My first ultra

My First Ultra

Most people will never run a marathon. It is after all a really, really long way. For many runners a full 26.2 mile race is the pinnacle of their running career, only achieved after months of dedicated training and immense personal sacrifice. In 2015 in the USA, probably the world centre for recreational running, there were just over 500,000 finishers in the 700 marathons that took place. That’s only around 0.15% of the population. Which would really be a far smaller number of individual runners because many of those half million will be the same people running multiple marathons.

A significant proportion of those who enter a marathon never make it to the start line at all, perhaps injured during the long and intense period of training or simply overwhelmed by the enormity of the task. The majority of those who do make it across the finish line will never do it again. For non-runners a marathon is a feat almost beyond comprehension.

So if you have run one, you can feel pretty special.

And yet…

Half a million, while a small proportion of all Americans, is still a lot of people. And that’s per year. This year the London Marathon, one of over 100 marathons run each year in the UK, saw its one millionth runner cross the finish line on The Mall. Sooner or later then, most marathon runners are going to bump into some of these people. Maybe one of the ones who ran it faster than they did, or ran it dressed as a toilet or carrying a full Bergen. Or one of those eighty year olds who shuffle round it each year. Not so special now, huh?

It was this special-but-not-that-special status that led me to sign up for my first ultra.

An ultramarathon (‘ultra’ to the cognoscenti) is usually taken to be any distance beyond 26.2 miles. Thus they can range from 50km (just over 31miles) to the ludicrous 200 milers and beyond that are the preserve of the elite crazies of the running world. The ultra scene has been a big deal in the USA for some time now but is still fairly new in the UK and the number of races each year is limited although growing. When I began looking for an ultra to run, the only one I could find nearby was a daunting 60 mile London to Brighton event that looked as though it had been going on for a number of years and was scheduled to take place again that June. Probably. It wasn’t entirely clear. It was a little tricky to find reliable details as there didn’t appear to be a website for the race, just a phone number to call. What I did find however was a string of reviews and blogposts by the brave few who’d taken on this impressive feat: inspiring tales of striding over the South Downs, cresting the summit of Ditchling Beacon and exhausted but triumphant finishes on Brighton seafront.

So far so good.

But the more I looked the more I began to unearth reviews of a different nature. There were a worrying number of reports of people getting completely lost in the fringes of South London, of having to follow directions such as “bear right after the third stile near the oak tree that’s been struck by lightning and keep on until the track joins a gravel lane heading over the next ridge” and in general a somewhat chaotic and haphazard approach to signage and support stations. There were more than a few stories of people who’d ended up having run not the stated 60 miles but 80 miles or more, and even of some getting so lost somewhere in the wilds of Sussex that they had to give up, worn down and bewildered, forced to try and catch the bus back to civilisation[1].

I decided to give the whole thing a swerve.

The idea stayed on the back burner for a little while until I read about the launch of a brand new ultramarathon. To run alongside the very successful Royal Parks Half Marathon held every year in October, was the grandly titled Royal Parks Ultra. The ultra would be starting in Hyde Park along with the half marathon, but would finish a long way away. In a place called Bushy Park (I had to look it up). In South London. Way South London. Let’s call it Surrey.

The Royal Parks Ultra looked ideal. At a mere 50km it was the classic entry level ultra; less than 5 miles longer than a marathon. Now when most people finish running 26.2 miles, particularly for the first time, the thought of carrying on, even as far as the place where you collect your bag and get your free banana, seems all but impossible. And yet… it was only 5 miles further. Not even. That’s a short evening run. And the payoff? To gain entry to that most exclusive of clubs – ultra runners.

The route looked good too. From Hyde Park we’d head past Buckingham Palace to Westminster and along Victoria Embankment, then breaking away from the half marathon runners to cross to the south side of the Thames and west along the riverside path. Hugging the river as close as possible, we’d run on all the way as far as Richmond Park, before turning landwards and the final few miles to the finish in Bushy Park.

I signed up with one effortless click.

