Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Race Report - Marlborough Downs Challenge

I finally did it - I completed my first ultramarathon!!!

To be honest at the beginning of last week and after pulling out of the Milton Keynes Marathon part-way through, I never thought I'd be able to achieve such a challenge. It's amazing what some stubbornness, single-mindedness, grit and determination, and a desire to achieve will get you; despite foolishly stepping onto the start line with a severe injury to my right foot. At long last I have found the type of running I really enjoy.

I may be hurting like hell now, but for me it was worth it. All the running I've done this past year has led me to this moment - the goal I wanted to achieve; the ability to really push myself in an environment I love (off-road). Mentally and physically it was a challenge (made worse by the injury): there were ups and there were some downs (real downs), but on the whole I will look back on this race and feel a sense of achievement; and that is something nobody can take from me.

So here is my story. A story of how my participation almost never was and how I overcame the challenges that was my first (and by no means last) last ultra.

It almost never was....
When I pulled out of the Milton Keynes Marathon (after running 24km) 5 days earlier, I swore to myself (and my friends via Facebook) that I wasn't prepared to take the risk of rupturing my tendon for the sake of a marathon. After the pain of that marathon I was pretty much resigned to the fact that I'd be out for quite a while; that I wasn't to put a pair of trainers on again until my injury had fully healed and that I'd listened to the advice of the consultant I'm seeing on the 22 May about the results of the MRI scan. Although it was the right decision I was gutted that I wouldn't be able to complete the Marlborough Downs Challenge or the two other races I have lined up this year (Trial Marathon Wales and Endure24 - both in June).

The Milton Keynes Marathon was in the Monday and Thursday was the deadline to get my Marlborough Downs Challenge place transferred to another runner. I posted adverts on various Facebook groups but had no interested (probably due to the short-notice). In the meantime my replacement Inov-8 Windproof jacket was on it's way in the post, and the OS Map I'd ordered a while back for the race had arrived. So there I was on Thursday morning with all the kit (and expense that goes with it), with a place on the run going free, and my goal of achieving an ultramarathon still not fulfilled. With the tendon starting to feel better I decided to share my desire to start the race with Stouty (Paul Stout - a fellow Newbury Runner and someone who's ran a number of ultras). Although he thought I was crazy to start, he did at least understand why I needed to do it. Most of all he wasn't judgmental - and that was something I greatly appreciated. What I didn't need was someone questioning my decision. We agreed that I wouldn't post anything on Facebook for that exact reason.

The reason why I chose to run was simple: I know the consultant on the 22 May is going to tell me to stop running for a while, and I know for various other reasons that it may be a long time before I'll be a position to train for and run an ultra. I could not let my running end on a failed run that was Milton Keynes. I needed to do this for myself. A real challenge; a desire and need to push myself. Yes I was in pain with the ankle, but if I ran carefully then I had a chance of completing the race. I didn't care about times - he only times I needed to focus on was making the cut offs for each of the Checkpoints. So not knowing when the next opportunity would come about I made the final decision to run on the Friday morning. This was it - I was going to do it!

All in the preparation
One of the things that really appeals to me about ultra running is the fact you have to self-navigate the whole run. Runners are given some basic directions (not always clear) and the grid references of the Checkpoints. For this race, which covered a distance of 33 miles, there were eight Checkpoints. The Checkpoints had food and water and your time was captured by the marshals manning the Checkpoints. In order that I didn't get lost I made sure I planned this race properly and gave myself plenty of back-up options.

The first thing I did was plot the route on the OS Map I'd bought. This was a labour-intensive activity. I plotted the map whilst also using Google Earth and the course GPX file I'd uploaded. This was really useful as it allowed me to see the route and not just plot it on a map. This whole exercise took me ages. At the end though I had the whole route mapped out. The Checkpoints were marked and then joined by a yellow high-lighter pen like a huge dot-to-dot. The plan was to use the written instructions in conjunction with the map and then as backup to use my watch. In order to use my watch I needed to upload the route GPX to it. I'd never run a course following the navigation function on the watch, so it was always going to be a risk. I knew the GPX file was right because I'd used it with Google Earth, so that at least gave me some confidence.

