It was 6.00am when I awoke in my Travelodge room knowing that today’s Grimsthorpe 70 mile ultra was going to push my known limits both from a distance perspective and how much time I would end up spending on my two feet. I made a cup of tea and had two bagels with peanut butter for breakfast that I had made the previous day at home. I felt quite thirsty also due to the air conditioning so I slowly drank a bottle of Lucozade sport to quench my thirst and get some electrolytes into the body.
Leading up to the race I had been in contact with a few of the competitors who were taking part via Facebook and discovered that one of them was staying at the same Travelodge as me so we decided to meet up after breakfast before heading out. It’s always good to meet people in this sport as I pretty much spend all my time running solo, especially long runs. Ian had run many marathons including a 3hrs 12mins at London which is very impressive but this was his first ultra race and he said himself he was venturing into a world of unknown. He also did me a very big favour in providing me with Kona Cola Nuun tablets which in the end proved invaluable.
We arrived at the event location around 8.45am and there were a few fellow runners who had arrived already in the car park. Ian and I bumped into Lee Chamberlain who is in training to break the world running record for JOGLE and Mick Ellis who has finished some of the toughest ultra races in the UK such as the Lakeland 100 and “The Fellsman”. We had a great chat and stated that we should compose our own list of Rules to Ultra Running. It was such a relaxed atmosphere that I almost forgot that I had to register for the race and attend the briefing and then run a 70 mile race.
Once Keith had completed the race briefing the two most important things to remember was 1) where my kit bag was (especially as all our kit bags and food / drink had to be stored in black bin liners) 2) get our race cards stamped twice on each lap. If you didn’t do this you would be disqualified, harsh but fair. So we all lined up at the start line just outside the wonderful Grimsthorpe Castle itself, had our group picture taken and then at 10.01am we were off. The first lap would include an additional 3 miles (standard lap was 9.5 miles) but I didn’t mind one bit because the views were great, terrain mixed and was in great company with fellow runners. The plan for me was to finish around 16-17hrs which would be around 4.5 miles an hour. So I settled into comfortable long run pacing with 10 minutes running and 1 minute walking. I knew that if I introduced the walk breaks early I would be able to keep my chances of plodding high the further I ran.
The first 12.5 miles I completed in 2hrs 09mins and felt quite good. I planned to take food on board early and stopped at the checkpoint to take out some Powerbar shots and two bottles of Gatorade. Feeling good I didn’t stay to long (1-2 mins). Towards the 3hr mark I didn’t feel great at all, energy wise I felt pretty rubbish, something I hadn’t felt during my long runs at all. I took a 5 minute walk break to get over it knowing it would pass. I arrived back at the checkpoint at 22 miles in around 4hs 09mins, feeling a little dehydrated but better that I had 1hr ago. I took two more Gatorades with me and decided to eat a Clif bar while walking out of the checkpoint.
Lap 3 went fairly smoothly. I ran part of it with another runner named Lee who was raising money for Help the Heroes. He was an ex-Para trooper who lived locally and had never run more than a ½ marathon during his training, amazing stuff. We talked for a while about all kinds of stuff, jobs, family, aspirations, running. As I was keen to execute my running strategy I told Lee I was taking a walk break. I wished him well and he plodded on into the distance. I didn’t realise how significant this meeting would prove later on during the race. I came in at the checkpoint at 31.5 miles in 6hrs 18 mins. Looking at pacing / splits I was still well on schedule to achieve my time goal. I spent maybe 5 minutes in the checkpoint this time eating a Mule bar and the remaining Powerbar shots and drinking water as I was again very thirsty. I decided to take a bottle of water as well this time out this time as I didn’t feel like the Gatorade was quenching my thirst.
The temperature had cooled down from the high of 70F that we had been experiencing earlier so that was very welcome as I begun Lap 4. This lap proved to be significant in terms of my overall finishing time as I had developed a blister on the underside of my right foot. It wasn’t bothering me too much at this point however it would get worse with each subsequent lap. Each lap of the course was a mix of tracks, gravel and limestone trail with some tricky little ascents / descents thrown in to keep you looking where you put your feet. Around the half point of the lap though for me was the most psychologically enduring part of the course, it was a long stretch of road that I nicknamed the “Road from Hell” as it was so straight and long (must have been a mile or so) that during the night it would test even the toughest of runners.
