Royal Parks Ultra 2014

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I hate Facebook. I stick with it because it’s the only way to keep in touch with some of my family and friends, and because my running club, Clapham Chasers, use it in lieu of a forum so it’s the only way to get hold of news and plan trail runs. But wherever possible I steer well clear of the bloody thing. Photos of babies, posts about guardian angels “and if you don’t share in five minutes your angel will die”, those bastard water bucket challenges. BAH.

But then, one day recently it came useful.

I knew about the Royal Parks Half Marathon from colleagues who had done it in previous years, and I knew you usually needed to raise money for a charity to get in, but I had no idea there was a 50k course until the Runners Need page threw up a post saying they had a number of places to give away. All you had to do to be in with a chance of winning one was click on a link and enter some details. I’d sell my own mother for a shiny doubloon, so I gave them everything – address, phone number, daily schedule and list of fears – and forgot all about it.

Then, one day about three weeks out, my mobile phone rang. Being the charming, antisocial sort that I am (and working in a concrete bunker with no signal) I let the call go to voicemail, but when I listened back it was someone from Runners Need called Kirsty saying that a place had become available and did I still want it? Within a minute I was jigging around in the fire exit, trying to get enough signal and yelling “YES PLEASE ME PLEASE I’LL TAKE IT”.

It’s a London race so it should be easy enough to get to, I thought, and from the finish in Bushy Park it’s a single train home. Lovely stuff. Yeah, not so much – thank you TfL. Two hours and three buses later I finally reached the Runners Need stall to get a group photo and pick up my race vest, and it would be a twenty minute hobble to the nearest station at the end followed by a replacement bus service. If I had known quite how bad the transport situation would be I’d have genuinely considered running to and from the race.

Both the half marathon and ultra courses are designed to take in the greenest areas of London, starting in Hyde Park, skirting Green Park and St James’ Park and picking up the river at Westminster. There a nice sweeping stretch going east as far as Blackfriars, where the half marathoners turn back and the ultra runners cross the bridge, turning west on the other side to follow the Thames Path pretty much the whole way home. The three parks and Blackfriars section happens to be the route I run with my work running club, the Thames path from Waterloo to Wandsworth part of my run home and everything west of Wandsworth my favourite easy Sunday run route, so I pretty much knew the whole course already. This is my territory, I thought.

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Maybe because I hate being anything less than 2 hours early to a race start, maybe because buses freak me out, maybe I’m just a spanner – but I found the race village in Hyde Park confusing and difficult to navigate and got myself into a right flap. I walked the length and breadth twice following conflicting instructions for the bag drop, until it became clear that the ultra runners were operating out of a separate tent for pretty much everything. With all the banners advertising the half marathon and its innumerable sponsors, and only the odd arrow pointing on the general direction of the 50k start, I began to worry that I’d come to the wrong park. It wouldn’t be the first time.

Eventually though I lined up among the other 500 or so runners, with two empty water bottles I’d forgotten to fill in my flap, and took off towards the river. The course is relatively flat apart from a couple of bridge crossings and an incline in Richmond Park, so I let myself settle into a comfortable pace slightly faster than I would normally risk, and immediately felt calmer.

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The first 5k went in no time whatsoever, so I took advantage of the first checkpoint to stop and fill up my water bottles. By this point we had crossed Westminster Bridge, turned a hairpin and come back across it again, and I could see the National Theatre across the water waiting for me to pass by. Being my workplace, I see that huge angular behemoth almost every day; its washed out grey concrete usually looks stern and humourless under the crisp LEDs that usually illuminate it. Under the soft warm Sunday morning haze though, it looked beautiful.

I fell in step with a chap called Tanbir aiming for around 5 hours in his first ultra distance, and still feeling comfortable I ended up spending a good 25k with him, chatting all the way. We trotted through Battersea Park, hugged the south bank of the river around Wandsworth, fired up the old glutes with two bridge climbs in quick succession through Putney, and gossiped our way past Hammersmith, separating only temporarily while he stopped for a comfort break. We were looking at Barnes Bridge just after mile 15 before either of us even noticed that familiar tightness in our hamstrings, and like that the easy chat turned to awkward small talk, skirting around the sharp realisation that we had hit halfway.

I hate halfway. Up to halfway I’m not thinking about what’s left to do, I’m just enjoying myself and letting the miles fall away. After halfway, however tired you are, you know you’ve got less left to do than you’ve already done. But at halfway, neither thought consoles you. As though I’d had been gently stretching an elastic band and suddenly let it TWANG and fly from my grasp, my muscles suddenly seized up like quick drying cement and I felt heavy.

