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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Vanguard Way Marathon: Just a training run

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

Clapham Chasers

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!

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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!

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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!

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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.

Vanguard Way Marathon Finish

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!

Thunder Run: All day, all night…

It was around 1.30am on Sunday morning when I was running through the woods with only my head torch to light the way, jumping over tree routes and skidding in the mud, that I wasn’t sure if I understood myself anymore.  Trying not to think about what was lurking in the bushes, or if I was going to knock myself out by running into a tree, I realised this was a new level of crazy.  This weekend I both loved and hated running in equal measures.

On Friday night I met 15 Chasers in Clapham Junction to jump on a minibus to Derbyshire.  This weekend we were taking 4 teams to Thunder Run, a 24 hour off-road relay on a 10k loop.  The first challenge was to get everyone and everything on the minibus…with 16 seats, 16 people and 16 people’s camping stuff, it was a bit of a jigsaw.

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It had been absolutely chucking it down all day, with no signs of it stopping, so we were in for a soggy and muddy night.  However, no amount of rain can ever dampen the Chaser spirit so we cracked open the M&S G&Ts and turned up the music.  As our driver took us on the most convoluted way out of London, and refused to go above 55 on the motorway (Gemma & Martin had to swap seats so Martin didn’t kill him…), we realised we wouldn’t be arriving until quite late.  But it was OK, because I was sat next to a drunk Frankie and we were singing along to Oasis at top volume.  There would be no sleeping on the party bus!

We arrived at  the campsite in Catton Park at around 11pm.  It was dark, raining, and we (OK, some of us) were a little drunk.  Ross took charge and found us a place to pitch up, we didn’t really know where we were but it would have to do.  Thanks to help from Barry and Paul, I eventually got my tent up and it was time to bed down for a cold and uncomfortable night just after midnight.

The next morning brought sunshine, friendly people and tired, but excited Chasers.  We put our flags up, got Ingrid ready for support duties, and checked out the campsite.  Somehow we had managed to secure an ideal camping spot, we were a short walk from everything we needed and were directly on the race route just after the 2k marker, perfect!

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We had 2 teams of 5, Frankie & the Clap Claps (going for the win) and the Clapham Beasts, a team of 6, Frenchie’s Midnight Runners, and a team of 8, Thunder Honks (nobody was up for the solo option…).  I was in a team with Gemma, Barry, Ross, and the 2 Pauls which actually turned out to be an ideal number of people.

Having a schedule was absolutely key – with 6 runners, running day and night, we needed to know when to be ready so we didn’t miss the changeover or have to hang around unnecessarily.  After forecasting everyone’s run time and allowing for the nature of the course, night runs and increasing tiredness, we had a target of 26 laps over 24 hours.  This would mean that the 2 runners who were most up for it at the end would need to run 50k with the others 40k.

The race kicked off at 12 so we all headed down to cheer on the first runners, Paul W was up first for us, before heading back to camp to see them fly past at 2k from our camping spot!

imageBryn was first back off leg 1 and we knew immediately that the course was a lot tougher than any of us had anticipated, made worse by the heavy rain which had left some sections a complete mud bath.  I was on the 3rd leg after Paul G so, as soon as we cheered him past us I started to get ready.  Being located at 2k turned out to be invaluable for forward planning!

The transition area was busy and there was only a short section of 200m where you could see the runners come in so you had to be ready to move quickly.  Paul saw me straight away, he slapped the baton on my wrist and I was off.

The course starts by taking you through the campsite and I ran straight past the Thunder Honks, it was great to get a huge cheer to send me on my way!  The grass path continued out of the camp and turned up a sharp hill into the woods.  It was muddy, narrow, and hilly and my pace dropped as we twisted round the trees.  As the course opened out it became even muddier, really squelchy mud that was impossible to get any grip on, if the whole course was like this I was going to be way off my expected finish time.

