At mile 17 of the London Marathon, things started to look a little ropey for my mate, Nick. We’d been running pretty well up until that point, but for a number of reasons his wheels fell royally off, and the last 9 miles felt like a very long way and a very long time on his feet. He got round. Just. I think another mile may have finished him completely. So it was interesting to see what happened three weeks later, when Nick and me tackled his first Ultra together, the Dukeries 40. If one more mile in London would have ended his race, how would he fare running another 14?! This story illustrates perfectly why running an Ultra is for everyone.
What happened in London?
As we rounded the corner at Buckingham Palace and headed onto The Mall, he was beginning to weave on his feet. ‘How far is it?‘
‘200 meters, mate.’ I thought my reply would give a final wind in his sails.
‘I can’t do it, I can’t make it.‘ I turned to look at him. His face was pale and crusted with salt, his mouth wide open, his breathing ragged. I tightened the guiding rope between us, binding him close to my now-raw arm. I knew what this race meant to him, to me. We’d got through 26 miles, and I wasn’t going to have this race end badly for either of us. I suggested we put our unbound arms in the air in a victory gesture, but this was a bad idea, the extra effort almost too much for Nick’s now dilapidated body.
We swayed over that finish line, more in relief than triumph. The goody bag, with its treasure of liquids, was almost more welcome than the long-coveted medal. I made Nick drink the Lucozade and water. Once he’d done that I wanted to try to get some salt in him. There was a pack of salt and vinegar crackers in there. He took one bite and immediately doubled over and said he was going to be sick. He was worse than I thought!
The problem had come from not taking on enough water. Nick was more used to running with a Camelbak, but for this race had opted to carry bottles. The rules for him running as a blind runner stated he had to have a hi-viz vest on, with the words ‘blind runner’ on the reverse, so he had to have his back clear for others to see. As a result, he didn’t have water on tap, as it were, and simply didn’t take enough on board. As the more experienced runner, I should’ve had my eye on this, so I feel partly to blame for him having such a rough ride towards the end. Once we’d stopped and I realised just how bad he was, I knew he couldn’t have gone much further at all.
The long, silent walk back to the meeting area took forever. His silence told its own story – I knew exactly what he was thinking…
The Dukeries 40
‘I’m never going to be able to run 40 miles.’ That’s what he was thinking. Three weeks after London, we were booked in to do the Dukeries 40, a trail race in and around Sherwood Forest. I’d been telling him for years that running an Ultra is for everyone. And Nick had been severly doubting himself for that first stab at an Ultra since mile 17 of London. If he was feeling that bad after 17 miles, how could he hope to run more than twice as far? I did my best to reassure him that it wasn’t his fitness that was the problem, but the water intake. I told him that most runners have had a bad experience like the one he was having now and that he shouldn’t beat himself up about it. Ultras are different than marathons anyway, I told him. They’re much slower (for me, anyway!), refuelling will be much easier at the checkpoints. Running an ultra is for everyone, I repeated, trying to reassure him.
Above all, I told him to trust his training and to trust me. He was fit enough, and if I could run 40 miles, so could he. Thankfully he listened.
Three weeks later, early on the Saturday morning, we were on the start line in Walesby for Challenge 5 of my 12-in-12, and Nick’s first Ultra. Neither of us knew the course, but we did know others who had run it. Last year, another VI runner had finished the race and this gave us hope that we could do it too. And what a different experience it was.
A glorious race
The lessons from Water-gate had been well and truly learned, and from the first checkpoint at mile 6, Nick turned to me and said ‘I’m gonna do it.‘ 8 hours and 39 minutes later, and he was proven right, as we headed back into Walesby to a rapturous round of applause! He knew it now too, running an ultra is for everyone. We felt pretty comfortable throughout, apart from the odd bit of bowel discomfort. Special thanks to the chap from the friendly Historical Reenactment club who let us use the portaloo in the middle of Sherwood Forest!
It was a glorious race along the Robin Hood Way. The trails, for the most part, were easy to guide Nick along. The parts I struggled to guide the most were along the edges of farmers fields, where the track was narrow, with a potentially ankle-twisting drop on one side to where the crops were. We had to walk these sections. If any of you guys are guide runners and can offer some tips on how to deal with these stretches, please let me know! The volunteers at the checkpoints were all extremely positive and happy. It gave me a real buzz whenever we got to one of those, and special thanks for the ‘stickers of awesomeness’ that were pinned onto us at Hazel Gap! They clearly have special powers, as, for the whole race, we both felt comfortable. On top of that, the course was superbly well-marked out. We never looked at the map once. Massive thanks to the excellent folk at Hobopace for a brilliant race. See you in September…
Why running an Ultra is for everyone
I don’t like the word ‘Ultra’ to describe me as a runner. I’d much rather have the term ‘endurance athlete’. I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it is was about the term ‘Ultra’ which made me uncomfortable until I heard an interview on the Radio 2 Breakfast show.
For the 2016 edition of Centurion Running’s South Downs Way 100, Radio 2’s sports reporter Vassos Alexander had been a competitor. He did tremendously well, coming home in 19h 46m! The day after the race, Centurion race director James Elson was interviewed by Chris Evans. James also said he didn’t like the phrase ‘Ultra’, as he felt it made the sport sound ‘exclusive’ – like you had to be a super-trained athlete to complete one. Whereas the opposite is, in fact, true – ultra running is a very inclusive sport. James had hit the nail very squarely on the head, as this is definitely how I feel on the subject. Run slow, drink plenty, eat sensibly and just keep moving forward until the finish. Running to endure a period of time on your feet is much more comfortable than running fast to get a specific time. The more important ingredient than a highly honed body is a strong, positive mind.
Nick proved that at the Dukeries 40. His body had a bad day out in London, but he learned the lessons, looked after his body well and applied a positive attitude to his first Ultra. Truth be told, he flew round with comparative ease, and even had a sprint finish in his locker!
The next level
So, from thinking that 200 meters was too far to go after running 26 miles, Nick ran another 14 miles to finish his first Ultra with style. It was a great thing to be a part of. I hope his story offers encouragement and offers further proof that running an Ultra is for everyone. It certainly echoes my own experiences of increasing distances, which I talked about more in this post. Whatever your running ability, I hope this post may challenge you to try to hit your next level. If you’re a parkrunner and haven’t yet tried to go further than 5k, why not try a 10K? I’m 99% certain that you’ll get round. Maybe you’ve run a few half-marathons, but thought that a full one is beyond you? It’s not, you know. We were born to run, and born to run great distances. Running an Ultra is for everyone, it really is. And if you’ve not had a go at one yet, I really hope you do.