At this point, we started to take the run in small chunks. Keep going until we hit the 30k checkpoint. Then we can stretch. Then push on until the marathon. Then another stretch. Then one final push and we’d be done. Little chunks. Easy as that. Every time I allowed myself to throttle back and slow down the cement began to harden around my muscles. As long as I kept moving they couldn’t set. With the ground becoming more gravel and less pavement, we ploughed unsteadily on.

The 30k checkpoint – generously stocked with crisps, Percy Pigs and Lucozade jelly beans – came just in time, but after a quick pause to inhale some junk food we realised we needed to push on. Tanbir was suffering much more than me though, and eventually he let me go on ahead while I still could, assuming that we’d catch each other eventually. I should have been appreciating the stunning surroundings, particularly as I approached Richmond Park, but I missed the company so switched on my audiobook.

Every day’s a schoolday, they say. I learned something just before 40k. I learned that audiobooks are brilliant for long runs, but never underestimate the fragility of your disposition when exhausted, and never listen to graphic or upsetting stories when you’re 40k into a run through woodland. To be fair, I thought that Haruki Murakami would be a relatively safe bet, but after three minutes of a graphic and detailed account of a man being skinned alive, I nearly threw up into the Thames. I don’t know why, but it immediately made me think of my boyfriend Andy, and oh god what would I do if that had happened to him, as if something like that ever would, and how much I wished he was with me, and then I nearly threw up again. And then I switched to music.

For me, a good litmus test of how I’m holding up mentally is by testing my mental arithmetic skills – converting my pace in minutes per mile to minutes per kilometre for instance – and quite often, even when I think I’m ok I find myself unable to remember what number comes after 12 or how to multiply by 20. I stuck to Tanbir’s plan – to keep going until the marathon mark and then allow myself a walk break – but I forgot that I was meant to be looking for a marker saying 42, not one saying 26, so I’d convinced myself I still had a while to go. When the marathon marker did eventually sneak out from behind some bushes, I was stunned. I checked my watch – 4 hours 11 minutes. A full hour faster than my time at Brighton Marathon back in April.

Relieved to finish the first 26 miles I slowed down to walk and ring my equally surprised boyfriend – who hadn’t been expecting a call from me for another hour – but it wasn’t until after the race was done and dusted that I realised what I’d achieved. At that point I just wanted to hear his voice and be reassured that a Mongolian warrior hadn’t skinned him alive in my absence. I did however have the presence of mind to work out that a sub 5 hour finish was on the cards. Love and kisses, phone back into my belt pack, game face on.

Despite much of the first half being run on pavement and footpath, the towpath that replaced it was getting gradually more and more gravelly and the stones underfoot bigger and sharper. My light soled road shoes had been the right call to begin with but my toe joints were now bruised and painful, and every time I landed I had to hope it wasn’t on another pebble. I listened to a playlist of ska punk tunes to keep up my spirits and sped up in the hope that it would mean less time on my feet.

The final section through Bushy Park is somewhat easier underfoot, but without the Thames as a guide it’s difficult to judge just how far you are from the end. Every time I pushed on, I turned a corner and found another stretch. Every time I slackened the pace, I saw a marshal urging me on. And I had no idea how close I was to a 5 hour finish.

And then, there it was – the home stretch. The marshal directing us in was shouting that we were nearly there, but I’d heard that said so much in the previous half hour I nearly didn’t believe her until I saw the arch. Uneven ground, soft mud and stones be damned, I lifted my knees for a sprint finish and threw myself across the timing mat, shaking and sobbing. My watch told me I was within a minute of the 5 hour mark, but I didn’t believe it until a moment later a text message popped up on my phone to confirm it – impressively quick result reporting, given that I was still gasping for breath. 4 hours, 59 minutes and 18 seconds. I had beaten my marathon PB with my 50k time.

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I got my grubby little magpie fingers on my medal: a wooden one shaped like a leaf, which I thought Andy would like since it wouldn’t be as noisy at the metal ones. The goody bag was deeply impressive too – a little canvas bag full to bursting with a packet of spicy chickpea snacks, a sachet of porridge and a box of single serving cereal, a peaked Buff style headband from Crewroom, a set of short stories commissioned by and written about the Parks, deodorant, a bag of sweeties, a water bottle and a partridge in a pear tree. In fact the bag was so full of stuff I somehow lost my voucher for a free hot meal to its Mary Poppins carpet bag interior, but after being shaken and run ragged for five hours my stomach wasn’t up to much anyway.

