The big day arrived! I have described it, and I have used plenty of photographs, for which I don’t apologise!
Between the big day and the Ultra Marathon, I was as sensible as I could be given the ill-thought-out decision to participate in RED January! In this time I ran no more than 11K in any one go, and used cycling to rest. On reflection, I think I felt the benefits of distance training for the first time at the Snetterton Race Track 10K on the 20th of January: there was no PB for me, but, for the first time in ages I felt light, and running at close to maximum effort felt in some way easier than it has for a long time. I was happy!
In short, the lead up to Peddars involved keeping the legs moving, eating well, and trying not to fret.
On the Friday before Peddars I took a day’s annual leave, rested and ate well (I ate a lot, but not so much as to get bloated). I remained hydrated, and I exchanged messages with Lisa (my running partner for the day) and Steve (lift/ race support). A tip I would give to any one embarking on their first ultra is to check your kit, especially the mandatory contents for the race, and have it all ready the night before. Mine was checked, double checked and laid out on the living room floor ready! I also had my tailwind/ water solution in collapsible bottles and stuck in the fridge ready. I am not a ‘bed early person’ and I resent going to sleep: it’s a waste of time, but I turned in ‘early’ all the same. It was a fitful night’s sleep, but I didn’t feel too bad in the morning. I went for a breakfast I am used to (Weetabix, milk, a bit of sugar and a banana) and a pint of tea! Before I knew it, Steve had picked me up and we were off to collect Lisa from Newmarket.
It was good to have a natter with Lisa on the way to the start, as she is pretty relaxed, and crucially, she has a good few ultras and marathons under her belt. We did struggle a little to find the start (which was in the middle of nowhere and it was still dark), but it wasn’t long before we saw flags, people in Hi Vis, and car headlights. It was at this point that I realised that I should have warned Lisa about Steve (lovely bloke, great friend, but at times he blurts stuff out). As we pulled up alongside the registration area, Steve said “well, this is either the start, or it’s the most organised dogging site in the UK”. Brilliant.
I registered quickly. The system for the mandatory kit check was to pick a numbered ping pong ball from a bag; the numbers were coded to a list of items – I was asked to show my head torch: job done! Lisa and I got ready with pinned bib numbers and ankle tag chips, and then Andy and Caroline arrived! I have to say, I was touched that these two excellent Ely Runners showed up! They are training for their own ultra, and were smiling and full of encouragement!
After a trip into the bushes for a nervous emptying of the bladder, I found that things suddenly moved very quickly, for which I am thankful! We got a quick photo taken with fellow Ely Runners, Kyle and David, and then, after a briefing from Kevin of ‘Positive Steps, there was a count down, and we were off!
Lisa and I set off at a relaxed pace, and I felt happy and full of anticipation. I decided that I would actually look around and take this event in, as I do have a habit of becoming very introspective on long runs, with a lot of time spent looking at the ground a few feet in front of me. The countryside was beautiful this early on in the day, and the weather was perfect: cool, with just a slight breeze.
The pack thinned out surprisingly quickly, and soon, after the odd natter with other runners, Lisa and I had time to settle down and have a chat. I’ll get this bit out of the way now: Lisa is very laid back and cheerful, she is an experienced ultra runner and has given me lots of advice in the lead up to the event. If my experience of Peddars is anything to go by, if you decide to run with someone you don’t know so well at a tough event such as an ultra, you will get to know them surprisingly well – and quickly! You can’t adhere to the usual social niceties in situations like this, and before long, we had provided look out and cover for each other, facing away from the forest as one or the other of us legged it into undergrowth to do things we would much prefer to do in the comfort of our own bathrooms! We shared potted histories of our lives, and covered subjects such as: musical tastes; medical histories; family; food preferences; where we have lived; work, and our thoughts on running. I could not have wished for a more cheerful, down to earth, funny and clever running companion!
The first quarter of the event was a bit of a bit of a blur to me. I noticed something I had heard of though: many ultra runners walk up hills, and that includes the runners who are experienced. I have always had a problem with walking during races, but this made sense. So, we like many other runners power-walked up hills and used the flat sections and down hill to run at a good and comfortable pace: it makes huge sense!
