As you know, I have taking running 4 years ago, and increased my distance ever since. My close entourage also knows how infatuated I am with long distance running, in particular trail running, having to put with my endless recount of videos I watch on Youtube (From such as the Ginger Runner, Sage Canaday, Zinzin reporter and the Lapin Runners). A year ago, I registered for the London2Cambridge challenge, that I would run in support of Alzheimer’s Research UK. Well … that’s it. I have done it. I am an ultrafinisher!
My wife and I travelled to London the night before and stayed in the Westfield Stratford City mall. The dinner at Jamie’s was not great. Very noisy, slow and bad service (but good food). However, the night in the Premier Inn was good. I was surprised to get any sleep to be honest. I dreamt of running several times but altogether got several hours of decent sleep time.
I woke up at 5am, had a peanut butter sandwich, a banana, washed with a instant coffee. And off I went. In the lift I met a man in running gear who asked me if I was also going “for a little morning run”. This was a bit odd considering that I wore my ultimate direction vest and a GoPro on my chest … It took me about 20 min to reach the start at Hackney East Marsh. The atmosphere there was great. I was right in the middle of what I had watched on YouTube over the last couple of years. All those runners preparing for a full day of effort, tuning their kit, getting the last bits of food and drinks. I was so excited, it felt a bit surreal. I could not possibly be here, in London, about to run an ultra-marathon to go back home.
Our ticket was scanned, and we were providing with our kit. This included our chip, which was on a piece of cardboard in a plastic holder supposed to be worn suspended around the neck. Err… For the walkers maybe. I did not fancy a piece of plastic flapping around during 100K. So I remove the holder and put it in the back pocket of my shorts. It turned out to be not such a great idea. When I arrived half way, the cardboard had started to decompose due to the sweat getting in the plastic holder. For the second half, I put it in my bag. I latter learnt that they could actually scan it through the bag! The kit also included a metal fluorescent band for the night. I dutifully put it in my half way bag … where it stayed for the whole event! Same as for the colourful piece of clothe, that many runners put around their head. Why would I need that? After all, I had my Ferrari cap. I would remember it after the last rest stop, when my eyes burnt as the sweat poured down my brow. Putting items in my half way bag and letting them there would become a theme of this adventure.
I noticed several members of my Facebook L2C team group, but was not bold enough to go say hello. Pretty stupid really. Andrew Dorsett was there, setting up for his first Ultra, a very important event for him. You can read more about his emotional journey to become an ultra runner on his blog. Many runners looked young and fit. I started to fill a bit out of place. Fortunately, a nice lady, older than me, started to chat with me. She turned out to be a former professional runner, 400 m champion. She got cancer and was running the event for a cancer charity. I felt better afterwards. I had a coffee. There were loads of food. As in every stop there was a free supply counter with gels, bars, crisps, fruits and a coffee/tea counter. In addition a warm food counter offered bacon bap, sausages and the such. But I was not feeling hungry. About 25 min before the start, we were invited to enter the starting pen, where we would get the lattest briefing and have our warm up.
7:00. 3 … 2 … 1 … go!
The start was fairly brisk. Many runners made the mistake of going too fast. It is so hard to bridle yourself when you feel you are lightly jogging, chatting with your neighbours. I was doing 5:50 min per km. This is the pace I use during my easy week-end long runs and 20 sec slower than my half-marathon pace. Hey mate! you are NOT doing a half marathon. You are doing 5 half marathons … I initially ran with Andy Killworth, who would end up 7th, finishing in 11h17. He told me about his past experience (this was his second L2C challenge), and warned me about starting too fast. Of course him being slow was far too fast for me. Fortunately we were then running with Rob Coates, who also found the pace too high. We both slowed down to about 6:00 min per km and were joined by Debra Shaverin and Hazel Hall. The following 20K were among the best times of this experience. We chatted all the way, exchanged our experience of running, and sport in general, talked about our living places, our jobs. The weather was superb, sunny but not too hot, and the surrounding along the river Lea really nice. We were in the middle of London, but it felt like countryside.