Training for an ultra is really no different to training for a marathon, certainly for a mere 50km. As usual when preparing for a long distance race I tried to fit in three to four midweek runs, including a speed session, a 45 minute tempo run and of course the essential long Sunday run. The aim with the long run was to work up to the 22 milers that are the recommended limit for marathon training but to either take it a few miles further if I felt up to it, or at least do a couple more of these than I would otherwise have done. And as usual when training for a marathon, I fell woefully short of the schedule. While my job as a teacher means I officially finish my day around 3 o’clock, my wife tends not to get back from work till around nine at night and with two young children to pick up, feed and entertain, if I did get to fit in a mid-week run it wasn’t until late.

In recognition of the fact that I was missing a few of the longer runs I replaced them with the occasional short but intense session by heading the five minutes over to the bottom of Muswell Hill and charging up and down that once a week for half an hour or so[2].

My weekly long run on Sunday peaked at somewhere around 22 miles. I never did quite mange the extra few of these I’d had it in my mind to do.

If it’s not already clear, my psychology for ‘big race’ training does not tend towards the structured, but takes a more fluid approach. I tell myself this is because it is a superior, flexible method which allows me to listen to my body, to push when I can, and to ease off when I need to, ultimately making me a better runner. But really I know I’m just a little lazy. Well, you know, not lazy exactly, I’m going to be running an ultra here! But a little inconsistent perhaps. You can read regimented training plans in every running magazine or website and I have no doubt that to follow one would improve my race times. But I don’t think that’s really why I run. I have achieved a good standard as a runner. I can run for hours at a time and it doesn’t kill me. I am better at it than most people I know. Being good is fine for me. And though they say that good is the enemy of great, good is still better than bad, right?

So by the time race day rolled around I’d certainly trained hard enough to run a really excellent half marathon, and probably a fair to middling marathon. As for 50km?

It was a perfect day. I woke at 6am to a diamond bright October morning and a cloudless blue sky. Trying not to wake the rest of the family[3] I dressed, ate a bowl of porridge topped with a sliced banana, threw down an espresso and headed out the door.

Popular races like big marathons or half marathons nearly always take place on Saturdays or Sundays and start early enough that you tend to be on public transport at some ludicrous zero-dark-thirty hour where the only other people are likely to be employed in the kind of low paid jobs where you don’t get a whole lot of sympathy from your boss if you complain about having to get up while it’s still technically night time. From stepping onto the first bus however you begin to spot your fellow runners, clutching numbered race bags, swigging from bottles of Lucozade and chomping down Powerbars. The closer you get the more people you pick up, until the tube carriage is packed with only two types of people: people in Lycra chatting excitedly to each other and people not in Lycra, silent, on their way to clean offices or serve coffee, wondering why the hell anyone else would be up at this time if they didn’t absolutely have to be.

I tend to travel to races alone. For a while my wife and children gamely came along with me, cheered me on at various stages of the race, supplied me with food and water and were waiting at the end to help me hobble back to the tube. They don’t do that so much anymore. But I’m okay with that. If you’re not really interested in running, standing watching other people run, the overwhelming majority of whom are not the person you’re there to support, can be kind of dull. It can wear after a while even if you are really interested in running.

The Royal Parks races are superbly organised and supported. At the start/finish area in Hyde Park there is a huge fair full of food stalls, running goods, free samples of energy balls and blister creams, massage tents, games for kids and so on. This time I had the additional honour of being admitted to the ultra runners’ area, a marquee exclusively for those of us going the full 50km, and with unfettered access to all manner of energy gels, drinks, the ubiquitous bananas as well as, worryingly, catering size tubs of Vaseline[4]. I grabbed a few extras for the long road ahead, used the dedicated Portaloo without having to stand in line for twenty minutes and chatted with a few of the other runners, most of whom, like me were first-timers at the distance. Before long, we were being called to the start.

The Royal Parks Half Marathon has a field of around 16,000 runners. The inaugural Royal Parks Ultra had a field of around 200, but here at the start line we all of us huddled together in the autumn sunshine. After some encouraging words by celebrity race starter, Ben Fogle, who to his credit seemed genuinely impressed if a little baffled that we were planning to run so far, we were away.

To begin with we were to follow the same route as the half marathon, and as we made our way out of Hyde Park and around the front of Buckingham Palace, we jogged slowly along with the thousands of runners who’d be calling it a day in just a couple of hours’ time and would have had their first recovery pint and burger before we were a quarter of the way to the finish.

