2020 has been a weird year. At the start I had a lot of races lined up, looking for a spring marathon PB and then moving to trails and moving onto ultra distance. Then all the races were cancelled and I was just left running for runnings sake. I loved it and made good progress, so when some races started going ahead in autumn I was ready. Except my local marathon, now my target race for the year, was three weeks before my first ultra…. Do I train for the marathon PB I’m desperate for or concentrate on distance?
I’ll write about the marathon another day, the ultra was only 47 miles (75km), not that much further than a marathon. Right?
The ultra was the Thames Trot, a bimble along the Thames Path from Iffley to Henley. I managed two back to back 30km training runs two weeks before race day, which went pretty well so I felt I was ready enough to give it a go.
When I’d booked this race the plan was that we would leave the kids with relatives/friends and my wife and I would go up to Oxford the day before to relax and then she could crew for me on race day. Come October leaving kids overnight with other people wasn’t really an option and our hotel cancelled our booking. We managed to find a room that would fit all five of us in but it was far from a relaxing night.
I woke on race day feeling nauseous and with a bit of vertigo, luckily I managed to walk around until the world stopped spinning but the nausea meant I couldn’t stomach much breakfast and would start the race under fuelled.
The start was at a hotel (where we had hoped to stay the night before) and was quite relaxed. I picked up my tag and waited for the get go, we just idled around in the car park until someone said go and we ambled off.
I obviously started out way too fast cruising along at just over 5min/km, but it felt comfortable and sustainable enough. The first kilometre was quite skinny, at one point we all had to go single file across a lock, but it wasn’t long before we started to spread out. It wasn’t long before we went through our first field and shortly after that the path became very muddy. I’m not good on mud, I tried to maintain a highish cadence and flat foot land for maximum grip. Luckily my shoes (Inov8 Terra Ultra 260) are quite grippy so I managed to avoid falling over, but I did end up with a little queue behind me. I was expecting them all to overtake me at the first opportunity but actually once we left the mud I got a nice rhythm going and they followed me for a little while, until I eased off slightly to have a chat with someone.
This is one of my main revelations about ultra running; the connections with people are important. Normally in a race I’ll be polite, give words of encouragement and maybe minimal small talk if I can’t avoid it. That’s fine when you’re maybe running for 4 hours max, but 75km is along way to run with only yourself for company.
We ran together until the first checkpoint where I carried on without stopping, leaving him behind to eat a banana (he was a much more experienced ultra runner than me, I should have paid more attention to his fuelling strategy!). My pace dropped to more like my target pace from here (16km in) of just under 6min/km and I held it without much to report until around 40km. My splits didn’t really demonstrate the struggle I had in the mid 30s; breaking the run down into not far until halfway (38km), nearly 40km, next is a marathon. My pace dropped sharply after 40km though as I started to struggle, I still hit 42.2km in 4 hours and 2 secs and held on for an average pace on target at 50km in just under 5 hours.
I kept slipping from here though, before long I couldn’t run a full kilometre without walking for a little bit. I was desperate to see the family who popped up in a couple of places around here, once with some coke which was very well received. By now it was becoming clear that I was under fuelling but I was struggling to force feed myself anything and my stomach was a bit uneasy.
Shortly after my coke stop I started running along with another runner who I had to ask for some directions as we crossed the river for the umpteenth time. We started running together and chatting as we went and I found that suddenly running was a bit more tolerable. I still wasn’t running fast but I was moving and more importantly I wasn’t struggling as much.
In the end Tom and I ran together for around three hours and over 20km. Right to the finish line, where his kids joined him for the last few metres and mine refused point blank to come near me (it was a long day for them following me around, I don’t blame them). We talked about all sorts of things, some quite deep and personal, some more superficial to pass the time. For what was probably quite a long stretch he chatted away about his previous endurance experiences whilst I plodded along just grateful not to be stuck in my own head and apologetic for not having the energy to be too chatty myself.
For those last couple of hours I didn’t care about my pace, I wasn’t paying attention to my running form, I wasn’t even really paying that much attention to my surroundings. All that mattered was that I was moving forward. It was a completely different running experience and I learnt so much.
I crossed the finish line 8 hours and 5 minutes after I started. Before the race I was thinking 6min/km was doable but after the race I was pretty chuffed to have hit 6:25min/km.
For a lot of people running ultras is about pushing yourself to your limits and learning about yourself in the process. This was a relatively short ultra marathon, I didn’t hit rock bottom at any point but I did really struggle at times. This time it wasn’t some inner strength that kept me going, it was the connections I made with other people along the way. For some people this probably isn’t much of a shock, but I’m a Lonely Goat, I do all of my runs alone without music and whilst you’ll get a cheerful hello from me on race day normally that’s as far as it goes. Afterwards I felt encouraged to find some other runners to do training runs with, we’ll see if it sticks.
I’ve been trying to learn and develop my running form this year, it really helped on marathon day but even then I couldn’t keep up my speed and form through the whole race. No chance in the ultra then, but I didn’t realise how little it would matter to me towards the end. I need to keep working on it so that good form becomes my default. I think it’s the key to pushing my marathon time lower and being more efficient for longer in an ultra can only be a good thing. I need to do some back to back long runs and practice running tired.
If you’re interested in Strava then see my run here.