doyle, the eventual winner. He’s number 16.
I’m not a morning person. But that’s ok, because while 2.15am is technically the morning, it’s still very much the middle of the night. So when the alarm went off after me grabbing about three hours sleep, I managed to stumble out of bed without knocking anything over, stuck the kettle on and got my gear together.
I was manning the final checkpoint, positioned in the village of Alderminster and at exactly 90 miles into the race. This was the one I’d really been looking forward to, since I figured it would give me the best idea of what running these sorts of distances actually does to a person. I wasn’t disappointed!
I was due on the checkpoint at 3.30am, but as usual had decided to head over a little early. I arrived at the spot just after 3am, to find Rory already parked up on the corner. In 2011, the first placed runner had come through at 3.47am, so I assumed there was plenty of time to set up. It was therefore quite a surprise when Rory told me that the leading runner, Kevin Doyle, had already passed through about twenty minutes previously. While I was letting that sink in, another headlamp bobbed into view. Chris Carver in second place was nineteen minutes behind him. So basically, the first two had already been and gone before I’d even chance to get out of the car. Great start. Predictably enough, neither of them stopped. These guys were really racing, and I only wish I’d got there a little bit earlier to see them properly. But there wasn’t time to worry about that – I needed to set up the station.
I had a brief chat with Rory, but he was obviously keen to get to the finish since his two leaders were already well on their way. With the car in position and everything ready, I settled down to wait for the next runners to come through. By this time is was about 3.30am, and I guessed I’d be here for another six hours or so before Jen came to take over. Might as well sit down. My wife had sensibly suggested I take a chair with me. A good idea. The only problem was that unlike my previous checkpoint, I couldn’t see the competitors coming from very far away. The first I’d know of them being there was when they’d come round the corner, by which time they’d be more or less at the station. So I quickly settled into a pattern of sit down for two minutes, then get up and walk down to the bottom of the road to see if there was anyone coming, there wasn’t, walk back up, sit down again, walk back down, etc etc. After half an hour of this I put the chair back in the car.
As it panned out, I could have just taken it easy. I didn’t see anyone else until 4.25am. Between then and 7.34am, I saw a total of 14 runners come through, in varying states of wear, fatigue and mood. I’d been warned not to expect too much in the way of conversation – perfectly understandable, given the circumstances. Rory had said that a lot of them wouldn’t stop, so I’d have to be on my toes to get their number as they went through. But as it turned out, that was only the case for the first three runners. Everyone else had a break ranging from a couple of minutes to five or more.
It was, as I say, a mixed bag. I was struck by the incredible mental attitude of some of the guys. There was a lot more laughing and joking than I’d expected, with more than one of them pointing out how nice it was of me to have got out of bed to man the checkpoint. That might not sound like much of a big deal, but to be able to show genuine appreciation and warmth to a complete stranger having run all through the night and previous day is amazing. At the other end of the spectrum, I had people come through who didn’t even look at me, much less offer any conversation. That’s fine, it’s not about hurting anyone’s feelings and mine certainly weren’t. But it did make me think about having a positive attitude. The demeanour of a few of the runners suggested that they were fighting this race, that it was something to be beaten and overcome. I suppose if you’re at the sharp end and trying to win, that comes with the territory. However, if you’re not then surely it’s something to be embraced and enjoyed, at least as much as possible? Easy for me to say having never attempted it, but I saw it again and again. Ultimately, would you rather go through an ordeal or a great experience? Food for thought.
Some of them were in good shape physically, some were really hurting. One in particular was suffering even to walk, not that it stopped him from cracking jokes. Who wants to pack it in at 90 miles? I later discovered that two had dropped out at 80 miles, which I’m sure was a tough decision to make. But when you’re still facing the thick end of a marathon, it’s completely understandable. 90 miles, however, was viewed by all as the home stretch. A good few were saying they planned to walk the rest of the way, but I’d be surprised if the urge to run didn’t take over with a few miles to go.
It was great getting to meet some of the wives, husbands, partners and mates of the various people taking part. There were clearly a few long-suffering individuals well used to standing at checkpoints in the early hours of the morning! In particular I had a good talk with Chris, an ultra runner from just up the road in Warwick. He was there supporting a friend, and had run this race the previous year. (He wasn’t taking part this time having just completed another ultra a week or two before.) I think talking to Chris convinced me as much as anything that this was something I want to try. His enthusiasm for, not just the event but the people taking part and all involved, was infectious.
As the Alderminster church clock struck eight, it was getting towards the time when anyone wanting to finish in under 24 hours didn’t have much margin for error. As it happened, virtually everyone covered that last stretch in around three hours or less. A total of twenty-four competitors finished in under 24 hours, with a further ten finishing between midday and 6.45pm. Fifteen people dropped out, and will no doubt return next year to try again.
The race was won by Kevin Doyle, the first guy I’d missed coming through CP9. A few things to note here. Kevin didn’t actually go into the lead until just before the 70-mile mark, at which point he was three minutes in front of the second placed runner. By CP8, he’d put an additional twenty minutes on that gap, and he eventually finished thirty-five minutes clear, setting a new course record in the process. He ran the final ten mile stint in a time of 1:24:50. That’s a pace of 8:40 per mile, having run 90 miles. Incredible.
It was about 9am when I left Jen and Chris at CP9. It was a brilliant experience, and an event I’m grateful to have been a (very small) part of. Whether I’ll be in the right physical and mental shape to run it myself in 2013 remains to be seen, but I’ll do it one day. Big thanks to Rory and Jen and all involved, and huge respect to everyone that too part. If you’ve never volunteered to help out at a race, I strongly recommend that you do. Not only because without volunteers there is no race, but also because it’s a hugely rewarding thing to do. So if I’m not on the start line next year, I’ll be back on the checkpoints. See you there?