Ultra Marathon Finishers
That’s another one off the bucket list! Completing an Ultra Marathon has been on there for a long time and I never knew if I would or could actually achieve it as I’m normally pretty knackered after completing just 1 marathon. The preparation wasn’t ideal either limping out of Belfast marathon 6 weeks before after a few weeks of injury. But the human body never ceases to amaze me in terms of what it can achieve if you ask it nicely…. And I begged for this one 🙂
I’ve written about my Ultra preparation (and lack of) in a previous blog here and suffice to say I hadn’t done nearly as much as I would like to have, but did just enough to give me some confidence that at least i could finish the distance. Indeed I didn’t actually sign up for the race until a couple of weeks before when I was sure I would be able to take part. A four hour mountain run 2 weeks before the race was bordering on too much too close but I think it really helped on the day, I also pulled back a planned 3hr run the weekend before, to 2 hrs as the legs felt tired and I was reminded that “the only thing that you are going to do to your legs a week before the race is tire them out”. I then had a VERY lazy week before the race just focusing on a bit of cycling to loosen the legs and some core work, but at least I knew I was giving the legs plenty of chance to recover from the intensive few weeks training beforehand.
So the alarm went off on Saturday morning at 4.45am after 5hrs sleep and it all felt a bit surreal getting myself ready and forcing myself to eat some porridge. I picked up my running buddy Aaron on the way and we got to event site about 5.30am with 30mins until race time, plenty of time to sort out half-way bag, last minute gear & nutrition check & final bladder emptying. It was a pretty foggy morning which we were happy to see as it meant it wasn’t too warm or humid. There was a great atmosphere and good sense of camaraderie amongst the 80 or so headcases I mean Ultra runners present.
The only supporters at that time of the morning were the millions of midgets that had risen early to give us a good send off and we were certainly happy to see the back of those little suckers. So with an obligatory cheer and high five we were off and straight into the first of many ‘gentle slopes’ that we would be encountering that day. Our plan was to walk the tougher hills and everyone seemed to have the same idea which was very noticeable during the first few kms when we were still bunched together. I found it a little amusing to watch around me some of the fittest people in the country walking up seemingly sedate little hills that they would normally be sprinting up, but then as everyone knew we had a long day ahead!
After a nice 10km gravel run I was feeling good until I noticed up ahead our route veered right and upwards and we had our 1st big climb of the day up the aptly named Rocky Mountain and the start of the real trail. From here it was cross country amidst beautiful views, a nice downhill past Hen & Cock Mountains and a final uphill climb up to the half way point at Spelga Dam. From speaking to the other runners around us along the way some had mentioned they were aiming for 13hrs so we knew we had to keep a move on and got some decent pace going again. We were pretty much on time again at the ¼ way mark, 2.5hrs gone and a nice milestone to pass. From there it’s not far to the start of Tollymore Forest Park which is beautiful and feels close to Newcastle but you still have a long way to go as you actually do a loop away from the half way rest point and have another serious hill to climb and this is where things started to get tough! An experienced runner advised me to look at the first 20 miles just as a ‘warm up’ and I did this, until then head and body were feeling good with minimal niggles and pain. But the last 6 miles or so is a tough uphill and equally tough steep downhill which really took its toll on me. The main thing I noticed was that it was getting harder to start running again after uphill walks. This was worrying when I knew I had to repeat the journey backwards! However half way came just in time and along with it some decent food, a sit down and a big hug from my family who were there to support. Tired and sore I was delighted to get a short rest and whilst it was slightly daunting to think that we had to repeat what we had just done I thought I had left enough in the tank and we were well ahead of the cut-off point so at the very least if it meant a lot of walking I was confident I would make it home.
My plan was to avoid taking any nutrition for the first half marathon and just work off the porridge and big pasta feed from the night before and this worked well. I drank a cup of water at each feed station and had taken about 800mls of water in my bladder just to not overload. I had also tucked a small 200ml bottle into my bag which I used for dissolving salt tablets and caffeine when required, which worked a treat. By the half way point I had only used 2 gels and 1 of these was at the very end just because I was worried I might be under fuelling. The cake at each of the aid stations was delish and really easy to digest which was ideal, so handy just to take a mouthful of this to keep you going. At half-way I took a banana, some yogurt peanuts and a bar of chocolate. I also changed my socks which was lovely, ahhh the simple pleasures in life 🙂
We took about 15mins rest and then Aaron was chomping at the bit to get going again so we headed back. I didn’t want to stop too long either in case I seized up, but the rest worked a treat and all of the pains and sores afflicting me beforehand had vanished and we set off in good spirits. We got a good start of well over an hr before the marathon runners as well, who would be following us from Newcastle. It’s straight into the steepest climb of the day out of Donard but is then fairly undulating for a few miles to get the body going again and Tollymore is a lovely trail run as long as you avoid the tree roots and rivers!
