British Ultra Fest

After a near miss at Run 24 last year, one of my main goals for this year was a sub 24 hour 100. I'd originally planned to take my first shot at the Thames Path 100 at the end of March. However I was nowhere near fit enough and decided to just use it as a training run for the Grand Union Canal Race (GUCR) at the end of May. The weather was horrid and in the end it was a barely sub 27 hour mud slog. So I entered the British Ultra Fest 24 hour track race in August, thinking a track race would be an easy way of nailing it (Ha, Ha, Ha!).

In the meantime I focussed on GUCR, ramping up the milage until I was doing back-to-back long runs of 20 and 30 miles at the weekend. The wheels came off towards the end, but I unexpectedly cruised into the Grand Junction Arms checkpoint at 100 miles with ~23h 10 on the clock. Goal accidentally met, with room to spare! This led to some somewhat overambitious goal inflation: "If I can do 100 miles in just over 23h, on grassy, stoney canal tow-paths, carrying a rucksack, at the start of a nearly 150 mile race, surely I can run at least 105 miles in 24 hours on a smooth flat track with food and drink to hand. Lets aim for 110..."  However as my feet and legs recovered it became clear that I'd done some damage to my right knee. Nothing major, but a niggle which wouldn't go away even with a couple of week rest (from running at least). And then I went to the US for a fortnight's holiday and acquired a couple of kilos of extra weight. Post holiday I ramped up the training, but only as far as 15 and 25 mile back-to-back long runs. The original knee niggle eased, but running through it produced a new one (which is still with me months later...).

In the run up to the race I did my usual google-stalking of the entrants. Usually the goal of this is to find someone who might be slower than me, to assuage my fears of finishing last. But I discovered something surprising. The other 5 women who'd entered weren't any slower than me, but they weren't any faster either and I seemed to have the most experience over 100 miles/24 hours. So (OMFG) I might, for the first time in my life, be the favourite to win something sporty. Provided my knee held up.

I drove down to Radley college the night before the race and pitched my tent, just as it started to rain. The ultra fest had 48 hour and 6 day races as well  (24 hours was the 'fun run'...) . All 3 races were scheduled to finish on Sunday morning, so the 48 hour runners were ~12 hours in and the 6 day-ers on day 5! I ate my favourite pre race foods, cold Dominos pizza and potato wedges (too many it would later transpire) and then tried to sleep. I didn't do too well; the timing mats constantly beeped as runners passed over them, one 6 day runner was singing and a support crew (briefly) turned on a radio. By the morning the rain had eased off, but it was still drizzling. At the race briefing I had the unusual experience of not being one of the least ‘runner-shaped’ people there. And then I had to dash to a portaloo as my digestive system objected vigorously to last night's food.

By 11am it still wasn't warm so I started wearing 3/4 length tights, a t-shirt and sleeves. The tights were at least partly to conceal the taping on my knee. Everyone charged off on the first 400m lap and even running 2:10 I was, I'm fairly sure, almost last. I quickly settled into running 9 2:45 laps followed by one lap walking to eat and drink every half hour, giving me a 5 mph average. I'd been tempted to wear a small rucksack to carry food and drink but this seemed like a really silly idea when supplies would never be more than 10m away. So instead I set up a small table by the back straight with food on and relied on the organisers' water supplies by the start-finish line. Initially this worked fine. I settled into a routine: grab a cup of water, drink it, put cup in bin, pick up an hours worth of food from my table, eat half, carry rest in hand. But as the afternoon wore on the Sun came out and it became very humid. I was struggling to get enough water on board and had to stop and stand by the water table and slam down multiple cups.

With the 48h and 6 day runners also on the track it was a bit chaotic. The race rules said individuals could run or walk in lane 1 and if you wanted to overtake or run/walk side by side you had to move out. However in reality there was no lane discipline. People, in particular some of the 24 hour guys who'd gone out insanely fast (running 3 laps to my 2), were weaving in and out of tiny gaps. I'm amazed no-one, in particular the more ‘out of it' 6 day runners, got knocked over. Initially several of the women lapped me at least once, but it was far too soon to worry about position, especially given my one-speeded-ness.

Early on my knee was unhappy. Occasional twinges became multiple twinges per lap. About 20 miles in I started wondering if I should drop out, however it eased off and I even speeded up a little bit. Initially I thought I’d lost the ability to count when I repeatedly made it 11 laps, rather than 10, per half hour. I took my first look at the leader board 6 hours into the race. I had (as I thought) covered 31 miles and was roughly 2/3rds of the way down the overall field (of 25) but, to my surprise, was leading the women.

