Last July, I ran my first official ultra-marathon, the London2Cambridge challenge. This was a very special experience, with highs and lows, pain and joy. I loved it, and decided to do more, and try to beat my time of 16 h 07 min. I chose to do the London2Brighton challenge because it was organised by Action challenge the same company that organised L2C. Also, it comprised more hills (with 1420 m of ascent, 5 times more than the L2C) and one of my ambitions is to move towards more mountain running. As last year, I would run to raise funds for Alzheimer’s Research UK.
During the L2C, I started too fast, doing the first half-marathon at an average pace of 6 min 10 sec per km, which at the time was not so much above my actual half-marathon pace. In addition, chatting with nice people, I forgot to drink, and ended up terribly dehydrated at the first main stop. I spent the past year to train, improving my times on 5K, 10K, 16K, half and full marathon. I also learned to drink little but often on long runs. I was decided to learn from experience.
I relocated to London on the previous day, with my wife and my son, who kindly offered to come and cheer me up at some of the major rest stops. The journey to London was pretty horrible. 1 h to reach London from Cambridge. And then 2 hours to move from the outskirts of London to the hotel in Twickenham. The temperature was scorching (the car thermometer once showed 38 deg C!!!)
We had dinner in a Ke Sushi, a very nice Japanese restaurant. I normally do not eat rice before a race because it slows down your bowels, but I think the food was pretty lean and healthy. The rice did its work though. From Friday evening to Saturday evening, I only had a moderate number 2 at the first rest stop. Pretty different from the London2Cambridge floods … (sorry if this is too much details. You should not read a blog about running if you are offended by mentions of bodily functions).
Wake up call set up at 4:15am. I actually woke up earlier, but totally rested despite the short night. I was out of the room before 5 am. The walk toward the start of the race at Old deer park in Richmond was refreshing and delightful. Earlier in the year, I suffered from diverticulitis. A similar pain had been niggling me for a few days and I was a bit anxious. But it disappeared shortly after the start.
The starting village was quite busy. 1608 people registered for the full challenge (1518 actually started). Not all of them started at 6:30am, but many runners doing the first half were there as well, and a few families too. I was way more relaxed than for the London2Cambridge, and quietly prepared my bags. I chose to fill my chest bottles, one with water and one with electrolytes, but to keep my camelback empty during the first part of the race, when it was on flat hard surfaces.
I entered the starting pen, and gently warmed-up. The format was very similar to the L2C: 3 main rest stops after 1/4, 1/2 and 3/4 of the journey, and smaller ones in between. I therefore decided to tackle this challenge not as a 100K race, but as 8 successive 8 miles runs.
The start was fairly brisk, and I ended up running this first leg at a 6 min 10 sec per km again, as last year! I noted immediately that the km marks were off. Indeed, according to my Garmin GPS watch, the km 1 sign came at 1.4 km. The course was following the river Thames until Kingston-Upon-Thames, going through pretty wealthy districts. The number of golf courses around this area is absolutely nuts! The sun was shining, but due to the early hours (start at 6:30am) the temperature was ideal. And of course being at river level, if was pretty flat.
I spoke with a couple of runners, whose names I shamefully forgot. But the atmosphere was much less chatty than during the London2Cambridge. And it was probably a good thing. Each time I chatted, or I listened to music, I forgot to hydrate. I arrived at Green Lane Recreation Ground, first mid-point stop, at 07:45, 149/1521. I stopped very shortly at the stop, just eating a few fruit slices, drinking coffee, and having a wee. This is where I realised my wee was dark yellow. Hmm. Didn’t I decide to learn from my mistakes?
The second leg of the race left the river banks and got us through the suburbs of London. The profile was more of less constantly climbing.