Watch & Charger Powering Up
I also needed to fully charge my watch. The Forerunner 305 has a battery life of 10 hours, but given it's age I wasn't sure how many hours it had left in it. I therefore decided to take on the run the portable USB battery charger I'd bought a while back but only briefly tested. I will shortly publish full review of the device in another blog entry. In essence you plug the device into the watch whilst running and it charges the watch whilst also giving you all the stats you need.

So with the navigation and technology sorted, I then focused on food and hydration. Now I have to be honest here it took me a while to figure this out. My hydration vest takes a 2 litre bladder on the wait and room for 2 water bottles on the chest. After much consideration I elected to go for 2 water bottles: one for the electrolyte and one for the water. I used the room where the bladder should be to carry extra stuff. I'm not going to list everything I packed away as it was embarrassing how much stuff I took (and didn't need). I'm an ultra virgin so I can be forgiven. I also stocked up with gels, nuts, wine gums...the list was endless. So there was I was, ready to go...I now just needed some sleep before the big day.

The big day
I got up nice and early and decided to stay clear of the porridge. After recent experiences I've learnt my lesson. Instead it was 2 humus-coated bagels, 3 slices of toast with Marmite and 2 Weetabix, all accompanied by strong black coffee. I packed everything up, said goodbye to Mary and Xavier, and at 7:15am headed off to Marlborough. 

Registration was held at Marlborough Leisure Centre and it was a very quick and easy process that took minutes. Whilst writing my contact details on the back on my bib number and attaching it to my leg, I started to chat to a fellow runner. This was the second time he was running the event and gave me some top tips - especially about the first hill! What struck me most about this event was the low-key nature of it. In total there were only about 120 runners, but it seemed so friendly and everyone seemed to want to help for offer advice. I checked a large OS Map that had been stuck on the wall and which outlined the course. Hay the route matched the one I plotted out! At least I still have the old mapping skills I was taught when I was a teenager in the Air Training Corps.

Whilst sitting waiting for the race to start I was struck by how much older the field seemed when compared to other shorter races I'd taken part in. I got the impression that although there were a few 'newbies' like myself, many of the runners had been doing this sort of thing for years and the ruddy complexions of the older runners and the high-tech kit of some of the others seem to be evidence of this. I overheard conversations about other ultra events and got a sense that for some this was just a training run for a far more difficult challenge, thus making my previous experience of one solitary road marathon seem quite pathetic.

We eventually made our way to the start line, which was in the grounds of Marlborough College. At this point I accessed the course on my watch and to my amazement it found the course and told me I was at the start! I planned on following the other runners until they all left me and then use the race instructions and map to navigate my way to the end. The watch was there just as a backup.

The race
Soon enough the short pre-race brief was given, during which the speaker advised to the nervous laughs of the crowd that the weather looked fine (in an ironic way) and that there was a 'little' mud (not sure anyone believed him!). With a low-key "5-4-3-2-1" we were off at a gentle pace out of the college grounds and within minutes heading up a steep and very muddy and slippy gully out of the town. Already I could see a pack of runners at the front disappear into the distance and onto the skyline and pretty soon we were approaching a steep decent through a field of cows and onto Checkpoint 1 in front of Clatford Bottom Woods. Within these first two miles I had already climbed muddy inclines, climbed stiles, jumped logs and managed to negotiate a field of cows and already I was enjoying the nature of this event, albeit I still had 31 miles to go.

The following 4.4 miles were hard going. Trudging (or wading) through heavy sticky and deep mud (up hill and through woodland) was really hard work. I had to be really careful of my ankle so was taking it easy. I kept glancing at my watch and to my amazement it was taking me on the right course. After passing through a second area of woodland the route veered uphill again and onto the ridge line of Tan Hill Way. It was here that the field began to spread out and I found myself running with a woman who'd run the event a couple of times' before. Being so high and exposed  there was quite a string head-wind and whether it was intentional or not we seemed to take it in turns to take the lead. Wonderful views could be seen to our left over the Vale of Pewsey and I found myself appreciating the scenery.