This loveliness was to be my doom. We seldom stopped at the 10K mid-point. Just a little pee and an attempt at a chocolate bar. This did not go down and I threw it the bin. I also had a cup of water. However, over the first 18K, I drank … 3 times. I was just not thirsty, and felt like I could go on forever. By 18K though I felt really tired. I stopped talking, answering questions with single words (or grunts), despite the exciting topic: Brexit. Rob noticed how I was struggling, and slowed down to run with me. He kept me going until 22K, at which point I told him to go. I walked a few meters while drinking and crawled to the rest-point. I was crushed and scared. I had only go one fifth of the way and was dead. I was no ultra-runner! This was a half-marathon distance (it did not occurred to me that I ran this half-marathon faster than my first actual half-marathon! No wonder I was not keeping up). How on earth would I finish this race? I was thinking about the lesson I was giving the next day. Would I arrive in Cambridge in time? What about my daughter who was supposed to join me at 71K? How could I tell her that I would probably not be there on time. Heck, I would probably not be there on the same day.
Debra, Hazel and Rob were still at the stop when I arrived, and waited for me before leaving. I had bought a meal, which was silly. I tried to get something down, but could swallow none of the hard food. Fortunately, there were also fruits on the regular food supply, and I had an apple. After a few minutes, we were ready to go. A hundred metres were sufficient to tell me that I could not run. My calves were cramping as soon as I was jogging. And I really wanted a wee, despite having visited the loos at the stop. I told Rob to leave me and join Debra and Hazel (Rob and Debra would finish together in 15h06, Hazel was doing the first half and finished 6th in 6h18!). I went into a bush and tried to pee. Less than a dozen drops came out, of a nice dark ruby colour. All was now clear (no pun intended), I was completely dehydrated. The following 13K were miserable. I would run a few dozen meters, cramp, walk a km, and iterate. The surroundings were still delightful, the weather gorgeous, but I was very gloomy. On top of all, my GoPro’s chest strap was hurting me. Nevertheless I hobbled on, and drank, drank, drank. One of my bottles was filled with water, the other with a solution of electrolytes. I drank from them alternatively, making sure I would empty them before the next stop. I was not the only one in trouble. Despite walking most of the time, I overtook a few people. I was overtaken by many more, all the smarter runners who started more slowly and were still fresh as cucumbers. During this stint, we moved from large flat hard towpaths to actual trails, and encountered our first climbs. I arrived at the 37K mid-stop in slightly better shape. I ate slices of melon and orange, refilled my bottles and took a couple of ibuprofen. The pee was now orange. In normal situation this would have been scary, but this was much better than ruby!
I left this mid-stop in a relatively good mood. I was still cramping a bit, but was able to run a few stretches of a few hundreds meters at a time. We were now going through fields. It was hard to move fast, but I quite enjoyed the surroundings. I got my headset out, and put a few Infinite Monkey Cage podcasts. The path alternated between fields and lovely woods. The few people I encountered were cheering, and a little girl gave me a Haribo. I reached the 42K mark (marathon) in 5h38. At the time, this looked pathetic. However, looking at my predictions (see table below), it was not so bad. Considering that I completely bonked at 18K and believed then that I was on course to a DNF, this was even pretty good. The weather was turning grey and windy, and I could see the showers behind me. A little one caught up with me at 48K. I was almost at the stop and started to run.
|10 Km mid-point
|24 Km rest stop
|37 Km mid-point
|49 Km rest stop
|56 Km mid-point
|71 Km rest stop
|84 Km mid-point
|100 Km finish
Half-way! Arriving there felt good. This was only my second “50K” (OK, it was technically only 49, but close enough). The weather was gorgeous again. I saw Rob with his family (who was following and waiting for him at each point). I also met the Angry Jogger. I recommend his book and blog. Both serious and hilarious. I had noticed him at the start but was too shy to say hello (or too scared of him starting shouting and swearing?) Now we were both tired, sweaty and hungry, so that was fine. I checked out my half-way bag. The charge of my Garmin was close to 50% and I decided to recharge it. That meant stopping the recording in the meantime. I am so angry at Garmin. They claim the 920XT lasts 30 h on GPS mode, and independent tests reported 20 h. This was nowhere close in my case. Removing shoes and socks I discovered two small bloody blisters on the inner parts of my feet, at the edge of my calluses. That will teach me to take care of those better. I popped the blisters with one of my race number pins, and dressed them with special plasters. I changed socks, shorts and t-shirts. I had brought clean underwear, but did not dare strip naked in the tent. I later heard that some ladies were not so sheepish, providing entertainment to runners and first help staff. I decided not to put back the GoPro strap. As a result, there won’t be images of the second half. I only have memories. They cannot be fully shared unfortunately. Feeling refreshed, I went to fetch food. The buffet was abundant and varied. I was not sure I could eat anything else than fruit, after the failed attempt at 24K. So I put a tiny portion of pasta salad and a sausage in my plate. As soon as I swallowed the first bite, I felt positively ravenous. I vacuum cleaned my plate and went back for more, different types of pasta, different meat and a bun. Plus another apple. I drank a bottle of water an a coffee. I did not touch the entire table of fabulous Victoria sponges. I did not feel like eating cake. But this was very impressive. After a very successful stop at the loos (I know, too much details …), I filled my bottles and off I went.