On the graph it looks steep, but we are talking about an average slope of 1%. I started to walk on the steeper parts though, and my average pace moved towards the 7 min range. I knew I was enjoying the easy part of the race. I forced myself to drink regularly. I arrived in Oak Parks, the first main rest stop, at 09:17 (the position is meaningless because the timing system did not work for many participants). The temperature started to climb and at the rest stop, I decided to change from a regular bland short-sleeve t-shirt to my Alzheimer’s Research UK sleeve-less running. shirt. I had a coffee and ate fruit slices and potato chips, to help with loss of salt. I went to the loo and my pee was light orange … Well, at that point I was on dark ruby last year, so this was progress … Nevertheless, I filled my camelback and decided to drink as much as I could.
The third part of the race would bring us in the countryside. We had to go through a railway station (complete with up and down stairs). It would also feature the first really steep slopes and the infamous stiles. We had more that a dozen of them across the full course. We started to enjoy very nice natural surroundings such as the Farthing Downs, the downside being that we hit the first hills and a bit of wind. We also crossed the M25 and left London for good.
If you read the part above, you know what’s coming. Yes, I started cramping. Both calves. I just don’t know what is wrong with me. I always cramp at 25K. The only exception was the Manchester marathon. I genuinely drank regularly, and a volume considered suitable, that is more than 500 ml per hour.
[June 2017 Update: A colleague and ultra-champion, Hervé Seitz, pointed to me that this amount was probably well under what I lost by sudation during such an event. He measured his own loss at more than twice that amount. And the guy knows what he is talking about, running the 100K in 7 hours.]
I tried to listen to music. It helped a bit, but the distraction caused me to twist ankles. I was not in a happy place. Nothing was going according to plan, and I was having lots of negative thoughts. I arrived at New Henhaw farm, the 41K mid-stop, at 11:49, pretty crest-fallen, 197/1497. At this stop I drank coffee … and gobbled lots of fruit slices, including 4 pieces of pineapple … Stupid!
I left the rest stop with music on, trying to run and overcome the cramps. I felt OK, during about 100 m. And then I tumbled. That was a pretty decent fall, with ankle twisting, rolling on the ground, breaking patella straps etc. Fortunately, the ground was covered in grass and I did not injure myself. But I was a bit shaken, and I would spend the next km recovering. And then my belly started to ache. It would go on until the next stop. I think it was the pineapple slices and the orange wedges. They carry a lot of acid. I need to keep to melon and such. The coffee did not help either.
The terrain was undulating, but not unpleasant. Then came something pretty odd. I think I saw two successive km 44 signs. I passed Gatwick airport, and many air-planes flew just over my head. The most memorable was an Airbus A380 which was so big it looked very close. Towards what I thought was the end of the leg came a steep and long climb. We started to hear cheering, and comments in speakers. By that time, I was struggling and the sound was welcome. I imagined this was our half-way point. In fact, it was a racing circuit, on which a race was taking place at the time. I passed it, and still no rest stop in view. At some point, I met a sign “rest stop approaching”. Oh delight! I was uplifted. Wrongly. The sign was about a km ahead of the actual rest stop! At the end, the half-way point labelled “56K” showed up at 58.5K! I walked to the stop at Tulley’s Farm, quite exhausted and dispirited. It was 14:21, I was 193 of 1432.
My wife and my son were waiting for me. It had been a lonely first half, and having someone to talk to after 7 hours of plodding on was nice. I did not feel good, pretty nauseous, and not sure I could absorb anything. But in the end, I had two helpings of pizza and pasta. Not all the food the organisers planned was ready though. This is one of the issues with the Action Challenge events. Because most people walk the course, the event organisers tend to cater for them first (which is totally understandable. While a few dozen runners trickle down over a period of a few hours, several hundreds walkers arrive roughly at the same time. When it comes to hot food, this is a pretty big difference). This stop passed very differently from London2Cambridge’s half way. While I changed clothes then, this time I only changed my t-shirt. I did not tend to my feet at all, because they felt just fine. I also did not stop my Garmin watch to recharge it (OK, I actually forgot the connector, so not much choice there). So altogether, it was just a very long regular rest stop. After a while, my wife reminded me that I was actually running a race, and I should probably get going! I left under the applauses of various families, not understanding it was for me. I looked around to see if someone was coming, and not seeing anyone, I did not thank them. It took me a minute to understand what happened. Ultras really belong to a different world when it comes to support.
