I’m an ultra runner… There, it’s said. Not a very good one, and certainly not going to be a regular one, but the Canterbury Trails ultra marathon is in the bag, and it was, without doubt, the hardest physical and mental challenge I’ve ever taken on.
Ultra runners are a mad breed. Ultra running is a crazy thing to do for mere mortals like myself. My feet, right knee, hips and back/shoulders may never forgive me…
However, when I think back to the beginning of the journey, starting with my brother Nick, we’ve come a long way since then. Both Nick and I had only ever run one marathon before signing up for the ultra. And it wasn’t a particularly comfortable one. Plus it was two years prior. My second longest ever run was 17.5 miles. A 67-mile ultra was probably as far out of our comfort zone as possible.
So, why on earth did we do it? Our ‘why’ was strong. We wanted to raise as much money as possible for Myeloma UK, a blood cancer charity, following our Dad’s diagnosis.
It’s worthwhile to point out here that I was under no illusion how difficult an ultra marathon would be. In hindsight, however, I wish we signed up to, say, a 50k ultra, instead of a 67-miler.
Especially as running doesn’t come naturally to me, either. I don’t really ‘enjoy’ running, and never have done. Although my relationship with running has changed for the better since we began training 8 months ago.
So, fast-forward 8 months and after all the training, which, without doubt, wasn’t enough, Nick, James (a regular ultra runner and our running coach/cousin) I – I’ll call us the Three Musketeers – were standing at the start line at Southwark Cathedral in London at 7:30am, about to begin a very long adventure.
When we finally finished at 2:50am on Sunday morning, 67 long, hard miles later, I couldn’t even think about being proud or celebrating. My overwhelming feeling was utter relief it’s over.
The race day
It wasn’t all bad, though. In fact, 36 miles of it was excellent, barring the torrential rain from the very start. The miles were coming down nicely and we were ahead of time. Knee pain started to kick like a horse shortly after, with my right knee (IT band) becoming fairly immobile and extremely painful, especially on downhill sections or at steps. There were only 27 miles still to go…
Knee pain wasn’t the only problem plaguing us. The horrendous rain has soaked us from the start and, of course, all long distance runners will know that with rain comes chafe and blisters. Needless to say, we were all suffering and each step felt like stepping on razor blades.
We plugged on, making slow progress, marching towards the finish line. It seems like in ultra running, at that stage of the race, everyone is in the same boat – a slight consolation. We overtook a few, picked up a straggler who was considering dropping out, and didn’t really see anyone else – neither overtaking nor being overtaken in the final 10 miles.
Those final 10 miles felt like 1000. It was pitch black. We were marching through the middle of nowhere. We were too tired to talk. And we have a huge climb around 62 miles in to tackle. The final 6.2 miles of the marathon gets talked about a lot. But I can confirm it’s nothing compared to the final section of an ultra. I’d retreated into the darkest corners of my mind at this stage to get through it. The following day we all laughed about it but at the time, I couldn’t focus on anything else apart from putting my right foot in front of my left and vice versa. I bizarrely couldn’t listen to music, struggled to get food down, and didn’t want to converse.
As we got within the final 10 miles, it was at that stage Nick’s morale began to drop as the monotonous walking started to really take its toll on his body. He began dropping behind, and then slowly running to catch up in a bid to change pressure points on his feet. It was silent from all. James had his headphones in (because we’d gone silent), I was in my own little headspace muttering ‘it’s just pain’, and Nick was about 20 steps behind, obsessing over the route tracker to see where other runners were behind and in front of us. We probably looked like a sorry bunch. Just three silent head torches moving slowly through the night.
In my mind, I was actually getting better at this stage. I knew that every step was one closer to the finish and the pain had plateaued. I was almost numb mentally and physically by then. My feet had gone numb, and my knee was only truly painful on uphills and downhills.
However, the last few miles were summed up nicely when I stepped into a massive pothole full of water. Brilliant. Soaking feet once more for the final few miles.
