Don’t get carried away. Stay calm. Run your own race. Easy to think and tell yourself but not so easy to do when you’re towards the back of the pack and the other runners seem to be moving away from you…. and you’re less than 1 mile into your first 50 mile ultra marathon.
I never asked myself “Why am I doing this?” I just knew that I wanted to complete my #projectultra journey and finish the 50 miles without injuring myself and within the 13.5 hour cut off.
This is how I did it.
I slept surprisingly well the night before the North Downs Way 50 (NDW50) and awoke feeling fairly well rested at 4-45am. After several 4-00am starts during my training it wasn’t as much of a shock to the system as it once might have been to awake that early.
My wife Beth and son Andrew were fast asleep and as much as I wanted a last minute hug from them both I left them to rest. They both lost out on time with me at the weekends as the training for #projectultra ramped up in the last few months and I’m grateful for that.
My brother Greg (@draytonblue) had agreed to pick me up and drive me to the race start in Farnham and planned to be at several points along the route to cheer me on. While I got ready and had breakfast (a slice of brown bread with peanut butter and a Snickers bar, as I had done before long training runs) I took a last look at Facebook and Twitter and smiled at the number of good luck messages. Never underestimate the boost that these kind words provide. They made me want to complete the run even more and gave me more confidence as I got dressed and ready for the battle of mind, body and terrain to come.
After a last kit check I left the house and walked over to Greg’s car only to see my Mum sitting in the back seat. She had decided to come along too to support me. I was touched and struggled to hold in the emotion but managed to, sensing that I’d need to keep composed and save my energy for later in the race.
At race HQ I said farewell to my brother and Mum and wondered how I’d feel when I saw them next at the 15 mile point (Newlands Corner), knowing there was 35 miles still to run.
Once inside I had my kit checked by the @centurionrunner volunteers and picked up my race number. Now it was getting very real. Before I had a chance to panic I saw Kevin (@maximisemylife), Bryan (@bryanwe) and Chris (@cmmercer) arrive. Running parts of the NDW50 route prior to race day with these guys had been so helpful (and would prove to be later in the race) and it was good to see them as well as meet Marc Thatcher (@MarcThatcher) and fellow Emsworth based runner Glen (@gee_will_i_e). After a bit of banter and the race briefing from James we were led down to the start. I was surprised that I wasn’t feeling nervous and met Stewart (@stewartliesnham), another runner I’ve been talking with on Twitter, on the way.
Then we were off. The race had begun and I decided to set off at a comfortable pace, dictated by feel. I hadn’t yet switched on my Garmin 410 as I knew from my training runs that it might last 30 miles or so if I was lucky and I wanted to be able to monitor my pace and progress more accurately in the second half of the race.
Almost immediately I found myself wondering if I was about to repeat the mistake I made in my marathon debut last year. At the London Marathon I ran comfortably for the first 10 miles and then my race fell apart as I struggled for pace and got through the last 16 miles. Make the same mistake today and I’d have to struggle through the last 40 miles, a whole different prospect and not one to relish. However, before too long the first aid station came into view. I ate well and drank a couple of cups of Coke (which I normally can’t stand but I was craving all day and would continue to drink at each aid station). I also took the opportunity to remove some dirt from my trail shoes. This turned out to be a wise move as I finished, to my surprise, without a single blister on my feet.
My plan was to stay at aid stations long enough to get some food and drink into me – and a boost from the ever helpful and cheery volunteers – while not spending too long and losing momentum. To this end I spent 5 minutes at the first aid station and about 5-10 minutes at the rest and it worked for me.
In the London Marathon I made the mistake (yes, another one) of not breaking the distance down into smaller stages in my mind. By the time I got to Tower Bridge (mile 12, I think) I was struggling and letting the the miles left to run dominate my thinking. Not today. I didn’t allow myself to think about running 50 miles and concentrated on running from one aid station to the next. Much more manageable and made even better by the support from Kevin at various points on the route, always ready with a snack, drink and encouragement.
Back to the race itself. After leaving the first aid station I found myself running on my own again. This would be the case for the majority of the race and I was glad that I had done my long runs in training solo. Doing so had allowed me to develop my mental strength and learn how to manage my thoughts and feelings. As the race progressed this would become even more important.
Thankfully, for the majority of the race other runners were in sight, which at least reassured me that I was going the right way during the first half of the route (Farnham to the foot of Box Hill), the part of the route I had not run in training.