Apart from the kerfuffle at the start – and despite the best efforts of TfL – it was a well organised and logistically sound race. The checkpoints were generously stocked with treats and snacks, sponsored as they were by Marks and Spencer (hence the amazing goody bag at the end) and the field was of a manageable size so it never felt like a scramble. Even better, the support was fantastic considering it was a long point to point course; although it wasn’t exactly a throbbing party atmosphere and quite often race participants were outnumbered five to one by Sunday joggers, everyone we passed from Putney to Bushy Park seemed to know what we were doing and cheered us on.

For a race I wasn’t even expecting to do, it was something of a triumph. I’m right at home with the 50k distance, and for the first time during a long run I barely walked at all. The Thames is often my running guide, and if I’d been asked to design a 50k course this would basically be it – no further East than Blackfriars and plenty of the South bank.

When I finally made it home I just sat on the sofa staring at my Garmin readouts. If someone had challenged me to beat my marathon time at the marathon point I couldn’t have done it. If someone had challenged me to beat my marathon time with my 50k time I’d have laughed. But now, there’s a whole new set of possibilities.

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Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 50k

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A day after completing 39 miles of the 50 Mile Challenge, I was straight back on my laptop looking up trail marathons and ultras that fit around the QPR fixture list. Like a kid in a sweet shop, I wanted one of everything and like a kid my eyes are usually bigger than my belly. And then my eyes landed on the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1, and I knew I’d found the sweet for me.

So named because the route covers five rivers, four hills, three country estates, two castles and one cathedral, runners can choose from 10k, half marathon, 30k, marathon and 50k distances, all taking in the beautiful scenery of Salisbury and a perfect balance of mixed terrain. Salisbury isn’t exactly local to me, but luckily it IS local to Andy’s dad and stepmum who kindly put me up for the night before, provided an amazing pasta dinner (and two glasses of champagne – hic) and a roast turkey sandwich after the race, not to mention lifts here there and everywhere. Very favourable reviews expected on Tripadvisor.

The start and finish is at the fire station on Ashley Road, where runners and walkers can pick up their race numbers, drop off bags, buy t-shirts and queue for portaloos while hiding from the rain. That’s right; rain, in the middle of a heatwave. The forecast for the week was sun-sun-sun-APOCALYPTIC RAIN-sun again. Ah well; it’s not a trail race unless you get good and muddy.

Thanks to the staggered starts, the fact that there were large numbers of participants all doing different races didn’t affect the morning running smoothly, crammed as everyone was in the small footprint of the station while avoiding the rain in the forecourt. Certainly when I was waiting for my 9am start the queue for the portaloos was nothing like your usual M25 style tailbacks, and I had my number in my hand and my bag stowed away within about three minutes.

For the first time I was trying out Event Clips rather than safety pins, in an effort to save the fabric of my clothes. They are incredibly fiddly, and you do have to punch holes through the Tyvek number otherwise they don’t work, so I’m not sure they served the purpose I bought them for, which was to make it easier to swap my number between t-shirts when I got too wet. Luckily though, I came across a much more brilliant solution that I can’t believe I’ve never employed before – fixing my number to my shorts instead, so that it wouldn’t matter what top I was wearing or even if I had my jacket on. Once again, the simplest solution turned out to be the best. And I lost one of the clips on the way round anyway.

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While trying for the first time ever to take a pre-race selfie (I am SO 21st century) I bumped into a lady who thought I was a race photographer – what a poor lookout for the art of photography that would be – and who turned out to be from Witney Road Runners (although originally Holland). Aukje was doing her first ultra to raise money for the Teenage Cancer Trust as her own 16 year old daughter is currently fighting the disease. Remarkably, her training for this event had all taken place on a treadmill at home because she was unable to leave her daughter to go on long runs, which puts into perspective every time I’ve chickened out of a training run because of three drops of rain or a y in the day. She and I took each other’s photos by the starting clock and jiggled about nervously waiting for the off. I couldn’t keep up with her and lost her before the first corner, but I emailed her after the race and of course, she nailed it. Even though I never run for charity now, it reminded me of why I decided to do my first marathon last year; to raise money for two cancer charities who had helped a friend of mine and to repay their kindness. That race feels like so long ago now.