And then we were out of the darkness of the national park, cresting the hill, with Canterbury finally in our sights. As we neared the finish line, another runner pulled up in the broom car, having abandoned the race after 50 miles. Another indication of the difficulty of ultra running. As we crossed the line, we didn’t realise quite how tough the race conditions had been. Of the 232 registered to start the race, less than half finished. With a time of 19 hours, we finished in the top 100.
I want to say a massive thank you to everyone who donated to the cause, it means the world, and to all our supporters who followed us from pit stop 2 (marathon distance) onwards. And, finally, massive congrats to my two running partners Nick Smith and James Randall. Warriors. We didn’t speak a lot in the last 10 miles due to pain and exhaustion but I wouldn’t have wanted to cross the finish line with anyone else.
It’s been a long journey, 8 months of training constantly pushing me out of my comfort zone, trying to navigate working and parent life, and in all honestly, I’m glad it’s now over and I can relax from the thought of having to run a training marathon next weekend…
What have I learnt during the experience?
Ultras are not a physical challenge. They are a physical AND mental challenge, unlike anything you’ll have experienced before. Mindset is critical, no matter how fit you are and how much training you’ve done. When you are covering that much distance, it really, really hurts and you’ll get serious dips.
To be truly ready for an ultra, it’s a lifestyle sacrifice. Serious ultra runners do a lot of running at anti-social hours, especially if they have a family, and the running tends to dominate weekends. I feel I did as much as I could do, which still wasn’t remotely near enough. But trying to run a 20-mile training run on your own, and then get back home and live a ‘normal’ weekend, looking after my daughter and being a husband, is difficult. I was often exhausted.
Equally, running long distances before work and then working late into the evening is also difficult. So, my point is, it consumes you. If you decide to do an ultra, especially one of that distance (100k plus), then just be aware of the amount of time and dedication you’ll need to put into the training.
The training also lasts a long time. When doing the marathon, the race was always in sight, starting training 3 months out. The ultra training plan began 8 months out, which is a very long time to maintain motivation and the time investment. I think my wife Nicola, in fact, found this harder than I did. But I needed to get her buy-in for my reasons to do the ultra.
And that brings me on to my last learning – have a strong reason ‘why’. Because when the going gets tough, you need to cling to it with everything you’ve got.
At no stage during the race did I think ‘I can’t do this’. And that’s because I’d already told myself I would have to get carried off in an ambulance to not make that finishing line. We were running to raise awareness for blood cancer and support our Dad and there was absolutely no way we weren’t completing it.
Speaking to Nick after the race and reflecting on the journey, he added the last point which is he found it very taxing on his immune system – long distance running can make you run down and the physical exhaustion can lead to increased amounts of illness. So keep that in mind. Look after yourself.
What are the best things about doing an ultra?
- It’s one of most challenging physical and mental things you could ever take on, so if you really want to test yourself, or are looking for a big charity challenge, then it certainly ticks the box
- The ultra running community is an interesting and friendly one, you’ll get a wide mix of people who want to smash the time and those who walk the entire distance
- It’s empowering and you see lots more of the great outdoors
- You develop a different relationship with running – it’s slower / don’t need to run an intense 5 or 10k each time
Why wouldn’t you do an ultra?
I think it’s important to highlight the negative elements of ultra running, so you know what you’re getting in to.
- It’s an often lonely experience, very different from a mass participation event like a marathon – no fans, spells without seeing other runners, etc
- The training requires a long time investment and a lifestyle sacrifice
- It’s physically very demanding, it takes its toll on the body
- It’s quite expensive when you add up all the gear required
So that’s my ultra running journey over. If you want to listen to our experiences over the last 8 months, check out our Ultra Running Diaries podcast series here. You can also watch our route below.
All I’m left to say is we did it, it was brutal, but we raised a lot of money for our Dad – thanks to all our supporters, and it’ll certainly be something I’ll never forget. It was all for the fight against blood cancer and seeing Dad at the finish line in his Myeloma UK top waiting for us to come in will be a memory I will never forget.