As I arrived at mile 41 in 8hrs 40 mins even though my right foot blister was hurting a great deal I was feeling ok but didn’t want anything sugary to eat so I decided to eat some of the hot beef stew the organisers had cooked along with a cup of tea. It tasted so good that I finished it off quickly and asked for another bowl while at the same time grabbed a whole baguette, some cheese and water. I must have spent 10-12 minutes at the checkpoint and as I walked away down the road I met up with Lee (Help for Heroes) again for Lap 5.
Lap 5 proved to be the slowest and toughest of the race so far. Distance speaking I was approaching a point I had only experienced once before during my first ultra last year and physically my right leg was proving a little painful. I had multiple blisters on my right foot now including my small toe which was extremely tender but I dare not take my sock off now but I think I should have dealt with this earlier in hindsight. I could also feel a blister coming up on the underside of my left foot. I met a few others out on the course at this point who had been suffering as well and talking to them I am sure helped them as much as it helped me to focus on moving forward. Having another person like Lee running alongside you can help to focus the mind on moving forward and as we chatted throughout the lap we motivated each other to plod on when we might have walked and continued to push forward. I actually got up to a pace of 8.5 minute miles at one point but it was short lived. It was now getting dark at this point and I felt quite chilled having only been wearing a single long sleeved top throughout the day. When I got back in at the checkpoint at 9.26pm I had been running for 11hrs 26mins. I spent around 8-10 minutes stopping at the checkpoint eating some bread with butter and cheese and a cup of tea. I then grabbed my light running jacket, head torch, bottle of water. Mentally I still felt fine but physically I was suffering a bit and was a little cold. I could feel my right shin aching quite a bit now but still wanted to move on and so I did into the first phase of the night.
If lap 5 proved to be tough lap 6 was ten times harder. Running at night would bring it’s own challenge but one thing I had to do was walk out of the checkpoint for the first 15 minutes as my legs had gone very stiff whilst standing around eating / drinking. Not good. One positive was that I didn’t have to switch on my head torch yet as there was a beautiful full moon and lots of stars out, magical stuff. It was so quiet that I just wanted to try and absorb the moment but after loosening up we plodded on for a few minutes as we didn’t want to walk. When we got to the uphill sections I had to walk as my quads / ankles were hurting a great deal. The lap did seem to go on and on but it was quite good having company again as I felt so down during it in some points especially on the “Road to Hell”. We must have done no more than 45mins of plodding during that lap and it showed as I arrived back at the 60.5 mile point feeling empty in 14hrs 23mins. Both quads were trashed and I couldn’t run no more plus my right leg was so painful just above my ankle that the blisters just seemed like a side show now!
I didn’t sit down at the checkpoint though as I knew if I did this it would be game over. All I could think about was somehow I had to do complete another lap to finish yet I couldn’t run. I hobbled out of the checkpoint on my own for Lap 7 and started to walk down to the point where we had started earlier that day. I seriously couldn’t remember at that point starting the race it was just a blur, all I knew was that I had to finish what I started as I wasn’t going home without doing so even though I did risk doing serious harm to my legs but I knew I would live.
Lee caught up with me for the first half of this lap and I kept tell him to go on ahead but he wouldn’t leave me. Having run together for around 6 hours I think he felt that it would be disloyal to not finish it together. Somehow though I knew I would finish this race alone. I had met many runners on this day but Lee deserves some credit for me pushing on when I would of probably walked. My right leg was hurting so much now I was practically debilitated. My right shin was excruciatingly painful but something inside me just refused to give in. During the second half of the lap someone had finally caught up and I told Lee that when this other guy approaches he should leave with him and go on to the finish. I thanked him for all the time we chatted today and I hope that it won’t be his only ultra race as I know he has re-enlisted in the Army. I wish him all the best for the future. This time he listened to me and went off into the darkness.
