So I did it! It wasn’t fast, it hurt quite a bit but was it worth it? Yes, omg yes! Will I ever do 50 miles again? Unlikely, although I am doing two more ultras next year just not 50 miles in one go. So here is a review of how it all went. Just in case anyone is thinking of signing up to their first ultra, let’s start at the beginning:
I looked at about six different plans and read everything I could find on the internet before I settled on a 12 week training plan. I knew I wouldn’t be able to train as intensely as the plans suggested given my age and lack of running prowess. All I wanted to do was finish before the cut off time. So I scaled down the intensity, settling for steady plods rather than runs and hikes up hills rather than hill sprints.
The one thing that all ultra plans contain is back to back runs every weekend even on regression weeks. If I followed any of the plans I was looking at running at least 35 – 40 miles a week rising up to 60 – 70 miles in peak week. At the pace I run I would be looking at running 9 – 12 hours a week. I like running but not that much. So I pruned and adapted and I started running more with my dogs instead of just walking with them as it was the only way I could think of to make up the miles I needed. You won’t see most of those runs on Strava but Garmin has recorded every step I took from mid June. The most steps in a week I recorded was over 210,000 that’s about 80 miles. And every week that passed I got more tired and had to slow things down even more. Yes I was over doing it – I know that now!
Then I went for a recce run in Exmoor to look at the first 13 miles of the route. It was much more challenging than I anticipated so I changed the training routes I had planned and included as much cross country and elevation as I could. I pushed as hard as I could. And my average pace started slowing again and I began to doubt myself. Then my race got cancelled.
In the end that was a blessing in disguise, LadyBower is a much better introduction to ultra running but at the time I was gutted. All that training and hard work wasted. I didn’t give up. It took me two days of trawling through websites to find an alternative. LadyBower 50 looked perfect. Game on!
Over three days in my peak training week I recorded 33 miles, 15 miles and 12 miles of running and walking, loads of elevation too! It felt about right; I was going to do this. Self doubt vanished. Time to start the taper. On reflection I was exhausted and over trained; stressed and worried as I put a lot of pressure on myself to get as many miles in as possible. I was sleeping badly, that’s always a bad sign but I was focused on my goal.
That first weekend into my taper I had a plan to run and walk a half marathon every day. After walking the dogs that fateful morning I was tired but at that point I was always tired. I told myself it wasn’t far and if I wanted to run that ultra then running on tired legs was good training. I had overlooked the whole point of tapering – it’s the chance to give your body the recovery time it needs to get ready for the big event. Anything you do in tapering has no real benefit. If I had been less determined and listened to what my body was trying to tell me maybe my knee would have survived. But I ran because I am stubborn. About 4 miles into the run it all went wrong. The pain was incredible, at first just a slow throb so I walked but even that was painful. Within five minutes my whole knee was on fire. I cried. It took me nearly an hour and a half to hobble just under three miles to get home. What an idiot.
Rest, lots of rest. Even walking the dogs for ten minutes was painful but then so was sitting still. Physically and Mentally I was in pain. Ten days for my knee to stop hurting and no running! I massaged and stretched, with loads of Pilates and strength training. Then I did a little test run with the dogs. Ow! Doctors and Physio made a huge difference. Nothing permanently damaged and the specific exercises to strengthen my knees and hips made a difference. And every day I just got more tired. I slept at least eight hours a night for the first time in two months. I felt awful.
Best taper ever! Seriously. If I hadn’t injured my knee I would have run and pushed myself until the end. At least I got to sleep in the last three weeks. Never underestimate the value of seven hours sleep every night. I did very light runs, lots of walks with the dogs and loads of stretching – perfect. It didn’t feel like it at the time but now I know it was what I needed more than one last run up the Smaelog or a fast two mile leg turner.