Checkpoint 2 was at the bottom of Tan Hill Way at about the 6.4 mile mark, crossing the Alton Barnes / Lockeridge Road. I had a quick cup of orange juice and was offered Jaffa Cakes, fig rolls, Jelly babies and other goodies. I took a couple of each, chatted briefly to the woman with whom I'd been running briefly with, then headed through the Checkpoint and uphill again over undulating grass paths onto the Wansdyke path, a medieval earthworks. I have to say this was more a walk up the hill, since the legs were sapped a little due to the mud. By this point we were joined by another woman and we were happy to take it easy on the uphills.

The next couple of miles were solo running passing the highest point on the course of Tan Hill before then heading downhill again towards Checkpoint 3. It's at this point the course splits sending runners that don't make the 2 hour 20 minute cut off time onto a 20 mile route. I fill my electrolyte bottle with water and half filled my water (or I should say the kind marshals did this for me). I munched on another Jaffa Cake and fig roll and took a gel. My legs seemed to have recovered from the mud.

The next section was along the Wansdyke for a further 1.5 miles. Running along the Wansdyke was a fantastic experience - the manual effort required to create this defensive work must have been incredible - still I was pleased they had created it. Running at an elevated level made for good views, the occasional gaps in the dyke did mean some technical running with a very quick down followed by a very quick up. Before long I was taking a left turn onto a farm track towards Bourton and Bishops Cannings. My watch was still giving me reliable navigation and I'd yet to look at the instructions or map. I also remembered this section from Google Earth.

The target in my sight was the Canal Tow Path. This required coming off the track, running around a couple of fields and then crossing a field to reach the canal. I have to be honest, reaching the canal section at around 12 miles I was starting to go through my first "lull". I was getting frustrated with having to constantly watch my footing due to the ankle and this was slowing my pace right down. The run along the canal to Devizes was just painful. It was slippy and I was constantly stopping to walk through mud as I didn't want to risk slipping and hurting my ankle (tendons) even more. This was sapping the energy from me; I had no spark and was really struggling to motivate myself to continue. I just wanted to reach the next Checkpoint. I passed a woman who had fallen and was bleeding. She must have called a marshal because he was there looking after her. My hydration vest was also starting to feel very heavy. I'd packed too much and was now starting to realise that the Checkpoints had enough food that I didn't really need to carry any.

I eventually hit Checkpoint 4 (around 15.4 miles) and the heavens opened! Despite this the marshals were so friendly and I was joined by other runners who were behind me. This seemed to lift my spirits somewhat. I was determined to finish this race and not pull out. I drank a few cups of orange juice, munched on yet more Jaffa Cakes and fig rolls, ditched some crap from my hydration vest (bars, gels, wine gums, nuts - basically anything with weight). I left a few gels and that was it. As I left the marshal apologised in advance for what I was about to face.

It was raining and I was faced with the very steep climb up Roundway Hill. This was a slow walk - in fact, it was probably the slowest I'd moved thus far. Every step just sapped energy. I couple of Irish guys came up behind me and we exchanged pleasantries. Half was up was a track and a couple of spectators where encouraging me to continue. I mumbled "thanks", gave them a smile (their presence really did help) and then continued up. When I eventually reached the top (in what seemed to take an eternity) I collapsed on the floor for 3 minutes or so to rest the legs. By this time there was nobody in front of me. My watch was still going good and the next section was through a small wooded area. I came out onto a downhill track and it was at this point my printed instruction blew away for the sheep to read when they get bored (the story of an ultra virgin and his lost instructions). 

I could see Checkpoint 5 in the distance. The rain started to come down heavy and the wind was blowing hard. The poor marshal was soaking wet, but he was really cheery. I felt much better on reaching this Checkpoint than I did the last. I grab another drink of orange juice, some Jaffa Cakes and Jelly Babies and then he pointed to where I needed to go. Yup, you got it, another hill! This time it was Morgan's Hill. I walked most of this hill. When I got to the top there was an open field with a slight ascent so I could not see over it. Although I had the map with my, I had yet to use it because my watch had such a sterling job. My watch was telling me which direction to run across the field. As soon as I went 3 or 4 meters out it will tell me I was off course. It eventually led me out of the field and into a farm. Nice one Garmin!