The next two hours proved to be the toughest time I have ever experienced both mentally and physically. The “Road to Hell” played with my mind so much that I didn’t think it would ever end. So many times I said to myself that I want to sit down and wait 5 minutes before moving on but I talked myself out of it. I stood maybe for 20-30 seconds at a time considering but I just knew if I sat down I wouldn’t get up. The beauty of the surroundings and the quiet for me were now again just a blur, all I saw was a road that never ended. I don’t remember much going into that final 2 hours only that when I reached the final stamp point I saw another runner behind me. He caught me up about 0.5 miles before the end and for the next 5 minutes we had a chat about the whole day and how it had gone. He told me that he had missed one of the stamp points and had to go back to get it stamped before finishing the lap, very lucky indeed. I stopped for about 30 seconds as the pain in my leg was so bad and told the other guy to go on and that I would be ok. I tried to plod but it was just too painful now. As I reached the checkpoint the organisers checked my final stamps on my card and I proceeded to walk to the finish line just outside the castle gate. When I got there I almost cried as I just couldn’t believe it was over. At 4.20am I had finished the race in 18hrs 20mins, it was a good 1.5hrs outside my target time but to be honest I didn’t care. I felt exhausted in a way I have never experienced and it didn’t really sink in that I had just completed the 70 mile race.
Adam (one of the organisers) offered to drive me back to the checkpoint as I wanted to see the medics about my right leg and deal with the blisters. The two medics were from the British Red Cross and were just fantastic. They helped me into the ambulance and examined my legs. Fortunately I didn’t have a break in my right leg and it is just a very bad muscular strain so they strapped it up for support and treated the blisters accordingly. After spending 55 minutes in their care I hobbled out and chatted to the other runners who were at the check point. One of them was Ian from earlier this morning who I had met up with. It turned out he had finished the race in joint first place in 11hrs 55mins. I congratulated him on his amazing performance. He wished me well and was pleased I had made it although I later found out he had to go to hospital for 18hrs as he couldn’t hold any food or liquid down after the race, thankfully he has recovered now. We will be staying touch as I am sure we will cross paths again.
When I stood there at the end of the race with the sun coming up talking to both organisers and fellow finishers I realized that there were still people out there on the course. I couldn’t comprehend being out there any longer than I had been but I could definitely understand how they would be feeling and why they would continue to move forward. They would be on the rollercoaster of highs / lows mentally and physically yet somehow every one of them would continue until they achieved their goal, to finish the race. This for me is what ultra distance events are in essence about, there are no losers only those who take an amazing journey into a place where the mental transcends the physical.
In conclusion to this I took so much out of this event that I can only hope that over the coming years I can use that experience to help others along the way. It was a top event, brilliantly organised and executed but most of all it was the company and spirit of my fellow runner that made this day.
Pictures will be added later.. Time for a rest now.
Summer really has arrived during the past two weeks and it has made most of my runs weather has been beautiful and it's just over 3 weeks until my second ultra marathon, Grimsthorpe 70 miler. As part of building up for this summer race I tok part in a very popular and highly rated off road race mainly because it was local and the route was over one my favourite parts of the country - The North Downs.The route follows country lanes, established tracks like the North Downs Way & Wealdway, plus numerous single track paths through the fields across local farmland. The course ascends from a low of 20 metres at Lower Bush up to almost 180 metres at Holly Hill. The majority of the course is off-road with some road sections along the way.
The race was scheduled for 10.30am and the weather was forecast as dry and bright with temperatures around 62-64F (perfect for racing). I arrived about 30 minutes before the start on my own as the family had decided to stay home as I was going to be for a few hours and there wasn't that much to keep them occupied in the end for that amount of time
At around 10:15am I warmed up with some light jogging for 5 minutes and then proceeded to stretch out comfortably both my legs and upper body. I queued up for the start somewhere in the middle of the 476 people taking part, atmosphere was quite relaxed although you could tell the guys at the front were going to pull away very quickly. I love that feeling of waiting for the horn to sound and the race to start not knowing what lies beyond in any great detail.
