Running an ultramarathon has been on my bucket list for way too long, and I finally decided that 2019 was going to be the year to cross off this item from my list of goals. Running an ultra as the mum of a 6 month old baby seemed like a crazy idea, however, I convinced myself that circumstances were never going to be perfect to train for or to complete such an event, so I might as well do it whilst I am on maternity leave…Besides, according to research carried out by Duke University, “pregnant women are endurance specialists, living at nearly the limit of what the human body can cope with” – so after carrying Alex to full term, surely running an ultramarathon will be a breeze, right?!
Most importantly, I felt very inspired by two particular ladies…One is Sophie Power who ran the iconic UTMB (the toughest ultra race) only 3 months after giving birth to her second son – she was famously captured by camera in the middle of the race, showing her 3-month-old baby in one hand, and a breast pump in the other. The other lady is Jasmine Paris who became the first woman to win the gruelling 268-mile Montane Spine Race despite needing to express milk at almost every aid station for her baby – an extraordinary achievement which required incredible determination and organisation. Theirs are great examples for refusing to give up your aspirations and doing things for yourself when you become a mum. Their example is also testament to how important it is to have support and the right logistics in place: Sophie was met by her husband at every aid station along the route, where he would hand her a breast pump and ferry back the milk to their baby son. Jasmine was carrying all her kit. After reading their stories, I began to believe that by drumming up enough support from my own family, I could make this work, too.
I came across a brand new ultramarathon on Facebook called Chiltern Ridge Ultra Trail in the Wendover Woods/Tring/Ashridge Estate areas, organised by Runaway Adventures. They are basically group of people who organise group trail running adventures near London which are scenic and easily accessible from the capital. They also work with organisations to promote trail running within woodlands, nature reserves and areas of natural beauty.
This 50km race in mid-May seemed to be the perfect opportunity to get my first taste of running an ultramarathon – by definition, everything over the standard 42.195 km distance counts as an ultra, and having completed a few marathons before, I felt that going ‘only a little’ further would be an achievable goal. Looking at the course profile, I also ascertained that although there were going to be plenty of challenging undulating trails, there were also going to be some faster, runnable sections, promising a testing, but beginner friendly ultra race in locations that I was broadly familiar with.
I invited 3 friends to join me for this challenge, however, unfortunately, only one of them was able to toe up the start line with me (one got bogged down with a hamstring injury whilst training for the London Marathon, and the other one had left signing up for the event too late). The said friend happened to be my running buddy, Dom, from my Saturday morning running group (also a member of Handy Cross Runners). Dom is one of those people that I really admire – from a complete beginner, he has trained himself to be a first class runner, scooping up ‘top 3 finisher’ race trophies in various distances over the past couple of years. I actually never met anyone like him who can excel on all sorts of distances, ranging from parkruns to ultras. Dom is a perfect example where talent meets sheer bloody-mindedness. In my case, I just have to make do with the latter. LOL.
I encountered a few ups and downs whilst training for this event. As I mentioned in some of my earlier blog posts, I had to take some time off from running due to a Posterior Tibial muscle inflammation following the Datchet Dashers 20 miler training run, which put a big dent into my self confidence. Until that point, I had been enlisting some help from a local running coach, Leanne Wellings, whom I had met at The Fitness Experts Gym. She launched her own athletic coaching business alongside working as a Marketing Manager for a big multinational company. Leanne provided me with bi-weekly training plans and we had frequent catch ups along the way to review my progress and how I was feeling. Working with a running coach, albeit only for a few weeks, did give me peace of mind about the task ahead. It’s always good to have someone you can be accountable to; someone who can provide an external, objective perspective. Another strategy I drew on during the weeks leading up to race day was trying not to get overly fixated on the end goal, but trying to break it down into a series of smaller, manageable milestones instead. My bi-weekly personalised training plan helped me knock out these milestones easily and helped me build momentum and progress towards completing the actual, bigger goal. I have found that dedicating my focus on hitting these smaller goal posts were psychologically easier to digest.
Finally, race day came, and I made my way to the event HQ which was set up opposite the Bike Park in Wendover Woods. With only 79 runners signing up for the inaugural event, it was easy to spot my friend Dom. After exchanging a few words of encouragement and discussing our race goals (which, for me, was ‘survival’, and for Dom, was to finish near the top – obviously!), I retreated into my head to give myself some much needed pep talk. I won’t lie, I was about to pee my pants! It was a relief to know that I had a generous 9 hour cut off time to complete the distance and an even bigger relief to learn during the pre-race briefing that the Bucks Rescue Team was at hand in case someone needed rescuing hehe.
