TL;DR: 52 miles, 11 hours, great conversations, beautiful scenery, up up up down down. Glad I changed my shoes, getting lost, “sprinting” to the finish. Fantastic.
My first ultra – finished! How to sum up the day… I have spent almost a week writing this to try to make sure I capture as much of it as possible. It’s for me rather than anything else – I don’t want to forget any of it.
I was fast asleep when my alarm went off at 6.40am and was surprised to see the rain outside when I opened my curtains – I had not been expecting rain! It took much longer than I’d planned to get dressed, especially with putting suncream and bodyglide all over my body, and all the extra stuff that comes with ultra running – compression calf sleeves, gaiters etc. So by the time it came to breakfast I was running late, and ate my porridge and banana as I walked down the road in the drizzle to race headquarters, a 15 minute walk away.
Polycarps Primary School was absolutely buzzing, filled with people. I showed my safety kit at registration and then got my bib. There was just time for a toilet stop and to sort out my kit before the race briefing. Looking around nervously as we congregated I noticed a lot of very fit-looking people and a lot of impressive kit. The race director asked all those who were running their first 50 to put their hands up, and I was reassured to see a significant number of people raise their hands. I then got a bit teary when everyone clapped us. What on earth was I letting myself in for. I handed my bag in to be taken to the finish, went to the loo again then joined everyone making their way down to the start line.
I had literally just reached the congregation of people at the start when I heard the race director say “30 seconds!” So there was no time for the nerves to build up any higher than they already were – we were off!
Very slowly at first – 300 people plus a narrow track and a few kissing gates meant we slowed a few times to a walk and even a stop before we came out onto the first road. At this point, I held the gate open to the runner behind me who said “Alice?” He introduced himself as Ian, and then told me his Instagram handle – @trundle_along_aimlessly – we had been exchanging a few comments on Instagram in the run up to the race. It was great to see a friendly face, and we ran together for the next 4 miles or so. Ian was very reassuring, having run several ultra marathons before, buzzing with energy and really friendly which took away any of my initial nerves. I have been finding the first hour in my long runs really difficult as my mind just focuses on how far I have to go and I am not properly settled into it yet – but talking to Ian completely distracted me from all of that and the first hour sped past!
We had a few little climbs in the first 10 miles but nothing too difficult – one on the way up to Puttenham and the next just after crossing the A3, north of Compton. I walked up all the inclines – these were of slightly added difficulty due to the fact they were so sandy. I was glad of the gaiters I had bought just before the race and tried out once – these fit over your shoes and stop things like sand and grit getting into them.
There was then a nice downhill towards Guildford, and the welcome sight of two men dressed in sumo suits handing out bacon butties from a canal barge on the river. I took a bacon buttie but only ate half of one sandwich – we were only 10 miles into the race and I didn’t think my stomach would like it particularly! This was also the first crew point where I saw mum cheering me on.
At 11 mile was the first real climb of the day, up to St Martha’s Church. I just took it slowly, walking up and not worrying about my pace and enjoying the view. I managed to miss mum at the crew point here but knew it wasn’t long until Newlands Corner, where I could see her again. There was a little downhill and then another climb up to Newlands Corner – 14 miles in. Here I began chatting to a girl I’d been running back and forth with for a while, also her first ultra and she was determined to take pictures and enjoy herself all the way which was great!
We came into the aid station and the first thing I did was run off to the toilet. Because my body hates me, it had decided running an ultra wasn’t hard enough and I needed the additional challenge of coming on my period a few days early just in time for the race. Which was an additional mind-fuck I wasn’t expecting and certainly didn’t want. I didn’t know how it would affect my energy levels and whether there would be an overall negative impact on how I felt generally. In the end, however, the only real impact was that I had to make sure to find toilets every now and then along the route! It certainly added to my time, particularly when I had to queue, but that was about it.
At Newlands Corner I was waiting for the toilet when a girl in a Clapham Chasers vest came in after me – Jasmine. I’d just been speaking to her on Facebook that very morning although I’d never met her so I was very excited to run into her!
I met up with mum, who topped me up with electrolytes and water, gave me some food, and sent me on my way. Everything felt fine at this point – there were people all around and I was buzzing with energy and enjoyment. The time was speeding by. Running out of the aid station I bumped into Jasmine again and we were then to run together on and off for almost the next ten miles.
Jasmine was full of energy, really interesting to talk to and very friendly, saying hello to everyone we ran past. It was around this point that we came across another trail race happening on the North Downs. The NDW50 organisers were a bit annoyed as there wasn’t meant to be another event on the same day, but actually I quite liked it. It meant for a few miles we got to see lots of runners going in the opposite direction to us (but running much faster!). We cheered them all on, they cheered us on, it made for a great atmosphere.
After a bit, Jasmine stopped to walk and I pressed on. I running on a pretty flat bit through the woods when I passed a guy who was walking. I asked if he was okay and he said he was struggling. I checked he had everything he needed and gave him some encouragement, but to be honest I was wondering how he could be struggling already. We were not quite at 20 miles, not half way there yet, and I felt great at this point. I remember thinking that if you were already struggling so early on it wasn’t a great sign with so far left to go!