Pre Race Nerves
To say I was nervous and full of self doubt would be an understatement. I hate the unknown and 50 miles was just so far beyond anything I had ever experienced. Reading everything on the Internet only made things worse. One day I read advice saying it is fine to have an extra long taper, the next day I read about how running with a barely recovered injury is a recipe for disaster. How can you tell if you are recovered unless you run? I had spent a lot of time in the previous three weeks going over maps, elevation profiles, google maps and race plans. It didn’t help because I knew I hadn’t done a recce run which is the best prep you can do. Just knowing what the first five miles and the final approach feel like can really help. Luckily the route was idiot proof – no chance of getting lost and doing extra.
I’d had a few pain free days for the start of the final week but suddenly everything seemed to go wrong again – that knife in the knee was back. And I was getting the flu! I cried some more and lost my temper with the bed post ( don’t ask). Even walking the dogs wasn’t helping. And it was raining. Even retail therapy didn’t work, it was bad very bad. I knew I couldn’t do it, I even thought about giving up running altogether.
I thought things through. I still wanted to start the race even if I only went two miles and hobbled back – in my book trying and failing is almost as good as trying and succeeding. Not trying or giving up leads to failure. If you don’t try how will you ever find out if you can fly?
So off we went to the Peak District. Once we got there I suddenly remembered how much I love being outdoors surrounded by nature. It is truly beautiful, so many places to walk and run and climb and ride… Sorry but you get the picture – very inspiring. We went up to the reservoir before going into the campsite and it is stunning. I looked at the paths around the lower reservoir which make up the first 5 mile loop and thought to myself even if you only run five miles it will be beautiful. LadyBower is a perfect location.
The race itself is very simple. Race HQ is a marquee in a big layby at the top end of the lowest reservoir. You do one small lap in an anti clockwise direction around the bottom of the reservoir and back up. Just keep the water on your left hand side, stick to the main path. Cut across below the dam, back to the beginning. Thats 5.5 miles. Next you do the big loop. Start off in an anti-clockwise direction but keep going past all three dams all the way to the top to where the River Derwent is just a stream. Cross over an ancient stone footbridge and come back down the other side. That loop is 15.1 miles – it undulates. You do it three times. You come back to Race HQ and check in each time. 50.9 miles. Easy. No not really. Running 50 miles isn’t easy, even for people that do it a lot.
So my plan was simple – start by running five miles, if nothing goes wrong do another five. If nothing is hurting at the first dam don’t stop, do the big loop. Repeat if you can. I told myself that twenty miles would be a lovely training run but if I could do the big loop twice that is nearly 36 miles. That’s an ultra! More than 50k – I could settle for 50k @ 50.
This story is a bit of an anticlimax really as we all know how it ends. I ran 51.2 miles. Happy ever after, who dares wins, true love conquers all and so on. How could I fail after all that effort? Quite easily. There were 65 runners that morning including me. I was the last to finish nearly an hour after the person in front of me. 14 people started but didn’t finish. That’s nearly 20%. More people DNF at ultras than any other distance. These are people who are good fit runners with loads of experience. A lot sign up but don’t turn up for one reason or another – knee injury probably. The combined ‘failure’ rate is probably closer to 40%.
You have no idea how close I was to not starting at all. Until that is people started sending good luck comments on Facebook on Saturday night. I almost started crying again. Your belief in me is a bit scary. I couldn’t let you down but I hate failing. Up until that point I think I was in denial I had this perfect excuse not to finish – the knee. But suddenly I realised I was going to try, try really hard and it was going to hurt but unless I felt real damage and pain like before I wasn’t going to give up.
Fifty miles, I had to run fifty miles, only good runners run that kind of distance. Who was I kidding? What was I trying to prove? What a joke! All these months of bigging myself up to everyone when I knew I am a terrible runner. My mind was going into overdrive – time for a real drink! Amazingly I had a good nights sleep, at least seven hours.
We got up, drove over and parked up about twenty foot from Race HQ. I had my cereal, banana and coffee and watched the other runners arrive. Eventually after a fair amount of stalling I went outside to listen to the race briefing.
There are actually two races – 50 and 20 miles – mine set off first, the 20 milers set off 30 minutes later. It means on the first big loop you are being overtaken by the 20 milers all the way round. I nearly made it back around to Race HQ for the first pass before the front runner overtook me and completed my twenty miles before the last one finished – small victories!
