My watch told me I’d covered 50k and I was inching my way up a particularly steep and muddy hill – on a day characterised by steep muddy hills this one stood out as being particularly horrible.  So slowly was I moving that the map on my watch kept flipping directions – apparently the Garmin satellites couldn’t tell which way I was travelling.  Only another 30k to go… 6 parkruns… easy… hang on – each 5k was taking me around 50 minutes and I was getting slower… so another 5-6 hours to go… it’s already 3pm and I’ve been running (or walking uphill) since 7am… why did I enter this event again?  Ah yes – the challenge.

Having done a couple of ultra marathons in 2022 I wanted to push myself and do something I knew I would find genuinely hard.  There’s something about the challenge of a race that you’re not sure you can finish – I think that’s part of what attracts many of us to endurance sport (along with the cake of course).  So I found a reasonably close, hilly 50-miler and entered it.  Injury meant I had to defer for a year but I made it to the start line fit and healthy this time.  Training had gone pretty well – a few long hikes on the Cotswold way to condition the mind, legs and feet to being out all day, some back-to-back long runs to condition the legs to run when they’re tired, and one 50k training run on the Brecon Beacons in freezing rain and cloud, which gave me confidence I could cope with whatever conditions race-day may throw at me.

Conditions on the day were actually good – no rain and just a few gusts from the tail end of Storm Katherine to contend with.  Unfortunately underfoot was a complete mud bath – energy sapping deep mud for mile after mile.  My shoes (Scott Supertrac 3.0) coped amazingly and my Otter waterproof socks kept my feet dry, and I was eating regularly, so all went pretty well for the first 50k.  

Then the wheels started to come off, or at least get loose and wobbly.  I was feeling exhausted from the hard going and the hills, and I was running alone as the friendly guy I’d shared most of the first half with had taken off ahead of me, so my head was down a bit.  I stopped at the top of that nasty hill to get some food out of my bag and was pretty much resigned to walking a huge chunk of what was left and accepting a very late finish, when two women caught me up.  I ran with them for a bit – they were local so talked me through what the rest of the course held (more hills, more mud) and I decided to stick with them for as long as I could.  They were so friendly it gave me a real lift – that’s the nice thing about ultras – everyone is really friendly, no egos, very supportive (a bit like TTG).  

They say the mental side of an ultra marathon is the toughest bit, and it definitely helped me mentally to (a) have people to run with and talk to and (b) remove the mental stress of worrying about my pace and whether I should run or walk at any particular moment.  My strategy became to run when they ran, and walk when they walked.   In the end I stuck with them all the way to the finish, massively surprising myself by still being able to run right to the end, despite being totally exhausted.  After contending with mud and hills all day, the last 3 miles were all downhill, but they were the muddiest of the whole course and torrential rain started falling – enough to soak me to the skin within half an hour (through my waterproof).  I finished just as it was getting too dark to run without a torch – perfect timing!

All in all I think this race was the perfect challenge for me – far enough and tough enough to feel really hard and give me a massive sense of achievement, but any further and I’m not sure I would’ve made it.  I’m not rushing to find a longer race, but I do plan to do more ultras – does anyone want to join me?