With only 4 weeks to go until my first ultramarathon it’s probably an appropriate time to panic. Since the London Marathon (over 3 months ago) I have only managed 3 runs over 13 miles with the longest at 17…and they were all on the road. Ideal prep for a 36 mile off road ultra, right?!
Yesterday was the Vanguard Way Marathon, an out and back trail route in Surrey from Lloyd Park to Limpsfield. I realised this would be an ideal opportunity to get some more trail experience and force myself to cover a good distance so, somewhat reluctantly, I signed up a few days before.
I was quite apprehensive about the distance, 26.2 miles is a long way and I had only run up to 17 in recent weeks, could I actually cover that distance? After a very restless night, we were on our way to Lloyd Park where I would attempt marathon #10 and my first ever trail marathon…
Bryn (enjoying a day out with the ladies) me, Daisie (who was on her 2nd marathon of the weekend), Jasmine, Cat & Frankie
It was a small field of around 100 people so registration was simple and we were on our way pretty swiftly. Luckily for me, Jasmine had made a last minute decision to join us and, as she’s preparing for the NDW100 next week (errr, yep, that’s a 100 mile run along the North Downs Way) she was happy to take it easy and we agreed to run together. This was the very best thing that could have happened!
Bryn, Cat & Frankie were planning to run together but there was no chance I could keep up with them so I had assumed I’d be running alone. I had also (wrongly) assumed that, as an out and back course, it would be pretty straightforward. The race organisers had posted a map but, as I was unfamiliar with the area, it just looked like a map that went through some green areas. Relying on course markings, I didn’t pay much attention to the map or the 5 pages of instructions they gave out.
We took a wrong turn early, there were at least 15 of us at this point, but we knew we were off course. After talking to some locals we eventually found a marshal and were back on track. The route was pretty, we headed through shaded woods, along gravelly paths, up hills, down (some very steep!) hills, over turnstiles and through fields, including a field full of bulls. Kinda wished my hydration pack didn’t have any red on it…although maybe being charged at by a bull was a legit reason for a DNF…
This hill was a lot steeper than it looks!
It was quite challenging, the sun was very warm and it was tough. We took it easy and walked a lot of the hills but I found it quite hard to get into a rhythm. By mile 11 I wasn’t sure how I was going to get through at all. Having Jasmine with me was a huge comfort. She’s an experienced trail runner, tough as nails and familiar with some of the route, I honestly think I would have given up and turned around if she wasn’t there and I most definitely would have got hideously lost.
We reached the turnaround with 13.7 miles on the clock, this would mean we could reach 27.2 miles before the finish line, not what I wanted to know!
Unsurprisingly, I felt mentally stronger on the way back but the miles were ticking by slowly. The steep downhills on the way out needed to be tackled the other way and it was a tough climb! Jasmine started to bribe me with sweets… ‘let’s just get to the top and we can stop for a drink and some sweets’, it worked and Shot Bloks never tasted so good!
Plodding along, we adopted a ‘little old lady jog’ approach which was better than walking but sounded very gentle and easy, it was all a mental game by this point! It wasn’t until around 26 miles that we weren’t sure where to go anymore, there were no course markings and the instructions weren’t helpful. I didn’t really know how far away we were from the finish but I just wanted to get back to Lloyd Park. A local pointed us the right way and I didn’t even care if we were off course, we just ran in that direction.
Eventually, after wasting about 10 minutes, we saw the finish and ran straight for it. We accidentally took a short cut across the field but I was way over 26.2 so I didn’t care. Grabbing Jas’s hand we went for the finish into the cheers of the others.
26.6 miles and 4,439ft of elevation gain, first trail marathon, DONE! Thanks Jas!
The point of this run was to give me some confidence ahead of SBU, some more experience on the trails and to learn a little something. So, what did I learn?
- Do not worry about the time on your watch
- Be prepared to get lost
- Getting stressed when lost does not help the situation
- Be prepared to run further than the race distance (due to point above…)
- Talk to other runners, trail runners are friendly folk!
- But trust no one…make your own decisions & don’t rely on others to guide the way
- Take lots of sweeties – ideally plan ahead and place sweets at the top of hills, but this may not be practical…
- It’s absolutely fine to walk the hills
- It’s absolutely fine to be a little scared in a field full of bulls
- Look forward to the aid stations, they have smiley people and sugar and Quavers and cola
- Having a friend by your side is one of the most valuable pieces of kit you can take
- Do NOT worry about the time on your watch
- Do NOT give up
- Give your all on the sprint finish – people will be watching you!
- Do NOT give a s**t about your finish time, it’s pretty much irrelevant
- Going to the pub after makes everything OK again
It’s less than 4 weeks until the SBU35 and I either become an ultrarunner, or crash & burn on the trails of the Lake District. It’s OK to be petrified.
The Vanguard Way Marathon is not only a lovely, scenic run with friendly marshals, but an absolute bargain at £20 with a medal and technical t-shirt at the end – I would definitely recommend it if you like a bit of off-road hilliness!