It was only a short 7K stint to the next mid-stop. The weather was very warm, and I stopped to remove my t-shirt, keeping only my sleeveless Alzheimer’s Research UK vest. I switched to Ultra-finishers podcasts, to keep me up-beat. The countryside was nicer than ever. At some point we went through a graveyard near a church. The walkers went through there at night, and complained that it was spooky. But I went through it under bright sunshine, and it was was positively lovely. Nice little stop, with an amazing amount of prepared fresh fruits. I had slices of melon, pineapple and orange. A trip to the loo rewarded me with light golden pee (ahh the little pleasures of the runner). I was back on track on the hydration front. It took me 32K, but I did it. And I think this is a very important difference between the ultra-distance races and the more classical ones. In a marathon or a half-marathon, you do not recover from a bonk or dehydration. You just crawl to the finish. The sheer length of an ultra, and the abundance of rest stops, mean that you can rebuild yourself. Being slower on some parts of the course does not mean you will keep being that slow, as shown in my race profile below. By then, I was quite happy. I was looking forward to see Marie at the 71K mark.
I left the stop with a group of people whom I kept overtaking and being overtaking by. I initially walked, then started to run. This was a very long and difficult stint. We were often on uneven grounds in fields, passing small and slippery bridges. Tractor tyre marks were particularly annoying. The ground was very dry, and the tyre marks formed hurtful ridges. Impossible to run on that, and even walking was hard. Other hazards included felled trees and hidden holes. The worst was at km 67, where a path included grooves, 20-25 cm deep, hidden under high grass. By then I was running, and suddenly fell the ground disappearing under my feet. I was lucky not to twist my ankle on this one. Marie sent me a text message saying that the LiveTrail system predicted my arrival at the 71K mark around 19:30. She was pretty annoyed about that since I asked her to be there at 17:30. I told her it could not be right, that I would do better. This motivated me. I started to run more often, as soon as I was on a flat and even surface. I switched from podcasts to music, and the last 30 min flew while I was running with the soundtrack of Pacific Rim. I arrived at the rest stop in a fairly good shape. My former boss and friend Dennis Bray was waiting for me, having driven Marie. Dennis has been a keen runner all his life, including marathon. The rest stop had everything ready to prepare burritos, and I indulged myself into a nice chicken and tomato one. I washed it with a couple of cups of tea, and downed a few more of those lovely pieces of juicy fresh fruit. The Angry Jogger was also there.
We left the rest stop under a fairly heavy shower but were rewarded by a nice rainbow.
The presence of Marie made all the difference for the last third of the race. It is absolutely clear that without her, I would not have finished that quick, and perhaps not have finished at all. From Elmdon to Duxford, our pace was fairly good, with a few bits of running, when downhill or flat. Leaving Duxford, my quads and feet were really hurting though. When we arrived at the last mid-point stop in Sawston at km 84, we were welcomed by my wife, who was back just in time from the annual Zumba conference in London.
This kind of little surprises does a lot to lift the spirits. I gobbled a banana and an apple, as well as a few peanuts. While refilling my bottles, I squatted to stretch. That was not a good idea. Both squads screamed, and when I stood up again, the right one was killing me. Although ultimately nothing serious, they would hurt during several days, impairing my walk and vertical movements.