After turning into Birdcage Walk and down through Westminster we caught our first sight of the river. The plan was to stick with that from here on in, bar the odd deviation where necessary. Around thirty minutes in, as the half-marathoners veered left under Blackfriars Bridge, we were ushered to the right, onto the bridge and across it into south London. And in south London we would remain until the end. Running south of the river had been a part of the race I was looking forward to. I should explain that living in north London, I rarely venture south of the Thames, and when I do it’s only to hug the embankment until I can cross back to the right[5] side. Prejudiced maybe; I say merely cautious. But the opportunity of exploring this unknown wilderness in full daylight with the security of a support crew every few miles was quite exciting. Who knew what was going on down here?

For the next three miles we ran along the south bank of the Thames, past Shakespeare’s Globe, the Royal Festival Hall, The London Eye and under Westminster Bridge, a route I’d run many times before. It was around nine thirty on a Sunday morning, so it was still fairly empty, unlike trying to run here any weekend from mid-morning through to early evening when it’s the running equivalent of the super slalom. By this stage our group had already begun to spread out and although I could still see plenty of the distinctive red t-shirts ahead and behind, it already felt very different from any other organised race I’d entered, where very often for the entire event you’re jostling on crowded roads with thousands of others. With only two hundred of us and fifty kilometres to cover, we were going to get pretty spread out.[6]

The crowds who’d turned out to line the roads of the far more numerous half-marathon runners were far behind us by now, and as I edged around the heavily fortified walls of Vauxhall Cross, home of the British secret service, an oddly disquieting building to run past at the best of times, I began to get a sense of what running an ultra was going to be like. Not with regard to the physical strain but the psychological one. There were no cheerful running mates to chat to and no cheering crowds with homemade banners[7] to shout out well-meaning but idiotic comments[8]. There were barely even any random people out for a walk; it was before midday on a Sunday and we were heading out of central London. This was going to be a long, lonely journey.

At least it would have been if it wasn’t for the amazing Royal Parks Ultra support crew. Dressed in sky blue t-shirts, smiling as though they’d all been plugged in and offering words of encouragement which often amounted to no more than the welcome reassurance that I was still heading in the right direction, they popped up every few kilometres like little runners’ guardian angels.

The basic idea of the route was to keep the Thames in sight as far as that would be possible. This occasionally meant crossing a bridge to use the north bank or making a detour where there was no accessible path on either side. But each time the river disappeared from sight and I began to worry that I might be getting lost, up popped a bright-eyed kid holding a sign with an arrow on it and a reminder that the next water station was just around the corner. Here again the Royal Parks Ultra team had excelled itself. Every water station was also a banana, energy gel, energy drink, coffee, Vaseline, massage and medic station and like the cerulean cherubs along the route, all staffed by unnaturally chirpy boys and girls.

The first sign that we weren’t all going to make it to the finish line came in Battersea Park. At just eight miles in, significantly less than the half-marathon still going on back in central London, I saw the first runner call it a day. Whether she’d picked up an injury, hadn’t put it the miles in training or was just beaten by the sheer magnitude of the task I can’t say. As I trotted past the exhausted young women, one hand bracing herself against the sturdy trunk of a London plane tree, the other clamping a phone to her ear, I caught the main thrust of the conversation in between long gasps for air: “Dad, can you come and pick me up; there’s just no way on earth I’m gonna be able to run that far. It’s fucking ludicrous!”

Ludicrous, maybe, but I certainly wasn’t done yet. In fact at this stage I was thoroughly enjoying it. The day was shaping up to be about as perfect as you could hope for: clear blue sky, the warmth of an autumn sun and the merest wisp of a cooling breeze. I was fuelled up on Shot Bloks and caffeine and from the scene I’d just witnessed, safe in the knowledge that I wasn’t going to come last.

Once out of Battersea Park we were back on the concrete footpath that runs along the south bank of the Thames. This next five mile section towards Putney was a strange mix of light industrial units interspersed with newly built, upscale and almost totally deserted high rise apartment blocks with adjoining upscale restaurants, presumably built in order to create some kind of liveable infrastructure for all the people who weren’t actually living there. Normally I’ll stop on a run to check out a restaurant menu, but I thought better of it this time; I was worried it might look as though I wasn’t really taking the whole event seriously.

