The Kings Forest Ultra (by Positive Steps) deserves a blog entry of its own! I learned a good few things!
From the outset, it must be said, that like all events organised and laid on by Positive Steps, this one was well-organised, the course was well marked-out, the check points were superb, and the marshals and other volunteers were happy and friendly!
The Kings Forest is just a few miles from Bury St Edmunds, and the ultra comprises of two loops taking you to the marathon distance, and then a smaller loop to make the route 31 miles. It is not the most challenging course in the world, but stone and mud paths with regular tree roots and other hazards becomes all the more demanding over a longer distance!
My personal view (I am only a few ultras in now, so I am no expert) is that once a certain distance is covered, and one group of muscles has had it, the gait alters and a new set of muscles gets its turn for a battering: I really felt this during the Kings Forest Ultra! A lot!
Fellow Ely Runner, Martin Lewis and I travelled over to this event together, and it became clear that we would have a stab at the race together. We talked tactics and had a long discussion about run/ walk strategies. We agreed that we both still find that it doesn’t feel right to adopt a run/ walk approach right from the outset, and yet more experienced and superior ultra runners than us use this technique with huge success. We agreed to give it a go. When Martin and I set off, we noted that a fellow Ely Runner (who has completed a huge number of marathons and ultras) was adopting what looked like a 4 minute run/ 1 minute walk approach from the off. A little bit of reading after the event helped me to appreciate just how sensible a run/ walk approach right from the start is. However, Martin and I did not start start run/ walking right way. How rubbish are we!?
The trail was not demanding in terms of hills; it was all pretty flat apart from slight and long inclines and declines. It was clear that Martin loves downhill stretches: he used this to experiment with speed, and it was impressive. I, being a bit of an old fart, use down hill stretches to rest, let my arms hang and to lower the heart rate a bit.
At this point, it should be mentioned that at the start it was a huge boost for me to see fellow Ely Runners: Peter, Lisa and Kyle, who had all volunteered at the event. What amazing people! Martin and I got a huge kick out of seeing them twice at a checkpoint they were stationed at on the big loop. Lisa gave me a packet of Love Heart sweets! She knows I always have them on me at an ultra: she is wonderful, and my main ultra running buddy!
The first loop went well, with Martin and I covering it having executed a decent pace, and with relatively little effort. Things got much tougher as we approached around mile 21 in the second loop. We had well before this stage agreed to adopt a ‘rapid’ mile/ one minute walk strategy, and it really worked! Don’t get me wrong, enough runners had remained ahead of us, and some overtook us, but the speed of our mile sections was rapid, and it meant we overtook people!
We ran and chatted with fellow Ely Runner and Ely Tri Club member, Naomi Course. She, Martin and I talked about triathlons and duathlons for a while. Naomi has a very consistent pace; it was great to meet her!
Martin and I ate well, with him eating better than I did (I still really struggle with eating during ultras, preferring to eat loads in the two days in the lead up). Martin ate his vegetarian wraps and scotch eggs and I plumped for the usual spam sarnies!
Then there was the cheesy feet! A bit like cheese scones, but thin and in the shape of feet! They are a delight, and I have encountered them on the LDWA events only before the Kings Forest!
Like I have said, the second half was tough, with me thinking Martin was dictating the pace, and with him having asked me to organise and time the run/ walk strategy. There is no doubt this was a team effort. We were a superb team. It was a joy to cross the chip timer strip at mile 26, and there was a fair bit of crowd support given we were in a forest! At the mile 26 point, with a 5 mile loop ahead of us, we were feeling good! I necked a whole bottle of Lucozade (flattened the night before and left in my bag in a designated area) and ditched my ultra vest, and off we went! Martin had to bolster me up a few times in the final 5 miles, as I felt my mood dip: we had discussed how we had passed runners who had clearly had enough and were suffering physically and mentally: we were doing OK at this stage!
I had some twinges in my left calf, and this concerned me a lot! But for some reason, the pain moved around my left leg as we progressed through the final loop, as if it my body was sharing its protest, and not allowing one area to take on all of the grief. There was a debate going on in my head at around mile 29, and the side for the prosecution, with the argument that I am an idiot, was winning! Martin was the man when it came to leadership near the end! He reminded me of where we were at mile 30 and just how near we were to finishing. I recall giving him a little push in the small of his back and telling him that I insisted that he went over the finish line before me, and I thought as he pulled away what an amazing runner Martin has become from his beginnings on the Ely Runners Beginners’ course in 2018: he has become a stronger runner than me in many ways, and this sits just right with me. Top bloke.
