Some truths about becoming an ultra runner

I haven’t talked at all on my blog about training for an ultra. I have just completed my first ever ultra marathon, and although I never doubted for a moment I could do it, it hasn’t really been the focus of my training this year (Manchester marathon was instead) so this became a bit of fun (!) instead. 

With Jeanette after 7 miles, just as the 30 and 40 routes parted

I chose a 40 miler because I have completed several marathons now and although 50k (31 miles) seems a nice introduction to ultrarunning, for me it just didn’t seem to present that much of a challenge so I wanted something a bit more scary.

Everyone feeling fresh in the first couple of miles

Dukeries 40 turned out to be my date with ultra destiny. It’s local (30 minutes up the road) and it winds through a beautiful area of Nottinghamshire called the Dukeries, which comprises various estates including Welbeck, Thoresby, Sherwood Forest and Clumber Park. It’s an area I’ve wanted to run in for a while, so this event seemed the perfect opportunity, plus the 40 mile option went through Sherwood Forest and right past Major Oak so that was the choice for me. 

A Major Oak selfie, 10 miles in

So what did I discover about ultra running?

  1. 40 miles is a very long way. My legs began to mistrust me at around 22 miles, and when I kept running beyond marathon distance, they freaked out and didn’t really want to work for me. That said, they carried me another 15 miles, so good work legs!  
    Ultra running’s simple pleasures
  2. It’s a very friendly, encouraging community. Runners I caught up with, or who caught up with me, often stayed a while for a chat and everyone asked how I was when they went past. The marshalls were also amazing!!! They couldn’t do enough for me. 
    Ran with Nic for around 15 miles
  3. At 33 miles, a jam sandwich and a cup of tea taste absolutely divine. Simple pleasures really matter. 
  4. I didn’t get bored of running or of my own company, particularly in the latter stages of the event. I really thought I would start to annoy myself after a while, but I quite enjoyed the peace and quiet. 
  5. Ultra running is a brilliant way to see more trails in the laziest way possible. When I say lazy, I mean you still have to run the distance of course, but for someone like me whose internal compass is a little wonky, events like this take the stress and brain power out of navigating. The course was brilliantly marked with red and white tape every few metres, and yellow arrows and dots. All you have to do is follow the markers, and then every 7-10 miles there is a gazebo underneath which you’ll find all manner of sweet and savoury goodies to eat and drink.  
    Descending down into Creswell Crags
  6. Time and distance warp when completing an ultra. At the beginning, the miles clock over really quickly, even though you’re running at a slower pace. Close to the aid stations, distances seem to stretch, and near to the finish, every mile feels like an extra marathon which takes an eternity to complete. 
    An endless, lonely footpath
  7. You don’t have to run it all. In fact, it’s encouraged to walk sections, especially up hills. 
  8. Never underestimate the restorative power of a bath full of Epsom salts afterwards.
  9. You’ll immediately want to complete another. Even while running it, as your hips and knees scream in pain, and you’re questioning your own sanity, you’ll be wondering how much further you can push yourself and planning your next adventure. Just remember, even though all your friends and family think you’re crazy for doing this, take solace in the fact that there’s always somebody crazier than you. Yesterday for example, I spent mile 36 with a man looking to take on a 184 mile foot race along the Thames later this year. 
  10. The finish feels a bit of an anticlimax because you get so caught up in the ‘doing’, that even though you’re hurting, once it’s over you’re disappointed that the moment (or hours) have gone. I was relieved to finish yesterday of course, but I run because I enjoy the act of running, not to complete events. 

So a few questions remains:

Did I enjoy it? 

I enjoyed the scenery, the cameraderie, the chatter, the adventure, the feeling of being out in nature doing something to test my own limits. That’s a powerful feeling and gives immense satisfaction. When my watch hit 30 miles, I chuckled to myself because whether I completed the event or not, it didn’t matter; I had become an ultra runner. Those last 10 miles oddly didn’t feel as tough as the few miles after marathon distance, which were the longest miles of my life. Lime Tree Avenue goes on forever by the way. Well, actually a couple of miles, but it felt endless.

The breathtakingly beautiful Lime Tree Avenue

Would I do another?

Probably. Yes. Watch this space.  

Stunning bluebells in quiet woodland

Can anyone run an ultra?

Of course. Once you believe you can do something, you’ll do it. It’s all about toughness of mind. The body hurts, but your mind simply has to tell it to keep going. I talk out loud to myself. I also posted a few videos on Instagram yesterday which gave me a boost and allowed me to talk honestly about how I was feeling to those watching. I also downed a cup of cola which gave me a stitch and made me forget about the pain in my knees for a good few miles. I passed some runners listening to music, which isn’t something I do myself but I can understand how it’s a good distraction. I ran with a few people for a chat to distract myself. Your mind just has to find a way to make the pain shrink down to become insignificant and you just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other.

Creswell Crags


What I ate:

  • 4 Tailwind stick packs 
  • One Snickers bar
  • Two chocolate brownies
  • 1 Eat Natural bar
  • 4 gingernut biscuits 
  • So many jellybeans I lost count 
  • 12 flies (give or take a few)
  • Some cherry tomatoes (inspired!)
  • 1 x Jam and 2 x peanut butter sandwiches
  • 1 cup of tea 

What else would you rather be doing on a Saturday?

Kit:


  • Mobile phone (the only mandatory bit of kit)
  • Montane Via Fang race vest with 2x 500ml soft flasks filled with Tailwind. 
  • Ron Hill waterproof jacket in case of rain or wind (I didn’t wear this in the end.
  • Inov-8 merino wool socks. No blisters and I also knew they dry quickly if they get wet.
  • adidas raven boost trail shoes 

My stats:

Distance covered: 40.3 miles

Total time: 8:26:39 (inc CPs)

Total moving time: 7:59:34

Position: 82/105 finishers

Elevation: 1500ft

Thanks are due to Ronnie Staton of Hobo Pace Events for putting on such an excellent, well organised event, and to everyone who gave up their time to marshall, and help keep tired runners fuelled, hydrated and motivated. Thanks to Nick who drove me to the start and gave me encouragement that I could do it. Thanks to Jeanette and Nic for company en route. Thank you to my friends, and my Twitter and Instagram communities for the messages of support throughout the day – they really kept me going. Special thanks to Dan for his endless patience with this lasting urge I have to test my limits. Seeing you, Allegra and Bella at mile 31 meant the world, and running the last few hundred metres to cross the finish line with Allegra was unforgettable. Love you all.