I quickly realised that I actually felt great, much better than before the stop. I had to wait for a bit before starting running seriously again, because of the food. But no bellyache, no nausea. And my legs and feet were OK.
This part had a bit of ups and downs, and I decided the rule that would drive me for the rest of the race: Uphill, you walk. Downhill you run. Flat, it depends on the terrain. This rule helped me tremendously. First of all, mostly I did not have to think before deciding on the pace. Indeed, true flats were pretty rare. Second, because I walked almost as fast in uphill and flat, my average pace was actually much faster than just a walking pace. The issue with the fifth leg were the drivers. A significant part of the course was spent on single lane roads, with edges on both sides. On these roads, we encountered an endless flux of big 4×4 cars (not the dirty land-rover type, for real adventurers. I am talking big shiny expensive ones that never actually see a dirty track). They were driven at mad speeds by people who were stunned to find pedestrians on their personal race tracks. When we signalled them to slow down, we were horned and revved-up on.
The arrival to the mid-stop at Ardingly College was a relief. 16:35, 195/1282. It was a quick one. Just a cup of tea and a refill of my bottles. I decided to stop refilling the electrolyte one. I used pills that dissolve in water, cherry and lemon flavoured. I used them for more than a year now. But after sipping on them for 10 hours, I could not stand the taste any more.
I realised that I was not in bad shape when another runner, who looked way fitter than I was, started to puke all over the place near the refill station. Why? Oh why? Man, you just ran 69 km, why not run a few meters away? Anyway, the poor man was indeed in bad shape. His wife and little daughter were trying to cheer him up. By the way, I do not think a 4 year old little girl can fully understand what is going on in that situation. Seeing her dad so sick was clearly distressing. How could she make the difference between a sport-induced sickness and a more severe ailment. I think it was frankly stupid of him. And since we are on the subject of bad behaviour, this was another event where fast runners just disregarded the environment and dumped their junk all over. During 100K, I travelled through litter made of gel wraps, sultana boxes etc. Shameful really.
After a couple of minutes I left. This part was OK as far as running was going. By then I was in pretty good shape. However, it was one of the most dangerous racing track I experienced. During a while, we were running on a double lane road where car were going at 60-70 miles/hour. It was frankly frightening, in particular when they crossed while overtaking us. Action Challenge dutifully put “keep on the path” signs. What they called “path” was a 20 cm wide bit of the grassy edge that they roughly chopped off. Not only was it super narrow, it was also strongly slanted. I dare any human, of even any mountain goat, to be able to run on it. I was glad to travel this part in full daylight. I cannot imagine what it was for the walkers, going through it in the middle of the night.
After this unpleasant part, we went back to paths, and the rest of the course was great. I met Miriam Klein (Finisher in 15h45) who also ran the London2Cambridge last year. I finally caught up with “hobbling man” (sorry, could not remember the name again). I had seen him from km 30 or so, fast walking but obviously in pain. I would catch him while running, but he would escape when we were walking (he was taller, OK?). We chatted for a while. He came from Leeds. Then I took off. I felt really guilty to let them, but we were still 25K from the finish. I could not start walking when not strictly necessary.
As for the L2C, we had to run around a church and through a cemetery. It seems to be a defining feature of those challenges. This one was in a village, and I suspect much less spooky at night than last year. Near the next rest stop, I ran along the pub The Cock Inn in Wivelsfield Green. There was loud Irish music, some sort of party. Everyone outside started to cheer me and applause. Very nice.
I reached the last rest stop in Wivelsfied Green at 18:19, 183/1229, wayyyy earlier than planned. And … I did not calculate beforehand and did not ring my wife. As a result, she was just leaving Brighton when I finally thought “Hey! wouldn’t it be nice to tell them I’m early”. I could not wait for 30 minutes just to say hello and we cancelled. Not nice (from me and for them).
