At some point during every ultra marathon I have completed, I have thought to myself, ‘that’s it now, focus on your 5K times’, but, it keeps happening: I found myself at the 2020 Stour Valley Path 50K. I heard a few others were up for it, so I signed up – again! We are still in the Covid-19 pandemic, so this race had to be planned very carefully; and it was.
I heard that fellow Ely Runner, Shaun, had signed up, and we agreed to complete it together, and during the event I confided in him that I have a bit of a fear of running ultras alone. I told him that one day I must combat this fear and go out without a buddy, but it will have to be one I have completed before, and most likely this one or Peddars Way.
The Stour Valley Path is a stunning 100km (62 mile) long footpath, which starts in Newmarket (Suffolk) and ends in Cattawade (Essex). Parts of the rolling countryside are associated with the art of Constable and Gainsborough. Small, closed-in woodland tracks open up to sudden, wide, sweeping views of fields, woodland, rivers, and distant villages with unusual Churches. It’s a demanding course, which I have ran before, but wow, do I have some respect for the 100K runners, as they covered that distance whilst contending with the rolling trail, but also with considerable warmth and bonkers humidity!
Shaun and I had the logistics of transport to think of, as we had to get to the start, and then get home from the finish; luckily, running nutter and fellow Ely Runner Charlotte offered to help. Charlotte is one of those people who, even if she can’t run an event, will get involved one way or another, even if it is to rock up and shout insults/ support her mates. Charlotte and her other half, Adrian (who ran the 50K), made sure Shaun and I got to the start line once I had dumped my car at the finish. Naturally, Charlotte made sure we had the obligatory dose of inappropriate observations and humour throughout our car journey.
At the start we were expected to leave in waves of six, with circles painted in the grass to ensure were all stood well-distanced from one another. Our temperatures were taken and we were sent on our way. Throughout the event we were struck by the mutual respect between runners when it came to overtaking and maintaining that safe distance. The aid stations were well organised, with penned off areas that runners were expected to funnel through in order to apply gel and to don face coverings. Wearing a face covering in the warm, humid conditions was no fun, but a sensible precaution in order to protect volunteers and fellow runners until we were able to spread out again.
Shaun and I completed the first ten miles to aid station one way too quickly: Charlotte was waiting for us, and warned that we might like to slow it down: wise words, as after this brief respite, things started to get tough. The sun was threatening to break through the clouds, and the temperature and humidity was increasing: it was the humidity that was causing the problem for us and many other runners as heart rates were rising, respiration was speeding up, but the sweat wasn’t evaporating! We were alarmed at how out of breath were were getting just power walking the more serious hills (and there were a few of those). I was also struggling with my own familiar battle around hydration and nutrition. I don’t do well with solutions that help with maintaining the electrolyte balance, so I carry water along with some sweet and salty foods. To date I have never got this quite right and I always get quite dehydrated and hungry: I still can’t eat much when I am completing an ultra. I ate and hydrated well the day before, but yet again it caught me out.
Shaun and I kept checking in on each other and our niggles and issues; Shaun suffered mainly with a painful back and sore legs, whilst my only issue was waves of nausea and the dark places that feeling that way sends me mentally. Despite this we pressed on, and we were really quite disciplined with making use of the flats and downhills (running) and power-walking the hills. All the while we were speculating about how far back our Ely Runners buddies Andy, Caroline and Lisa were: they had started in a later wave, but we knew they would be covering ground a bit quicker than us, and we calculated that they would all cross the finish line very close to our finish time.
On the way to the next, bigger aid station we noted a number of marshals helping with points where the navigation was less obvious, and this was appreciated. Shaun and I realised that the navigation on my new Suunto 9 watch was only as good as the attention span of the wearer! During this part of the race we encountered hills; horrible ones that then rewarded you with amazing views: it was confusing. We kept going, one foot in front of the other, reminding each other that moving forward is all that mattered, that and not dropping down with heat stroke. We agreed that dropping out was out of the question.
There was another aid station to reach, and things got tougher. We were soaked with sweat, totally out of breath, exhausted, with Shaun’s back playing up and me feeling like I wanted to vomit (but couldn’t). We were both alarmed at how infrequently we had needed to urinate, and distressed at what happened when we did (let’s not get into it).
Shaun turned out to be an especially calming running buddy when it got tough: he’s a pretty laid back chap at the best of times, and even his complaints seemed calm; he has a great sense of humour too, which helped! The final station was a blur to me: I couldn’t see for sweat, my mask was broken (luckily the marshals provided me with a new one and also sprayed my face with cold water), and I felt even more sick. Shaun looked a bit all over the place trying to keep away from people, fill his water bottles and grab snacks whilst looking like a had had enough. We had zipped through the aid stations up to this final one, but we perhaps left this one a little later than we should, because we felt that familiar stiffness that comes from huge effort followed by stopping for too long.
At some point Shaun was injured by a turnip. Not at all funny, apparently.
The fact that it was just a few miles to the end lifted our spirits, a bit; but now the nausea was really kicking in, so feeling terrible and yet knowing the end was near was messing with my head. The old ‘not talking much but being there for each other’ routine kicked in. Fast forward to the final 300 meters or so: it was only just getting dark, and the course was marked with glow sticks. I announced to Shaun that the time had come and I went to the bushes to vomit, loudly and spectacularly. Shaun pressed on, I thought because he wanted to give me privacy whilst I puked, but no; later it transpired he didn’t want me to make him feel sick!
Two more episodes of quickly darting to the edge and then the finale: vomiting in such a way that made me think I would faint as there was nothing left. Shaun called over to say that we were close and we could walk the last bit if I liked. I just recall wiping my mouth and saying, ‘no, let’s go’, and we ran. As we turned onto the field with the finish line ahead I said to Shaun, ‘don’t let those fellas behind overtake us’, at which point we increased the pace, with Shaun actually executing a sprint finish, and me running just slightly faster whilst looking like sweaty Casper the Ghost.
Medals were given to us and we saw that Adrian and Charlotte were watching from the side. Adrian had finished ahead of us, having joined us for a short while to share that he too felt terrible. Impressive stuff.
We got the news that fellow Ely Runner, Rob was having a hard time, but was pressing on (he finished with an impressive time despite the struggle), and we learned that just a short while later, Andy, Lisa and Caroline had crossed the line, closing in on us with a faster time despite the wave they left in. Amazing.
All that remains to be said is that Shaun is a great running buddy, Charlotte and Adrian are stars for helping us out, the Stour Valley Path Ultra lays on a great race, and a safe one given the situation we all find ourselves in at the time of writing; and finally, I am not signing up for more ultras. Probably.