My little homecoming pacemaker

Gorilla Hunting – Oswestry Half Marathon Race Review

I was excited about the Oswestry Half, because it’s always nice to be able to run an inaugural event. It was also the half marathon I was working towards with Celia, who I had been coaching towards her first ever half marathon, after we ran her first 10k event in September.

This race wasn’t about a PB for me, because I had planned to run it with Celia, providing her support, so I can’t comment on its suitability as a PB course; however, apart from the short section across grass and stones, the course was all on flat roads, with one short, insignificant hill between mile 6 and 7.

Oswestry Gorilla

However, let’s rewind to earlier in the morning. The race was based at the British Ironwork Centre, just outside Oswestry. It was easy to find, just off the A5, and there was a marshall directing traffic into the centre. We parked on a well-marshalled field, and within minutes I was in the race village where I could see a well organised registration tent (I checked my number on the board, and had collected my number within seconds), a tent filled with around 20 physios providing pre-race massages, a baggage tent, a pop up cafe, vans selling pizza and crepes (I made a mental note to visit them after the race), some trade stands, plenty of seating, plus a stage with the trophies and medals on, and around 30 portaloos which were clean and well stocked with loo roll and alcohol gel. It was just after 8am, with the race due to start at 9:30am, so with none of the anticipated queues, I had over an hour to spare, so I found Celia, and we sat down and had a cup of tea while we chatted about how training had gone, and our strategy and expectations for the race ahead. A very nice, relaxed start to the race.

Just after 9am, the announcer advised that Amy Hughes (@53marathons) would be doing the warm up at the stage, so we headed over there and did some cardio and some lunges to warm our muscles up a little, then we headed over to the start area. There was a brass band playing, which was a lovely touch, and I spotted tailrunner Matt (@mattupston) then Mike (@ParkgateRunner) came over to say hello who I had been tweeting earlier in the morning. Then there was a countdown from 10, the cannon fired (yes really!) and we were over the start line within a minute. There were 1000 runners at this inaugural event, so I knew we would have plenty of space to run in, but I also suspected we may find some parts of the course lonely as the field naturally spread out, so I was glad I was running with Celia to help her along.

The first section was over a couple of fields to get out onto the lane behind the centre; the footing was a little uneven, and stony in places, so it was a relief to find the road under our feet so Celia could settle comfortably into her pace. My job today was keeping her company, making sure she was taking on adequate nutrition, and keeping her motivated in those final stages.

The first 4 miles were on quiet country lanes, and we would repeat these miles later in the opposite direction, after a loop of the town centre. Out of the country lanes, we headed into a housing estate where there was great support from the residents, and plenty of sweets on offer. We then headed into the town centre itself, where drivers were already getting impatient waiting for runners, and were sadly ignoring a lot of the marshalls, and driving around cones placed in the road. We ran on pavements a lot of the way through the town centre, as a few drivers were being very impatient, and the fact that the field was spread out at this point I think meant that marshalls couldn’t enforce road closures as well as they could with an obvious stream of runners. That said, they did a fantastic job of keeping us safe and I think the marshalls enforcing road closures always have the toughest job on a race as many people do get angry behind a wheel nowadays!

Onto the hill just after mile 6. It wasn’t too bad actually, it started gently inclining out of town, then got a bit steeper towards the top, then we turned into a housing estate for the final climb (with some great ladies cheering us on to the top), then we were downhill again, back into town to begin heading back.

Oswestry Half 10

All along the route, we had been spotting the unique mile markers along the way, so it was really nice to be able to see them from quite a way off. Eventually we found ourselves back on the road we had been on earlier at 9 miles and I breathed a sigh of relief at being away from the bustle of the town centre and back onto the quiet lanes. There was a brief out and back just after mile 11, to make the race distance up to half marathon, then we had a nice straight road back, which just left the two fields to cross.

  
We could see the finish from over half a mile away, and it was slightly uphill on grass to reach the actual line, but there was still plenty of support and cheering as we ran those final hundred yards or so. We each got an individual printout of our race results, then headed over to the race village to collect our goody bags, T-shirt (sadly only large size left by this point), and then the medals took a little bit of finding. The marshal at the goody bags had pointed us over to near the stage, where there was currently a presentation happening to the overall and age category winners, so the area was crowded with people and it wasn’t obvious where the medals where. In the end, I asked somebody wearing a medal where we collected them from, and she pointed to a little white iron gazebo, in front of which was standing a lady, rather inconspicuously. She handed us each a black box, and I have to say, we each uttered a “Wow” when we opened them to see a bright shiny gorilla shaped medal resting inside. I had seen pictures of the medal, but it was more stunning than I had imagined, and I am really not a ‘bling person’ – I’ll run a race for a cup of tea and a bowl of soup (see Grindleford Gallop blog) rather than a medal, but this will hang proudly on my medal hanger. It is special.

  

After the race, we ate guilt-free pizza and I had a quick wander around the British Ironwork Centre, which is an unusual and unique place, well worth a visit (also free entry), then I headed home to show off my new bling.  

 
All in all, a great first event . The only feedback I would give to change for next year would be to hand out medals immediately as runners finish, because that’s often the main reason people sign up to an event in the first place, so make that really special. EDIT: I’ve since heard that many runners received their medals up on stage, personally presented by the town mayor. A lovely personal touch, but it seems we arrived too late to be presented with our medals this way, which is a shame. The free photos are also fantastic quality – I had over 50 free images of myself taken and tagged. Overall, a great friendly-feeling event, well-marshalled, and no obvious issues.

