The Day I Became an Ultrarunner

It was 4.20am when my alarm went off on Saturday. I felt sick. 10 minutes later, our temporary-static-home-by-the-sea started to creek as the 5 of us stirred. Today was the day we would be attempting to run the 36 miles of the St Begas Ultra. And I was terrified.

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It had taken us 9 hours to drive from London to St Bees, the North West Cumbrian coast, the day before (an event in itself when you have an Alex in the car) but we arrived in good time to relax in our caravan (yes caravan) which was located a few minutes away from where the race would finish the next day.

There were 10 of us in total, but for Frankie, Alex, Dale & myself it would be the first time we’d ever ventured more than 26.2 miles in our trainers.  It was pretty tense.  Alex handled the pressure well…

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I hadn’t quite got my head around the concept of running 36 miles, it didn’t really make any sense to me. How far was 36 miles exactly? All I really knew was that it was a bloody long way, it was off road, and it was hilly.  I wasn’t sure if I could do it, I wasn’t sure why anyone would even want to do it.

In all honesty I think I had my head in the sand for most of the summer, I tried not to think too much about it.  I trained as usual, putting in the miles, but I wasn’t convinced it was enough.  I struggled through my long runs more than I usually would and I had a heavy sense of foreboding that was difficult to shake.

I just didn’t know what I was doing.  How do you prepare yourself for that kind of distance? I didn’t really know, especially when it was a trail race.  Did I mention that I’m not good at trail running?!  You may be wondering why the hell I signed up for such I challenge. I don’t really know that either. I didn’t really know a lot.  But here I was, embarking on a challenge that genuinely terrified me to the core because some sick, twisted part of me really wanted to do it.  I wanted to be an ultrarunner.

Sensible race prep in a windy St Bees the night before

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Last Christmas, my friend Chris generously offered to run the race with me and pace me to the finish.  He made me a pinky promise.  This was a wonderful offer, with Chris by my side my chances of survival would double.  But it also worried me.  Chris is the ultimate ultrarunner, and he’s bloody good at it.

Amongst other crazy things, he’s spent 24 hours running round a 400m athletic track (over 100 miles) and, just recently, he came 13th in the 120 mile, 6 day Transrockies Run in the States. He’s pretty hardcore. And I am not.

I was hugely grateful for Chris’s offer, but I didn’t think I could take him up on it.  If he was willing to give up his own race to run with me then I risked letting him down, as well as myself.  I wasn’t sure what he expected from me – there was a real chance I wouldn’t even make the finish line.  Without me dragging him down he could have a really good run, and that thought really bothered me.

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As time went on, Chris continued to insist he wanted to be a part of my race and I became more mentally reliant on having him there.  There were so, so many things I was worried about, but those worries would be halved if I wasn’t alone.  My biggest worry was getting helplessly lost at 30 miles, but with Chris’s experience we’d never get lost, right?!

At around 5am we headed to the neighbouring caravan, where the others were staying, for breakfast. It was the middle of the sodding night and I was trying to force feed myself porridge, not ideal. Registration closed promptly at 6 so we headed down to race HQ to sign away our lives on the waiver and get our long list of mandatory kit approved.

SBU35 (annoying named as it’s actually 36 miles!),  is a point to point race that starts at Bass Lake, near Keswick, and follows the route of a legendary Irish princess who travelled between 2 chapels bearing her name (I’m damn sure she didn’t do it on foot though…) Simply, course takes you through the Lake District to St Bees, our little village on the West Coast, but of course it wasn’t that simple.

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On the coach journey to the start Chris and I discussed the plan (err, a plan?) The first thing he made clear was that pace was irrelevant, but we had to keep moving forwards and take advantage of the easy sections when we could. He also gave me 3 rules:

  1. I absolutely had to finish. No matter what.
  2. If anything happened to him, and he couldn’t go on, I had to go on without him (I couldn’t even entertain that one.)
  3. Some standard toilet protocol with a couple of sub-clauses.

