I had to leave it a couple of days before describing my completion of the Norfolk 100K ultra: for two reasons. Firstly, I was too wiped out to write straight away, and secondly, I just did not know how I was going to write about it. It was so intense, so physically and mentally demanding, and so crazy, that I needed a few days to process it. I have decided that my account of the event needed to be ‘warts and all’, as some horrible stuff can happen during and after ultras, and what’s the point in logging only the positives? So here goes.
The lead up.
In the lead up, I decided to lay off the beer for a few days and hydrate well; I tried to eat sensibly (a challenge for me as I eat anything and everything); I tapered a bit, and was generally sensible. Fellow Ely Runner, Lisa, the same athlete who ran Peddars Way with me in January 2019, was running the Norfolk 100K with me, and she is a camping nerd! Lisa’s thing for tents worked in my favour, as I could tap into her excitement at the idea of camping over within just 5 minutes walk from the end of the race! We decided to camp the night before and the evening after the event. Lisa organised and provided everything! All I had to do was provide my ultra kit, a sleeping bag and pillow, and pick her up on the Friday! Result! Having taken a day’s annual leave, I collected Lisa in the middle of the Friday, we packed the car and off we went to lovely Beeston!
On arrival at Beeston, Lisa had to take charge, as I know nothing about camping/ tent erection etc. Within a very short time, we were sorted, and I was impressed with our view from the tents!
Among Lisa’s impressive camp kit was a fridge, and in this fridge, other than sausages, black pudding, bacon etc, was beer! This I struggled with a little; it was tough to have set up camp right by the sea and not sit and drink beer, but we didn’t! Lisa’s husband had prepared spag bol for us, so we got that down us, and had just a half glass of calming red wine. Beer would have to wait until after the event!
We decided to stretch our legs a little as the coast was so gorgeous where we were camped. We were right next to a high point on the cliffs known locally as ‘Beeston Bump’. We walked over it with a couple of Bungay Black Dog Running Club members we bumped into: Jules and Rachel. They were superb company and very funny; and the walk over the bump was gorgeous. Lisa and I were to find out the next evening how much it was possible to hate the Beeston Bump!
Jules and Rachel had a rather superb camper van, and they offered to get us to the place where a bus would take us to the start in the morning; so, after food, and a night’s sleep drifting off to the sound of the sea, the day arrived to tackle the Norfolk 100K ultra! We had to get up at 0400hrs! Yes, 0400hrs! There’s stuff I need to have done before I run! I am not one of these people who rocks up at a race without showering; and I like to have used the toilet and eased into the morning. We got ready swiftly, and we had checked the mandatory kit, read and re-read the race rules and laid everything out ready the night before. Soon we were in the camper van, and ferried to the point where a bus was taking loads of us to the start! It was still silly o’clock in the morning, and loads of ultra runners were looking nervous and tired. Many were trying to eat: no-one looked like they wanted to. I had forced down a bowl of cereal, a banana and a biscuit; at 0430!
We got to Castle Acre to register and had a brief from Kevin of Positive Steps. We were then told about the check point at mile 45: this went on to haunt me for a huge chunk of the event. The deal was that runners had to be there by 1800hrs. Also, if marshals felt that someone looked unwell/ unable to carry on, they would be pulled from the race! No pressure then! We were herded to the start line, counted down and sent on our way!
The enormity of covering 62 miles is something I had carefully filed in a place in my head that is designed to protect me from horrible thoughts. But I could not get over this cut off point at mile 45: Lisa kept trying to reassure me, but I felt this was on the tight side for new/ inexperienced ultra runners like myself. The early parts of race were fine, and we experienced no problems other than me feeling quite thirsty despite my hydration efforts the day before and my use of Tailwind in my bottles. Lisa and I worked as a team, reminding each other to eat, and to follow the example of experienced ultra runners, and power-walk the hills and make up time running on flat and downhill sections. The trail, was stunning throughout.