Thank you to UKRunChat for the opportunity to run the first ever Oswestry Half.

Oswestry Half mile 10

Things I think about when I run a marathon

In the starting pen:
There’s the 3:58 pacer. I’ll stand by him and hope I can stick like glue to him for the race. (Looking around) I wonder which of us will hit 3:58 and which of us will blow up. I really hope I can do it because I don’t want to have to do another road marathon to get the sub 4. I could have done with another wee really but those portaloos at the start smelled disgusting. It’s just in my head. I’ll be ok.

(Mat from club finds me and asks if he can run with me to try to pace himself properly. It’s his first marathon.)

Phew, company! I really wasn’t looking forward to running this on my own. Mat’s much quicker than me though, I hope he doesn’t feel I’m too slow and I really don’t want to feel like I have to run quicker than I’ve planned. It’s ok, we’ll stay between the 3:58 and the 3:59 pacer.

 

Relieved to have found a running buddy in Mat

Shuffling slowly towards the start line:

It’s too claustrophobic. I am really not comfortable THIS close to SO many people. Hurry up people. Where’s the 3:58 pacer going?? He’s crossed the line already, we must be a minute behind already? He’s a pro, weaving in and out. Damn, watch has turned itself off waiting – hope I can find GPS again in time.


Crossing the start line:

Here’s goes. Don’t go too fast, stay disciplined. Stay ahead of the 3:59 pacer and we’ll be ok.

Mile 1: 8:59

That 3:58 pacer has shot off! He can’t be doing the right pace. Don’t worry, just keep an eye on watch pace and stick as close to 9 minute miling as we can.

Mile 2: 8:50

We’re a little ahead of pace but feeling comfortable, this is good.

Mile 3: 8:53

First loop done, there’s Old Trafford again and White City. Pacing going well, first 5k done in around 27 minutes.

Mile 4: 8:41

We’re heading out of the city now, head down and just keep counting those miles down. Water station. I don’t need a drink but have one anyway, few mouthfuls to rinse your mouth out. Keep hydrated, it’s pretty hot.

Mile 5: 8:57

Oops bit quick that last one. Slow it down a little, don’t want to blow up later on. I’d better take a gel. I don’t really need one but I’ve been running 40-odd minutes now so I’ll take one every 40 minutes to keep my carbs topped up.

Mile 6: 8:58

Really happy with this pace, it feels good. These Chorlton Runners are getting lots of shout outs. I haven’t had one yet but it’s the first marathon I haven’t had my name on my top as I remember it all getting a bit much at London. I guess my name on my number is pretty small.

Mile 7: 9:00

Whoop passed the first timing mat at 10k in 55:28. Only 20 miles to go! Feeling good and pace exactly where it should be. Oh look, I used to go into that pub as a student. Memories!! Are we in Sale already?

Mile 8: 8:52

Getting a tad quick again. Chat to a bloke who’s doing his first marathon in over ten years and hasn’t done any long runs. I really hope he does ok today.  Look out for Rick as he should be around here somewhere supporting. “He was back there” says Mat, didn’t you see me shout and wave to him? Oops, I’m clearly in the zone now, focusing inwardly.

Mile 9: 9:03

Wow the crowds here are amazing! It’s so loud! Whoop, first shout out! I heard a Shelly earlier but I know that wasn’t me. Why are my hips hurting? I run far longer distances than this, why am I in this much pain? It’s the bloody road, I knew there was a reason I stick to trail. Bloody tarmac and concrete IS bad for you. Just ignore the hips, I’ll be fine.

Mile 10: 9:02

A nice marker to hit. Only 10 miles plus another 10k to go. Wow are they sub 3 hour runners coming back towards us on the other side? I wonder how far in they are? Maybe half marathon? I’ll see if I can spot anyone I know. Oh there’s David, looking strong ahead of the 3:15 pacer. And there’s Daz looking comfortable just with the 3:30 pacer. Wow these runners look so comfortable at that pace – how do they do it? Ooh jelly babies, how nice. Yes please.

Mile 11: 9:00

Round the corner. Wow how long IS the loop until we head back? I’d better take another gel too. If I took one at 40 minutes, I’ll take another at 1 hour 20, a third at 2 hours then I’ll have run out for the second half of the race so I’ll have to remember to pick some more up from the fuel stations next time we pass one.

Mile 12: 8:52

Those Chorlton Runners keep overtaking us then dropping behind again. I need a Chorlton vest – they’re getting loads of support. Ok this feels like a hill. Who said this was flat. Push into it and get up there.

Mile 13: 8:45

Whew and back downhill. Go with gravity! What IS that noise? Oh it’s that lady with headphones on singing loudly. I don’t recognise the song. What’s the song? She’s clearly enjoying herself. Good on her.

Mile 14: 9:02

Through the half marathon point in 1 hour 55. I might actually be able to do this. We can count down to the finish now and we are actually heading back now.

Mile 15: 9:06

There’s a gel station coming up around the corner. I remember seeing it earlier. I’ll grab one as I’ll need more gels than the 3 I brought with me. I’ll take another of mine now. Oh there’s a guy walking backwards. Is he doing the whole marathon backwards? Wow.

Mile 16: 9:09

Ten miles to go! Woohoo. Well and a teeny bit.

Mile 17: 8:54

Wow I think I used to work there? Where am I? Yes I did, trip down memory lane back to when I was a student. Struggling here. I need to slow down a bit I think.

Mile 18: 9:02

(Mat decides to run on ahead and stretch his legs.) OK I don’t feel like I’m holding Mat back now but I’m worried I won’t have anyone to spur me on now. It’s ok, you can do this. Just keep going, keep the legs ticking over.

Mile 19: 9:12

“Hello, are you the Michelle off Twitter?” There’s a friendly looking chap who introduces himself to me as Paul. I suppose I am, yes. It’s nice to have some company again, I don’t like running on my own, and it helps to take my mind off the pain. After a while Paul waves me on as says I’m going a bit quicker than him. On my own again.