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Eventually it became a bit drier and I saw the 2k sign as we turned back into the campsite, I was going to see the Chasers! They spotted me coming before I got there and I could hear the cheers, it was just what I needed!  The first 5k was pretty hideous, tough hills, severe muddy sections and blazing sun, at 5k my watch said 31 minutes, I was on for a huge personal worst in a team event. Brilliant.

We came to another hill which had been sectioned off with chip mats for a sprint competition (probs wouldn’t win that), then headed back into the woods for a windy section round the trees that involved a lot of ankle busting tree roots (ideal).  At 8k we headed downhill onto a firm path that would lead to a lake and back into the campsite for the last kilometre, my favourite bit!  The ground was firm, the support was good and I was relieved the end was near.  Turning the corner I could see the finish and Gemma yelling at me with a big smile, I gave her the baton and wished her luck!

It had taken me 59 sodding minutes to run 10k and there wasn’t a single bit of it I had found easy.  The course was muddy, hilly, technical and uncomfortable, even the flat bits were lumpy underfoot.  I think it’s the toughest 10k course I’ve ever run and all I could think about was how the hell I was going to get round in the pitch black at 1am??? I needed a cuppa tea…

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Back at camp I had to quietly admit my time, there was no hiding it, it needed to go on the spreadsheet of declaration!  It was only 4 minutes off target so it could have been worse, but I couldn’t see myself getting any faster.  I had some food and hung out with a cheerful Ingrid watching everyone run past.

After Gemma and Barry had ran their first legs we were around 10 minutes behind schedule before Ross set off.  Ross is supposed to be taking it easy so, despite being a fast runner, we set him an easy target.  However, Ross being Ross he smashed it 12 minutes quicker than planned and put us straight back on track!  If Ross was going to be quicker than planned, which looked likely, it gave us some flex so we could still hit our target 26 laps even if some of us were struggling to hit the right times.  Phew!

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My 2nd leg was scheduled for 19:10 and we were on target, the changeover was smooth and I was off again.  As I reached the 1k mark I was pleased to find the mud had dried out and I was finding it a lot easier.  The run was much more comfortable, the Chaser cheers were louder and the air was slightly cooler – those hills hadn’t changed though!  I only ran about 30 seconds quicker than the first lap but I wasn’t too worried anymore.

At the end, I took advantage of the hot showers, but the food queues were huge so I just had some snacks before trying to get a couple of hours sleep in my freezing tent.  My night run would start at about 00:45 so Paul W made sure I was awake when he came back of his 3rd leg so I had enough time to get ready.

Heading down to transition I bumped into Diana from the Thunder Honks, they’d had a few drop outs so she was on a night-double, I didn’t envy her but was grateful for the company.  It was evident that other teams were starting to miss their changovers (someone called Ruth was in BIG trouble!), clearly they didn’t have a spreadsheet and a flawless buddy-waking-system!  Through all the head torch’s it’s difficult to see people’s faces but I heard Paul yelling my name and I was off on lap 3.  The night one…

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This was the lap I was really worried about, I couldn’t see a thing other than what the beam from my torch would allow and the cold air had made the grass a little slippy.  I decided to take it steady and just get round.

Running through the woods in the dark was a surreal experience, although there were other runners around, it felt a lot quieter than during the day.  I ran the whole way, quietly cheering the solo runners as I passed, it was actually quite exciting!  There were some sections where I felt completely alone and I wondered if there were any mentalists in the bushes waiting to kill me.  There weren’t.

Somewhere in the windy tree section I heard someone yell ‘Frenchieeeee’ and Martin flew past, it was hugely reassuring to see a friendly face.  Not long after, I heard some music and another call of ‘Frenchieeee’ before Matt flew past me.  I don’t know how either of them recognised me but I was grateful they did, I may have been running through the woods in the dark but I had friends and I was nearly finished!