My little Garmin watch was a trooper, however I did encounter a couple of navigational issues which although not serious did cost me time (and gave me a little frustration). The first was it telling me to cross one field into another but I could not find the stile. That was my fault as opposed to the watch; I was wasn't paying attention to what it was telling me.

My second navigational error was caused just after the first. My watch was telling me to go through a small wood, so I made a left turn. Something didn't seem right though, so I back and tried to go around the wood (but there was no track and my watch was telling me I was way off course). I was getting a little frustrated at this point. Just as I was about to pull the map out, I spotted 2 runners across an open (but ploughed) field. I crossed the field but they said they were struggling to find the next Checkpoint. They then headed up an hill. I looked at my watch and it was telling me I needed to head in the opposite direction. I followed my watch and it eventually told me I was back on course. As I was running along it I was joined by the other two runners who had seen what I was doing and cut through another field to join me. The three of us could see a barn that marked the next checkpoint. My watch was really helping me.

Fantastic navigation
Checkpoint 6 was around the 21 mile mark. It was manned by a young couple and their two young children and dog. They were so friendly, but I couldn't face another Jaffa Cake, fig roll, Jelly Baby or gel. I topped up the electrolyte and water and then headed up the very steep climb to the top of Cherhill Hill. This was a single track, very muddy and very slippy. I walked the whole way, slipping a few times. This whole running lark through mud was really impacting my time. Had I been 100% I would have run some of the really muddy bits, but with a dodgy tendon I just could not take the risk. Upon reaching the top of the hill I could see the summit of  Cherwell Momument.

I'd heard stories of people taking the wrong path once they reach the summit and having to re-do it. Thankfully my watch told me the exact direction I needed to take. I was rewarded with a lovely downhill section where there were again a couple of spectators cheering me on. Eventually I hit the Old Bath Road track towards Avebury. After running along the track for a short while I came out onto the A4. This was the only section of the course that was on a main road. I ran along the A4 for about a mile then cut left just prior to hitting Avebury. Running along a narrow but very slippy track (so was walking bits of it) I eventually hit Checkpoint 7 - the penultimate checkpoint. 

Getting to Avebury and its gaunt stone circles meant the marathon distance was out the way; anything beyond this was ultra territory! I couldn't face food but was offered a cup of coffee just as it started to rain again. Thankfully we were under a barn shelter. I was reminded about the cut-offs so set off. It was the first time in the whole race I'd even thought about cut-off times. I needed to reach that final checkpoint before the cut-off. I grabbed some salted crisps that were on offer and headed off. The marshals were excellent as they had been at every Checkpoint, full of encouragement and with an array of sweets, water, cordial and Jaff Cakes laid out (even in the rain).

I ran through the centre of Avebury passing a few disinterested tourists and onto a slow climb (run-walk) towards Overton Down. This incline just seemed to go on forever, but when I got to the top the marshals were packing up. I'd miss the Checkpoint 8 cut-off by 4 minutes! I was gutted but not down-trodden. I just shrugged. Frankly I didn't care. I'd come this far and by god I was going to finish back at Marlborough Leisure Centre. There was no point in me trying to race back - even if I got back by 5:30pm (end of the race), my time would not count because I miss the final Checkpoint cut-off. So I just continued, knowing the end was near (and there were no more hills to face!).

After cutting along side a number of fields I came out onto a quiet county lane and 50m up the road was the finish line with a couple of marshals and some organisers standing there. They all cheered as I crossed the lined. I'd done it; I'd completed my first ultra marathon!

I was congratulated and I told them that I didn't mind not getting a time; finishing was more important. I was given a blue mug which was absolutely awesome. I will cherish that mug; I earned that mug! There was an 8hr 30 min deadline for the race and I crossed it in 8hr 4 mins. But I don't care. On any other day and without my injury (and over cautiousness with the mud) I would have easily made the cut-off. I hobbled over to the leisure centre and eat some warm food they'd put on. There were a couple of runners still around, but on the whole most had gone home. I didn't care; I was left with my thoughts and how proud I was of myself to achieve something like this with such an injury.