Mile 20: 9:23

Wow this bit is boring. And quiet. There are no spectators. I feel tired. My legs feel like they don’t belong to me. My back is hurting. I’ve still got an hour to go. Have another gel, then only another gel after that to go then I’ll be finished. Am I so bored I’m counting down the race in gels? Yes I am.

Mile 21: 9:14

3 hours for the first 20 miles. I’m on track for sub 4, got an hour to do 10k. Can I do this? Can I actually do this? Bearing in mind I’m now running like I’ve pooed myself because my hips are hurting? How much pain am I prepared to put myself through? I’m breaking out the shot blocks – if I do one a mile that will give me something to look forward to.

Mile 22: 9:55

Wow I am so bored now. Not enjoying this at all. If I stop and walk from here it’s only 5 miles and I could still do a quicker time than I did my last marathon in. Yeah, at least it’ll be a PB. Who cares about a sub 4 anyway? Am I that bothered? Drinks!! And gels! Sod it, I’m having a little walk while I have a drink. I’m melting. I’ll have my last gel now too. Ahhhh that not running feels so good. You idiot, you’re probably not going to be able to start running again now. You’ve totally just sabotaged your entire race. Why would you do that?
“I f***ing hate marathons” I say to the chap who’s also slowed to walk next to me. He agrees. Why do we do this to ourselves? He says he balances out his alcoholism with marathons. I sense he’s probably joking but I’m too tired to really know. Right, well the quicker we get to the finish line the quicker I can lie down and have a cry so let’s try running again. Ow. Yeah walking wasn’t the best idea, but the running is ok, just ignore the pain.

Mile 23: 9:26

Damn, that’s the 3:59 pacer just overtook me. Can I keep up with him? No. What pace must I be doing? I can’t look. It doesn’t matter. Let him go. I hate this marathon. Yes, lady at the side of the road, I hear you telling me to not let him out of my sight, but I’ve run over 20 miles, don’t you understand how exhausted I am? Have another shot block. That caffeine feels GOOD!

Mile 24: 9:31

Only 2 laps of parkrun to go. 20 minutes running. Come on, you can do this.
I hear a “Hello Michelle” and a chap named Gray introduces himself to me who recognises me off Twitter. “How are you doing?” he asks. Struggling now, I say. Just want to get finished. “Want to run together?” he asks. We can try, I say, but I’m not sure I’ll be able to keep up with you. That self doubt has me in its evil grip. “I’ve just had a walk he says, but you look strong”. That’ll be the shot block I’ve just had, I say. I don’t feel it, but I run anyway. I feel tired and nauseous and I’m aching to stop running. I appreciated that chat even though it was brief. With those words in my head I run on.

Mile 25: 9:09

Something’s gripped me and I’ve sped up a little. I’m overtaking lots of runners and seem to have lost my new running buddy but I keep going. I don’t look back. I can hear spectators saying there’s the 4 hour pacer, so he can’t be far behind me but if I look behind, I’m done. I’ve lost it. Just keep moving forward.

Mile 26: 8:26

I’ve got 12 minutes to get under 4 hours. Can I do this? I think I can if I sustain this pace. I’ll be gutted if it’s seconds over 4 hours. I’d rather be minutes over, than seconds. Let’s see what these legs have left. How long is this mile??? I can’t even see the finish line. OWWWWW. What the hell was that? Did I stand on a nail? Ew my toes feel sticky. Blister. Wow I didn’t know they were that painful when they burst. OWWWWW the other foot now? What the hell is going on with my feet? Thank god I brought flip flops to wear afterwards. Ah we’re turning a corner. The finish line, is that it? It looks so far away. Ah there’s the 3:59 pacer – how have I managed to catch him up? That’s good, let’s overtake him. I think he’s slowed a bit and let his group run on. I think I might just do this. That finish line isn’t getting any closer. Come on, push. Think good strong form. Relax your shoulders. Move your arms. Oh it’s Dan, he’s made it. I’ll wave and look happy, but don’t slow down you’re nearly there. The finish line. Arms up. Happy relieved face. 3:58. You’ve bloody done it woman!

 

Thanks for the finish straight photo, Rick

 

After the finish line:

I can’t walk. How have I just managed to run a marathon? Where do I go? I can’t focus. I need to sit down. Oh look, goody bags. Small t-shirt please. And water. Yes please. Is there food in here? I need real food. A protein bar, that’ll do. Oh there’s a UKRunChat vest, that must be Garry. I say hi to Garry who introduces me to Caithy and we have maybe 6 attempts at a selfie.

 

Caithy takes a photo of Garry and me in the end

Everything is so difficult after a marathon. A chap called Andy comes and says hi who also recognises me off Twitter so we congratulate each other – he’s run an amazing time! I need my bag so I can find my flip flops. Oh there’s alcohol free beer too, yes please. I need carbs. I don’t like beer but this tastes INCREDIBLE. I need a wee though. Hello lady sitting on the floor, please would you look after my beer, I don’t want to take it into the portaloos. Ahhhhhh. Relief. I need to get this sticky sweaty top off and a dry one on. I need to get these trainers off too. I’m not looking at the blisters yet, I’ll look when I get home. Owwwwww, foot cramp. How on earth am I meant to get these flip flops on without touching my blisters? Slowly slowly, no I’ll fall over. Someone help me, why is this so difficult. Owwwww. Right let’s try the other one. Owwwwww, this one’s cramping too. I can see all the veins tensing. That’s disgusting, and really hurts. Why is this so difficult. Right, stand up, let’s go find my family. I’ve done it. Proud of myself today.


Thank you to UKRunChat and Breathe Unity for the opportunity to run the ASICS Greater Manchester Marathon 2017.

Grindleford Gallop 

I remember many years ago, while I was out walking up Ingleborough in the pouring rain one August bank holiday, and I saw two fell runners pass us, in shorts and vest, heading up the hill. “I’d never be able to do that,” I recall saying to my husband, as they trotted past us.
Yesterday, as we emerged from muddy fells and tumbled into the sleepy villages of the Peak District, covered in mud, sweating, looking a little worn out and tired, I recognised that same puzzling look in the faces of villagers enjoying a Saturday morning coffee, or out for a walk, that I had given the fell runners all those years ago. It seemed I had crossed to the other side. 