Jasmine caught up with me again and we were engrossed in conversation when all of a sudden I saw mum and James by the side of the road. I wasn’t expecting to see them until the top of Box Hill and had completely forgotten there was a crew point at Ranmore Common so I was initially going to run past, thinking I wasn’t allowed to see them there. They soon put me right and I stopped to get my bottle of electrolytes filled up and for a quick kiss. James had just flown back from the US, landing at 6am that morning, so it was so nice to see him!
I caught up with Jasmine again as we began the descent down into Denbies vineyard. On any other day, this would have been amazing. 3 miles of gentle descent on a tarmacked road. However, with just under 30 miles left to go I was conscious of not wanting to trash my legs so took it very slow and easy, getting a bit frustrated by having the hard tarmac underneath me. I was still feeling okay but I remember starting to feel a bit tired, this was a 10 mile long running stretch and I wanted a big hill so I could take a break from running!
Of course, soon enough that came with Box Hill. I grabbed some watermelon at the aid station and slowly made my way across the stepping stones, slowed down by a woman letting her toddler slowly jump every stone. I swallowed my annoyance – enforced rest can’t be a bad thing 24 miles in!
And then it was up the infamous steps. Even taking it easy wasn’t easy. It was broken up by a guy who’s wife and puppy had come to meet him, and a group of teenage girls doing their Duke of Edinburgh having a fight on the side of the path. Slow and steady I plodded on, finally reaching the top to cheers from mum and James. Another kiss, some sweets, my water bottle topped up and it was time to go. I started running again to cheers from all the supporters at the top of the hill, a real boost.
The next 5 miles were lumpy, constant up and downs through the woods. I ran with a girl for half an hour or so, chatting about how her boyfriend had just signed up for the ballot for London marathon for the first time. I lost her on a downhill where the path was really narrow through chalky banks, I was worried about turning an ankle, not confident at all, so was going slowly as she ran on.
I popped into the bushes for another wee at the bottom – I was going to the toilet a lot. I think I went seven times in 11 hours overall. I also had a headache, but I knew I couldn’t be dehydrated because of how much I needed the loo. I just kind of ignored the headache and plodded on, but it was definitely starting to affect my enjoyment. It was also partly worry about what the headache meant – should I be doing anything different? Was I getting enough salt? Too much sweet? I had no idea.
Then there was the climb up Reigate Hill. I was finding this tough – I was by myself, it was quite dark in the woods, it was coming up to 30 miles, and I had the headache. A woman caught up to me, walking up the hill quickly but with a limp in her step, so I started a conversation with her. And oh I wished I hadn’t!
“This course is awful, it’s so hilly, I don’t know why I’m doing it again, the South Downs course is so much better. At least that’s actually runnable. You think this is tough now it gets harder. The last ten miles are the absolute worst”.
Well, great. When I was starting to feel bad myself the last thing I needed was someone else telling me how much worse it was going to get! I appreciate she was clearly having a tough day, given she was limping, and I know we can’t help what we say when we are struggling, but it was really the last thing I needed to hear right then.
I made it up the hill and then started to run again. I was desperate for the next aid station. For some reason I thought it was going to be at the top of the hill and so I was deflated to get there and realise it wasn’t – and that I had no idea where it was going to be. Luckily there was a nice downhill on gentle trail for me to plod along.
Soon enough I saw mum and then James. I dashed into the toilet where I had to queue for ages and came out to see my sister on facetime all the way from the Caribbean to cheer me on! Which was lovely. I was struggling to work out what I wanted or needed at this point and was pretty reliant on James taking charge and sorting me out. He helped me fill up my water, I grabbed some cherry tomatoes and then I was off again, feeling headachey and a bit sad. Still so far left to run.
I ran down past the Millennium Stones and through Gatton Woods, the golf course and cricket ground into Merstham. There were no other runners in sight, I was completely by myself. I thought I was going to see mum and James again in Merstham and even though I’d seen them only a mile or so back I couldn’t wait. But they weren’t where I thought they’d be in Merstham and I thought I’d missed them. Thank god for the trusty Find a Friend app that showed me they were still up ahead. If I have missed them I think I would have been close to tears.
This was an awful part of the course, a long (two miles – but I was going slowly!) run along a boring road. Still no other runners in sight and the skies were grey. When I finally saw mum and James I almost cried. I had run 35 miles and still had so far to go. My feet were starting to hurt, nothing too bad that was affecting my running gait but the soles were sore, so I decided to change my shoes. It had been so dry trail shoes weren’t really necessary and I had my more cushioned marathon road shoes with me. When I first put them on I could feel they were tighter around my toes and I worried I was making the wrong decision but I figured I could always change them again next time I saw mum and James.
I sat on the side of the road to change my shoes as James filled up my water and electrolytes. I did not want to stand up and keep going. I wasn’t even that sore, I just felt miserable. Mum saw the face I was pulling and said something to the effect of “come on now Alice, it gets tough here, this is why you’re doing this” and I knew she was right. I wasn’t expecting it all to be easy. So I got up and on I plodded, feeling very sad as I left mum and James behind!
