I won a race. I won a race. Holy shit. I won a race.
It’s not that I didn’t have high hopes for my running this year. I did. Ever since I started running ultras in 2013 I have wondered if I couldn’t be doing better than my front 3rd to mid-pack finishes suggest. I have been plagued by injuries caused through over-enthusiasm and training/recovery naivety. Plus my ability to keep eating beyond a few hours has been virtually non-existent. But in the end, a belief that one is capable of more, is just that. A hollow desire if not backed up by proof.
I spent the first 3 months of 2016 and the two months prior suffering from a hip injury, which had first reared its head a few weeks and one 10K PB after the North Downs Way 100. Thanks to my wife’s company’s private insurance, I’d been subjected to some pretty rigorous diagnostic analysis. The prognosis being femoroacetabular impingement. I needed an arthroscopy, but was advised to complete a course of physio prior, which would help build the muscles up prior to the wastage that would occur during the six-week weight-free recovery. But long-story short, the physio was superb and over-delivered. It did enough to remove the pain. Leaving only some occasional but minor discomfort, and I began running again in late March.
I took the next few months very conservatively for fear of irritating the hip, and whilst I experienced a few minor blips, to my absolute joy, I remained injury free.
Originally my A race for 2016 was to be CCC In France. I’d got a place, but had to cancel due to the injury. So I set my sights on the Autumn 100 (Oct), which I felt would give me a comfortable enough buffer to recover some fitness and do justice to the race. So I wanted to run some shorter races that would help build up my fitness gradually, and get some long days in the bank.
I have a real fondness for Britain’s stately homes. So much history and intrigue. Oh, the tales they could tell, eh? More than once, whilst wandering the grounds of somewhere like Blenheim Palace or Highclere, I have caught myself wondering and no doubt bored by wife with questions over whether they’d make a good venue for a looped course ultra. Then one Sunday, whilst whiling away the hours searching for ultras I hadn’t yet discovered. As one does. Over and over again. If you’re anything like me, that bucket list will be nowhere near complete by the time you hang up your running shoes. Anyway, I stumbled across The Grim Reaper. Held in the grounds of beautiful Grimsthorpe castle. There is a 40, 70 and 100 mile option and the course is a ten-mile loop through the estate. An interesting course, it takes in a variety of terrain including woodland, fields, parkland, trail and tarmac. I’m not generally a fan of loops, but I didn’t get bored on the four laps I was required to complete.
Out of curiosity, I’d had a look at the course record and the podium times from 2015, which to my surprise felt potentially within reach. And I set my stall out to run just shy of 8.30 m/m pace for the 40 miles. But contrary to every other race I have ever run. And I do mean ever. I committed to starting at this pace too.
Right from the start I had to fight the urge to charge out with the leaders. But I knew that if I was ever going to improve, I had to learn to understand my limits and to find a sustainable pace.
I suspected I was sat in about tenth place overall for much of the first lap. It felt very comfortable, and despite the sun hiding away behind the clouds it was still very hot and I was sweating buckets. But I was on pace, varying between 815-8.35 m/miles according to the elevation of each section and just enjoying my running.
I ran much of this first loop with the eventual joint winner of the seventy mile race, Stephen Cousins, who was returning to recapture his glory from 2015. But after pushing on, it had been a while since I’d seen anyone else, and I began to question whether my pacing strategy was going to work. Whether in fact the guys out in front were simply growing their lead.
Much to my satisfaction, at about the fifteen mile mark, I came upon a young runner who was running his first ultra. He explained that he’d run a marathon a few months back and decided to make the jump. We chatted as we ran, and whilst I said nothing at the time . (You don’t want advice from a stranger in the middle of a race, do you?). I figured that given his marathon time, he had under-estimated how much he’d need to reduce his pace by to finish strong. After a few miles, I pushed on, hoping that I wasn’t about to make the same mistake.
As I came into the aid station. Yes, aid ‘station’. There was just one, but more on this later. For the second time, I drew alongside another runner, Chris Bo Hill. We exchanged a few words, and he shared with me that we were now sitting in second and third. Much further up the field than I had expected for this point in the race. He also shared that he’d spotted the race leader in the distance on occasion and that he thought he could be caught within the third loop, if we maintained this pace.