 

The first climb out of Grindleford towards Eyam
 
Grindleford Gallop is not a registered fell race, but it is a serious distance event (21 miles) on which the organisers recommend taking full FRA kit. I sense a true fell race is not far off for me. 
I heard about the Grindleford Gallop by pure chance, when I bumped into somebody at a parkrun that I had run a 401 marathon last summer with, around Ladybower reservoir. “If you loved that,” he told me, “the Grindleford Gallop opens next week, but be quick because it always sells out straight away.”
When I got home that day, I researched it and found it fitted into my marathon training plan perfectly. It was 3 weeks before Manchester, so would serve as my longest run before I started tapering mileage towards 2nd April. 

 

At the top of Longstone Moor
 
It turns out the race sold out in 5 minutes, so I consider myself very lucky to be on the start line with 300 other runners this year. I had been really nervous leading up to it, worrying about navigating the 21 mile route on my own but once I chatted to other runners who had run it before, my mind was soon put at rest that it was well marked. My plan was to always make sure I had others runners around me. I had also studied the written route instructions carefully and had memorised the main turning points of the route. If all else failed I had an OS map in my bag with the route marked on it. 
The start was on a field in the village of Grindleford, and the race brief consisted of a quick warning to check in at every control point with your chipped wristband, to stick to the marked route over Longstone Moor to protect nesting birds, and to ring the bell when crossing the golf course near Chatsworth. Then the klaxon sounded, and we were off!
There were a few queues within the first quarter of a mile to get through a couple of stiles but once we hit the first hill at 1.5 miles, the field thinned out. The hills were very much “walking” hills, and my calves were burning even walking. There were marshalls at all the main road crossing points, and the control points, and the rest of the route was marked with arrows. I could always see other runners around me apart from very occasionally so I soon relaxed into enjoying the views, which were stunning! 

 

Mud on Longstone Moor
 
There were refreshments at each “even” control point, and the “odd” CPs were simply to scan your wristband. Jelly babies heading onto the beautiful Longstone Moor gave me an early sugar boost but I was especially looking forward to cake at later checkpoints. (There is a theme developing with my races this year.)

 

On the Monsal trail
 
The route took in part of the Monsal trail which I had never run before, and which I had been looking forward to. Actually this turned out to be the least favourite section of the race for me, as it was flat and boring (it’s an old railway line) and it was full of people, a contrast after the splendid isolation of the hillsides and the moors. We soon left the Monsal trail however after a quick sugary cup of tea and some lemon drizzle cake (which was deliciously melty), and started a steep climb uphill over to Chatsworth. We were at around 12 miles here and I had been going for 2 hours. I was feeling ok until we got into Chatsworth park itself at around 15 miles then I felt tired. I reckoned after the hills I was feeling like I will feel around the 20 mile mark at my flat marathon – I needed to refuel now but was around a mile away from the last control point so I tried a sports bean which I had in my pack for an emergency. Wow! The sweetest thing I have ever tasted, but it worked! A noticeable energy boost. A quick small coffee and a bit of rocky road at the next control point got me ready for the final climb up to Baslow Edge. 

 

The descent down towards Chatsworth
 
The mood of runners at that final climb was lovely. There was lots of banter from those who had run it before, there were many locals out cheering us on and proffering jelly babies. It was a tough climb, but wow, was the view worth it. Splendid 360 degree views from what felt like the top of the world. I was bordering on euphoric here (this happens a lot during my long runs) and I just felt so happy! I could feel a blister on my right foot, and my legs were tired, but I didn’t care. I loved this! 

 

Curbar Edge
 
2 or 3 miles along the edge with glorious views, and more locals cheering, and we then began our final descent during a slippery, muddy woodland, back into Grindleford. I was genuinely sad it was over. I actually feel a bit sad that my next race is a road marathon because there won’t be views like this in Manchester. 

 

The incredible view from the edge
 
This was a superbly organised event – great t-shirt, fantastic local support, excellent refreshments (I especially liked how all the cake was wrapped in cling film so you could take it with you – little details like this really make a difference) with a bowl of hot soup at the finish, and well signposted. I’ll be back for more. 
Although I didn’t set out to run this in a particular time, I’m actually pretty surprised that I did it in 4 hours considering it took me the same time to cover the 15 mile route at Hebden in January; a good sign of progress with endurance and fitness gains I hope. 
I’ll definitely be booking more events like this, so if you know of any similar ones, I’d love to hear about them. 
Stats:

Distance: 21 miles

Elevation: 2687 ft

Amount of cake eaten: 2x lemon drizzle, 1x rocky road, and 1x flapjack (saved for later). 

The Belvoir Challenge

I had been looking forward to this event for a while, having heard all the hype about the cake. After Hebden 15, I’ll be honest, I was expecting it to be a doddle, and almost contemplated signing up for the full 26 mile distance, but ever the cautious one, I decided to be sensible and stick to the marathon training plan, so opted for the 15 mile route.

To keep my marathon training interesting this year, I booked in a monthly long trail race – a way of escaping the monotony of the road, and having a focus each month because a marathon can feel a very long time training. With 5 weeks until Manchester, I felt ready for the Belvoir* Challenge.

The day dawned cloudy and windy, with a forecast of heavy rain around midday. Perfect cross country running weather, non? I arrived at Harby village hall at around 7:45am. The race wasn’t due to start until 9, but I wanted ample time for finding a car parking space and some pre-race preparations, which in this case involved eating a banana, drinking a hot chocolate, queueing up twice for a wee, and finding people who had done this event before to check it was easy to navigate and I wouldn’t get lost. Registration to collect numbers was a smooth process – desks were in alphabetical order according to what distance you were running, so there was no queueing. There were also plenty of portaloos available, although inevitably there are always queues for these before a race.