From there you head out on a gradual uphill towards Butter Mountain and into the Mourne Mountains again. We had wondered if we would make it to Spelga before the Half Marathon runners started at 2pm and as we were approaching up a long hill we could see buses and everyone getting ready to start. The crowd split as we came running through and 400 people gave us a clap and a cheer. This was the highlight of the day and the perfect time to spur us on, with just a quarter of our distance left to go and the sun came out then as well. The lead half marathon runners caught us on the descent from Spelga and things did get difficult once we went cross country again with people looking to pass on sometimes narrow trails. I also found my pace quickening to match the people around me which is dangerous on tired legs, probably tired me out a bit and there was always the chance I would have lost footing or got injured, but thankfully I didn’t. Anyway lots of people were giving us a cheer on their way past and congratulating us which was nice.
After Hen Mountain came my hardest part of the day – on tired now sore legs a long dusty winding trail that you could see stretching for miles uphill against the wind. Sheer stubbornness and a kick up the arse from Aaron got me through and although I knew we had a tough steep Rocky Mountain still to come it didn’t matter, we were pretty much home and just had a ling steady ‘downhill’ into Rostrevor after that and nothing would stop us. My legs were finished, they were on the verge of cramping constantly, my stomach was sick after the gels, sweets & cake, my feet were sore from running on stones but it didn’t matter. I could barely jog even on the downhills and flats but I just kept the head down saying to myself “One step at a time” knowing I had less than an hour to go.
Before long we were in Kilbroney Park and it was delightful to see large arrows pointing us to the finish line. There was a decent crowd too and everyone was cheering and clapping us over the line, myself and Aaron finishing together arm in arm. In truth he was flying and could probably have beaten me by an hour but we said we were doing this together and he stuck to it, ignoring my pleas for him to go ahead and just leave me alone as I was sick listening to him 🙂
Delighted with a finishing time of 10hrs 42mins well ahead of our target and a good result considering our imperfect preparation for our first Ultra. After a pint of milk, a burger and a massage we headed for the sea and had a nice cold dip which was lovely after a long hard day. I was buzzing and just had an overriding sense of relief and absolute appreciation that I got to participate and complete such an amazing event. After a few days my legs are fine, no worse than after a normal distance marathon and we are already discussing ‘what’s next’! Delighted that we will also smash our goal of raising 1,000quid for charity so thanks to all that have donated and this is the link for those that would like to. At times like this I always try to look back and summarise my main learnings from an event and these would be as follows:
Weather lucky – it was ideal weather conditions for a long run, bright but foggy for most of the run, a bit of drizzle to start us off, a couple of showers during the day and sunshine to finish. A very dry 3 weeks before the race had also dried out much of the mountains, although there were still a few boggy patches it was nothing like we could have expected. Alternative conditions would naturally have slowed us down.
Pace pace pace – I was so glad we started slow and walked uphill’s for the whole race. Only for this I would have cramped much earlier and would have found it much harder to finish.
Rest – a very easy week before the race really cleared away any niggles. Plenty of core work and yoga over the winter also seemed to help. Generally I felt great, hips were a little tight but this is a long-term problem. I could probably have done with carrying half a stone less as well, but I blame this on a combination of my few week’s injury and the good weather and BBQ’s!
Food & nutrition – I felt a bit bloated during the first half of the race and did think I was going need a toilet stop. This was probably from a large pasta dinner the night before and breakfast, but they did help keep me going until the end. Better to stretch out the carb loading for a few days before the race instead of the final 12 hrs! Otherwise my nutrition plan worked well in terms of gels (about 7 across the day), water and salts, cake and caffeine (about 120mgs during the second half of the race).
Gear – my new bladder bag worked well and I hardly noticed it except when I needed it. I had my new video camera sunglasses with me but really they were too much hassle turning them off and on and probably wasted a lot of energy, as well as nearly losing my footing a few times whilst recording! I’m old school so prefer to run in terms of feel and just a stop watch but Aaron’s GPS was invaluable during the first half, keeping us right in terms of pace and distance, until it died at half way. I got away with normal runners but if things had been wetter I could definitely have done with trail runners.
Overall it was a fantastic race and amazing to both sponsor it and take part. The organisation, aid points and marshals were superb. If you love crowds cheering you on then Ultra Running just isn’t the sport for you as we hardly saw anyone outside of racers for the whole day, though the different race distances setting off at different times gave us plenty of company. The course was a lot hillier than I thought it was going to be, but overall I found it easier than I thought it would be, at least until the last few miles. Really this was due to pace and keeping plenty in the tank, as well as running with somebody else so you can keep each other going. Lots of people have asked me which was tougher this or an Ironman and really that’s a tough one as they are very different, though they took me roughly similar times (Ironman – 11hr46mins; Ultra – 10hr42mins). I guess I have to say the Ironman is tougher as the pace is more intense and I did a LOT more training for the Ironman – I followed a schedule for 6 months and was up to nearly 20hrs a week, with no injury problems. I did nothing like that for the Ultra, but then running is my thing and I love running in the mountains so really I’ve been training for this event my whole life. Hopefully I will get to do another one, perhaps even a 100km one at some stage and I’ll do a lot more training for that one! But for now I’m just going to enjoy wearing the ULTRA tee-shirt and enjoying a few lazy days before starting to build up towards some tough triathlons and a Half Ironman later in the summer…. My swimming has gone to hell but at least the run should be a doddle 🙂
You can check out my video diary from the day below, its a little bouncy as i was wearing video glasses 🙂