The finish line was superb, and I had been looking forward to it, as it was time to collect my Grand Slam tankard for completing three Positive Steps ultras in the year. I was greeted at the finish line, presented with my tankard and photographs were taken.
I would like to thank Martin for being a superb running buddy throughout this race: we were both pleased with our performance, and we helped each other out no end.
What next? The Thetford Forest Night Trail, and the superb Thurlow 10 miler! More soon!
My last blog entry covered a bit of a disastrous training run on Devil’s Dyke in Cambridgeshire: I am pleased to start this entry with what I regard as a successful contribution to my club’s entry in the 2019 Round Norfolk Relay (RNR). This will be offset by an enjoyable but far from straightforward Ely Tri Club Ultra (more on that later).
Within my running club is a small, dedicated team, who’s task it is to put together and organise runners for each leg of this popular relay event. Back when the team was being put together, it seemed like a great idea to take on leg number 12: the longest stetch at 19.67 miles. The time to actually run it came round very quickly, and the nerves really kicked in; much more than usual. I suspect this is because of the awareness of the efforts of team mates covering the other legs of the race. Not only this: leg 12 is the longest, it requires a steady and rapid pace (not power walking up hills as in ultra marathons), and it has to be started at about half past midnight with support from team members following you in a van.
Given I have three young sons, who I could not expect to keep quiet while I tried to sleep during usual hours, I decided to sleep at my parent’s home on the Saturday afternoon, having already volunteered as a steady pacer at Littleport parkrun that morning. I am not overly keen on going to bed at night, let alone during the day, so I did not get a lot of sleep, but, given my Mum was involved, I got fed very well!
Fast forward to 22:30 hours on the Saturday night, I found myself in my car in a field in Scole, on the Norfolk/ Suffolk border. There were other runners around already, and some friendly RNR volunteers to chat with. I sat and used my iPhone to check the progress of the Ely Runners in the legs just before me, and then I jogged the first mile of my leg, just to check that I knew the way out of Scole before the long, straight stretch of around 16 miles.
It wasn’t long before Ely Runners volunteers, Caroline and Michelle showed up to reassure me, and to transport my car to the end of my leg. Even though we had a fair wait until it was time for the baton to be handed over to me, it came along quite quickly. I was expected to finished my leg with a time of 2:57:02, requiring of me a constant 9-minute mile pace over just under 20 miles. Fellow Ely Runner (and Michelle’s hubby), Allistair run down the road towards me (looking very strong), handed to me the baton, and I was off, with the van following just behind me.
The support van following me was being driven by Ely Runners, James and Andy, and in the back was Lisa (who I ran Peddars Way and the Norfolk 100 with). They made it clear I should gesture if I needed anything, and apart from me asking for a drink three times, and for the occasional chat and word of support from them, they left me to it.
I was running under 9 minute miles from the off, and I put this down to a fast start (as is often the case), but, it turned out I had sub-9 minute miles in me all the way! I did NOT expect this, and although I got overtaken by plenty of leg 12 competitors, it was a great feeling for me to overtake a couple of runners! The middle part of the race felt good, with me knocking out my fastest pace. Running at night in the cool suited me, and as I don’t really do loneliness, and like solitary running, the dark and quiet was just fine. The last couple of miles was tough given I had been pushing myself, but once I could see fellow Ely Runner, Matthew, waiting for the baton, I managed a sprint finish. James handed me my medal, and the van disappeared, following a rapid Matthew!
Caroline was at Thetford, the end of my leg, to give me a hug (poor lady – I was really quite sweaty) and to hand me my car keys.
The drive home was interesting: I had pushed this race hard, and I had completed it inside my predicted time (just). I was very dehydrated, and I necked a lot of water during a steady drive home. I pulled over twice in Newmarket to vomit by the roadside. When I got home I snuck indoors and got into the bed in the spare room, with the cold shivers. It took me just under a week to properly recover. It was a performance I was happy with, even if it did hurt! Special thanks to the Ely Runners organisers/ van support and club volunteers, as well as the other leg runners. I can’t wait for the 2020 RNR, but I do not want leg 12 again!