  
I was doing this event on my own, rather than with a buddy. Although I knew there were a couple of fellow club runners tackling the marathon distance, I wasn’t expecting to run with anyone. I felt a little out of my comfort zone actually. I had packed the map that was given out at registration, but it was small scale, so I’m not sure how much use it would have been, but it eased my nerves a little.

At 9am, the 1200 runners were set off! We ran down a road, around a corner, onto a field, and straight into a slippery mudbath. The event is billed as a cross country event, and the sticky, slippery mud was to be a recurring feature of the day. The route changes every year, so I’m not sure how much mud is usually involved, but this was pretty special – feet disappearing regularly into watery bogs and thick, oozy mud. It was actually really tough to run on without slipping over so I found myself slowing down a lot and walking at times.

  
I had been led to believe there was a pretty steep slope before the first checkpoint to get up onto the ridge where the castle is, and as we entered the woods I could see a gentle slope rising into the distance. That doesn’t look too bad, I said to the lady next to me, perhaps a little prematurely. As we reached the top of the false summit, and looked upwards into the heavens, necessitating a full head tilt to see skyward, we could see the actual slope rising into, I’m not sure, giant land perhaps. It looked very high. And very steep. I could just make out spots of colourful neon snaking up it slowly.

  
And so our ascent began. The mud was slippery, with a little bit of undergrowth for grip, and there wasn’t much to hold onto apart from spiky brambles so staying upright was a challenge, and a great core workout. I was giggling hysterically on the way up, because it was once again a ridiculous thing to be doing on a Saturday morning (why do I keep signing up for things like this? Oh yes, because they’re fun.)

  
I made it to the top with mud on my hands, which then of course goes all over your face as you wipe sweat out of your eyes. Delightful creatures, we trail runners, aren’t we? The view over the Vale took my breath away then, then there was a short, flat, run to the checkpoint.

  
Let me talk about the checkpoints. Water, juice, tea, coffee, sandwiches, flapjack, brownie, cookies, sponge cake, carrot cake, cupcakes, savoury scones, Stilton, bananas, Mars Bars, jelly babies, chocolate cake, [add in your own], ad infinitum – they were incredible. All staffed by volunteers who could not have been more helpful. They were lovely. If I have one regret about the day, it’s that I missed the two checkpoints on the full route because I opted for the 15 mile event.

  
So with a belly full of tea and sandwiches and cake, a Mars Bar in my pocket, and my water bottles refilled, I followed the arrows for the 15 mile route as the two routes separated from here, and I headed downhill again (hooray?) into the most beautiful green valley. I love running on grass, and this made a welcome change from the sticky, gloopy mud. It was only 3 miles to the next checkpoint, where I could eventually wash my hands, and stuff my face with more cake and a cup of tea.

  
5 miles to go and we were back on mud again. The rain also started as the wind picked up, so I really didn’t enjoy the section between around 11 and 13 miles, but I got my head down and got on with it. 

  
I feel like we shouldn’t be afraid of the low moments during a run – to me they’re an important part of training to recognise, and they build character and mental strength. We simply need to ask why we’re finding it tough. For me personally, my legs were feeling tired after running 10 miles through mud, so I accepted it and got through it.

  
I eventually made it back to the village hall at Harby in 3 hours 28 minutes (total moving time 2:55, so I did spend a lot of time at checkpoints). The numbers had timing chips on them, so as soon as you crossed the mat, you could type your name into one of 3 computers and see your exact finishing time. Time wasn’t at all important to me yesterday, it just can’t be on that kind of cross country terrain, although there were some runners posting incredible times. For me it was simply good time on feet to train for that marathon and the upcoming ultra. I then filled up on a bowl of soup, but turned down the array of desserts which included crumble, sponge pudding and a few other options. I was full of cake.

Would I do it again? Absolutely. Had I not had an upcoming marathon, and 21 miler coming up soon, I would have done the whole distance and made a full day of it. It’s a cracking event, superbly organised, and impeccably route marked with clear signage. And the checkpoints are worth the entry fee alone (which is £15 by the way – bargain!) There’s no medal, but you can print a certificate off the website, and I bought a souvenir mug and T-shirt. All profits are to the local school, and many of the staff and parents volunteer at the event and bake the cakes and make the sandwiches.

I’ll be doing more of these type of events. I can certainly see why this one sells out every year.

*For those uninitiated in Leicestershire ways, Belvoir is pronounced ‘beaver’ in this instance. Wikipedia tells me the name, meaning beautiful view in French (and it is), is indeed a Norman import but our native population was unable to pronounce it as French, so settled on Beaver Castle.

Hebden 15 – Back for more.

Last year I tackled Hebden for the first time. It almost broke me. It was completely out of my comfort zone and to be honest it put me off endurance events for a while. I busied myself for the rest of the year undertaking a run streak and focusing on my speed, and really improved my PBs. It was only recently I decided to go back to marathons and I signed up to the Manchester Marathon with an ambitious goal of getting as close to Good For Age as I could, so I booked in some monthly trail races to help strengthen me up, and to complement the speed work and long road runs I’m doing. Hebden seemed a natural choice. 

Once again this year we had a great crowd from our club Witham Runners tacking it. It’s a 22 mile race in the Pennine Hills run by the LDWA, and there’s a 15 mile short loop. I wrote 15 miles into my marathon training plan that weekend but signed up to the 22, just in case. 

Following last year’s ice, I had been watching the weather carefully but it remained mild and wet, pretty nice trail running conditions actually. 

  

I had arranged to run the route with Claire, who I’d met on the course the previous year, and Jason who was tackling his first ever event of this kind (and longest distance) so I was happy that the day would be at a nice relaxed pace with good company. 

We arrived at Mythlmroyd church hall around 7:20am on a dark, cold Saturday morning to a teeming throng of Lycra clad athletes munching on toast and drinking tea. I love the atmosphere at these small events (field was around 400 runners and walkers) and I said hello to a few faces I recognised from Twitter, and found the rest of our club runners. At 7:55am everyone filed out of the door, around the corner to beneath the railway arches, and at 8am prompt we were off! 