Running into the finish area I could only see headlights so I yelled GEMMAAAA and was delighted she was there. Job bloody done!  My next run was at 6:40 so I really needed to get some sleep but I was absolutely buzzing, I think I sort of enjoyed it!  I took a cuppa back to my tent, checked that Barry was awake, ‘yeahhh, but I wish I wasn’t’ came the reply, and tried to sleep.

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It was just gone 2am so, if I fell asleep straight away (unlikely), I would have 3 odd hours sleep before the alarm.  I hate running as soon as I wake up, so I wanted to allow some snoozes to wake up gradually.  I’m not sure if my system worked, or I was running off adrenaline, but I somehow managed to to be wide awake and ready for lap 4.

I was tired and my legs were heavy but I knew this would be my last lap so I just wanted to get it done.  As I ran (ran, not walked…) past the Thunder Honks Kevin yelled ‘come on Frenchie, it’s called Thunder Run not Thunder Walk!’, so I swore at the cheeky git.  The kilometres rolled by but the hills were killing me so I walked a couple of them and hoped I didn’t get spotted by another Chaser (especially Kev!)

The thing I found most difficult about this run was that I was running on empty, I’d had a few snacks after the 2nd lap and a handful of pretzels after the 3rd, but it wasn’t enough.  Drained and tired, I pushed through the last km, Martin flew past again yelling some encouragement and I crossed the finish line and into the face of a smiley Gemma for the last time.  40k. I was done!

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I had a shower, got some proper food and a cuppa and settled down to enjoy the rest of the race.  We were running about 10 minutes behind schedule by this point but only Paul G was up for a 5th lap so we were happy to call it quits at 25 laps (or so I thought!)

It started to rain.  It was chilly and miserable and the rain got harder and harder, everyone was tired and achey and really not looking forward to their last laps.  I have huge respect to everyone who was knocking out their 5th, 6th and even 7th laps!  Collectively we agreed it had been a great experience but we had done it now and wouldn’t be back next year.

After Paul passed the tents we headed down to the finish to welcome him home and go to the bar!  Paul W and I waited at the finish for Paul G to come home but we didn’t know where the others were.  With around 23:48 on the clock, a very muddy Paul rounded the corner and came into the finish.  25 laps done, we had finished!!!

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We waited for the others to finish their final laps, Katie, Gemma and Frankie were still out on the course.  Frankie & the Clap Claps were on for the mixed team win so it would be a big moment for them, as Frankie came in Martin and Alex jumped over to run the final stretch with her – WINNERS!!!

We all headed to the bar for some much deserved beer/cider…in the rain…and the cold.  People were still coming into the finish and I happened to turn around and saw someone coming into the finish line that I recognised…  It was Barry.  What? Barrry? Barry’s running?  BAARRRRRYYYYY!!!  And there was our final team member coming into the soaking wet finish to bring us up to 26 laps and hit our goal, and we didn’t even know!  I was completely gutted to have nearly missed him, I genuinely had no idea.  Baz was the star of the team!

Exhausted, happy, and a little emotional. 6 people. 24 hours. 26 laps. 260k. Thunder Run done!

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The presentation ceremony wasn’t happening until 2 so we killed some time at the bar as everyone around us disappeared, I think it was only the winners that were actually left by this point.

Frankie & the Clap Claps.  33 laps, 330k.  Team of 5, mixed WINNNNERRRRSSSSSS

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Back on the soggy minibus everyone fell asleep, we were completely shattered, but when I got home it wasn’t long before the group messages started.  Maybe we should do it again…maybe we should be more prepared…maybe Thunder Run 2016 is on!

They say:

Thunder Run will test your tactics, endurance, speed and team work. It’s an exhilarating, rewarding and tiring race with a great atmosphere. You’ll find TR24 physically challenging and mentally tough but an experience not to be missed.