I did that first five mile stretch four times. It was the worst bit of the whole lap. It’s an uneven forest path with tree roots and little lumps and bumps so I couldn’t find an even stride. There was a short grassy stretch then the three miles back up to the dam undulates, quite steeply in places. But it is very pretty. All of that first five miles I worried. I couldn’t breathe properly, couldn’t find a rhythm and my heartbeat was way too high. It was cold so I layered up but that wasn’t comfortable. I was stressed and my knee was already pulling a bit. When I saw Jon at Race HQ I said I was good to try the next five miles. So I did it again, it was a bit better second time around so when I saw Jon waiting just below the dam I told him I was fine. I lied.
My knee wasn’t painful but it wasn’t happy either if I was going to make 20 miles then I had to pay attention. Luckily the next four miles were all on Tarmac path. Undulating but smooth so no jarring or stumbling. My biggest problem was going downhill hurt more than the uphill. I couldn’t fly down like I usually do but instead resorted to a careful plodding. Every once in a while I would place my foot wrong and a very sharp stab in the knee left me breathless. Not often but just enough to make me cautious.
After the top dam it starts to really climb and the path becomes cinder track then stone. The last two miles up to the top were challenging but I had company. By this time I was being overtaken every minute or so by a runner or overtaking people out walking not to mention the cyclists. It was quite busy for being out in the middle of nowhere! Oh and it rained. I got soaked – it’s very exposed at the top. And windy too! Lucky I had those two layers on. My biggest concern however was my heart rate which refused to drop below 150 bpm – I had trained at 140 – I knew that worked why wasn’t it working today? If I couldn’t steady my pace, lower my heart rate and get a good even stride I was doomed.
The last six miles of the loop were much easier but still undulating. The path improved again and I had a lot of company with the 20 mile racers who were all starting to struggle by this point. We all cheered each other on. I got a lot of that when I explained I was going slowly because I was doing the loop three times. I still didn’t believe it at that point but they did and told me I was amazing. The knee decided it wasn’t going to win so reverted to sulking in the background with an occasional shout just to keep me on my toes. My back hurt but it didn’t matter though because I had finished the first loop.
Becoming an ultra runner
All of sudden I knew I was going to try to run the second loop. Things weren’t that bad, I was managing the pain and also my heart rate had finally started to go down. Plus the sun was shining again. I grabbed a quick snack, changed my t-shirt, took a comfort break and waved good bye. Third time down that path! Nope still not liking it. At this point I should mention I hadn’t been overtaken by the lead 50 miler but I was expecting him at any moment. When he did pass I shouted well done as he flew past. It made the miles go a bit quicker because all of a sudden I was back around to the first dam, the halfway point of the ultra and wow nearly 26 miles in less than six hours. At some point between the bottom of the reservoir and the dam something changed. I wasn’t just out for a morning run anymore. I had already run a serious distance and it felt almost good. I wasn’t tired or out of breath, my legs felt good, my heart rate was back down to where it should have been from the start and I was suddenly in the best place in my head that I had been for weeks.
At this point I started doing the bit I like best; playing with numbers in my head. I don’t like music when I run, I like maths. I worked a few things out, set myself some goals and started ticking those miles off.
My longest continuous ‘run’ had been 27 miles in training so when I got to that point I gave myself a pat on the back – officially an ultra runner! Next milestone was the next dam and then the big 30! That was seven hours in, just on the difficult stretch on the top, I was overtaken by the second placed runner, an hour after the first one. We said hello, it was pretty lonely up there by this time but still the odd walker and cyclist. My next milestone was 32 miles – all I could think was ‘Vale Ultra I am going to nail that one’.