The first 32 miles was hot, humid and cloudy, and sweat was not evaporating from our bodies. I has used my Tailwind correctly and replaced it in my topped up water bottles at the first check point: despite this, I was experiencing serious hydration issues: with a constant thirst I simply couldn’t seem to satiate. To make matters worse, my efforts at eating were being thwarted by a dry mouth, leaving me struggling to swallow food but able to chew it for ages. Small sips of water helped a little. Lisa was bearing up better than I was. Then disaster struck and Lisa took a tumble, almost certainly due to fatigue kicking in caused by the heat, leaving her not lifting her feet as high as she should. She broke her fall like a pro, but still hit her face on the trail. Despite this, she got right up, made no fuss and we carried on.
I didn’t tell her at the time, but Lisa’s fall and how I felt at mile 32 seemed to be a green light for negative thoughts; I went on to have a long dark period during the run. We both had mentioned that we might go quiet, and we both understood what this meant. Instead of feeling pleased with the distance we had covered at just over half way, the distance ahead weighed heavily on my mind. I have never entertained not finishing a race: for the first time ever I went over this in my head, but it seemed impossible to me for so many reasons, so I plugged on, in silence, other than when we decided to communicate when to power walk slopes and when to resume running. We kept using the check points (there was a generous number of them) and I kept worrying about mile 45. In fact, we arrived at mile 45 well within the cut off point! But I was really worried about the possibility of being pulled from the race, as I was not doing well at all. I sat in the shade of a parked car and necked some full fat Coke like it was the last drink on earth. The marshals did not seem concerned about me, but I snuck off behind some cars further away and experienced quite a spectacular vomiting session. I composed myself and approached a concerned looking Lisa; who asked if I was OK. I gestured that we should set off again, and, with another 17 miles to cover, I explained what had happened and my fear of being pulled from the race. Things got really tough! Lisa had another fall and this time her mouth hit the trail, causing some bleeding. This caused Lisa some concern and it knocked her confidence a little. But nothing stops Lisa!
The coastal part of the run was enjoyable just because this part of the Norfolk Coast is so gorgeous. Castle Acre to the Coast is amazing also, but we had ran it before and knew what to expect. The coastal wind masked the sun burn though, as I was to find out the next day: I didn’t apply enough top ups of the factor 50! Lisa was continuously looking longingly at the sea: she wanted to get in it, and several times she ran in to cool her feet and legs. I was pretty sure my feet were ruined by now, I just wanted to keep them as they were!
I continued to struggle with hydration. Despite drinking Tailwind solution, for some reason I craved full fat coke; it is all I could think about, and it is all I necked at each check point. My ability to eat tailed off so that all I could do is pop a Love Heart Sweet between my teeth and cheek and hope that might help. Lisa was doing better than me on the food front.
My state of mind as we approached around 54 miles is hard to describe: thinking about how much I was suffering only moved aside to allow in other nasty intrusive thoughts; some related to the run and some not. I entertained the idea that I am not designed for ultra running and should give it and running up as soon as I got home; I thought about my three sons and their worries; all very real to them; I thought about war; work problems; the chances of dropping dead any second; I thought about my amazing long-suffering wife; and I thought about what would have happened if Lisa had knocked herself out when she fell in the middle of nowhere. I thought about stuff I can’t write about, and I cried. I have my dark moments at the best of times, but this experience really pushed me into a horrible place; so when we got to a concrete shelter marking the check point before the Shingle Beach, I necked a Coke and snuck round the back, sat down on the shingle and sobbed. When I went back to the marshals a male ultra runner walked over and gave me a huge hug, and then so did Lisa. I am not a huggy person really, but these physical gestures helped! A marshal told me to drink simple cold water: I did so, it was bliss! There then followed a few miles of shingle beach: just what I did not need when feeling emotionally and physically broken. This beach was very hard to run on, I had a go, but it was not going to happen, and as Lisa and I looked at the line of ultra runners way out in front of us, and those coming up behind us, we realised that they were all power walking – without exception. So we power-walked it, and it seemed to be a perpetual beach: it went on and on!
