Quick note before I start: I was going to put a bunch of photos in this post, but haven’t for two reasons. Firstly because most of mine were essentially of trees and tarmac, and secondly because there is a brilliant gallery here: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ultraracephotos/sets/72157630244526740/
A few months ago, I was looking for an ultra marathon that was taking place close to where I live. Not that I wanted to take part. I haven’t yet reached the requisite levels of fitness/insanity. All I wanted to do was watch some of the event, try to get some kind of insight into what it’s like to run these kinds of races. (I’m not entirely sure how much insight it’s possible to glean without actually taking part, but as I say, I’m nowhere near a good enough runner or sufficiently wrong in the head to try it at the moment.) I was surprised and pleased to discover that not only was there an event close by, but that it almost passed my front door. It then occurred to me that if I was going to watch, I might as well see if I could be of some use. I contacted race organiser Rory Coleman of ULTRArace, just before he left the UK to take part in his ninth (!) Marathon des Sables. I happily agreed to man two different checkpoints along the course, my first at 20 miles in and my second at 90 miles.
The ULTRArace.100 event is a 100 mile road race that starts and finishes in Stratford upon Avon, having undertaken a huge circuit through the Cotswolds. There are three things that you should know about the Cotswolds. Firstly, it’s a beautiful part of the country with some truly breathtaking scenery. Secondly, hills. Lots and lots of hills. Little hills and great big buggering massive hills. OK, it’s no Leadville in terms of ascent, but still. The course is far, far from flat. And it’s one hundred miles long. Thirdly, the weather can be downright bizarre at times. I have no idea if these places have their own micro climate or what, but I know from experience that it’s possible to go from bright sunshine to torrential downpour in a matter of moments. And so it proved (although not so much the ‘bright sunshine’ part.) A total of 59 people entered the event, with 49 actually making it to the start line. Most of them were smiling.
Checkpoint 2 was positioned just south of a beautiful little village called Snowshill, precisely 19.7 miles into the race. The competitors/maniacs were setting off from Stratford at midday, which meant that we could expect the first runners through CP2 (as it will henceforth be known) at some time after 3pm. I arranged to meet Rory there at 2.45pm. Thanks in no small part to my borderline OCD regarding being late for anything, I duly arrived at around 2.20pm. Rory got there soon after, and after loading my car up with water, Haribo, Mars Bars and Coke, we had the opportunity to talk. Rory is, it barely needs saying, a top man. As we chatted about running, a thought began to niggle away at me. That thought was centred mainly around the fact that the man I was talking to holds nine world records, has taken part in over 700 marathons, has completed the Marathon des Sables nine times and has countless ultra marathons under his belt. I probably couldn’t go beyond 15 miles. (And they wouldn’t be quick, either.) Me talking to Rory about running is like someone who once did a track day driving a Formula Ford talking to Michael Schumacher about driving.
Except, of course, it isn’t. (Or maybe it is. I’ve never done a track day or discussed driving with Michael Schumacher, so it’s impossible to make the comparison. And frankly, given the logistical and financial effort involved, it simply wouldn’t be worthwhile. Note to self: take this line out, it’s very Alan Partridge.) As well as being an athlete, Rory is also a coach. So he’s well used to dealing with people with no ultra running experience, and doing what’s needed to whip them into shape. We were joined by Jen Salter, also of ULTRArace and another incredible runner. Jen started her ultra career training for the Marathon des Sables in 2009, and since then has been the first placed British female in every subsequent MDS . In 2010 she was the third lady overall and won the marathon stage, the highest ever placing achieved by a British competitor. She holds the Guinness World Record for running the M2M (Ireland end-to-end): 345 miles in 4 days, 23 hours and 3 minutes. And so on.
Anyway, we had a natter about training, running technique, Luna Sandals (of which more in another post) and my plans for future events. But we didn’t get too long to talk, because a couple of minutes before 3 o’clock, our first runners arrived. My job on the checkpoint was simple: record each competitor’s number and time at which they passed through, then make sure they got water and sweets if needed. At the twenty mile mark, it was all pretty straightforward. The first sixteen runners all came through within half an hour, and just over an hour later I’d had thirty-five. The front runners were going through at about nine minute mile pace, equating to a sub four hour marathon. Not bad. (By which I mean ‘bloody incredible’, particularly since they still had 80.3 miles to go.) The next block were (obviously) a bit slower, due in no small part to the weather. At around 3.30pm, it started to absolutely piss down with rain. Sorry if ‘piss down’ seems a bit strong. But there is no other term for it. It was less like rain and more like having a hosepipe aimed at you. Fortunately, I was managing to stay pretty dry by cowering under the boot and umbrella (that I’d miraculously remembered), but it was fierce. It took about an hour to pass over and everyone got it at some stage. To be honest, you don’t really need weather like that if you’re walking the dog, let alone trying to get through a 100-mile race.
I had another nine runners through between four and half past, leaving another five out on the course. By ten to five, I was starting to think that perhaps we’d had some people drop out. But the last runner the previous year had come through at 5.15pm, so I wasn’t going anywhere. Just after 5pm I had another one through. It’s got to be harder for the people at the back. They know roughly where they are relative to everyone else, and that’s surely got to play on your mind. To put it into perspective, this runner was 45th through CP2, and by the time she’d made it to me, the front runners were well on the way to CP4. She didn’t stop, and she had a smile on her face. Awesome.
And yes, we had one man in Luna Sandals! Rory had told me that someone was running in sandals, and I spotted him from some distance away. Although I didn’t ask what version they were, they were certainly a thicker sole than mine, probably 8mm. He had the naked top, so I was surprised to hear him say that his feet were sliding around a bit, but it was extremely wet. I had hoped to catch up with him again at CP9, but unfortunately he dropped out after 60 miles. I know a lot of people from Luna have run ultras in their sandals, so clearly it can be done. It would have been good to pick his brains about his experience with them so far, but it wasn’t to be. As I mentioned before, I had a good chat with Rory about footwear, and will be posting about that another time.
The checkpoint was due to close at 5.20pm, but I still had another four runners to come through. Rory got in touch to tell me that we’d had one drop out after (or at) CP1, and three guys running together who had taken a wrong turn in Chipping Camden. I waited for them. And waited. After that, I waited a bit more. At 6.05pm, they appeared over the horizon. They weren’t all that happy. Running through Chipping Camden between CP1 and CP2, they’d come to realise that they might have taken a wrong turn. Spotting what they assumed was a fellow competitor in the distance, they decided to follow him. Except he wasn’t a fellow competitor, he was just a random runner who was probably slightly concerned that he was being followed by three men. After running over three miles in the wrong direction, they realised their mistake and backtracked. By the time they got to me, they’d already run 26.5 miles, nearly seven miles more than they should have. I mean, you wouldn’t exactly be overjoyed by that, would you? And they weren’t. But it’s kind of interesting, because out of the three of them, one was in markedly better spirits than the others, even managing to have a laugh at their mistake. I later found out that he was the only one of their little group that finished the race.
After seeing off the final three runners, I started to pack up. I wasn’t required on CP9 until 3.30am, so it was home, food and a few hours sleep before making my way over to Alderminster. My first experience of an ultra marathon had been great, but it was to be in the early hours of Saturday morning that I would get a real idea of what these people put themselves through. So far, I hadn’t been put off. There’s absolutely no doubt that running 100 miles is not something that should be undertaken lightly. But the idea that this was something I wanted to do was beginning to take root. Would seeing these guys at the ninety mile stage change my mind? I’ll be back with Part 2 of my report in a couple of days, so you can find out.