There are some who thought I shouldn’t have run this race; and I have to be honest they had valid reasons. Only a few days earlier I’d pulled out of the Milton Keynes Marathon part-way through due to my injury; and although I completed the Manchester Marathon a month ago, I struggled in the latter stages due to the same injury. My physio (now ex-physio) told me not to run these races. However,  sometimes you just need to do what you think is right; listen to your body and take some calculated risks. Not only did I complete the Manchester Marathon but one month later I completed my first Ultra. Neither were perfect races due to the injury, but at least I completed them and took great satisfaction from both. More importantly I had the balls, commitment and confidence to attempt them with an injury, and I even threw in the Milton Keynes Marathon for fun!

This race, my first ultra, was hard. No denying that. Running 34 miles (55km) is tough when the only long distance running of late was the Manchester Marathon. Neither my training nor the races prior to this event stood me in good stead due to the injury (both physically and mentally). In actual fact on this race, although my ankle hurt at times, I made it through unscathed. For a few days after the race I had some inflamed tendons, but ironically not the main tendon I have the issue with!. I made the distance over some ankle-killing terrain because I managed the situation and environment carefully. Yes it meant running slower; yes it meant ultimately not getting an official time (by 4 whole minutes!); but it also meant I could complete the distance and course and feel a great sense of personal achievement. Imagine what I could have done without the injury?

This experience has now made me want to run another ultra, and another, and another after that. I enjoyed it so much. I found it more rewarding and more challenging than any standard road marathon. Over this distance (and greater) it is not about how fast you run, it is about how you run, how you manage your strategy and navigation, and the sheer determination and commitment to put one foot in front of the other and push for the finish line. As Stouty once told me, and which I now apply to all my races: better to try and fail than never to try at all. Well I tried and I completed, and that is something nobody can take from me…

Lessons Learnt
Given this was my first ultra, there are naturally a few lessons I learnt for the next:

  • Don’t pack so much stuff – it weighs you down and it is not needed when you have good aid stations
  • Keep an eye on the time – I didn’t look at the time once during the race; if I had done then I may have pushed a little harder during Checkpoint 6 or 7 to ensure I made Checkpoint 8 before it closed
  • Limit the number of sweet things – it got to a point in the latter stages when I could not hack anything sweet like gels, Jelly Babies, etc.

I’m sure as I reflect more there are other lessons to learn.

What went well?
I was quite surprised that a lot of things I’d been testing out in training, although painful at times, worked out well for me in this race. They include:

  • I didn't suffer from any blisters, despite off-road trainers I've not run many miles in (mainly down to a good pair of double-layered socks and Vaseline)
  • Hydration was perfect for this race. I took the right amount of water, electrolytes and salt to ensure I was fully hydrated and didn't suffer from cramp
  • Navigation on the watch – worked amazingly well!
  • Charging my watch on the go whilst also following the navigation. I’d tested it in training and worked a dream on this race. My watch has 5 bars, when it got down to 2 I charged it; 30 minutes later it was back up to full charge. Result!
  • Wearing my glasses. I tend not to wear glasses when running due to sweat, rain or misting. But I can’t see without them. This is okay for a road race, but more difficult off-road. I needed my glasses for this race, not just to see where I was stepping but also other runners and land marks in the distance. I wore a cap and it kept the sweet out; although when it rained it was a pain but that is something I will need to get use to
  • My hydration vest worked well. Almost 9 hours of running and it didn't rub once. That can’t be said for all packs….

What next...?
I’m going to take a while off from running to allow my injury to heal itself. I will see what the consultant says on the 22 May and then make my final decision. I suspect a summer (or at least a couple of months) without running will be a good thing. As I say, I will see what the consultant says and will listen and act upon is advice.

In the meantime I can reflect on my achievements over the past 4 weeks whilst sitting in the sun, chilling out with a beer or two, and eating some BBQ food without thinking about training. I’ll be making the most of it because rest assure, like night follows day, I will be back training again. A second ultra has my name on it…..


  1. My first ultra as well Mike, well done. It wasn't easy!!

    Best wishes


  2. Cheers Steve...and congratulations on completing it yourself. Hopefully next year I won't have an injury and can actually maintain some pace on the flat and downhill sections.....

    Many thanks for your comment..... Mike.