I say, that’s bang on.  I didn’t think it would make much difference who you were in a team with, but that wasn’t the case at all.  You need to be with people who have the same expectations and are willing to work together.  We knew we weren’t going to win, but we had a goal, we took it seriously, planned ahead and looked after each other, it resulted in a goal well and truly achieved and a successful weekend.

Thanks to the most fantastic teammates, especially Paul and Barry who willingly took on an additional lap in torrential rain, and thanks to all the Chasers for another epic weekend!

Pretty much all the photos courtesy of Ross McLeod and Gemma Brierley (thanks!)

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Taking the Plunge: An Ultramarathon

One cold November night in the pub my friend Frankie casually announced she wanted to up her game and run an ultra.  The ultra in question is the UKanTrail St Begas Ultra (SBU35) a 36 mile off-road run round the Lake District, selected on the basis they gave you beer at the end…

Feeling slightly fuzzy a few pints of cider later I, of course, thought it would be an absolutely awesome idea to spend a weekend up in the Lake District running the furthest distance ever in my life…off-road…and piped up that I would love to do it too!  So, after putting off the commitment for a couple of months, this week I finally took the plunge and signed up.  Yes, I have signed up to run an ultra.

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The SBU35 was apparently designed with new ultra runners in mind and they say it’s ‘as tough as you want it’.  Following the route of a legendary Irish princess between 2 chapels, it starts at Bass Lake and finishes (36 little miles later) in the West Coast village of St Bees.  Stunning views have been promised!

I’ve got several friends who frequently participate in ultras and they’ve often tried to convince me that it’s actually easier than running a marathon…and the more marathons I run, the more this seems plausible.  Constantly chasing a marathon PB is a physical and mental battle that leaves you frustrated, disappointed and a little bit broken.  With an ultra there’s no expectation – what’s a good time for a 36 mile off road race? Does anyone know?  Just getting to the finish line would be a pretty awesome achievement, right?!

I’m aware 36 miles is a long way and will require some hefty training but, assuming all is well, I will come out of Spring marathon-fit after doing the double in Brighton and London and I aim to keep that fitness through the summer.  Cat tells me the best thing about ultras (apart from the cake) is that it’s totally acceptable to walk sections of it, so I don’t need to be able to run 36 miles non-stop, I just need to be able to keep moving forwards.

I have no idea what’s in store for this one, has my head finally agreed to something my body just won’t do? Looks like I’ll find out soon. Errrr, cheers Frankie!

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So this is Christmas…what have you done?

I’ve been mostly unimpressed with my running performance this year.  2014 was not the year of PB’s that I was hoping for and it’s been frustrating, challenging and exhausting trying to make it so.  But, hey, life is full of ups and downs and you just have to roll with it right?

The one thing I’ve learned is that the Chasers won’t let me give up on myself even if I do and if it wasn’t for them I probably would have hung up my trainers by now, succumbing to a life of excessive chocolate and cheese, drowning my sorrows and wondering how I got so fat…

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With that in mind, one of my New Years Resolutions is to offer the strength people have given me this year to others, because that’s what being a Chaser is all about.

But…2014 hasn’t been all bad and there have definitely been some highlights!

1. Representing at the South of England Road Relay Championships

That’s right, me, the girl who came last in cross country at school represented her club in the SEAA Road Relay Championships…and I did not come last!

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2. Rome Marathon

OK, so the Romans couldn’t organise a p**s up in a brewery (literally, when Ruth and I asked for a ‘nice glass of red’ they brought us some kind of shot, then when we asked for a glass of wine they simply poured said shot into a wine glass…) but they sure as hell can build a City.

Rome is quite simply stunning and possibly the most beautiful city I’ve ever been to and I got to soak up two and a half thousands of years worth of history in the best way possible – by running round it.

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3. A Running First

Flying high on post marathon endorphins and frustrated with my Rome performance I immediately entered the Manchester Marathon and ran it 2 weeks later.  I still didn’t get the time I was after but I did run it 10 minutes quicker and realised that I was capable of more than I ever thought possible.