By this time I was on the lovely downhill stretch when all of a sudden a sharp pain on one of my toes threw me. It throbbed, tears came, I gasped for breath and hobbled. No one in sight. What do I do? I have blister plasters in my back pack but my toe felt enormous in my trainer what if I couldn’t put my shoe back on? So I hobbled and let my Runners Tourette’s take control. After a few minutes the throbbing receded but I noticed a toe on the other foot was also joining in too. At least it evened out my gait. I was in control again. Just a little hiccup but a taste of what the final few miles would feel like. Nothing was going to stop me. I had been passed by maybe five more runners on their final lap and they all said something encouraging. A few walked, they all slowed down to check I was okay. None of them doubted I was going to do the final loop! One even told me I was running strong. So it never even occurred to me to give up, everything was going better than expected I still felt reasonably strong it was only fifteen miles how hard could it be?
The next fifteen miles were the best and worst of the whole day. Jon came with me because you were allowed a pacer on the last lap. I couldn’t have done it without him really. He had to pretty much coax and bully me to keep ‘running’ all of the last ten miles. When my heel exploded two miles from the finish and I couldn’t see from the pain he just held onto me. By that point my back was on fire, my knee was throbbing, my toes were stinging, my shins ached and I was so tired. But that is jumping to the end of my story.
We set off on the final lap. I pointed out the landmarks as he took pictures and I did the lower loop for the last time and I breathed a sigh of relief, worst bit over, only ten miles to go. Then it was up and down but mostly up. Those hills got a bit harder the further round we went. I breathed into them now, but it was still all good. We bumped into some deer right at the top – the only living thing we saw for about five miles. He tried to make me eat every so often but by then I was feeling a little queasy. I kept marking off the milestones. Forty miles was awesome but 41 was even better – single digit distance to go. 43 miles was about ten hours in which is the distance of the Brecon to Cardiff Ultra, going to nail that one too! 45 miles was the top of the loop. Ticking each of these off made me triumphant and confident. I was getting tired and slowing down but I knew I was going to finish and well within the thirteen hour cut off. I was going to have some new bling.
Pushing through the pain
For the last six miles all I could manage was a slow shuffle on the uphill with a waddle on the downhill. It was getting dark by that time too. I would have been so scared to run that section alone. I didn’t have to though, so I gritted my teeth and kept moving. I had to move because if I stopped I got dizzy so no stopping even if it’s just a shuffle. That’s the trick, don’t stop moving, never sit down, relentless forward progress. Keep counting miles and landmarks. So that was what I did. Jon was at my side telling me how amazing I was and how proud he was. If I hadn’t been so tired I might have cried then too. I was so happy to see the top dam in the distance which meant only two miles to go and we were still putting in little runs by playing tree Fartlek.
Then my heel went. Two miles to go for goodness sake hadn’t I gritted my teeth through enough pain already? So I walked on tippy toes because the swollen toe was less painful than the red hot pain coming through my heel. My knee took pity on me and just lurked with menace. Another half a mile or so and the pain receded again. As I mentioned earlier, by this point everything hurt to one degree or another and I was so tired, but we were drawing level with the top dam by then so I put in another 100 meter shuffle and another and another. Every little bit helps. At least the pain was sharpening my brain which had become a little fogged and weary.
To me the most significant marker was always going to be 50 miles no matter how long the actual route was, I can’t express how many emotions I felt all at the same time. Twelve hours and ten minutes, but it was one year in the planning and more than 1000 miles on the feet since Christmas to build me up to that point. Okay maybe I am awesome after all still not sure about inspirational though. If I say I am going to do something then I probably will I am just stubborn that way.
After that it was less than a mile down to the next dam and my heel had calmed down to an angry roar and I was feeling so elated. And it as downhill so yes I ran, after all I am a runner I wear trainers and I have a watch. The last 50 metres are uphill to the Race HQ and the finish line but Jon asked me to run the last bit so I did but only a little bit. A bit anticlimactic at the end I didn’t fall to the ground and sob. I thanked the lonely volunteer who handed me my medal and t-shirt. We got a photo though. I think Jon was more emotional than I was but then he had to put up with me for the last year.
So that’s it. Fifty miles. I probably walked at least half of it. It was amazing and wonderful but also painful and daunting too. Beautiful and scary. Uplifting and soul destroying.
I still don’t think of myself as a good runner though.