The hours passed and I changed my run-walk-eat strategy to walking one and a bit laps per half hour so I could grab a cup of water at the beginning and end of each walk break. About 9 hours in I realised I was going to take a significant chunk off my 50 mile PB (10.22) and could perhaps, if I pushed it, break 10 hours. So I pushed it. The resulting adrenaline rush was fun, but when I crossed the timing mat to see 50 miles for the first time the clock said 10.02 (I later realised, on doing the maths properly, that the 50 mile point would have come close to the start of the lap and therefore, I think, just under the 10 hours).

It was getting dark at this point, so I had my first sit down break, putting on night gear (a long sleeved top and a head-torch), changing to larger shoes and trying to eat something more substantial. Surprisingly, and worryingly, my feet were already developing sore spots on the sides, where my GUCR blisters started. Getting back going was hard and I regretted my (I thought at the time) unsuccessful push for the sub 10 50.

The night passed slowly. Usually I'm surprised at how short the night seems when running through it. But with no navigation and no check-points to focus on, this one dragged. I convinced myself I was cold as an excuse to stop and sit down while putting on a slightly warmer top. At some point, I can't remember when, running 9 laps in a row became a struggle and I switched down to run 4, walk 1.

Watching the 6 day runners and the strategies they were taking was fascinating.  The fastest two guys were consistently banging out 3 min, or faster laps, and only taking very short breaks. Behind them there were very different approaches. Some runners were dragging themselves around the track slowly for 20+ hours a day, while others were almost maintaining a normal sleeping and eating routine,  but running at a decent pace when they were on track. At one point I nearly fell over the feet of a runner who was trying to set a US 6 day record. She wanted to stop and sleep but apparently her support crew wouldn't let her, so she laid down on the track to have a nap, with her feet in lane 2.

It wasn't possible to see the score-board from lane 1, and at this point I was still being good and not stopping to check it. However the lines corresponding to the people who'd crossed the start-finish line in the last couple of seconds were highlighted in blue. And in the 6 hours blocks when we were going anti-clockwise you could see roughly were in the field those people were. After a while I realised that  the blue line corresponding to me had plodded its way up to roughly the top quarter of the field (thanks to most of the speedy men having stopped).

Eventually morning came. Normally the last few hours of an ultra pass fairly quickly even if I'm moving really slowly (I can't believe the last 12 miles of GUCR took me 4 hours, or the last 20 miles of my first 100 nearly 10!). But the last five hours of this felt like the longest five hours of my life. Normally the incentive to keep putting one foot in front of the other is that it makes the finish come faster. But here the finish remained fixed in time. There was the incentive of getting more miles on the board. However while my original 100 mile goal and finishing first woman was, barring disaster, still on, 110 miles definitely wasn't. And (I don't know how much of this was mental rather than physical) running at all became too difficult. My 'not checking the scoreboard' discipline also went to pot. After seeing 83 miles, when I'd expected to see 85 I switched to checking every 4 laps to see if I'd clocked up another mile. Eating had become a struggle, but as I'd consistently got down ~150 calories an hour for nearly 20 hours I wasn't too worried about fuel. There was, however, a large volume of fluid jiggling around in my stomach.

As usual once I switched to straight walking the balls of my feet blistered. I stopped to take some painkillers and promptly vomited a large amount of black fluid all over the edge of the track. I got back going straight away, hoping that no-one had noticed. No such luck. A couple of laps later the Italian who was leading the 24 hour race asked (as he overtook me) whether I was OK. I told him I was feeling better for it, which was sort of true.

With a few hours to go I was in 5th place overall and the bloke in 4th had stopped at 100 miles, and was sitting by the track wearing normal clothes. 4th place overall should have been a nice carrot, but I just couldn't make my legs run. 4th place's support crew cajoled him back onto the track.  6th place (who I'd been evenly matched with all day) was holding it together better than me and leap-frogged me. I went through 100 miles in 22:52 a small PB which I celebrated with a sit down to drain my blisters. I wandered around half-heartedly for the remaining hour, finishing with 103.3 miles (415 laps of the track).

Running on the flat might take less effort than running up hills, but mentally this was probably the hardest running thing I've ever done. In the end I set PBs at 50 and 100 miles as well as 24 hours, and finished 1st woman and 6th overall. But the PBs should have bigger (given how GUCR went) and the placings are a reflection of the (lack of) depth of the field. (At the more competitive Tooting Bec 24 hour track race my distance would've got 4th woman and 18th overall.) On a good day I think I could manage 110 miles, and I will definitely give it another shot next year or the year after. I might even (for the first time ever) find myself a support crew, as I think having someone to hand me drinks etc. and monitor the scoreboard would have made a big difference.