Leaving Sawston was difficult. For the anecdote this is where I live, and we passed 800 m from my bed! My mood was down. On one side, it was the last stretch, and only a small proportion of what I already did. On the other side, there were still 16 kilometers to go. In normal time, I quite relish a 10 miler, when I am rested and full of energy. That was not the case. Moreover, the sun was setting and the prospect of so many km in the dark was not enticing. Even more since I forgot my headlamp in the damn half-way bag!
This is were Marie’s presence was crucial, pushing me, encouraging me, talking to me continuously (for those who know Marie, continuous chatting is not the most enormous challenge for her but still😉 ) and … in possession of a nice and powerful headlamp. I though the street lighting would be sufficient. It was not. To save money, Cambridge shuts down part of the street lamps and dimmed the others. They are basically useless. Fortunately the organisation had thought about it and hanged glow sticks on all signs and blinking lamps on hazard warnings. By then we did not meet so much runners anymore. And when we did, nobody talked. Everyone was suffering. The tarmac was hard on the feet, but we preferred it to the surprise last stretch of trail at the heart of Cambridge, complete with muddy patches and nettles. We finally entered the city centre on Saturday night, close to the time of last orders. Swarms of young people occupied the streets, and we met some d..kh..ds who stole race glow sticks and attached them on the front of their pants. I do not know how many were removed from the path before the morning. I hope not many walkers got lost as a result.
We ran the last few hundreds meters. The finish was fantastic. Plenty of green glow sticks showed the way, and the arrival was lighted by lamps on both sides of the track, like an airport runway at night. I did not feel particularly emotional crossing the line, after 16 hours and 7 minute. I was just happy it was finished. We were handed a glass of bubbly and joined my wife who came to greet us (and bring us back home).
What I really would have liked was a cold beer! I wrapped myself in a foil blanked and went for some food. There was BBQ type food and also a buffet that I did not see. The Angry Jogger was here too. It seems we had about the same pace. Rob Coates was also still here with his family, greeting newcomers, as was Debra, but I did not see her. Those guys were awesome. Rob Pope, another member of our L2C team FB page, who finished in an awesome 13h even came back the next day to cheer the walkers at the end of their long ordeal.
I went back home around midnight, I undressed and evaluated the damage. I had 6 blisters. The two I popped at half-way were back, bigger. I had two large ones on the side of my heels. And finally I had two little ones under each of my middle toes. Completely symmetrical.
I popped them and after showering I dressed them with blister plaster and tape. And then I went to my heavenly bed! The next day, I could barely walk, and even less climbing or getting down the stairs. Unfortunately, I had to teach in the afternoon. That forced me to move. I do not know if that was good or bad for my recovery. The blisters dried in 2 days and the pain in my quads vanished in 3. The biggest problem was my left foot. The sharp intermittent pain I felt suggested a bout of Plantar Fascitis. However, I then noticed that a compression of the thigh was causing increased pain. After testing positions, pressures etc., I think this is a sciatic pain. As I write that, 6 days after the event, in a plane over the Atlantic, the pain seems to have abated. I plan to for a run tomorrow morning in Disney World resort where I attend a conference.
Altogether it was a fantastic adventure, and very good experience. Several of the female runners compared it to childbirth: a total pain during hours, and then you just forget, and remember only the good aspects. I cannot really comment on that, but it is true that the next day I was browsing the running websites to find my next ultra!
There are a few lessons I would like to highlight though, for me and anyone who would read that piece and envision their first ultra. Things you should be careful of:
- Do not start too fast. Whatever speed you are running during the first few km, it is too fast, slow down.
- Drink regularly and in abundance. Do not wait for the thirst.
- Avoid anything that make you uncomfortable. A small inconvenience, hitch, pressure, weigh will become a serious problem after hours of running.
- Write checklists AND USE THEM. I did write checklists for the start and the half-point. But I did not print them. After 50K, my brain was half shut down. I could not think straight anymore. Everything, including contingency plans, must be ready in advance.
- Get a support crew. Marie’s presence was a tremendous help for the last third, and seeing my wife at 84 helped also.
- If you are not a competitive runner, on route to a course record, try to enjoy the scenery, the friendship, the atmosphere.