2014 was meant to be all about the ultramarathon.
Partly to find a new challenge. After seven road marathons, it felt like a good time to try something different.
Partly to learn more about my running, and improve technique. It’s when you stretch the mileage that you discover where your weak links are.
But it was also about seeing how far I can really push this thing. It wasn’t that long ago that I couldn’t run 20 minutes without pain, and doing another marathon seemed an impossible dream. Running more than 26.2 miles? Insanity.
So I had it all planned out. Taunton Marathon in the spring, to give a good foundation for my training. Then the Bideford Bay 50K in October.
Everything went to plan to start with. Preparations for Taunton passed off smoothly, and I finished solidly, if unspectacularly. All set for a quick rest then on to ultra training.
With little recent trail running experience, it was time to get off road and get hillier. Much hillier. And as an added bonus, my marathon training partner Val was keen to join me for a little cross country running too, although she drew the line at ultras.
We had a blast. We got stung by nettles. We saw cows. We saw sheep. We saw more cows. We got wet and muddy. We ate cake. And we discovered the fabulous Herepath Trail. I found myself falling in love with trail running for the first time.
Enter the first hiccup.
The organiser of Bideford Bay 50K fell ill and couldn’t take it on this year. For a while he thought he’d found someone else to manage the running of the event, then that didn’t work out. It wasn’t going to happen and I needed to find another ultra.
Which proved trickier than I expected. All the events I looked at were either too long or too far away.
Then several cool things happened.
Val decided that maybe ultras weren’t so bonkers after all and she’d quite like to join me. Then she suggested inviting her friend Paul to run with us as well. I didn’t know Paul at this point, but she’d run with him in the London Marathon and he seemed like a good egg. Not only that, but apparently he was an expert navigator. So two became three.
And then Val found the perfect race.
The West Deane Way Ultra was part of Relentless, a series of 51 mile ultras running the length of the country from the Pennine Way to the Olympic Stadium, starting on 27th September. 1500 miles, 29 days, passing through all 47 English counties.
The date was 17th October, just 6 days after the Bideford Bay 50K.
51 miles felt too scary a leap up from 50K, but there was a ‘lite’ option of 36 miles. Even better, the 36-miler started in West Bagborough, in the Quantock Hills just north of Taunton, and headed west and then south, along the West Deane Way, Coleridge Way and Two Moors Way, to Exmoor and North Devon. You couldn’t get much more local. Or more gorgeous scenery. Game on!
How (not) to train for an ultra
Our first hurdle was working out how best to train for an ultra. I tried to research ultra training plans, but the more I read, the more confused I got.
There seemed to be as many different opinions on how to train as there are plans.
It’s all about the long run. No, it’s your weekly mileage that counts and if you’re not doing 50 miles a week, don’t bother.
You need to do speed work. You don’t need to do speed work.
You need to do back-to-back runs. You don’t need to do back-to-back runs.
You don’t need to do more than 3 hours in training as long as you do back-to-back-to-back runs.
I came to the conclusion that everyone’s different when it comes to running ultras, and it takes trial and error to find the training that works for you. In the end, we decided to focus mainly on the long runs, aiming to go just over marathon distance in training, with some back-to-back running.
It’s not the running that’s the hardest thing…
The route was broken into four legs over varying lengths, from West Bagborough to Monksilver, Monksilver to Luxborough, Luxborough to Winsford, and Winsford to Knowstone.
On our first training run together, we planned to reccy the shortest leg – from Luxborough to Winsford. Our aim was to do the 6.7 mile route twice – out and back – to really fix it in our memories.
I’ll admit, we went into that first run a touch naively. Print off the instructions from the race website. Find the checkpoint. Run from there. Not too tricky, right?
By the time we’d run six miles and still hadn’t found the start of the leg, we realised our navigational ninja skills needed some work.
Suddenly the realisation of what we were trying to do hit us. We’d spent more than three hours running less than 10 miles, and only 2.5 miles of the actual route. How the hell were we going to reccy 36 miles before October?
But we decided to have another go. This time running the remainder of that leg, from Winsford towards Luxborough. Reverse navigation. What could possibly go wrong?
This time, we checked out the route on Google Earth and Ordnance Survey maps first, and made it out and back bang on target. Maybe we could do this thing after all.
Training was going great at this point. We ran the route from Monksilver to Luxborough and back, nearly 18 miles with a few…ahem… ‘detours’. Despite the navigational challenges, we were having so much fun on the trails, it was hard to imagine going back to road running.
We got to run. And eat cake. Life was good.
Then I went on holiday for three weeks. Heat and humidity meant limited running. When I got back, the plan was for Val and me to run the Cheddar Marathon, and log our first 26-miler. I’d be jet lagged, but hey, we could take it slowly, right?
Well, that was the plan. Unfortunately, with a fairly harsh cut off time and some confusion about where the cut off point actually was, we ended up missing it by minutes and having to drop out of the marathon after just 15 miles.
And then the rest of my life went into overdrive. You know that thing where you schedule everything for ‘after the holidays’? And suddenly it is ‘after the holidays’? And you realise you’ve completely over committed yourself? Yeah, that.
Running took a back seat. After spending hours hunched over my laptop doing the day job, I was crunchy and tense when I did get out to run. I just couldn’t seem to get back into any rhythm with my training.
From being full of confidence at the end of July, by early September I felt underprepared and wondering what the hell I was doing.
But we kept ticking off the long runs. Running into Knowstone, the final stop on the ultra, for the very first time was a truly emotional experience. We’d done the entire 36 miles. Just not all in one day. Could we have the t-shirt now, please?
And finally we got our a marathon run in, with a double lap of the Herepath and a bit added on to bring us over 26.2 miles. It was hard work, but training was slowly getting back on track.
Then suddenly it was taper time, and I didn’t feel ready at all. The days were racing past and October 17th was getting scarily close.
We knew that there was every possibility it would be dark before we finished the race, so we decided to try a little night training, to practice running with head torches. Time for another Herepath loop.
Lucky we did, because that’s how I found out that my head torch had the illumination power of a glow stick.
Unlucky we did, because I managed to turn my ankle over, running across a rutted field. After a short walk, I went on to complete the run without too much of a problem, but the next day, the ankle was painful to stand on. And the West Deane Way ultra was just over a fortnight away.
At this point, a sensible person might have thought that running 36 miles on a dodgy ankle wasn’t the cleverest idea. But I wasn’t ready to be sensible.
I rested for a few days, then did my first tentative run. All seemed good
Then on the evening of Sunday October 5th, with less than two weeks to go, I was sat at the kitchen table after just finishing dinner, when a Facebook message appeared from Val: ‘F*@k! Have you just got an email?’
I checked my email. Nothing. Then it appeared.
I’m sorry but we are going to have to cancel this years West Deane Way Ultra on the 17th October.
We are moving offices which is quite a task and unfortunately the completion date clashes with this event.’
We were gobsmacked. We’d trained. We’d eaten cake. We’d bought the kit. We’d eaten more cake. We’d run around in the dark with head torches. And the West Deane Way was cancelled? Nooooooooooooooo!