I swore I’d never run 2 marathons in 2 weeks ever again but I’m already gearing up for another double this Spring…

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4. Green Belt Relay

Most people actively avoid the M25 at the best of times but some of my favourite memories this year are from one sunny weekend where 33 of us spent a solid 2 days driving/running around it.

Teams of 11 running 220 miles over 22 stages, navigational challenges, burning sun, a night in Essex still in sweaty running gear and a broken minibus (somewhat) affectionately named Phoenix.  Yep, Green Belt was bloody brilliant!

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5. Amsterdam Marathon

This was the most difficult and challenging run of my life but I crossed that finish line.  Amsterdam was my 4th marathon in a 12 month period and I think I finally understood that running 26.2 miles is quite hard work and a pretty big achievement.  Yes, it was my slowest marathon by a long way but that does not make me a bad runner, a bad runner is one who gives up when the going gets tough.

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6. Trail running in Gower 

Thanks to Cat I finally had the courage to enter my first event in the Coastal Trail Series.  Gower saw me scramble my way round 13/14 tough, hilly and beautiful offroad miles in the Welsh countryside and I (think) I loved it.

Trail running is quite new to me but it’s definitely something I plan to do more of next year, especially if it involves a weekend away with the Chasers (and wine…there’ll be wine right?!)

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2014 has challenged me in new ways and I’ve pushed boundaries that I wouldn’t have even considered before.  I hope you have as many awesome running memories as me!

Merry Christmas to all and to all a goodnight x

3 Molehills & a Bit of a Swim

The weather forecast was grim.  Unfortunately, it was also entirely accurate and we were about to take on a muddy 3-person relay event…as solo runners.  Because we don’t believe in taking the easy option.

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The 3 Molehills is a race that takes in the three hills of Moles Valley – Box Hill, Norbury Park & Ranmore.  Each leg starts and finishes at Denbies Wine Estate in Dorking and you can either run as a relay team, or all by yourself if you haven’t got any friends.  Turns out I haven’t got any friends so I was in for the solo, all 14.25 muddy, hilly miles of it.

When we arrived at Denbies on Sunday morning it was pouring with rain, soggy, muddy, cold and just a bit miserable.  Why wasn’t I still in bed?

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Denbies had opened up early for us which gave us a warm, dry place to get ready with proper cups of tea and real life proper toilets (a runners dream!). Frankie and I met up with some other Chasers and set up base on one of the tables.

Whilst Ross tucked into a pile of sandwiches (breakfast…I have no idea how he can eat so closely to running?!) we discussed the benefits of making a pact to sod the run and just tell everyone we had done it anyway – you know, throw some mud around, take a few snaps running around in the rain and then enjoy the rest of the morning having a chat and a nice cuppa….

Then we remembered how badass we are and badass runners don’t let the weather get in the way of race day fun.

The before shot…

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There wasn’t any chip timing but, as the race was quite small (141 solo runners and 82 relay teams), it wasn’t a problem.  It took me most of the morning to decide what to wear, trail shoes? road shoes? long sleeves? waterproof jacket? just a vest?, but I was quickly grateful for the waterproof jacket and gloves I settled for, it was the kind of rain that just wasn’t going to stop.

We set off up London Road for about a mile before turning offroad and heading up Box Hill (it was so wet and misty you couldn’t even see the top at this stage).  The route should have taken us across stepping stones over the River Mole but the water had risen so much you couldn’t see them so we were diverted over the bridge.

This then led to the bottom of 270 steps up to the top before a quick turnaround and down the Burford Slope to the bottom.  We were warned it would be very muddy and slippy and I skated around a fair bit whilst managing to stay upright.  The 1st leg should have been 4.5 miles but my Garmin clocked less than 4, this was dubbed the toughest leg so I didn’t mind!

