After a fair few marathons and one failed attempt at an ultra marathon (Osmotherly Pheonix, 2011 – too hot too hilly and too fat then) I thought it was time to give it another go, which is when I came across the Dukeries Ultra (Nottinghamshire) as a viable introduction.
It is 40 miles and although there is a 30 mile option, I wasn’t getting up at 5.30am to drive to Robin Hood’s hangout for anything less than full value for money. As distances greater than the marathon go it is relatively benign terrain, or so I thought until I saw that amongst the compulsory kit was 3 pages of route description and 7 pages of map!
Training consisted of running two hard marathons in April and then some wishful thinking, reflecting on my training I would have to say the second marathon (Stratford, 27 April 2014) should have been more of a training run in order to ensure peak fitness. I wasn’t so much concerned about the physical aspect as I was about getting lost in the woods and doing double the distance. Many seconds were frittered away on FB and twitter in conversation with the race directors, who were extremely reassuring (basically said stop panicking, it will be fine and in daylight).
As it was I found myself setting off to Sherwood on a wet and grey Sunday morning, being diverted in the centre of Leeds at 6am because of the half marathon taking place that day, then on the M1 I endured 50mph continuously, as it seems all motorways heading south are being dug up at once. At the race HQ there was the obligatory briefing, a sudden huge downpour, a line up and then yep – the hares were off and us tortoises were at the back – it wa soly a small field of runners, roughly 100 in total.
It seems the law of the starter’s order is always to go like the clappers, even when you know it’s a long long way home – and 40 miles is a long way when it is your own two feet covering the distance. Sensibly I had set a pace for myself of around 10 mins to 10.30 minute miles and naively estimated a time of between 7.50-8hrs hours. For the first 13 or so miles I was running with a lovely lady called Rachel from London and we were able to swap marathon stories and various running related anecdotes, including how her husband had completed a 100mile race by running the last 20miles on a fractured leg (and he was there supporting, on crutches, being driven round by parents).
This was the first real pleasant difference in running an ultra compared to a marathon, being able to run at a pace that allowed conversation and being able to hold that conversation for 2 hours. This allowed plenty of time to get into our stride and settle into the event. The first checkpoint, Hazel Gap, was roughly 8.5 miles in and allowed for a jaffa cake and hello before setting off again. We trundled through Sherwood Forest and I stopped to take a picture of the Great Oak (Robin Hood’s former HQ) and to be honest I was a little underwhelmed. I was therefore relieved when a bit further on I realised I had the wrong tree and in fact the Great Oak is – great! And fully supported as its ancient branches reach out like something out of Hogwarts.
Four miles further on Rachel and I said goodbye as I pushed on through the woods along the Robin Hood Way and found myself lost in thought on solid trail. The weather was in parts wet, windy and later very sunny. Checkpoint two was 18 miles in and was – Hazel Gap, a big circle to get back to the checkpoint I had run through earlier. So the motto for ultra running might in fact be – it is not the destination it is the miles, otherwise you have just done a big loop of nothing (maybe that’s how people who do 24 hour track runs justify it to themselves, otherwise it could all be pointless!).
Just before passing through the village of Norton there was a torrential downpour so on with the waterproof for a few miles before entering a beautiful little village called Holbeck Woodhouse where I ran past a stunning little church set in a tree lined road. The sun was out by now and I took a moment to take a picture and to re-organise, a luxury ultras seem to provide that marathons don’t.
Checkpoint 3 was Creswell crags at mile 24. An amazing gorge with rocks that look a bit like a smaller version of Mount Rushmore in America. Time for another jaffa cake, met a fellow runner who was coping with cramp and then set off on my way.
There followed some fantastic fields of rape seed to wade through, a sandstone lined steep, muddy gorge, a few lost runners (who strangely actually spent the whole day being lost and literally finished minutes in front of me) and a few solitary soles plodding on.
At mile 25 my Garmin had died on me; which was slightly annoying as I wanted to mark the 30 mile spot with a little jig as it would have been the furthest I’d ever run up to that point and first time out of the 20s zone. It was somewhere around mile 29-30 I began the ascent (it felt steeper than it was I am sure) of Lime Tree Avenue, after just having run through someone else’s 10k race (I declined the medal they were giving out but I did get a clap and a cheer as I ran through). The avenue borders Clumber Park and is as impressive as it is long so it was a bit of relief to finally arrive at checkpoint 4 at the 33 mile mark.
By this stage it was fair to say I was starting to feel the tiredness in my legs but at no point was I disheartened or demotivated, just the realisation that the left knee was hurting (likely IT band as it was the outside) and I also had some stomach issues which necessitated not one but two stops in the woods! At the 4th checkpoint was an American who had apparently got lost and had requested a lift back – I’m sure he was catching a flight or something and he was very polite in that way that some American’s seem to be. Topped up I set off, said goodbye to the marshalls and the race director who had turned up to pick up the American. The sun was out, I was hobbling a bit and set off down the road, only for the race director to whiz up behind me in the car to enquire if I was still racing, I said yes and she advised me that I better turn around then and go in the opposite direction as I was heading the wrong way. Thankfully it was my first and only navigation error but it doesn’t bear thinking about if it hadn’t been corrected.
The next few miles were slow and basically a power walk, I bumped into a few runners, a chap who was heading off to Scotland that night (after doing the 30 miler) and a couple of runners who had spent all day running but often in circles. Finally at about mile 36 Roy, from checkpoint 3, had caught up to me and we marched – yes no running by this stage, the last few miles in discussing all things running. With half a mile to go the lost runner from earlier passed us (not too happy) and then another lost runner from earlier passed us (slightly happier) but we all finished with a round of applause from a few spectators and a much appreciated smile from the race director.
After 40 miles, and probably because of walking the last few miles, my stomach was fine and more importantly my calfs were fine as I still had a 2 hour drive home. After running a marathon I would typically feel a bit nauseous and dizzy (blood pressure drop) but this time everything was great. I declined the solid food (steak pie/chicken pie and peas if you wanted it) and opted for black coffee with 3 sugars (as I don’t take sugar during races, the odd jaffa cake excluded, this is something my body seems to crave straight after) and I settled down to take the weight off my feet.
A short while later I heard other runners being welcomed in and there was Rachel, my running companion form many hours earlier, we hugged, gave congratulations and both had big grins on our faces. It had been a first ultra for both of us and although it was a long long day, if you can finish it with a smile then it is a good day.
It took me a little over 9 hours to complete, I ate 3 jaffa cakes, some salted peanuts, had half a 33shake gel and consumed 1ltre of water (some of which had some blackcurrant juice in which I think triggered the stomach issues); this reinforces my ongoing low carb high fat approach – and the jaffa cakes were just for fun as they were at the checkpoint. At no point was I hungry, dehydrated or suffering any form of energy depletion.
I ran it well for the first 33 miles and then mostly resorted to walking. I am happy I completed it, I’d have dearly loved to have run it all but now I have a benchmark to build on. Some of the navigation was tricky but with care and thought the route maps and description were enough to get you through (mostly). Terrain was mostly good, solid underfoot and suitable for trail shoes or road shoes if particularly dry; where it got really muddy it wouldn’t have mattered what you wore as it was just slippy. The organisation of the event was great, friendly and low key. For a marathon runner, it provides an ideal platform to tackle an ultra, whether 30 or 40miles, in beautiful countryside. It doesn’t throw mountains at you, although there was one footbridge that had to be straddled to get onto which was not good for the old quads, but it will challenge you mentally and physically.
So if you are looking for that first ultra, or a long training run for perhaps something bigger, then the Dukeries Ultra 2015 could be just the thing.