Last year, the 71K rest-stop featured burritos, and I was looking forward to them. No burritos this time. However, I had the best jacket potato ever. Perfectly cooked. So creamy! It was hard no to take another one …
I left the stop, feeling a bit heavy because of the food. The jacket potato was great, but I should not have eaten a sausage too. The spirit was good though, and the walking fast.
By now, I knew my policy of running down/walking up was working well. I left just behind a runner called Peter Jay. We would keep overtaking each other in turn until the end (he won this “race” and finished 40 sec ahead of me). So, we spent 20 km together. We only talked once! And what a talk. Just after the stop, he was trying to put some crisp wrapping paper in his backpack and could not reach the pocket. I said “let me do that for you”. He answered “thanks”. After 80 kilometres and 11h30, you don’t feel like chatting much. Nevertheless, I felt no pain. And when the downhills came, I would run them happily. I think I then realised I could go on forever. Slowly, alternating walk and run, stopping here and there for food and toilets. The only barrier that I need to master now is the sleep. For that I need to move up to the 100 miles races.
As we headed towards the last stop, the barrier of the South Downs appeared, blocking the horizon like a giant tsunami of a catastrophe movie (try to imagine running from the right on the picture below, towards the hills on the left).
We knew from the race profile and the past reports that the climb would be trying. I arrived at Plumpton College at 19:46, 175/1168. This was a pretty swift stop. A tea, a couple of fruit slices. I emptied my chest bottles and got rid of the electrolytes, that I was not using anyway. I wanted to be as light as possible to hit the slope. One can see the barrier clearly on the image below.
The profile indeed is pretty scary. But in fact, it was nothing at all. Yes, we climbed 200 metres, but it was pretty short, and on a hard easy path. Nothing close to what I experiences at the Beaumes de Venise. Once I passed that last big climb I knew the way was mostly downward. The view from the top of the cliff was breathtaking. Towards the north, one can see a gigantic plain, and we can almost imagine London in the distance. Towards the south, a landscape of gentle hills rolls until Brighton and the sea. The sun was shining, and it was absolutely beautiful. And I felt great! So I started running.
The organisers added a small stop just a few kilometres from the arrival, with gels and water. No hot drinks or fresh fruits so I did not stop.
But passing by this mini-rest killed my legs. I knew I was close. We started following one of the major roads going to Brighton. The night was falling, and my spirits too. I was following one of the Action Challenge employees who was attaching glow-sticks to the hedges lining the path. And I could not catch her. My legs were tired and I told myself I had nothing left. Then, as I was about to cross the road in Woodingdean, a man overtook me. He was running with his son, who was pacing him. That reminded me of my daughter Marie, who paced me during the last part of the L2C. I started to run and latched myself on them. Actually, it turned out I still had something left in me after all!
I arrived at the Brighton racecourse at 21:48, after 15 h 18 min and 29 sec of race,
166 of 1170 finishers, 141st male . The total length was closer to 103K than 100. I felt very good and the arrival was a stark contrast with the 56K stop. The comparison of the paces at the L2C and L2B show a striking similarities, with just a general improvement due to training, and the fact that I bonked later in the L2B.
A big difference was the level of injuries. After the L2C, I could not walk properly during days. I had monstrous blisters, my quads were dead and my ankles hurt. It took me a long time to start running decent distances again. After the L2B I lost toenails as well, but that was it. I only had two small blisters on my heels and my legs felt OK. I was running after a week.
I therefore think I can push myself more. I signed for the Thames Path Challenge. This 100K follows the river Thames and is thus very flat. I will try to get under 15h, and who knows, perhaps 14:30. Then I need to do at least one very long ultra. I think about the Ultra-Marin, 177 km around the Golfe du Morbihan, my family´s original homeplace.