The extra distance making up the 50k route is actually a northbound loop tacked onto the beginning of the marathon route, joining up again at Old Sarum – after that the two groups stayed together the whole way round. Psychologically this was really helpful, as long as you knew that you were actually ahead of the mile markers (marked for the marathon route) and not making up the distance at the end. Plus, the 50k runners got to run through something the marathoners wouldn’t – a gorgeous farm with cows, sheep, donkeys and a camel. An actual live camel. I tried to get a photo but he wasn’t having any of it. The donkeys meanwhile were amusing themselves by running alongside us, getting to the end of their enclosure, trotting back and doing it all over again with the next set of runners. You don’t get that on city marathons.

The trails just before and after Old Sarum were very narrow – literally wide enough for one foot in front of the other, which made for a comedy bit of mincing – as well as rough underfoot and cambered, so it was important to concentrate. Picking my way between rocks and hidden trenches I was still feeling pretty strong at that point, and I tried also to remain aware of my posture, keep my shoulders down and my core strong. It’s moments like this that I find yoga practice has been particularly useful for, maintaining balance and developing a good economic running form. And what’s more, it meant that I wasn’t hunched over by the time I got to the top of the hill like I used to be, and I got to see some breathtaking views.

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There is one slight drawback to the staggered starts, although I can’t see how you’d get around it or if it really makes that much difference; because the marathon runners start half an hour after the 50k runners, there are some slightly hairy overtaking moments just after Old Sarum while the faster runners in the second group try to get past the slowest ones in the first (i.e. me) on the narrow twisty trails. That being said it was all terribly polite – “Excuse me, pardon me, could I get by please?” – and soon enough I was able to recognise the sound of much faster feet about to crash into me with enough time to dive into the bushes. To be fair it’s not a PB course, as if that weren’t blindingly obvious.

After the next aid station and on the way up another grassy hill I fell in step with another runner and we began chatting away. Although originally from Salisbury, Claire turned out to be representing Ealing Eagles RC who organise my favourite half marathon, the Ealing Half, which we’d both be running for the third time in a month or so. We shared stories about previous races – remembering that in the first year the goody bag included a can of London Pride, probably the best thing I’ve got from a race other than a medal – and for the second time in two races I found myself thoroughly enjoying the social aspect of long distance running, debunking the myth that it’s a lonely sport. It’s certainly peaceful, meditative and quiet if you want it to be, but I’ve learned more chatting with fellow runners at organised events than I ever have from magazines or social media.

I found the variation between road and trails just right – as soon as I found myself tiring of the uneven terrain, a paved section popped up and usually took us to a beautiful stately home or picturesque village; before the flat ground threatened to become boring we were back in the woods or tiptoeing around bulls in a field. I didn’t even put my iPad shuffle on until somewhere around mile 17, and nor did I miss it until then. With my Garmin running out of battery around mile 19, the major technological break rough for me turned out to be investment in a pair of gaiters – I had gambled on my road shoes, having ended up with blisters from the trail ones last time out, but bought a pair of Inov8 gaiters to go over the top and keep out stones and crud as well as wick away moisture, and they worked an absolute treat.

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The eerily lit but picturesque Great Yews Wood was a highlight – I entered it just in time for the sun to come out and dry up the latest downpour, which shone through the thick canopy and made the wood glow green. I felt like a character in Wind of the Willows – probably more Mr Toad than Ratty, but hey – and was having so much fun I very nearly missed the timing mat at the 32k split point. One thing I definitely didn’t miss though was the homemade flapjack being handed out just afterwards. If the race is this well catered every year I’m never bothering with a backpack again.

After leaving the wood we turned north again, towards the next checkpoint at Coombe Bissett (or as Andy’s niece and nephew like to call it, Coombe Biscuit). By this time I was beginning to tire – not helped by wading through newly softened ground and trudging up some fairly relentless hills – and had to walk a fair bit of this section. Unlike previous long runs though I knew it was just my body complaining – mentally I was still feeling fresh and enjoying the day. So I took stock, recognised that I was hitting my wall and allowed myself to walk for a bit.

