5th October 2019 - the day I became an ultra runner
So, this challenge was super special to me. I’ve completed ultra-distances before but have never set out to run an Ultra until now.
When emails came out from the UltraLondon team three weeks before the start date, I saw the cut off times that I hadn’t seen when I signed up (won’t make that mistake again!). I suddenly thought ‘I’m not sure I am fast enough’. I had this horrid feeling that I might fail, and for someone who is driven by a fear of failure (as opposed to a fear of success) that is a big deal.
Fast forward 3 weeks and my running buddy Alison & I, had a race plan to make sure that we had a race plan, to make sure that even if we were one second within the cut of time of 11 hours that we would make it!
So, Friday was spent furiously clearing the shelves of Sainsburys of snack items that would fit in my running vest, as well as laminating pacing info (much to the amusement of Alison!) so we could stay on track.
Saturday 5th October arrived and at 5.45am Ali scooped me up in a taxi and we headed for the salubrious start line of the Woolwich foot tunnel, right by the Woolwich Ferry and Dame Vera Lynn was waiting for us.
The guys behind that UltraLondon were all super friendly and we found that we were in good company amongst other ultra-running virgins.
The course covered the majority of the southern part of the Capital Ring https://tfl.gov.uk/modes/walking/capital-ring. So, our 55km would see us start at Woolwich, passing by Eltham Palace, Beckenham Park, hitting halfway at the athletics track at Crystal Palace before making out way out to Wimbledon Common before the final leg into Richmond.
Before we knew it, the safety briefing was over, we were across the start line and on our way…. mostly uphill, up Shooters Hill to Severngroog Castle https://www.severndroogcastle.org.uk/ before we descended into Oxleas Woods and headed out to Eltham.
Alison and I both walked the entire Capital Ring last year for Mencap, so we knew that there were some urban parts (which will remain nameless for fear of offending someone) where we knew we might struggle. You might think South East London suburbia with very little to offer, however it is not until you get out and explore that you realise how much green space is in this wonderful city, I call home.
We were pleased that there were more downhills than we remembered and were soon making our way into Crystal Palace Park for a lunchtime refuel, about 1 hour and 15 minutes ahead of schedule.
Having been advised not to spend too long at aid stations, water bottles were refilled, and we continued uphill with peanut butter, Nutella and jam sandwiches as fuel. Boyed by the fact that we were ahead of target, it finally sank in that the 55km was achievable and that we would make it to the finish line…aside from that customary conversation that you have with a running partner which goes like this:
Runner one: So, if one of us gets injured and for any reason can’t continue then the deal is that the other person has to go on alone and finish
Runner two (verbally): Ok deal, but it won’t come to that
Runner two (in your head): Crap, what if that happened, do I really leave my friend? Isn’t that a bit mean? What if they are badly injured? Wouldn’t be the same running on my own? I mean who would I talk to?
Leaving Crystal Palace we were at about 26km, and the next aid station wasn’t until 46km, so even more so we needed to have our races heads on, and it was not long after downing the Nutella sandwiches (who eats that stuff??!!), that I decided it was a good time to try the Caffeine Bullets I had brought with me. Minty chews, with 100mg of caffeine and electrolytes to give you that added boost – and boy did they work! https://www.caffeinebullet.com/nutrition
They reduce the perception of pain and fatigue – soon niggles in my hip flexors were a thing of the past and we felt more focused on the task at hand.
I’m not going to say that the next 20km flew past, as they didn’t, but we found a comfortable flow of jogging the flat, walking the hills and running the down hill segments. A stop may have been made into a pub at Earlsfield but purely to refill water bottles!
A sign saying CHECK POINT AHEAD was totally misleading, as the check point wasn’t for another 3 or 4 km, but very soon we were in Womble country, pleased to have hit Wimbledon Common. Our strategy of eating something every 5km to stay fuelled had worked, and we just had 9km to go. According to a marshall at the checkpoint it was all downhill to the finish - this was not true!
I made the mistake of drinking what I thought was flat lemonade at the aid station, which was in fact very fizzy, so descending through the trees Alison was on the receiving end of a burping overture – however this made up for the fact that a little earlier she had started singing ’10 green bottles’ which I advised was not a good thing if she wanted to keep all of her limbs!
It was at this point Alison pointed out that we had been running for over 42km, and we had both run our first marathon!! Well done us!
Heading over a footbridge and taking another Caffeine Bullet on board we hit the gates of Richmond Park. Just saying the words Richmond out loud made us realise we were going to blooming well finish our first running ultra…. And then came the hill, and more hill and a little bit more hill!
Coming down the hill out of Richmond Park invoked some comedy Charlie Chaplin type leg movements and then we knew we just had less than a ParkRun left to do.
Along the whole route, both fellow runners, and the general public were nothing but supportive, and coming into the Richmond along the river bank it was great to have the cheers from random strangers.
We decided to walk a little to save ourselves for a strong finish, but then spotted an official photographer, and whether it was the boost from all the caffeine, or that fact we could smell the finish line, we suddenly had all this energy come from nowhere anf made a dash for it. One of the running family from Backpackers (facebook Backpackers Running) Natalie Doble had come to see us over the finish line and videoed the moment Alison and I became Ultra Runners - for that we will ever be thankful.
I can’t fault the efforts of the Ultra London team for putting on such a great, inclusive running event. They said at the start that they felt this great City deserved an ultra of its own and I think you smashed the brief. Also it was my first time being immersed in the ultra-community, but there didn’t seem to be any of that competitive jostling to be seen to be the fastest, or the best, and I know there was some super talented runners who went over the line in half the time it took me and Alison – yet everyone just wanted to look out for each other. I hope this is something that continues as the event gains the kudos it deserves, (or maybe it is just how the ultra-community rolls, in which case I salute you!) https://www.ultralondon.co.uk/
Lastly, I just want to say that the whole point of doing this crazy year of 50 challenges, is to actually see what I can achieve. If anyone had said to me even 2 years ago that I would have run an ultra without even having run a marathon before, then I would have probably laughed in their face. The mind and the body are 2 such amazing natural computers – if you feed them the right fuel, they can achieve anything. And by fuel, I mean being kind to yourself, being positive, listening to what these amazing computers tell you each day about what they need … rest, play, a bit of love, a lung busting fit of laughter or a lung busting sprint uphill!
Losing my dad and my uncle to pancreatic cancer has fuelled something in me, to not miss a moment or a chance to live and embrace it with all I have – as I am here, and they are not.
Heather - an Ultra Runner – and a very proud one at that! x
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