The race was completely self-navigating, there would be no course markings at all.  We were each given a 34 page booklet we had to carry with us with a lot of instructions. Russell had done his best explain the route, but it all just blurred into one long, horrifying list of doom.

What I didn’t find out until last weekend was that Chris tends to get lost on every race he does, together with my navigational disabilities it could be a disaster.  Good thing we were all carrying a mandatory compass I didn’t know how to use…

Chasers ready to run…and run…and run…

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After a race briefing, 117 hardy fools were set on our way…we were running an ultramarathon!  The weather was dry, and a little cool, but after the recent bad weather I knew we would be very lucky to make it through the whole day without wind and rain.  I’d have to cross that bridge when I came to it.

We started on an incline which went on much longer than I expected, but the pace was gentle so we chatted away.  As we came to the first decent I encountered the first of many ‘what the hell am I doing?’ moments. It was steep. And slippy.  And I hated it.  I thought it might be the right time to confess to Chris how bad I was at downhill running as he patiently waited for me…

After the nail-biting slip n slide, the rest of the first leg was pretty enjoyable.  It was mostly flat on a mix of footpaths and road and we ran round a beautiful lake which made me feel instantly calm. Apart from a small detour where we ran up a stream (and a grumpy man who followed us and did not see the funny side) , it was a nice run up to check-point 1.

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At the checkpoint we dibbed our dibbers (so they knew we were alive), filled up our water and had a couple of Jelly Babies.  I really struggle to eat on the move but I knew I was going to have to take on a lot more energy if I didn’t want to crash.  I had a gel and some shot bloks and hoped I could avoid real food for a bit longer.

A couple of miles after we left the CP, things took a turn.  We were 13 miles into a 36 mile race and I was struggling mentally, I couldn’t see how I was going to finish.  It was the beginning of my first dark time and it would go on a while.

As we approached what would be the longest hill of the day, we spotted Adam and Liz waiting to cheer us on.  As happy as I was to see them, I just couldn’t bring myself to smile, their friendly faces would make me cry and I needed to be strong.

The hill was a beast.  From the bottom, all I could see were brightly coloured lycra-clad runners making their way up a grey mountain.  It was steep, and it went on and on.  We walked up and I focused on putting one foot in front of the other, head down, mostly worrying about what we would face on the decent.  As we started to reach the top the wind started to howl, I could barely hear Chris when he insisted we stop to layer up as the rain came in.  It was getting brutal.

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The ground was that awkward type, large stones everywhere, half hidden in grass, difficult to run on but also not steep enough to justify walking.  We plodded on.  As the decent came into sight my heart dropped, we were basically going down a mountain.  This was no longer trail running, it was fell.

The wind and rain whipped us from all angles as we (well, I, Chris could run)  scrambled and slid down the wet stones, climbing over rocks and slipping over.  I made slow progress. Obvs.

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This was my lowest point.  Not only did I find it really hard, but I felt awful for making Chris go so slowly when the weather was so fierce, I couldn’t wait to get to the bottom.  Russell estimated I’d finish between 8-9 hours but, after clocking a depressing 31 minute mile I was pretty sure I’d be a lot slower than that.  Perhaps my first introduction to fell running shouldn’t have been in the middle of my first ultra.

When we had finally weaved our way down, the wind dropped and the next 4 miles were on solid, flat ground all the way to CP2.  By this point we were on around 21 miles, I’d found my confidence again, and I didn’t feel too bad.  I had half a jam sandwich (why not?!) and a lucozade and we were on our way again.

After a couple of miles we reached another lake and there were some more flat sections we tried to make up some time on, but it wasn’t long before we were climbing again.  By this point we were over 25 miles and it was the start of another dark time.  I had some sugar, put my head down and concentrated on following Chris as he navigated us along the paths.

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I didn’t feel good.  I felt weak, tired, and emotionally unstable.  There was still such a long way to go and I knew there’d be another steep section coming up soon.  We plodded on.  I didn’t have much chat, I just tried to hold it together and not look at my watch every few minutes.