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Back to race HQ and through the handover point we were off on the 2nd leg, Norbury Park.  I think this was my favourite, there was a good mix of road and trail and, whilst the hill was longer, it wasn’t as steep so I managed to keep up a jog for the most part.  At the top there was maybe 1.5 miles on the flat which went down a muddy path and I had a great time running through all the puddles!  I was a bit confused by the man desperately clinging onto the bush at the side of the path to avoid the puddles (maybe this event isn’t for you matey?!) so I powered past and showed him how it was done.

Back into HQ again and nearing 10 miles, I was getting tired.  Little did I know at this point that Si had not only finished the whole thing but he had won the race!

This is Si collecting his winner’s prize whilst I was scrambling up the last hill in the rain trying not to cry.  It’s OK, because Si’s on my team… Well Done!

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The final leg, Ranmore Ramble, was a simple out and back, up and down, on the North Downs Way, it was mostly road with a short muddy stretch near the turnaround.  The most depressing thing was that all the quicker runners were coming past me on the descent and heading to the finish, but it did mean I got to see a lot of friendly faces (especially Frankie…I’m not sure I’ve ever seen her as happy as she was flying down that hill in the freezing rain in shorts…must have been the beer at the finish line…)

I ended up walking more of the hill than I should, it seemed to go on forever even though I knew it was only 2 miles before I got to come back down again.  I enjoyed the decline before heading back to Denbies for the final time to the finish.  It took me 2 hours 35 with 14.25 miles on my watch, not my quickest run but with hills, mud, slippy paths and the non stop rain I’ll take it.  I got my medal and was sent to get my beer and chocolate, just what I wanted to hear!

Back inside (I was the last Chaser to finish by a long way) I realised how cold I was when I couldn’t move my fingers to get my gloves off.  I went to get changed quickly before it got worse and noticed that Denbies had now opened to the public – it was full of little old ladies trying to enjoy a peaceful day at the craft fair – sorry!

….and the after shot, I love these guys!

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The 3 Molehills is a great little race with a good mix of on and off road, amazing views, fresh air, lung busting hills, enjoyable descents and, with a range of distances available, there’s something for everyone.

It was also superbly organised, with plenty of water stations stocked with sweets and Powerbar gels, and some of the friendliest and happiest marshals I’ve ever come across (much appreciated, THANK YOU).  I really felt for them having to stand still in that miserable weather for hours, they must have been colder than us.

Cheers Mole Valley, I might even be up for this one again 🙂

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Running the Trails in Wales

When you’re obligated to carry a list of items including a whistle, foil blanket, windproof jacket and first aid kit on a half marathon you know you could be in for a tough run…

One of my favourite Chasers, Cat, absolutely loves a trail run or 5.  Over the last year she has single handedly driven our running clubs participation in trail running from casual Sunday jaunts along the North Downs Way (if you can count 18 miles of tough running in the rain casual…) to organised events across the country.  One of these events is the Endurance Life Coastal Trail Series (CTS) which, in their own words, promise the most amazing trail runs in the UK, bar none.

No lie – View of the beach at the top of (one of many) hills

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I’ve done a few trail runs but I was generally of the mindset that trail running really wasn’t for me.   You have to run slower, concentrate on what you’re doing, have some kind of technical running ability and the risk of spraining an ankle for a clumsy fool (like me) is pretty high.

Last year, groups of Chasers went on weekends away to pretty much all of the 10 locations on offer and I was more than a little jealous of all the fun they seemed to be having….

So, with Cat and Frankie’s bullying support and encouragement I found myself signing up for CTS Gower this year.  I was sold into a weekend in Wales with all my favourite things – friends, running, stunning views, fresh air, the beach, wine and an after party.  Sounded perfect.

A 6 hour road trip on Friday afternoon left us all pretty tired but, as Sainsburys failed to deliver the food shop (apparently the driver couldn’t be arsed to read a map leaving 16 hungry runners with no dinner or breakfast stuff), we had to head out again to the pub for dinner.