Being fundamentally an urban runner I love these bizarre parts of the city. There would be no reason for me to ever come here. It didn’t appear that there was much reason for anyone to come here, and the whole place was eerily devoid of life. Occasionally a smiling race steward hove into view, congratulated me on making it this far and then I’d be alone once more, the restless Thames to my right, a canyon wall of vacant apartments to my left. The whole thing felt like running through the pages of a J.G.Ballard novel.

At the half marathon point we’d reached Putney, where new money gave way to old. Red-cheeked young men with lustrous hair and upturned collars gave hearty cheers as we ran by, their girlfriends in Hunter wellies (despite the total absence or prospect of rain) clapping politely by their sides. I ran past the pubs, the twee cottages and the boathouses, hopping over the oars laid out to dry along the concrete ramps that sloped down to the water’s edge. All too soon though the comforts and familiarities of urban life vanished behind me; we were about to go rural.

From mile 13 to mile 20 we were off the grid. The path along the river was for the most part fairly well trodden but in some sections the river had crept up from beneath and there were thick muddy puddles to leap over or skirt gingerly around.[9] Overhead was a canopy of trees and for long stretches, on both banks, there was little sign of civilisation. I knew that I was still only a few hundred metres from a road and a Starbucks, but still.  By this stage in the race each support station saw a growing number of runners who were clearly struggling. This development tends to generate some ambivalence. On the one hand of course I don’t want to see people in pain or distress; I largely wish people well and want them to be able finish the race. On the other hand, every runner who drops out necessarily increased the significance of my own achievement. Besides, I wasn’t at all sure that a few miles down the road it wasn’t going to be me slumped by a table piled high with bananas and Gatorade, white drool leaking out of the side of my mouth as I waved away the attempts of the cheerful boys and girls in blue gamely encouraging me to try and get up off the ground. Things were getting serious.

By the time we reached mile 20 it began to feel as though we were finally through the wilderness, as the high walls of Kew Gardens came into view. The route stuck to the banks of the river but as we edged around the north side of the Royal Botanical Gardens, I felt a little more at home. I’d visited Kew many times with my children, although we’d always taken the train to get here rather than run[10]. It was a short-lived respite however, and once we’d skirted around Kew we were back on the desolate trails of south west London. These were the miles where the absence of crowds or of any other runners started to take their toll. The terrain was achingly repetitive, shadowy tree canopy above, dirt trails and occasional puddles under foot and a winding back and forth that began to make me think I might be going in circles rather than actually making any significant forward progress. Once again it was only the regular appearance of the Royal Parks support crew, emerging from the undergrowth or materialising from behind a tree like benevolent woodland nymphs that stopped me from worrying that I might have got lost. Physically, things were starting to get tough too; it wasn’t just the route that was starting to go south.

For most runners, somewhere around mile 18 you begin to run out of… well, pretty much everything. Energy stores are depleted, the excitement and novelty of the whole event that sustained you through the first few hours has drained away and the voice in your head that keeps telling you how nice it would be just to stop running gets louder. In all the long races I’ve run I’ve never experienced “the wall” in quite the way I’ve read about it. For me there’s no sudden moment when a great race turns bad, no overwhelming feeling of exhaustion that stops you in your tracks. I find it to be a far more insidious feeling. A gradual, creeping awareness that your body is simply not built for this kind of abuse, as your feet begin to throb and your hip joints start to feel the effects of relentlessly grinding together adjoining pieces of bone, hour after hour.  That’s pretty much where I was at, around mile 23 as I left the river behind and headed into Richmond Park.

The change of scenery was welcome. Richmond Park was quite stunning bathed in the October sunshine. The ground underfoot changed to soft, sandy pathways that provided a little more cushioning than the compacted dirt I’d been running on for the last ten miles. But it was getting tougher to focus on these little moments of pleasure. From here on in it was going to be about pain management. That and whatever psychological ploys I could use to trick my body into ignoring all the bad shit that was happening to it. I tried counting my steps, hoping I could descend into some zen-like state of numbed mental absence. I tried tying up all conscious thought with calculation of miles into kilometres, steps into miles, average miles per hour and so on. I forced myself to recall poems once learned by rote and long since forgotten and the track listing of every Bowie album I’d ever owned. Nothing worked for long. Every part of me hurt.