The thing about the wall, I’ve learned, is that once you get over it there’s usually more road on the other side. I think it’s one of the reasons I prefer above marathon length distances. Think about it – in marathons, I usually hit the wall around 20 miles so by the time I cross the finishing line I’m still recovering and probably a little demoralised for ending on a low note. As long as I was stopping at 26 miles I never got the exhilarating feeling of coming out the other side, and so I never knew there was one. For me, fatigue isn’t a linear progression – i.e. the longer you run the more tired you get. It’s more like a sine wave with peaks and troughs. Yeah, this bit feels horrible, but be patient; eventually your muscles will loosen up again and you’ll get your next wind. Three years on from my first jog to the end of the road I don’t know that my body has got stronger, but I know that my mind has, all thanks to this simple truth.

Back onto roads temporarily, I trotted up to the Fox and Goose checkpoint to take advantage of the jelly babies and an opportunity to stretch. There was an uplifting hubbub and lots of friendly chatter between runners, marshals and pubgoers, bringing us back to society temporarily after a long stretch through fields and woods. It started to spit so I got my waterproof out, only for it to ease up within minutes of leaving the pub, forcing me to pause and pack it away in my backpack again – I ended up doing this five or six times and I don’t think it helped my momentum. I’m still trying out options to find the race kit that suits me best, and on this day I was wearing a hydration backpack with enough room to carry my spare top and socks, waterproof jacket and food – unfortunately it meant stopping to unclip the pack, take it off and rummage around every time I needed something. Of course what I really want is one of the super awesome Ultimate Direction race vests with everything to hand, but since I don’t swim in gold coins like Scrooge McDuck I think I’ll make do with my belt pouch and water bottle next time.

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I continued to struggle for the next couple of miles, up to and through the racecourse, and stuck with my program of walking when I needed to and trotting when I could bear it. The iPod came in very handy here, taking my mind off the pain – I’ve discovered that podcasts are absolutely perfect for long runs, not having a beat to throw off your rhythm and providing just enough distraction. I had downloaded a handful of Freakonomics podcasts which are both fascinating and thought provoking – I figured I’m doing nothing else with my brain for a few hours, so I might as well learn something.

Fuelled by more orange squash and homemade baked goodies – amazingly juicy bread and butter pudding this time – I started to loosen up again and by the time we reached Wilton and turned east for the final stretch I was almost feeling strong again. The sun was drying up the last of the rain showers, and since the rain had washed the salt from my face and my muscles were feeling refreshed I could have believed that I was back at the beginning of the race, not twenty odd miles into it. I became aware of the mechanics of my body again; the rotation of my hips, the power in my thighs, the balls of my feet pushing off the ground. I was over the wall.

Without my Garmin to tell me how fast I was going I relied on how I was feeling to gauge pace. I came across the 22 mile marker, meaning presumably that I was four miles from the end, but by this stage I was reluctant to believe the markers. This was at 2.55pm – so I didn’t think I could be far off my target of seven hours even if there were more than four miles left. It gave me the drive I needed to push on.

Despite a couple of wobbly moments where the arrows seemed to be for marathoners rather than 50k runners – further fuelling my distrust of them – I kept up a comfortable but raceworthy speed. Turning into a park I passed one other 50k runner who asked me how far away I thought we were. For some reason I still had four miles in my mind, whereas he was expecting the answer to be nearer one, so we went our own ways having thoroughly confused each other. I hadn’t seen any mile markers since the one at 22 (26?) and I didn’t see any more before the finishing line. I just gently ramped up my pace.

Coming through Salisbury Town Centre I knew we couldn’t be far from the end, although for some reason I’d forgotten than we’d end up where we started and that I should have been looking for the fire station. I was flying now, darting between pedestrians and skipping over the many little bridges, somehow managing to overtake about 5 or 6 runners on the way. Every time I overtook someone I felt a rush of adrenalin, followed by a pang of fear that I’d get lost now I didn’t have anyone to follow. My podcast playlist looped back to the beginning and I just ignored it, chanting “I must be at the end now, I must be at the end now” over and over. I didn’t know what pace I was going but I knew there was air turbulence cooling my face even though there was no wind, so I must have been under 9 minute miles albeit briefly.

Finally the fire station appeared on the left and with it the finishing clock. I sprinted to the timing mat, watching the clock hit 15:36 just before I crossed it. Six hours and thirty six minutes. Not bad for a slow runner.

It took me a good week to work out that I’d done the last four miles in forty minutes including stopping to ask for directions and doubling back twice (unnecessarily). Considering I was struggling to walk not a few miles earlier, a 10 minute mile average at the end of a 50k was almost as much of an achievement to me as the whole race. Yet again I’d proved that I could recover, and yet again I’d finished on a high. Another return for next year’s calendar, I suspect…

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