The scenery was beautiful, it really was, but it was difficult to appreciate.  The miles ticked by until we faced our last big hill, a very steep path through the forest.  It was tough, but I didn’t really mind, as we walked up we were inching ever closer to the final CP.  At the top, the path levelled out to a grassy section that was very boggy, one wrong move and you lost half a leg in the mud (Frankie actually fell into a bog up to her thighs and had to be rescued by Russell, there are no words to explain how gutted I am he didn’t take a photo!)

The downhill was steep, but grassy, I don’t remember it being awful but nothing could be as awful as the previous decent!  A short while later we reached CP3 and I had a piece of homemade flapjack and some sweets, sugar was the answer to everything at this point!  The marshals were brilliant, checking we were OK, filling up our water and sending us on our way.

I left in high spirits, 32.5 miles down and only 4.3 to go! I knew we’d be nearer 37 but I didn’t care, I just wanted to get to the finish.  My high spirits were short lived, after plodding along a lane (still running I might add!) we turned into some fields which forced us to run on a camber as we seemed to climb over stile after stile.  I was emotionally unstable again and Chris’s jokes weren’t funny.  I could see the school where the finish was but it wasn’t getting any closer.

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Eventually we reached the last field and the finish line was about 400m away.  I could spot Adam in the distance and, as we got closer, I could hear people cheering loudly and realised it was all my friends, I hadn’t expected them to all be there waiting.  As if I wasn’t emotional enough at the end, coming home to everyone cheering the only way Chasers know how pushed me over the edge.

After 8 hours, 36 minutes & 21 seconds covering a tough 36.8 miles, I had just become an ultrarunner and I was completely overwhelmed!

Photo: Sarah Peck

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In absolute bits, I have never been happier to see these guys and I was so pleased everyone had finished in one piece.  Not only that, but Alex had only gone and come 2nd in his first ever ultra, James had come 7th and Cat was 3rd lady. Everyone else had done really well and Frankie was also over the moon to join the ultra club after being paced by Russell (if finishing a little muddy…)

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The crew.  Sorry Frankie (she’s the one with the LAD pose), it’s the only finishers photo I have!

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The SBU35 was the hardest thing I’ve ever done.  It tested me in ways I’ve never been tested before and I honestly couldn’t have got through it without Chris.  He was more than just a pacer, he was a navigator, counsellor, comedian and morale booster, without him I would have gotten terribly lost, walked a lot more and broken down.  I most certainly would not have finished in little over 8.5 hours (which put us 60th out of 109 finishers!).  Thanks Chris, you were an absolute rock.

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The next day we went for a little walk on the beach, found some fish and chips and Frankie, Lorraine and I spent the rest of the day in the pub.  Not Alex and Russell though, no, they went and climbed Scafell Pike with Adam and Liz, what else would they do after running 37 miles?!

This is my friend Alex.  He had a few drinks on Friday. Came 2nd in his first ever ultramarathon on Saturday. Had a few more drinks. Then climbed Scafell Pike on Sunday. In his pants.

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11 thoughts on “The Day I Became an Ultrarunner

  1. This is insane, congratulations! I can’t even imagine running an ultra at this stage, although it is a dream of mine! It’s such a beautiful corner of the world you were running in, but as you said you were probably in too much pain/anguish to appreciate it properly!

    1. Thank you, I couldn’t imagine it either until very recently, I didn’t think I had it in me. I would definitely recommend it, it’s such a different experience from other races so you can definitely do it!

      1. I really want to do an ultra- but first I have to get a half, and a full marathon out of the way. And I’m injured, which has really thrown a spanner in the works! I just re-read this and realised you’re a Chaser! I almost joined the Chasers but in the end went with a different club simply because of my schedule.

  2. Very well done! I’m not terribly good at any off-road running so the thought of taking on something like this would fill me with fear. So impressed you were able to overcome all the dark places and finish.

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