Above all, I remembered what Leanne had told me about the importance of warming myself up mentally as well just before the start. First, I thought about three of my strengths that would help me succeed during the race: the discipline and focus I had put into my training (despite encountering some setbacks); my passion for trail running; my sheer determination to do things that scare me a little! Repeating these strengths to myself as a mantra, I was able to confidently step onto the start line, with only a few butterflies flapping their wings in my tummy.
The route itself was absolutely stunning and the weather was gracious to us as well – mostly sunny with a short hailstorm thrown in later, but which came just at the right time in the second half to reinvigorate me. There were frequent markers along the route so it was really easy to navigate ourselves without marshalls or maps. Some of the signs even warned us about ‘the wrong way’. All the aid stations were well stocked with drinks and snacks so I could have carried less food on me but I did not want to leave anything to chance. Besides, my home made almond butter, cacao and date energy balls and salted caramel fudge pieces worked a treat after I could not face any more energy gels. Stopping at the aid stations was mandatory so we could have our timing chips (worn as a bracelet) scanned in. Another thing that was really handy to have was plenty of medical support along the route – I remember being asked about half a dozen of times whether I was feeling OK and if I needed any assistance. I have to say, the organisers couldn’t have done anything better to make the event more seamless and enjoyable for everyone.
What really struck me was the friendliness of the other runners – everyone seemed to be up for a little banter along the way. It turned out I wasn’t the only ultramarathon-virgin that day…
I managed to run almost continuously until about 30kms, after which I switched to jog/walking the rest of the distance. I still tried to run on downhills towards the very end when my legs started to feel really heavy and sore, unable to cope with running up any more hills – especially those on the final stretch which felt like a cruel joke! In the end, I finished 55th out of 79 runners after being on my feet for about 6.5 hours. However, I did have to stop for about 20-25 minutes at the penultimate aid station at Hastoe Village Hall to express some breastmilk to relieve myself. Otherwise, I would have probably finished in the top half. Not that I am not happy enough with the fact that I had managed to not only survive my very first ultramarathon without injuries, but also finish it well before the cutoff time! Dom finished at 4th place, about 2 hours before me.
Upon reflection, there are a number of things that have made my first ultramarathon a very enjoyable and unforgettable experience:-
- Taking some advice from more experienced ultramarathoners, I was trying to focus on hitting milestones (aid stations/significant distance markers) during the event, rather than thinking about how much was left of the total distance. This approach paid dividends for me as I was able to stay calm and actually enjoy the event without encountering any emotional low points.
- I deliberately wasn’t looking at my sports watch to see how long and how fast I had been running for. Let’s face it, the thought of running for 3+ hours continuously can be daunting and can really mess with your head. Instead, I was only checking the distance already covered (see my point above).
- Apart from setting an approximate finish time goal, I gave myself permission to just enjoy the event and treat it as an opportunity to get a break from mum duties for a day!
- I had put a lot of preparation into the race from a logistical perspective as well to give myself the best chance to succeed. As a breastfeeding mum, I knew I would need to ‘pump and dump’ at some point to avoid significant discomfort. Fortunately, my Ultimate Direction running rucksack/vest was big enough to carry my battery operated expression kit. The kit, although not weighing much at all, took up quite a big space so I ended up using my two small milk bottles as my water bottles at the same time. Talk about optimising space, LOL. The quaint little village hall was the perfect location to express – the big hall inside was empty and it provided me with some much needed privacy and comfort to carry out the operation. (All the other aid stations were outdoors and would not have been appropriate).
- I was listening to my body all along and picked a pace that felt right. My mantra was ‘just keep moving forward, no matter how fast’.
Even though it’s been a few weeks since I completed this race, I’m still on a high from it. When I got home, my husband expected to see a very tired looking wife; instead, he noted that I was ‘beaming’. Nothing felt better than giving a big hug to my two favourite men in the world after smashing my biggest running goal to date. A big ‘thank you’ to my hubby and mum in law who took Alex for a couple of hours here and there so that I could fit my training in with mum duties.
Have you run any ultramarathons? Any lessons you have learnt along the way?