Written by Tom Atkinson
I’ve been focused on this race since my last ultra in February (St Peter’s Way, 42 miles and the previous furthest I’ve ever run). Training went pretty well, the only low point being when I attempted my longest training run (40 miles) on a 30°C day. I lasted 17 miles and a lot of that was walking. I always knew the heat was my nemesis and this confirmed it. Part of my preparation now came about frantically checking the forecast from about 2 weeks out, willing the temperature to be as low as possible.
Needless to say I spent a troubled night the night before the race – a mix of nervous energy and anticipation rendering my 9:30pm early night pointless as I lay there counting down the number of hours sleep I still had left knowing my alarm was set for 4am. I think I dropped off before midnight.
The travel to the race all went well, thanks to the incredible support of my wife Laura (which would only get stronger during the day) driving me to Newmarket at 5am in the morning. We parked up and went to the Memorial hall where registration was taking place. Here my usual pre-race nerves kicked in as I appraised the other runners, who I always consider ‘proper runners’ exposing me as the novice I still feel at ultras (this was my third). They’re wearing gaiters, do I need gaiters? I think I’m carrying too much food? Do I need to carry a waterproof? Have I got the wrong type of shoes on? Should I be in a vest or a t-shirt? Poles? Do I need poles?
Having passed the kit check, picked up my number and negotiated the pre-race poo queue (far longer for the men than the women much to everyone’s amusement) – it was time for the race briefing. During this we were advised to take down the race director’s number which we were to text if we had to drop out. I prayed I wouldn’t need it. A last minute decision to empty my third water 500ml bottle and to stow it empty in the back of my vest proved to be a good one – I didn’t need it during the first two legs but boy did I later on in the race as heat and de-hydration got the better of me.
Then it was a short walk to the start, 150+ people filing out of the two doors in a hall obviously took a while and because of my trip to the toilets to empty the water bottle we were near the back. No bother, there was a long stream of people to follow down the road and we were far from the last people. While walking to the start I was chatting to Laura, confirming the plan for the day and where she’d try to meet me. Wait, was that an air-horn? Turns out the race had started and I (as well as a few other runners) were still a couple of hundred yards from the start. Pissing hell, I was behind schedule and hadn’t even crossed the line yet!
Leg 1 – 12 miles
After a somewhat hurried goodbye to my wife I crossed the start line and about 50 yards later remembered to start my watch. I tried to calm myself after the non-ideal start – “it’s not a bad thing to be at the back, don’t go chasing people at this stage of the race”. This actually proved to be a real blessing in disguise. After the first mile or so running out of Newmarket the race hung a left onto a trail that was narrow with steep banks either side, very much single file with over-taking tricky. This meant my pace was dictated by others and I found myself pleased I wasn’t further up the field as I’d have probably gone at the same pace as whoever was in front but the mile splits (about 10:45 per mile) confirmed that I was in the right place, that was as fast as I wanted to start. This was articulated by the guy in front who observed after about 2 miles “well if we keep this pace up we’ll finish in the top 10”. I certainly didn’t keep the pace up but at that stage of the race it felt about right, got some faster miles in while I was fresh and hopefully started to eat into the cut-off – something I was most concerned about for the early legs.
The leg passed pretty well, this early in the race navigation wasn’t too much of a problem as there was always people to follow and I came into the first checkpoint 10 minutes ahead of cut-off and feeling like everything was going to plan. The checkpoint established a trend about just how brilliant the volunteers were for the day, my water bottles were re-filled, words of encouragement were shared and within a few minutes I was walking off with a handful of hoola-hoops and a couple of mini scotch eggs.
Leg 2 – 11 miles
Onto leg two and I continued to feel ok, managing to smile at the photographer as he made a couple of appearances and intrigued by the drone that was flying overhead. It was during this leg that I made my only navigation mistake – the comfort that following others in leg 1 gave me proved to be my downfall as a group of us took a turn across a narrow bridge, past a horse field and then to a fork in the path. Something didn’t feel right and a few of us paused - one lady checked the GPS route on her phone and it confirmed we shouldn’t have turned at the bridge. Quick backtrack and no more than a few minutes lost, no harm done. Apologies to the three guys that had gone ahead, they were out of earshot before we realised the mistake. Hopefully there was karma for this as I corrected three other runners on separate occasions later in the race.
My pacing proved pretty consistent, slowing a little but still managing to run except for the hills, the day was starting to warm up but I came into CP2 feeling like things were still going very much to plan. Quick re-fill of the bottles, including the spare third one given that dehydration was starting to creep in, some melon and a handful of snacks and it was onto leg 3.
Leg 3 – 10 miles
A couple of miles into Leg 3 and I wasn’t in such a good place. It was now the middle of the day and whilst the thermometer didn’t hit the 30+°C I’d been worried about a few weeks before the mid-20°s temperature was still enough to throw me off kilter, I’m really not great in the heat. I started cramping somewhere around 27 miles and couldn’t shake it off, having to slow to a walk. Try to run? Cramp. Climb over a stile? Cramp. Hang on, I was climbing over a stile and that triggered cramp? “You’re cramping my style” I said out loud, knowing there was no-one in earshot and gave a little chuckle. It’s an indication of my mental fragility (and sense of humour) that that little pun kept me amused for the next 9.5 hours every time I came to a stile, i.e. about 20 times, even long after the cramps had passed.