Before too long I arrived at the second aid station, still running on feel and wondering if I should have slowed the pace to preserve energy for the second half of the route, the hilliest and most challenging. Keeping faith with the slow and steady pace I was maintaining I continued on to Newlands Corner, where I knew Kevin, Greg and Mum would be waiting for me. On my way through I saw Martin (@martinbamford) taking photos of the race and he gave me encouragement, telling me I was mid placed among the runners. I doubted this as I’d seen so many runners go ahead in the early stages but appreciated the positive words after 15 miles of running. Kevin then told me I was looking good and I grabbed half a banana to keep me going and set off towards Box Hill. It was at this stage that my attention was drawn by a shout of “That’s not Mr Carter, is it?” from Martin (@MartinBushell1), another runner who I’d been discussing the race with on Twitter in the weeks leading up to it. Running along we swapped stories about how we got into running, the challenge of balancing training for an ultra marathon and being there for our families, and reassured one another that we were going to finish and be ultra marathon runners by the end of the day. Then the chest strap on my Camelbak came loose and while I fixed it Martin ran off into the distance (as agreed) and I was alone again.
At Ranmore Common I met Kevin again and topped up on electrolyte drink, chocolate and morale and set off for Box Hill. I was hoping to get to Box Hill aid station (roughly the half way point of NDW50) by 1:30, which would give me 8 hours to run the remaining 26 miles and beat the 9:30 cut off. As I left Kevin I had 45 minutes to go the 2 miles to Box Hill so was ahead of target. Was I really doing this well?
I tried my best to keep calm and was soon entering the stretch of the route which runs through Denbies Vineyard. Not only was the scenery absolutely breathtaking (as is much of the route) but this stretch was downhill!
I ran this stretch with a smile, doing my best to be fleet of foot on the technical downhills as I have seen Dan (@DanPark81) do and well aware that the dreaded Box Hill steps were awaiting us after the next aid station. I arrived there just after 1:00pm.
At Box Hill aid station I saw 2 runners who were withdrawing from the race (1 due to a turned ankle) and reminded myself that I would carry on to the finish. I was not going to quit. I also caught up with Martin and his friend Dennis again. After being danced out of the aid station (literally, but thankfully not a tango) by Robbie Britton (@ultrabritton) I ran on and encountered the famed stepping stones which take you across the river to the bottom of Box Hill and the dreaded steps. Managing to cross without falling in (as I did in my youth, ask my brother!) I started the ascent of Box Hill. Suffice it to say that after running 24 miles the 270 steps set into the hillside you have to climb were not exactly welcome. However, I was glad to have run (okay, walked) up them on a training run and this took the doubt away. I knew I could do it so knuckled down and was at the top soon enough. I may have mumbled to myself “Oh good, some more steps!” in a sarcastic tone a few times though.
Waiting for me at the top of Box Hill was Kevin, Greg and Mum. I can’t tell you how much of a boost I got from seeing them all at regular intervals. Apparently still “looking good” I grabbed a quick snack and continued on towards the next aid station at Reigate Hill, well aware of the horror of a climb that awaited us there.
As I continued I began to feel a twinge in my right calf and, cautious not to aggravate it, walked for a while with occasional steady running. At this point I caught up with Martin and Dennis and found out that they were also feeling the strain. We caught up with another runner (who’s name escapes me, I’m afraid) who was struggling with leg issues and walked for a while. Before too long I heard Martin call out for us to give running a go and so I broke into a run, making the most of any downhills and enjoying once more the twisting, turning trails. When I turned around the others were nowhere to be seen but my calf was feeling okay now so I ran on. At least until I reached Reigate Hill. Walking was definitely the order of the day here. It’s a beast of a climb, feeling like a 1:2 incline in places. Just as I was digging deep and nearing the top of the hill Kevin appeared and walked with me the rest of the way. Great timing fella! Much appreciated.
A few hundred metres later I arrived at the Reigate Hill aid station and met Lee (@leebriggs9) who I’ve been exchanging running banter with on Twitter for a while. Lee had asked if anyone had special requests for aid station food and I’d asked for a pork pie. Bryan had passed through about 15 minutes earlier and eaten one and now it was my turn. Boy did that pie taste good after 31 miles of running! Yet again, the aid station buffet was superb. We were informed that the next aid station at Caterham was water only do i took advantage and topped myself up with fruit, a wrap, crisps, flat Coke and some jelly babies before saying farewell to Lee and wished him well in his 100 mile run later this year (crazy distance) and set off.