I noticed something on the Shingle Beach: runners were chatting, joking and helping each other, pulling each other up over shingle dunes in order to find easier routes, and laughing off the sheer distance to the end of the section. It was quite touching; but it was all I could find that was positive at this stage despite an enchanting location, right on the sea in amazing weather. Lisa and I knew that we had some tough Cliffside hills to combat once we got off the beach. For some reason my mood lifted, and it was so sudden it caught me by surprise. We left the beach and felt overjoyed to be on track and grass again, and I led the way as we ran and approached the first of some hills just 4 miles or so from the end. These hills were tough, and they forced us to use the ultra running technique of power-walking up them whilst pushing our hands on our quads. There was a bit of a run along the coast in Beeston before approaching Beeston Bump itself. At this stage we had put the head torches on.
Darkness happened very suddenly, and Lisa I found that we had ran ahead of the group we were with on the Shingle Beach, which gave me quite a boost! We ran down the other side of Beeston Bump, and we could see glow sticks showing us the way to the finish. We went over a pedestrian railway crossing and then heard and saw a marshal along a dark narrow lane; she called out for us to follow her and she directed us across a field. Lisa and I held hands and ran across the field towards the finish funnel.
Kevin was there and shouted ‘well done’, then we were handed medals and shirts. Lisa was given her Grand Slam tankard for completing three Positive Steps ultras…..and we sat down. No crying, no laughing, no hugs, just sitting down. Lisa went and got a full English Breakfast from the table behind us, and I drank a lot of Coke! A lady put a tartan rug over me, I can only assume I looked about 95 years old. It was over, and we made the painful walk back to the camp site.
I thought I might leave the blog here, on a positive: we ran 62 miles! But no: I did say ‘warts and all’. I decided I must shower before drinking beer. It was about now that pain, no doubt until now shielded by adrenaline and other such wonderful chemicals, began to make an appearance. All was clearly not well in personal areas, and I knew that I had not topped up the anti-chaffing cream. Something felt very wrong along the padded parts of the soles of my feel before the toes. I had already lost my left big toe at Peddars, but something was now amis with the right one. My shoulders were killing me. I went to the campsite showers with a bin bag (to dump everything in), shower gel, a towel and a track suit. Undressing was hard, and I was grateful no-one else was in the shower area. I looked in the mirror at my reflection and didn’t really recognise the chap staring back at me: I was covered in dirt, sweat, rubbed and bloody areas and with quite a serious case of sunburn. My pants and socks were full of blood and I noticed my mouth tasted of blood. The shower was bliss and agony! I hobbled back to the tent ready for a beer and a chat with Lisa. Her tent was zipped up and a dim light illuminated the interior. I asked her if she was OK and she didn’t answer. There then followed a dilema: should I accept she had crashed and leave her alone, or should I open the tent if she didn’t answer (risking seeming weird). I quickly messaged a fellow female Ely Runner and explained the dilema: I was advised that I was to open the tent and check at once and tell Lisa she had told me to do so. Lisa was not in there. Phew! This meant she was showering. When Lisa emerged we both had a laugh at the state we were in and we retired to our respective tents, Lisa with wine and me with a beer. I slept very well!
The next morning we went and showered again and Lisa cooked a proper fry up! Bloody hero! I washed up and we took the tents down. The drive home felt much longer than it was, I was shattered and needed to go steady. Lisa was soon dropped home and I got myself back to Ely. When I got home I struggled to get out of the car. One of my sons hugged me and I blubbed again!
Over the past few days I have eaten like every meal is my last and all I can think about it food! I rested on Sunday, and had a gentle jog with the Ely Runners Beginners on Monday evening. This felt surprisingly good!
This part of my blog should close with a few words about Lisa. One of the things I have noticed about all of the Ely Runners I have met is huge mental strength, even among those people who do not see it in themselves. Lisa is among that group, and one of the toughest people I know; she dusted herself down after two nasty falls at distances that would beat many people; she always put me and others first; she made sure my camping experience was a memorable one, and she made 62 miles look easy! I am very grateful to her.
That’s all for now. Next? The Stour Vally Path 50K in August!