As the horn sounded we all started to move like a giant centipede with 100's of legs. I started off quite quickly as I got a little carried away in those first couple of miles especially as the terrain was going to be quite flat. I let plenty of people go past me as I attempted to ease the pace a bit and hold back.
Just after the 2 mile mark we reached the first signs of undulation with a hill around 60ft or so. I took it relatively easy going up but then absolutely flew down the hill passing about 10 people. Loved that feeling of just letting gravity take you. Still holding a good pace I took two small cups of isotonic drinks at the aid station and followed the path rising another 150ft over the next mile or so and then come a steep downhill of about the same measure. I let gravity take me and again the quads felt fine and my footing was solid.
I arrived at the aid station at the 10.2km mark around 51 minutes, again taking only taking two small cups of isotonic drinks on board . That felt fast considering there were the biggest hills around 11-15km. I was breathing quite hard on the hills so I decided to slow things down a little going up and hold the pace for steady.
Mile 7 and Mile 8 were the toughest on the course. I had slowed down deliberately to ensure I didn't blow out early as this was meant to be a long training run. The incline was about 320ft in total over a very short distance It was brutal and I power walked up there. When I got to that point just after Mile 8 the the views were fantastic. A lot of the trail at this point was single track across fields with swathes of wild flowers, poppies and crops. I got a mental lift at this point and decided to push things a little to reach the highest point of 586ft. At the 15.5km mark I found passed the next aid station and took 3 small cups of drink and walked a small bit to ensure I caught my breath and didn't choke while drinking. I admired the view for about 5-10 seconds and then pushed on.
The Halfway Point
Then I hit the downhill just after mile 10. Oh my god. It was a drop of nearly 400ft. I was hesitant at first but thought to hell with it LETS FLY, this is where the adrenaline rush is! This for me was the most exhilarating downhill I have had so far, I was so scared that I would fall but I held again very solid in my footing and balance, maybe a bit of luck involved!!!
Mile 11 and 12 went fairly quickly as we navigated through some beautiful woodland. The ground was softer than the hills and it was slightly cooler. I chatted to a few runners during this point but they didn't want to chat much. I was a bit disappointed by this but understand their possible reasons.
The next aid station was around the half marathon point and it was on top of a beautiful but very very steep 100ft hill swathed in poppies. An amazing site, I am still trying to find a photo to show you this as it's amazing. Once you reach the top the aid station beckons. I power walked the hill quite comfortably and as you reach the top you have a short way through a cobbled street (potentially hazardous for calves) to the aid station. I took two small cups of isotonic drinks and someone sprayed me with hosepipe which was most welcome.
The last 5-6 miles was undulating with a lot of frequent smaller hills. Mile 14 and 15 were fairly paced as I enjoyed the support of a lot of people cheering runners on at a great public house, a cold beer would have been good but I wanted to save that for later. The course took us through a beautiful apple and pear orchard for which this English county (Kent) is famous for. I didn't feel that tired at this point really more comfortable especially as my pace was keeping even as I was power walking the hills.
We passed the renowned "Leather Bottle Inn" where Charles Dickens the famous author frequented in the distant past before reaching the aid station. Again I loaded up with a couple of drinks and walked while I consumed them. The next mile was probably the hardest on course as there were plenty of twisting hill climbs and this showed in my splits with Mile 16 being a little skower than I had liked.
Still feeling quite strong I continued to hold a comfortable pace as we reached an uphill road section. At the end of this is the last aid station where I took drinks on board again. During the last couple of miles we had looped back onto the section of the course we had started the race on. The last 1/2 a mile or so was a journey across the field and Golf course back to the start. After sprinting the last 200m to the finish I clocked 2 hours 52 minutes and placed 209th out of 476 starters. I collected my T-shirt and medal before going for a cool down by jogging another 3 miles around the local park before going back to my car and stretching out.
Unfortunately I didn't get any pictures of this race and really wish I had as the scenery is amazing and would definitely recommend it for any level of runner. With 3 weeks left until the Grimsthorpe ultra 70 the summer is only just warming up.