Having been informed that the next couple of miles were downhill I had a spring in my step. My legs had been aching since Box Hill and it was good to let loose and run for a while. However, once the downhill was over I returned to a pattern of running and walking, trying to ensure that I didn’t walk for too long and kept a decent overall pace. Richard Ashton (@c3044700) had advised me to “leave it all at the race” which I took to mean “keep moving, don’t stop, never give up, there’s more in the tank than you think so push yourself” and so I carried on, remembering to break into a run after walking for a little while (which I had, thankfully, practised on training runs). By now I was greeting each hill (or even incline) with an internal sigh of resignation but I kept going. Never once during the whole run did I pause for breath thinking I couldn’t go any further, which surprised me given that the furthest I had run in training was 31 miles.
Rounding a corner I saw the Caterham aid station and prepared to top up my water and add an electrolyte (Nuun) tablet for an energy boost. Zoe, Bryan’s fiancée, and their 2 cute young kids were sat on a blanket eating a picnic and so I said a quick hello before moving on. When I reached the aid station to find food as well as water it was magical! Fabulous home made apple crumble cakes were consumed and I left with a smile on my face. It wouldn’t last for long…
At this point I began to struggle to maintain running but pushed on through to mix running and walking before seeing Kevin, Greg and Mum again for a quick pep talk. There was only a few miles to go to the final aid station but I’d forgotten about the hill we had to climb before we got there. Oh the joy I felt upon reaching the aid station. Topping up once more on food and drink I double checked that we had 5 miles to go until the finish only to be told it was 7. Bugger!
Oh well. Off I went and I would like to apologise to anyone who heard me shouting to myself a few hundred metres later to “Come on Graham! You can do this!” That gave me an adrenaline boost which was helpful as there were more hills to come. Not as bad as the last one but on very tired legs less than welcome. I just kept moving forward. Relentless forward progress (great book that) was the order of the day. On and on and on….
With 5 miles to go I saw Kevin, Greg and Mum for the last time and they informed me I was on target to finish in under 12 hours. I set off for the last time and passed Stewart within a few minutes. He gave me a cheer and I reciprocated. We were still moving and nearing the finish line.
Recognising the terrain from the recce run a few weeks ago proved to be invaluable as I walked and ran through the last few fields and trails. For some reason I began singing to myself (in my head, not out loud) The Smiths’ song “There is a light that never goes out”. Quite how repeating the lines “If a double decker bus crashes into us” and “if a ten tonne truck killed the both of us” helped I don’t know, but I found it strangely comforting.
Then I realised I was still on track to finish in under 12 hours but that I’d have to break into a run for the last 2 miles or so to do it. At that point I started running and I didn’t stop. I overtook at least a dozen others who were walking by this stage. I never thought I’d be able to run at this stage and let alone just under 10 minute/mile pace.
I was a man possessed. I was going to finish before 8:00pm. The minutes until then were ticking down on my watch and I ploughed on. Running the final few hundred yards from the North Downs Way into Knockholt Pound I felt exhilirated. Rounding the corner into the grounds of the village hall I could see the finish line on top of a hill (oh, the irony!), my Mum waiting for me behind the line.
My emotions began to get the better of me as I ran to the finish to much appreciated cheers and applause from the crowd. I felt like a champion as I crossed the line. A hug from my Mum and brother set me off and I then fell to my knees and bowed down. I’d done it. I was welling up. Rising to my feet I was given my medal and race finisher’s t-shirt. Job done.
I had finished an ultra marathon.
I had run 50 miles in less than 12 hours. 11 hours 53 minutes and 42 seconds to be precise.
It still sounds great.
It still feels great.
I called Beth to let her know. She’s put up with my absence at weekends for months and I couldn’t have done it without her support. To hear her say “I’m proud of you” was the icing on the cake. Dad was also glad to hear from me and congratulated me.
To top off a great day I went over to the hall with Kevin and Bryan (who finished about 5 minutes ahead of me in the end) for a post-race hot dog and the wonderful gift of cakes and cookies from Nici (@LondonNici72), who said I’d inspired her. Wow. I’m just a normal bloke who set a target, trained and had a go.
If I can, anyone can.
So what next? I’ll be back next year for another crack at the NDW50 with running buddy Phil (@phil657), who was kind enough to pick me up from Farnham station after I’d got the shuttle bus back to the race start. He’s hooked after running his first marathon this year.
I did it.
Now I just have to wait and see if two of my toenails survive the trauma. Which is nice.
I’m going to rest for a few more days but can’t wait to get back out on the trails and run, run, run. Except when there’s a hill!
My #projectultra is complete. Now for the next one.
Envisage. Endure. Enjoy.