I set off at a very, very steady, conversational pace. Today for me was all about training – time on feet and some great hills to build strength. We had approximately a flat mile out along the canal – where my watch refused to pick up GPS signal – before we crossed a road and began our first climb. I planned to walk up the hills and run the flats and downhills. I don’t think I could have run the hills had I tried though – even this first short one was remarkably steep. As it levelled off, we crossed through a gate and were rewarded with the most beautiful view over the misty valley we had just started in. 

  
I ran past the spot where I had fallen in the ice the previous year, and took the correct path through a gate we had missed in 2016 resulting in extra, needless miles. I mentally congratulated myself at exorcising those ghosts. Onwards to checkpoint 1 for juice, cake and jelly babies. 

  
We didn’t stop for long, and soon headed off again. I’ve forgotten the route even now, but I just remember plenty of fields and hills and views and mud! Lot of stiles to climb too. 

  
Jason, Claire and I chatted about running most of the way. It always amazes me how much I can talk about running – races I’ve done or want to enter, coaching tips, parkrun adventures, etc. Runners must be very dull people to those who don’t run because we really could talk endlessly about what we love to do. 

  
The field had spread out quite a bit and by the time we reached checkpoint 2 there were no other runners in sight. Jason and I set off down the track after a few jelly babies and then heard a yell. We turned around to see a man behind us gesturing to his left. We had inadvertently missed the turning. That could have gone very wrong. At the end of that track, we thought perhaps we should get our written instructions out to check the route and figure out which of three gates we should go through, but our trusty navigator had caught us up again and once again pointed us onto the correct path. A lady in blue had also caught us up by this point and knew where she was going so we dutifully settled into a comfortable pace and followed our new leader. 

  
I was really enjoying myself this year. No pressure, just beautiful views. I began to wonder whether I should do the full 22 miles. Claire had already decided she was going to continue on at checkpoint 4 to do the additional 7 miles. I was tempted. 

 

Jason at Hardcastle Crags
 
We reached checkpoint 3 after a very nice, fast downhill which the previous year would have been safer on a toboggan, and were rewarded with an oasis of sandwiches, cake and a hot cup of tea. Bliss! 

 

Just the cake at CP3
 
We didn’t hang around long however as our leader in blue had already left so we wanted to catch her. We pushed on over the railway bridge and headed uphill for a big climb past Stoodley Pike. 

  
   
This is my favourite section of the event. It’s part of the Pennine Way and the views are just stunning. It also feels like proper moorland too – long grasses growing over boggy ground, really squelchy and satisfying. 

 

Climbing up towards Stoodley Pike
 
Once we were at the top I knew I probably shouldn’t continue and do the full 22. I felt fine – my legs were obviously tired after 13 miles – but I knew if I pushed the distance too far I would need more recovery time which would ultimately impact negatively on my marathon training sessions if I couldn’t manage to do my tempo runs and speedwork to the best of my ability the following week.

  
So as we reached checkpoint 4,  Jason and I said goodbye to Claire and wished her well, then we ran down the lane back into Mythlmroyd for the most incredible meal of pie, mushy peas and mint sauce, followed by rhubarb crumble. I also had 3 cups of tea.   

 
 

GPS failure at the start meant I measured the course a little short
 
The best day ever. I’m really pleased I went back and did the Hebden again. It’s a fantastic event, and something about it has really gripped me. I don’t know whether it’s the fresh air, the scenery, the cameraderie, but yesterday my heart was singing. I really do love it on the trails – I’m not a particularly fast or talented trail runner but it’s where I feel happiest. And I will be back to complete the full Hebden 22. 

  
 

Bonking, bogs and beating my nemesis: Hell Up North

  
I’ve never done any kind of obstacle course race, but I do love my trail running and have also tried out a few fell runs this year so I thought Hellrunner would be a nice mix of the two. The northern version in Delamere Forest, Cheshire – Hell Up North – bills itself as the toughest half marathon in the UK and my limited research into it seemed to suggest it was a challenging trail run where runners encounter natural obstacles such as mud, hills, bogs and a lake. If I’m quite honest, I thought the marketing about it being hellish was overhyped – I’ve worked in marketing and copywriting myself for a long time! – so I took reference to Lucifer’s Lido, the Bog of Doom and the Hills of Hell with a pinch of salt. 

I’ll admit the photographs and videos the organisers posted in the few weeks preceding the event did get me feeling a bit nervous about the obstacles I would encounter, but I thought it would simply be good training for the cross country season which is just starting. 
The start was well organised with easy, free car parking, and an athletes’ village with a changing tent, baggage, food and drink, samples from sponsors Clif Bar and gait analysis from Brooks. I had opted for Wave 1, anticipating that I could avoid most queues for obstacles setting off first, and a rather geriatric looking masked Lucifer on stilts set us off on the start line with red smoke. 

The first mile was immediately up to the top of Old Pale hill (176m) but after that the next 5 miles or so were like a really nice trail run along paths and weaving in and out through the forest. There was one steep valley to descend into followed immediately by a climb up the other side, with a very small queue as people took it tentatively down the steep dusty slope. The climb back up was really steep and involved digging fingers into the dirt and grabbing hold of tree roots to get some grip. I remember thinking to myself that this section was tame, apart from a section where we had to cross a lake basically balancing on tree branches and sticks. The arrow suggested that we go straight the middle of it but I followed the pack and managed to keep everything except my left foot dry. I kept consciously scolding myself for skirting around the edge of puddles and muddy sections instead of going straight through them, and as we crossed the road through the forest into the second section I was still very clean as I smiled for the first camera man. Oh how the irony of my mud avoidance will come back to bite me later on.