So here I was sitting in second and with a good chance of hunting down the lead. I wanted to stop temporarily. Jump up and down just to celebrate having achieved this much. But I didn’t and instead was terribly British about it and simply said ‘Great!’. Anyway, I didn’t want to let on that I had no idea what I was doing right up at the sharp end of a race.
I had a chance to win this thing. Something I’d never done. Or even imagined I would do. I’d finished 7th once in marathon in the Lake District, and whilst I had privately hoped to one day find my way onto a podium. I genuinely never imagine that I would be presented with the possibility of winning a race. The adrenalin kicked in. I felt an additional burst of energy and determination. And I set off to hunt down the leader.
To my surprise it wasn’t long before I spotted him. He was walking up a hill. He looked tired and was looking over his shoulder. A tell-tale sign that he was slowing and concerned about who might be gaining on him. I maintained my pace. Avoiding the urge to push faster, which would have brought me out of the covered woodland and into the open fields. But I didn’t want him to see me too early and to be able to find something extra to pick up his pace.
Eventually, we re-entered a wooded area and I made my move to catch him. As I pulled alongside, I greeted him and made sure to keep on going. I’d never found myself in such a position before, but I knew I was supposed to show no sign of slowing down. No sign of my own suffering or weakness. I pushed really hard and did so until I was clear by a good distance. Then, I allowed myself to slow back to my metronomic 8.30 pace. It was my little gift to myself after five very painful minutes of putting on a show that was designed to discourage any attempt at staying with me. Truth be known, I was an absolute novice at this proper racing malarkey, but I’d read enough about it to at least give it a crack. And it had worked.
This is when the race really began for me. Whilst I’d heard and read race reports from elite runners where they described that feeling of being like prey. Of being hunted down by the pack, and the fear of not knowing who was behind you and how far back. I was feeling it now. It was motivating for sure, but it was also hugely intense. Having found myself in the lead, I really didn’t want to give it up. I kept imagining taking home a trophy or cup and being able to tell my wife that I’d actually won a race. And given I was now starting to feel sore and tired, it was motivation I really needed.
The final lap was quite uneventful. I lapped a number of people, which again was something new for me. I greeted each one with the appropriate pleasantries as I went past and they were each equally friendly. The long stretch of road on the way back towards the castle was particularly draining. My legs were sore, I was low on energy and my feet felt as though the cushioning on my shoes had all but disappeared.
Towards the end of the thirty-ninth mile, as I reached the small hill, I allowed myself a little walking. But not without numerous paranoid looks over my shoulder and a gnawing feeling that I was risking a lot with only a mile to run.
As I began the final section, the long main road up to the castle, I finally allowed myself to accept that I would win this race. I put my head down, picked up the pace and finished strong, as I’d set out to do.
I got that cup, and even a post-race interview with the Race Director for the website. That was certainly a first for me. But my race hadn’t really ended there. I still had to make my way back from the finish to my tent where all my kit had been stored, and it transpired that this was to be somewhat tougher than I’d anticipated. Having sat down back at ‘the aid station’ for a couple of minutes, taken on some fluids, I set off for what should have been an innocuous one-hundred-yard-hobble. However, almost as soon as I turned around in the direction I needed, I suffered cramping throughout both legs. It was intense, and I couldn’t help but cry out in agony. Pathetic, I know! Which promptly drew the attention of several concerned ladies and a medic. So not all bad. All of whom seemed somewhat disappointed at my stifled diagnosis that it was simply severe cramping. I should have seen this coming. I suffer cramping regularly. Strangely though it is always very localised. Specific to the muscle under the right hand side of my chin. Yes, weird I know. Never the left side. And never anywhere else. It’s usually something I manage very well using S caps, but I’d taken a lot less than usual given the heat. Underestimating the requirement based on a lack of sunshine rather than heat and humidity.
I pulled myself together and again began making the slow trudge back to the tent. I was making good progress until at the halfway point I was struck down again. Sound dramatic, and probably it was very much over-dramatic, but I quite literally fell to the ground as if my legs had been removed from under me. Fortunately, a kind soul took pity on me and knew enough to bring me over a couple of S caps, which I gulped down and dragged myself back to my tent for a warm beer and some recovery.