Soon we arrived at the first aid station at about 13 miles. I had been drinking as my friends at tailwind and my fellow-runner Kyle had advised: little and often. I did however struggle to eat. I simply wasn’t hungry, and just like during training runs, I could only eat once stationary! This aid station, although small, and on the side of a track was full of goodies, and staffed by friendly and encouraging volunteers! I am not a fan of full-fat coke at all, but it is superb when distance running (for me any way), I got the collapsible cup out and got plenty of this unhealthy rubbish down me, as well as some amazing ‘powerballs’ made by one of the ladies at the station. These tasted like Rice Crispies, peanut butter and desiccated coconut (perhaps because that was what they were made of). Amazing! I necked four! Soon we were off again!
Things got a little tougher as we edged into the second quarter of the race. The trail became a little more challenging here and there, and the course was straight but undulating. The Peddars Way Trail is very well-marked out, but, I would advise anyone who runs it for the first time to keep an eye on the signs, as you can miss a slight deviation on the route easily. Lisa and I did this twice, but, each time, other runners advised us, or the amazing GPS maps on our phones got us back on course quickly.
As I had previously trained up to the 30 mile distance, I still felt strong as we got nearer to the 26 mile aid station at Castle Acre. I had also taken on board a few nutrition tips from Lisa, one of which was chicken Fridge Raiders: watery and easy to eat: we stopped and availed ourselves of them a few times. I also managed to nibble a few Chai Charge energy and endurance bars. I know this all helped.
Soon we arrived at the Village Hall at Castle Acre. Having reassured myself so far by mentally breaking the event up into sections, with 24 miles being a major stage for me, this aid station was a most welcome point! Over half way! Lisa had told me about her experience of hallucinations during ultras, I was reminded of this as I saw Kyle sitting in the Village Hall. I wondered in what parallel universe could I ever hope to find Kyle still at an aid station when I arrived at it? I went over for a chat and it turned out that despite having led the field for the first half, Kyle had felt really unwell and particularly nauseous: he had had to bail, and his lift home was on its way. Despite looking as pale as a ghost, Kyle hid his disappointment well, and he even topped up my water bottles with tailwind for me. Having clogged up my funnel and perhaps joked too loudly about white powder, Kyle helped me no end while I went and discovered the joys of soup and a cup of tea during an ultra! Usually if someone hands me a cup of tea that is less than hot and of the wrong strength/ colour, I will politely refuse it: I am a snob when it comes to how tea should be presented. The milky, sweet tea tasted like nectar, handed to me by a God rather than by a small lady with a concerned and yet cheerful smile. As for the soup, I don’t know what it was (it was amazing), but I suspect the Caste Acre aid station soup has ruined all future soup experiences for me: how will I ever derive any joy from soup again? All of this happened whilst Lisa continued smiling and chatting to fellow runners!
As we left the 26 mile aid station, I could feel the first signs of fatigue; almost certainly due to having sat down as much as it was from having covered 26 miles of trail in a reasonably decent time. My lower back, hips and the toes on my left foot were all letting me know they were not happy. A little way into the second half it had occurred to me that I had been dictating an almost fartlek approach: trying to identify nearby landmarks to walk to on hills, and then making sure we ran on ‘smooth’, flatter trail and down hill at a decent pace. Was I being bossy? Would Lisa come to hate me for my unreasonable approach? I decided to check with Lisa if she was OK with what I had been doing. It turns out that she really appreciated and needed this structured way of tackling things! Good! But I tried to be way more consultative from thereon.
The trail was lovely, with only 8 miles to the third aid station, which felt like not such a big deal to me. Our conversation started to get a bit weird at times in the second half, with Lisa admitting that she can ramble and go off course depending on how her blood sugars are! We starting seeing ever more elaborate shapes in trees and clouds. I claim the tin man from The Wizard of Oz as one of the best sightings of the second half.
Things got a little bit tougher for me as we approached the third aid station, and I started to entertain just a few dark thoughts. That being said, Lisa and I had both agreed that running Peddars together had helped so far in terms of remaining positive. Even during periods of running a long way without talking, it helped knowing that your running buddy was right next to you.