Not too long until I turned off the road and began the long climb back to the top of the Downs. Again, I took it slowly. For the first time, I put on a podcast and almost immediately felt better with the wonderful tones of Tom Williams and Martin Yelling of Marathon Talk. I have listened to these guys on so many training runs of all lengths so it just felt like I was on another weekend run, back where I felt comfortable. And of course, once I was at the top the views were gorgeous.
The path then gently undulated for a while through the woods and down War Coppice Lane (where I was glad of my road shoes!). Bluebells gave way to carpets of wild garlic and I realised that my headache had gone, my feet no longer hurt, and I would be able to finish within the time limit even if I walked the rest of the way. I had cheered up and began to enjoy myself again.
I was cris-crossing with 3 guys running together – they both ran and walked faster than I did, but they walked more often than I did so I would regularly overtake them when they were walking only to hear them come past me again. There was no one else anywhere near so it was nice to have the back and forth. After one of the aid stations there was a long runnable stretch though and I lost them at this point.
A few miles later – after running 42 miles – I heard cowbells ringing and saw some people up ahead of me, cheering. They were right at the top of a little hill so I strode up it to claps and cheers and there saw mum and James. My attitude was so completely different to the last time I had seen them – I was smiling, I was happy, I knew what food I wanted and I was very happy to run on rather than absolutely dreading it.
I felt good. I felt really good. My legs were clearly tired but I felt no need to stop and walk and I had a few aches in my hips but really nothing too bad – both the long training runs I’d done had been so much worse. In fact, after about 35 miles my legs never felt any worse, I didn’t get any more tired running that extra 15 miles. And by this point the sun was shining through the trees and I was just happy.
I ran through the woods then down a steep downhill through the fields, running along the bottom of the Downs. It was at this point I began overtaking a few people slowly walking through the fields. I was starting to think about time at this point, trying to make sure I covered more than 4 miles an hour. While at the start this would have stressed me out far too much by this point it was just a way of ticking down the miles which made time go faster.
There was a long climb up Titsey Hill to the final aid station and when I got there I couldn’t quite believe I had just a 10km or so to go. I grabbed more cherry tomatoes and some cheese (!!) and filled my bottle up with tailwind and headed out on my way, a big smile on my face.
Almost immediately I was catching people and running past them. There was a downhill on a road where I ran past a good 5-6 people which gave me a bit of a boost. We went into the woods then began climbing up the last real hill at the side of a field. Then across the top of the fields – another of those paths I hate where it is ridiculously narrow but at least the view was great.
I came out onto the top where I knew I just had a few more fields to run through, just a few miles to go. And then I missed a turning. I came to the end of the field having not seen a runner or any markings in a while and realised the path had ended. This couldn’t be the North Downs Way. But where was it?! I turned in circles for a bit, getting stressed, and then saw, in the distance, a little stream of runners turning right and running down the field.
I cursed and headed back to join them. I had gone through a kissing gate missing a right turn. It was well signposted, I had just not seen it, entirely my fault. I only ran an extra half mile or so but that is a long way when (1) you’ve already run 48 miles and (2) you’re running very slowly!
I started overtaking all the people I’d already passed again and still the fields went on as my watch ticked over 50 miles. When would we turn off the North Downs Way?! I asked a lady I passed if she knew how much farther it would be, and she told me that when you see the finish line, you still have a mile to run. As she said this, we passed through a gate and she pointed to the left – there was the finish! I looked at my watch. 10 hours 50. A 10 minute mile would bring me in under 11 hours. Could I do it?
I picked up speed as I came out of the field and on to the road. I glanced at my watch and I was running a 9min mile! I ran past a couple I had seen many times during the day and we ran in together to try to get under 11 hours. You had to run up a hill at the end! So the only hill I actually ran up was after running almost 52 miles….
I heard mum cheering for me and lots of clapping and then I crossed the line. I had done it! 10 hours, 59minutes and 30 seconds.
I couldn’t quite believe (still can’t) that I had run over 50 miles and for 11 hours. I had a few pictures taken, spoke to my sister on Facetime and drank a cup of tea. I felt quite delirious with happiness as I cheered in the other runners, many of whom I had seen many times during the day. I took my socks and shoes off gingerly but was amazed to discover NO BLISTERS!!! After 15 minutes or so we went to a pub in Orpington for dinner and then made it to the train for the 30 minute journey back to Brixton.
By this stage my legs were seizing up and I was in pain. Walking up the stairs to my bedroom was so hard. And all night, every time I rolled over I woke up because my lower body hurt so much. But the next day was better, and by Monday I barely hurt at all. It took less time to recover from in terms of pain than when I’ve run a marathon!
I still haven’t run – I got back in the pool and had a lovely 20 minute swim on Wednesday but that is all I’ve done. But from the beginning I was itching to get back to it. I thought I might finish and never want to run again but I didn’t even feel that in the slightest. I immediately wanted to do another one!
The race was brilliant. With the exception of maybe one hour, 90 minutes, I loved it. It was not as hard as I had been expecting, not as painful as I thought it would be. It’s amazing what your body can do! So that’s it – I’m an ultra runner 😀