The 2019 Ely Tri Club Ultra Marathon
I really did prepare for the 41 mile Ely Tri Club Ultra. I slept well, ate sensibly and hydrated adequately for 24 hours in the lead up to the event. The race was from outside Ely Cathedral to not far from Jesus Green in Cambridge (and back the same way). I was pleased to be running this event with ultra buddy, Lisa, and fellow Ely Runner, Martin (his first ultra).
It all started off just fine after a natter with various marshals and fellow runners; if not a tad too quickly for my liking. I noticed that it was not that far after we left Ely and headed along the river that a couple of people had adopted a very early run/ walk strategy. There is nothing wrong with that: am a well aware of how superbly it can work and how quickly distances can be covered with this approach. We did not take this approach until the second half of the race, and we got to Cambridge and the half way point (20.5 miles) pretty quickly, having stopped only briefly at the superb aid stations. It should be noted that Ely Tri Club, who have just taken this race on, organised it amazingly: the marshals were caring; funny and attentive; the course was well-marked out and the aid stations were plentiful and generously stocked. Martin was great company (as expected), and Lisa, who I am now quite used to, was predictably smiley, reassuring and enthusiastic. The weather on this run oscillated between exposed sun, and heavy rain, with a pretty constant wind (in our faces on the way out). It was OK.
Things started to go a little wrong towards the end of the first half: I could feel aching around the site of an old leg break. I have had some metal work in my left tibia for over 20 years now. It does not play up often, but when it does, it really can slow me down. This time, it was not about to go away, and this, coupled with some low-level nausea from overindulgence in full fat coke, placed a dark cloud over me for a good proportion of the second half.
I noted at between 33 and 35 miles, Martin started to question the sanity of running this far. If this was him edging into the mental struggles that arise on ultras, he was very dignified and calm about it. I had started to complain regularly and quite openly, with a marked deterioration in my language. As usual, Lisa, who also struggled in the second half, had positive things to say and kept feeding us doses of that smile! When there was around 5 miles to go, Martin made it clear that a run/walk approach this close to the end was no longer for him, as he wanted it to over and done with: with that he pulled away. About two miles from the finish, Lisa announced that she had got a second wind, and she also pulled ahead. Although I did not have it in me to keep up with Lisa (my knee and my guts would not permit it), Lisa being slightly in front of me did keep me going, especially given I could see two other runners in the distance behind me. I decided I wanted to keep them there. Cherry Hill in Ely is the last thing you want at the end of a 41 mile ultra, but once at the top and through The Porta, it felt amazing to run along The Gallery and left to the finish on Palace Green.
The Ely Tri Club team and volunteers really made a fuss of us at the end, and they looked after me given how wobbly I was as I approached their tent. I was given a deck chair and a drink and I was watched for a few minutes. What a superb event! What superb running buddies! A huge congratulations to Martin for his first ultra performance in tough conditions!
Like an idiot, I have the Flower of Suffolk 18 miler just a week after the Ely Tri Ultra, then the Kings Forest Ultra: we shall see.
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.
The day 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 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 had my tailwind/ water solution in the collapsible bottles and stuck in the fridge ready too. I am not a ‘bed early person’ and I resent going to sleep at the best of times: 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 event start, 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, they 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 know (but not 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 of us legged it into undergrowth to do things we 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 had however struggled 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 Peddars 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 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 Casper the 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 and less than hot tea I drank tasted like nectar, handed to me by a God rather than 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, like the troops of Easy Company hated Captain Sobel? 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 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 caned 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! 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, paused quickly to eat and drink, and repeated this regularly in order to remain focussed. Things started to feel hard! I am mentally stronger 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 and 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 trial with trees and bushes very close on both sides; Lisa and I hit this section 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 start of rain was not bothering me; we just kept focussing on the trail and running. We hit a final bit of village, until groups of people yelled encouragement and 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 and request a baked potato! An amazing cup of tea was placed in front of me, and Lisa and I were given baked potatoes with cheese and beans. 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. We 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!