The third and final aid station was laid on by The Bungay Black Dog Running club. Seeing their flag in the distance bolstered me up no end. Lisa had told me that they provide tea and warm snacks! The lady and gentleman at this station were full of cheer and gave me more coke, tea, and warm sausage rolls! Pure joy! Lisa sat in a deck chair and destroyed mini Battenburg cakes!
Off we went for the final push. We had 14 miles to go. As we ran, refreshed from the aid station, Lisa tried to described 14 miles to me in ways she felt might sound more positive. We laughed about this: it was 14 miles however she tried to sell it! I very much appreciated her efforts at bolstering me along!
By the way, Lisa had a made a big deal of us passing the 30 mile mark, as that distance was the furthest I had ever ran before Peddars! I appreciated this also!
It is hard to describe from the third aid station to about 4 miles from the finish. I do recall consulting the GPS map and being reassured by the little cursor! It looked so close to the coast. The run leading to 40 miles is a blur to me, as we settled into our routine, pausing quickly to eat and drink, and repeating this regularly in order to remain focussed. Things started to feel hard! I am stronger mentally than I am physically, and I maintain that without mental strength, things will go wrong at these kinds of stages, no matter how tough you are physically. Despite Lisa’s presence, the duel in my head began, with ‘positive Justin’ and ‘negative Justin’ trying to get the upper hand over each other. I was just an observer. Darkness crept up on us, and before long, we needed torches. I was glad of this, as I felt the need to blub a bit at around 41 miles. I did so for a while, keeping just in front of Lisa. I answered some messages: my Mother, who was worrying all day; Steve, who I had tried to keep appraised of how far were were from the finish; my long-suffering wife, and to Lauren, who had kept sending encouraging messages in capitals (hero).
The final 4 miles was tough, but for some reason we got a bit of a second wind! We went through a village where glow sticks were strung up in strategic places to mark the way for runners. Then came a long section, which felt like a gentle decline on trail with trees and bushes very close on both sides; Lisa and I hit this part at what felt like a fair pace. We did not stop! I was down to just the Merino Wool base layer at this stage, and the coastal wind and rain was not bothering me; we just kept focussing on the trail and running. We hit a final bit of village, where groups of people yelled encouragement as we headed down towards the beach. Lisa led the way to where the infamous book was hanging from a sign. We could hear the sea, and knew it was very near but we couldn’t see it. We ripped out our pages and headed back to the Village Hall at Holme-next-the Sea. I wanted Lisa to cross the chip line inside the hall first, but she was having none of it, so, we legged it across the line hand in hand. I was given a medal and a shirt and everyone inside burst into applause, with lots of shouts of ‘well done!’
This was an emotional moment for me, and on seeing Steve I had a little blub and went to sit down. I quietly requested a baked potato! An amazing cup of tea was placed in front of me. Another runner came and sat opposite us and burst into tears. I told her I had done the same and Lisa went around the table to hug and comfort the sobbing lady. Many people crossed the line crying!
I fear Lisa and Steve might be emotionally damaged at having witnessed me strip off, complete with black KT tape on each nipple! I chatted with Glyn Manton, a Norfolk runner I sometimes bump into. Lisa and I made our way to the car.
Steve is a hero! Inside the car was a glass and bottle of beer for each of us (not Steve)!
While Steve drove us home, we drank beer and reflected on the race! I felt very happy!
- I hope that this record goes some way towards helping any runner who thinks of embarking on their first ultra.
- I will be running another!
- Other people are vital in the lead up to, during and after such events. The support and advice has been amazing, Lisa got me through it, and I am amazed at the comments and congratulations I have received. If I leave anyone out I am sorry, but in terms of ultra advice, I feel I must offer my total gratitude to Kyle, David, Charlotte and Lisa of Ely Runners.
- Diet and training is everything.
- Sports massage helps! Thanks, Becky!
- I still don’t know why I did it.
- I love my family for putting up with it all!
I will leave this blog for a while. I want to continue it, but with a new focus after a break and a bit of a think. I hope you have enjoyed it. Do comment!