There was a water stop at around 5.5/6 miles. I didn’t carry any tech on this run for obvious reasons so it was impossible for me to tell what distance obstacles were at, and the organisers intentionally do not display distance markers to make it more of a mental challenge. After a drink, the obstacles started and we descended a hill straight into a deep bog. There was no way around and it was around 30m wide and waist to chest deep. There was a queue to cross via the right hand side of it, but our group splashed straight in and made two new crossings. I surprised myself by actually getting straight in, and it was surprisingly warm but the smell was disgusting! Sulphurous, gloopy mud. I got a bit hysterical with laughter at this point because I had made such an effort to keep myself clean for the past hour and now I looked and smelled like a bog creature. Thanks to the chap who lent me a helping hand as I tripped over a tree root in there and nearly went face first into it. I hauled myself out the other side and carried on running. From here on in my memory is a bit blurred, but I remember there being lots of thick deep mud – I’m talking knee deep if you stepped in the wrong bit, and ankle to shin deep if you went around the edge. I nearly lost my shoes a few times. There were stream crossings too but for the most part it was very runnable.

  And then came the hills of hells. The route basically took us to the side of a very steep, almost vertical, banking and made us run down and climb up several times. I felt a little like Sisyphus, the Greek guy of legend who got punished by being made to eternally roll a boulder up a hill only to have it roll down and have to start again. At this point I had no idea how far I had run – I guessed about 8.5/9 miles – and absolutely no clue how long I had been out for – it felt like eternity – and I was totally out of fuel. At the top of that last hill I bonked, and remember shouting ‘I need sugar!’ to which a woman just behind me miraculously produced a gel out of her waist pack and offered it to me. Sweet, sweet nectar. Thank you! I shared it with a friend who was also in a similar fuel-depleted state and I internally cursed myself for not having brought any fuel with me. It didn’t even occur to me as I can quite happily run a half marathon in training usually carrying no food or water, but this was different. 

The marshall at the top of the hill assured us that the next water station was about 2 miles away so on we walked/ran, to be faced with my biggest nemesis, Lucifer’s Lido: the lake crossing. Now those who know me, know I chickened out of an open water triathlon last year because it involved an 800m swim in a lake. I can swim, but am not confident, and as we waded into the cold water here, my stomach was churning. The lifeguard from Cheshire Search and Rescue, who was standing at the water’s edge, asked: “Are there any non swimmers here, because the water level is much higher than usual?” and I immediately started to panic. I surveyed the situation. I couldn’t see the other side of the lake. There was a clear route through it, and those people I could see in it looked to be wading through it about chest deep in the water, but there were many trees growing out of the water, and it could have been my imagination but it looked foggy and misty. Was I in my worst nightmare? 

I was snapped out of my hellish hallucination by a woman in front of me who offered us (my husband, friend and me) a cola bottle which we happily accepted. I took a deep breath and waded in. It was cold. Icy cold. Knee deep. Many tree roots to trip over and bruise your shins. Then my husband fell forward with a huge splash. “Careful! There’s a big drop there,” he warned. He was now chest deep. I let myself carefully fall forward into the dip, treading water, and the cold on my chest immediately took my breath away. I panicked. Grabbed hold of Dan’s hand. Grabbed a tree root I could see out of the water. Shouted a lot of swear words. (Apologies to fellow waders!) The presence of the search and rescue chaps with their lifeboats was however very reassuring – I think there were 4 of them positioned across the lake, and I asked one how far it was. “About 200 metres of deep water,” he reassured me, so I composed myself and decided to swim across rather than risk tripping and drowning in the icy hell. Dare I say I actually enjoyed the brief rest and the icy chill on my legs? Then I stood up, smiled for the camera man, and ran out of the other side to warm up again. 

I was still out of fuel and was walk/running, I just had no energy. I kept thinking it was interminable. I had lost all sense of time and direction. My legs didn’t want to run at all and I was just trying to conserve every ounce of energy I had left. I told my husband to stop talking to me because it was using energy for me to even listen. I thought I was hallucinating at one point as I could see black shapes and shadows floating in front of my eyes. Then I heard dance music. And there appeared an angel, resplendent in a white tutu and a halo, proffering shot blocks. Was I in heaven? It appeared I was. I took two shot blocks and a bottle of water, ran through a disco tent, waved at an angel on the decks, and composed myself for the last few miles. There were more bogs, more hills, more trees and logs to clamber over, more streams to wade through, and then finally we crossed the road again and I could hear music from the drummers in the athlete village. Nearly home. Nearly. Just the small matter of the Bog of Doom to get through. 
This section was actually fun as it was around half a mile from the finish, if that. The bog was around waist deep and nowhere near as smelly as some of the others we had encountered, but the water was very muddy and concealed many tree roots under the surface attempting to trip you up, bruise and scrape your legs so it was very slow progress. There were a lot of spectators here, marvelling at the brown, stinking, unrecognisable creatures wading past and then with the helping hand of the last marshall who hauled us out, we were through and we simply had to run around the final field to the finish line. Three of us, Danny, Will and I, crossed hand in hand after 3 hours, 52 minutes and 59 seconds. I gasped as I saw the time and realised how long it has actually taken – no wonder I had completely hit a wall! – but we had been through hell and made it to heaven and back again. 

  

The medal and the goody bag were top quality, and the technical t-shirt was great too. The charity hose down by the Fire Service was also very cold but welcome!

  

All in all a great race, but a lot more challenging than I was expecting. It was very well signposted, and my only gripe was that two water stations wasn’t enough. Ideally I would have liked one around 4 miles, 8 miles and 11 miles. A great challenge, and I feel I’ve learned a lot about myself this weekend. I also promise to never skirt around the edges of a muddy puddle again. The bogs have changed me. 

  
Would I do it again? Maybe not this one, but I wouldn’t be afraid of trying something similar. I still don’t think you’d ever get me doing an Obstacle Course Race though. 

I wore Brooks Pure Grit trail shoes for this race which performed excellently – really light, grippy, and good to feel the ground beneath your feet. 

Stats: 

Distance 13.1 miles (approx. – I wore no tech remember but one of my teammates assures me it was 21km)

Completed in 3:52:49

146th lady out of 346

802nd overall out of 1202 finishers