Despite the pun this proved to be the first of two lows of the race. I was aware I was losing the time against the cut-offs that’ I’d steadily built up in the first two legs and just couldn’t get myself going at an even pace. This was compounded by the fact that in my (not so) carefully-prepared spreadsheet I’d put together I’d written the cut-off time wrong – meaning I thought I only arrived with 10 mins to spare whereas it was a much more comfortable 30. Still, the demons had set in and I started to convince myself that if I was only halfway, suffering from cramp, struggling to run and losing time then a finish started to feel very doubtful.
I cracked on regardless; encouraged by the fact Laura was due to meet me at the next checkpoint. Finding the checkpoint seemed to take forever, I’d never been to Long Melford before but now know why it’s not called ‘Melford’. It went on forever and I was kindly guided in by a runner behind who kept telling me to keep going and where the turn-off to the cricket club was as she must have seen my desperate glances for red tape to indicate it was time to get to the checkpoint.
Bonus, on entering the checkpoint I saw my Dad there clapping me in and Laura just a bit further on. Seeing family and having people support you makes such a difference to me and this was exactly the boost I needed at a time where I needed it most. I put them to work, having a ‘crew’ for the first time ever – filling water bottles, putting bodyglide on my shoulders, things I easily could have done myself but relished the opportunity not to have to. I asked them to walk out of the checkpoint with me as I had a handful of crisps and jelly beans to eat but quickly realised I was essentially just trying to prolong the feeling of having support with me and if I was going to make the finish I had to do it on my own. I asked them to head back and found my voice faltering during my good-byes as I was hit by a wave of emotion. Despite the boost the check-point had given me, I didn’t think I was going to finish. I thought they were thinking I wasn’t going to finish. Was this game over?
Leg 4 – 9 miles
Nope! Turns out some salty snacks and flat coke were all I needed to get into a much better physical place and a text from Laura confirming my cut-off timing error meant that mental strength soon followed. Back in the game!
If you look at my splits there may not be that much variation in what had gone before but mentally and physically I was feeling much better. This was enhanced once I hit Sudbury – due to the great support outside the pub there but also the fact that I’d recced the route from here so things were a bit more familiar and navigation became slightly one less thing to worry about.
Another error in my (not so) carefully prepared spreadsheet saw me turn a corner to unexpectedly see a volunteer in a yellow t-shirt and hear him say “the checkpoint’s just around the corner”. Really? I had it down as another 2 miles away and whilst I still had to run those miles it was a nice surprise to feel I’d reached a milestone ‘early’. And what a checkpoint it was! All the volunteers were exceptional throughout the day and the provisions offering every type of fuel you could hope for but this checkpoint stood out on both counts. The plethora of snacks in front of me was dazzling in its array; boiled eggs and boiled potatoes dipped in salt which at that time tasted better than anything I’ve ever had in any restaurant, melon, watermelon, pineapple, crisps, I had to practically drag myself away. Also, sensing the dehydration I’d been suffering I opted to fill my third bottle with electrolyte rather than the plain water I’d had on the last couple of legs (I was filling my other two bottles with water and hydration tabs I’d brought with me). There was a great volunteer here too who told me he’d run the race twice and mapped out what was to come in terms of getting to the remaining checkpoints, cut off times and where the hills were. I saw him again at the finish and thanked him for this – his advice really helped and gave me back the belief that I really could finish this thing.
Leg 5 – 8 miles
I set off with a spring in my step (metaphorically), eggs in my belly and a positive outlook in my mind. 2 miles later and low point number 2 struck. My stomach didn’t feel right and I felt severely lacking in energy, it’s points like this where I feel my lack of experience shows in ultrarunning. I know something is wrong but without knowing what’s causing it I don’t know how to fix it? Did I need to vomit? Have a poo? Had I eaten too much or not eaten enough? Drunk too much or not enough? Paying for breaking the ‘nothing new on race day’ mantra by drinking the electrolyte? Dodgy egg? I settled on what seemed the most appropriate solution: walking with the occasional dry retch. I ground this out for about a mile and a half which probably took me over 25 minutes, my slowest moving pace of the whole day by far but, thankfully, it seemed to work, my stomach settled and I felt my strength returning.
I was probably about 45 miles in by this stage – into unchartered territory as the furthest I’ve ever run and I realised I needed a better strategy than ‘walk when you feel like you can’t run (shuffle), run (shuffle) when you feel like you don’t need to walk’ which I’d been following up to that point. I decided to walk the first ¼ of each mile then run (shuffle) the remaining ¾, deviating from this only if there was a hill, resolving to walk up them and run (shuffle) down them. This strategy worked a treat and I may have stretched the walking ¼ mile on occasion and become very flexible in my definition of ‘uphill’ but I loosely stuck with this right through to the final checkpoint.