And then the real mind games began. It was at this stage I became concerned that I might be causing myself permanent damage. It was doubtless merely an effect of the imbalances in my endocrine and neural networks brought on by the four plus hours of running but I was getting really worried that I might actually wear a part of me out; like it would be fucked up to the extent that for ever after I’d walk with a limp or would have to spend the rest of my life in some kind of orthotic harness just to stop myself from being stuck in the bizarre stooped position I’d now involuntarily adopted. And the thing is about having the balance of dopamine or serotonin or whatever it might be going haywire, your ability to deal with these kind of crazy ideas rationally goes right out the window. Stop now and fail, or carry on and risk spending the rest of my life as some hideous, twisted freak unable to walk down the street without eliciting gasps of horror from onlookers. In my chemically imbalanced head, that was the decision I now faced.

A measure of relief came as I ran through the 42.5km route marker; the banner stretched high above me read: Congratulations. You are now officially an ultra runner!

So there it was, a marathon down, just five miles to go. It’s somewhat of an old saw but no less true for all that to say that a marathon is a race of two halves: the first twenty miles and the last six. Or in this case the first twenty six and the last five.

When I hit the next support station I knew I was going to need assistance that went beyond a banana and a pint of Lucozade. The most pressing of the various bodily traumas I was suffering had shifted from my lower half to my upper half. And there was blood. Actual blood. It appeared to be coming from my nipples. Oh Jesus, that’s never a phrase you want to use.

Under normal circumstances the prospect of asking a total stranger not only to look at but in some way to repair (?) intimate parts of my body would be unthinkable. So it was with a significant measure of awkwardness and hesitation that I began to raise my top as I staggered over to the medics’ post, mentally rehearsing the right form of words to use to indicate the specific operation I needed them to perform. Thankfully, these guys were battle hardened and total pros, and with a knowing nod and the thwack of a pair of blue latex gloves, within seconds I was wiped down, greased, plastered and ready to go. It’s not a procedure I have any desire to repeat, any more than I suspect would my rubber-gloved assistant[11], but all things considered it went well.

And so I arrived at Bushy Park. The end of the race. Although it turns out that Bushy Park is massive and what I’d hoped would be a short stagger to the finish line was actually another mile away. And let me tell you, a mile run at the end of a 31 mile race is a wholly different proposition to a mile run at the start. If I really try I can run a mile in around six minutes. Normally, an eight minute mile is going to be a pretty easy run. That final mile through the irritatingly large Bushy Park took me around twenty.

Crossing the finish line was emotional. I can’t say I cried exactly, which is certainly a common response to completing marathons, ultras and other similar endurance events, but I certainly felt a powerful rush of emotions. I assume there is a hormonal release of some kind that triggers these feelings, which are hard to describe and don’t seem to reflect any clear psychological gestalt; I didn’t feel any particular sense of achievement nor did I become conscious of a belief that I could now conquer any task laid before me. I was having a fairly intense set of emotional and physical reactions, joy, relief, sadness, plus some inexplicable localised tingling, but they were themselves all devoid of any manifest reason for experiencing them. It was neither especially pleasant but nor was it in anyway unpleasant. The best I can say is that it was wholly unlike anything else I’d experienced and was distinctly weird. Mostly I just felt exhausted. Go and run an ultra; you’ll see what I mean.







[1] These tales were only from a few years ago but were clearly pre smart phone, reliable 4G and Google Maps. The fact that it would be all but impossible to get well and truly lost today seems somehow regrettable. It feels as though knowing where we are exactly, all the time, may yet have some injurious and unforeseen consequences for society.