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The CTS offers 4 distances.  10k, Half, Marathon & Ultra but they don’t conform to road distances so all come up on the long side.  I went for the half but a fair few did the Marathon and Cat & Adam (both completely nuts when it comes to running) went for the Ultra (34 miles if you didn’t get lost…)

It was cold and sunny when we got to race HQ, very lucky considering the incessant rain that had hit us all week, and even the night before, and we collected our race numbers before the pre-race briefing.

Each event is graded from 1-5 in terms of difficulty with 5 being ‘extreme’.  Gower is graded 3 (strenuous) with 2,337ft of accent over the 14.4 mile half route so I was expecting some pretty steep hills, technical descents and tricky paths to navigate…

As soon as we started it was clear the course would be muddy and I was expecting the worst.  The route took us along a mix of cliff edges, up and down hills and along sandy beaches, with the recent rain creating some waterlogged areas in places.  A lot of areas were exposed to the wind but with the beautiful weather it actually got quite warm at times.

 

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Starting at the Rhossili Village Hall we ran along the rocky coastline overlooking the sea and started to climb some pretty steep hills, it wasn’t long before everyone slowed to a walk as all you could see was up, up, upness.  Eventually we came to a steep decent of grass, rocks and water from the heavy rain.  I carefully picked my way through the terrain but it was a bit like running through a stream, a slip & slide affair! I was glad to reach the bottom where there was the 1st checkpoint to dib our timing chip and grab some go-faster gummy bears.

We were then taken onto some soft sand that led down to the beach, the sand was much firmer here and it was nice to run a mile or so on the flat by the sea.  The beach was pretty empty, apart from the runners and some surfers, and with the sun shining brightly I think this was my favourite bit and definitely my quickest mile!

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Of course that had to come to an end and we proceeded to climb up and up and up more hills, there may have also been downs but I’m struggling to remember them…

There was mud, wet grass and rocks to navigate and each mile seemed to be getting slower.  We ran past sheep, horses, cows, a sheep’s skull(?!) but not so many other humans, luckily the course was well marked with red chevrons so I wasn’t worried about getting lost.  Unfortunately some wrong-uns took down some arrows on the marathon & ultra course which resulted in extra miles for some but I don’t think it’s a common problem.

I was surprised to see the ‘1 mile to go!’ sign at about 12.2 miles as I thought the course was going to be longer but I was happy to see it!  Through some fields, over some stiles, down a hill and then there was a flat road!  A fair few people were around at this point so I knew we were close to the finish.  I turned back into the field we started in and heard people shouting my name.  Finish line, whhhaaahoooo!

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There were some awesome performances from the team including Hamish winning the marathon and Pete coming 2nd in the half, there were also a lot of top 10 finishes across all distances.  Adam came 11th in the ultra despite adding on 2-3 miles after a wrong turn and Cat finished as 7th female.  I’ve always had a lot of respect for ultra runners but trail ultra runners?  An absolute inspiration!

It’s fair to say the Clapham Chasers dominated in Gower.

As for me?  Well I just about finished in one piece with a smile which is as much as I could of hoped for!

Post race dinner in the local…it went downhill from here

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There are more differences between trail and road running than I gave it credit for – not only is it really, really tough but it uses different muscle groups and skills as well as different etiquette. For me, road running is about speed and chasing PBs, trail running is more about running in the moment and enjoying where you are.  It’s perfectly acceptable to walk and take in the scenery and with views like this how could you not?

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I’m massively grateful to Cat for giving me the confidence and support to give trail running a proper shot as well as teaching me that, it’s not just OK, it’s expected to walk the tough hills!  She’s also promised lung busting trail running will give me gains on the road too and I have no doubt she’s right.

CTS Gower, you may not be for the faint hearted but you more than delivered on all your promises.  Next one?  Game on!

 

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