Coming into Nayland I spotted a runner going off track, making exactly the same mistake I did when I recced the route; paying no attention to social regard I bellowed at him as loud as I could and waved my arms to bring him back on track and it seemed to work. I then enjoyed the run along the river to the checkpoint, the signs put out by the volunteers building the excitement of getting there.
Laura had texted me to say that she’d changed her plans for the day and would meet me at the checkpoint, I think she was worried by how she’d left me previously. A sign of how well I was moving though was the fact I got there about 5 minutes before her, beating my predicted time. This was real bonus time, Laura, my parents and my two kids came to meet me at this checkpoint, something I really wasn’t expecting because of the logistics of getting them all there. The lift to my spirits was immeasurable. I changed t-shirt and socks, ditched some of the extra gear I’d been carrying for so long and re-fueled. I probably stayed at the checkpoint a bit too long but I could feel my positivity and determination growing as I was surrounded by my family. I had 4.5 hours to do a half marathon and I set off, confident that if absolutely necessary I could probably walk it in from there.
Leg 6 – 8.5 miles
I climbed up the steps with my family and at my son’s insistence ran (shuffled) with him and my daughter across the bridge before leaving them, promising to meet them at the next check point as soon as I could. The thought of seeing them again at the last checkpoint and the finish really spurred me on.
Coming out of Nayland there’s a big climb, as with all the climbs in this leg it seemed to have tripled in length and gradient since my recce run but I was remembering the advice of the guy from CP4 – get these hills behind me and it was flat / downhill all the way in. Considering it was 8 miles the leg passed well, indicated by the fact that there’s not really much I can recall of incident during this leg, the walk-run (shuffle) strategy was working well for me and it may not have been a rapid pace but it was steady and effective.
I hit the road, spotted CP6 and then more importantly spotted my family who seemed oblivious to the fact I was coming in – maybe I’d covered this stage quicker than I and they were expecting. They spotted me in my final approach and as their cheers mixed with those of the still-enthusiastic volunteers I realised that barring disaster or accident I really was going to make this. I felt strong and didn’t really need to linger here – headtorch out, glass of coke, few snacks (can’t remember what), refill of the bottles, hugs and kisses from all the family and I was off.
Leg 7 – 4.5 miles
I headed out of the checkpoint with about 5 other runners, a group of women from the 50 and a guy from the 100. I was thinking it would be good to have some company on this last leg but as I’d found all day I preferred to be on my own. It’s not that I don’t want to run with others, in fact I like the company but I always want to go at my pace – when I’d fallen in with people earlier in the race it was too tempting to slow to a walk just because they were.
So, in the descending gloom I ran (shuffled) off, having to turn the head torch on about 4 miles from the finish. Past Dedham and Flatford, I knew this part well and despite correcting two other runners whose lights seemed to be heading in the wrong direction I still managed to make one minor error; coming off a bridge I should have headed diagonally across a field but instead followed the river – meaning I ended up covering two sides of a triangle instead of the hypotenuse but there was really no harm done.
It was now fully dark and had started to rain, I was walking as the ground was pretty rough and visibility was poor plus I wanted to save a final run (shuffle) into the finish once I hit the road – something that seemed an age to come given I could see the lights of Brantham from some way off. Eventually it did come, I hit the road, broke into a faltering run (this really was a shuffle) and headed for home. Coming up to the main road I spotted a guy in a yellow volunteer t-shirt and asked him a question that he’d probably already been asked 100 times that day “how much longer to go”? “700m” came the reply. 700m, less than half a mile, COME ON!
I headed off, past the pub, round the corner. I’d not gone right to the finish on my recce, heading to the station instead (and choosing to save that bit for race day) but I’d looked at this part of the course studiously as part of my race prep. There should be an alleyway on my left…where was it….have I gone too far…hasn’t that been half a mile already…this is it…nope that’s a driveway….should I double back…..I can see the finish, where’s the turning….boom! There it was. Left into the alley, there’s the field…how do I get onto the field, it was all fenced in! I asked two lads on a bench (who clearly had been bothered with this question several times before) and they nonchalantly pointed to a gap in the fence.
This was it, the run for the line, the run for glory, the run to a medal and finisher t-shirt that I’d coveted so much, the run to achievement, the run to pride, the run to prove I could, the run to my kids, wife and parents. I could see them at the finish and beckoned the kids to come and join me, but I’m not sure they could see in the darkness and instead broke into a full on run. This was no shuffle and whilst it might not be deemed a sprint finish it was the best I had, even contriving to manage a jump in the air (I think both feet left the ground at the same time) as I approached the line.
102km / 63.5 miles. 14 hours 29 minutes 41 seconds. Not bad considering when people had been asking me in the run up how long it would take my stock response had been “well I’d be happy with anything under the cut-off of 15 and a half hours but I’d estimate 14 and a half”. I was far from the fastest on the day and marvel at the achievements of those ahead of me, there were others that probably suffered more than me and had to dig deeper but I’ll be surprised if there were many more proud than me at crossing that line.
This is a great race, comfortably the best organised, and well-spirited I’ve run. The organisers, volunteers and other runners were inspirational throughout and I simply don’t think I’d have made it without the ongoing support of my family. I hope to run 100km again and do entertain ideas of going further one day but this, my first 100km, will always remain very special to me.