[2] Funny story. During one of my training runs on Muswell Hill I experienced something that I had hitherto been absolutely sure was a thing that only ever happened in cartoons. I was on the downhill leg of the run and although I’d begun slowly, to recover from the run up, by about half way back down I’d picked up quite a pace again. A few metres ahead of me I saw a group of workmen standing around chatting, half blocking the pavement. It didn’t look as though they were going to notice me, so I mentally charted my route through the middle of them and quickened my pace a little. As I reached the workmen, I shot passed the first of them and just had time to register a look on his face which at the time I took for surprise mixed with admiration at my speed and grace, but in hindsight was able to reassess as a look of surprise mixed with the horror of imminent and certain disaster. In a moment of perfect anomic shock I was suddenly no longer running but falling sideways. Where seconds earlier I had been under the impression that the ground was solid and would bear my weight, as is usually the case, this was demonstrably no longer true. It is a profoundly bizarre feeling to have an understanding of the physical properties of the world that is so axiomatic and ingrained, no longer apply. The ground metaphorically and literally gave way beneath my feet and I plunged headlong into a 4m² bath of wet concrete. Which it turns out looks identical to set and fully functional dry concrete. It was a toss-up between me and the workmen who was more surprised. I think I just edged it.

[3] Honestly, I could have shook every last one of them in their beds while shouting “So, I’m off to run 50k now then. That’s an ultramarathon. Not a marathon, an ultramarathon!” and I’d still have got nothing in response.

[4] Obviously “catering” is the wrong qualifier here; no-one eats Vaseline. But it conveys the kind of comically large size of something that usually comes only in small containers.

[5] By which I mean the correct side.

[6] There were long sections of the latter stages of the run where I couldn’t see anyone else at all. If it hadn’t been for the reliably frequent support stations I’m sure I’d have become convinced I’d got lost. What with the unpredictable effects of fatigue and whatever five hours of only eating chunks of gelatinised sugar does to  cognitive functioning and general psychic stability, I shudder to think what I might have ended up doing.

[7] Top 3 favourite banners I’ve seen during races:

  1. Hurry up and finish; I’m really bored standing here.
  2. Run like you stole something.
  3. You’re tired! I was up till ten last night making this.

[8] The most commonly heard of which has to be “Keep going”, which in my head I cannot help but respond to with what I imagine would be, if I said it aloud, obvious irritation, “As opposed to what, exactly?”

[9] Some years ago I took part in a race known as The Hell Runner. This is decidedly not an urban race. It’s run on an army training ground in Hampshire and is designed to give people who crave it a taste of trail running. I didn’t crave it particularly, but my friend Ed had entered the race in a moment of drunken idiocy along with some colleagues. When sober again he kindly offered the place to me. Anyway, the race promised plenty of mud, and as part of my training I had to force myself to run through puddles. It was surprising to me how hard I found this. Not in any physical sense, we’re talking a few inches of benign rainwater, but psychologically. Mud just seemed to me something best avoided. When race day came around, I was mentally primed for mud, and after 5 or 6 miles was becoming increasingly disappointed that very little had been placed in my path. Perhaps they’d exaggerated? Perhaps a spell of dry weather had removed all traces of water from the route? But I’d made my psychic preparations and I’d be damned if I didn’t get myself good and mucky. So at the next opportunity, a large puddle that sat in the middle of the path and that most runners simply ran around, I went straight through the middle, determined not to finish the race clean.  It felt good. Also, totally unnecessary. Turns out the “official” mud was up ahead. 3 miles later I was literally up to my chest in a 50 metre long trench of freezing cold, thick black slurry that the race organisers called “The Bog of Doom”.

[10] A couple of years after the Royal Parks Ultra, I took/forced my 8 and 10 year old children to walk part of the route, from Vauxhall to Kew, on one of our regular summer time “adventure walks”. Honestly, I thought we’d have to abandon the idea somewhere around Battersea and call an Uber, but all credit to them, they made it the whole way with barely a complaint.

[11] Although… I guess the people helping out during the race must have volunteered to do so; it certainly isn’t a paid gig. In which case is the application of Vaseline to various enflamed parts of a stranger’s body the job you really don’t want, the job that gets given to the new guy or the guy who’s been pissing everyone else off recently, or are there in fact some members of the support crew who jump in first for this role when the day’s jobs are being handed out? Maybe there’s one member of the team who always volunteers for this job and no-one else ever really wants to question him about it in case they end up landed with the job but also probably they all feel a little uncomfortable about the fact that this guy really wants to take this role every time. It would make quite a difference to how I viewed the whole awkward business knowing which guy I got. On balance I think it’s probably better not to know.