Route: Crowborough, Sussex to Rye, Kent
Event Organiser: Saxon Way Ultra Trails
Distance: 51.3 miles (actual 54.5 miles)
Date: 18th May 2013
Finish time: 11 hours 58 minutes
Finish position: 9th
I’d been planning for, dreaming of and apprehensive about this day for a few months. I knew at some stage this evening I’d be in Rye, in a village hall, with a sleeping bag ready to bed down for the night, then wake up and go running. A long way. Longer than I’ve ever run before. Other than those facts, I had little idea of what was in store.
The purpose of this run was to reach 50 miles in my training for The Wall, a 69-mile run across Hadrian’s Wall in June. My plan had called for a 45-mile run with full pack at around this date, so I had a look on www.ultramarathonrunning.com and found this 51.3 miler. I considered that although it was much longer than my plan needed, it did have one big advantage – that I wouldn’t be running 45 miles into the unknown on my own, unsupervised. I signed up.
Sarah and the kids were to travel down to meet me at the end, in Rye, and drive me home, so I decided to get the train down from work. I left late as work’s pretty busy right now and we’re dealing a lot with the US, so I had a marketing call to sort out before I left and it dragged on a bit. I felt like a bored schoolkid watching the clock in a history lesson, waiting for the school bell. I left about 6:30, knowing that I had to get to Rye by 9pm before they closed the doors of the hall. The journey was via a Javelin train on the HS1 line, so after some unpleasant yet expensive food from some Whole Foods-copy store at St Pancras, I sped quickly towards Ashford and a simple linkup afterwards left me in Rye by about 8pm.
It was a short distance from the station to the Village Hall where we were to meet up, on Conduit Hill which was to become my focus several times when returning to this spot, not least at the end of the race! The hall was very quiet when I walked in, and I said hello to a lady behind a trestle table before noticing a bunch of guys sitting eating and drinking tea on the other side of the room. The lady, Pam, turned out to be Mike The Organiser’s mum, who was there with Mike’s dad to help organise and man the aid stations the next day. They must have been in their 60s, so good on them. I got my race number and pack, and realised that I had the pick of the hall floor pretty much in which to stash my gear and bed down for the night. I chose a spot just next to some power sockets so I could charge up my phone overnight and start with maximum power to give Runkeeper a chance of lasting the distance. I fully expected to take nearer the max 15 hours for the run, but I was secretly hoping for 12.
I went over to say hi to the fellas drinking tea, and one of them poured me a mug from a gigantic metal teapot. We got chatting, and it was as I’d hoped – a good mix of newbies and seasoned runners, some doing the 50 and some the 100. So I wasn’t alone in my novice status! We chatted about all sorts, particularly the exploits of some of the big races the guys had done before, and then started to bed down for the night. I went about getting my gear together for the morning, squashing my gels, S! Caps and so forth into my race vest and checking off kit against my list. I gave up halfway because I sensed the guy near me was trying to get to sleep and I kept rustling packets and paper. So I texted Sarah then went to sleep myself. Some runners came in at about 11:30, they were pretty discreet but it did half wake me up, and I felt a bit annoyed; but not as annoyed as I was when I realised I’d forgotten my inflatable pillow. That will be the first thing I pack next time. I’d rather run with no shorts than suffer another night with my head on my race vest.
I woke up at 6am having got some sleep, but nowhere near enough. Lots of people were already buzzing around, as the NC100 was due to begin at 7. Some of the guys were already kitted out and eating breakfast. The brekkie was pretty decent, lots of variety but the bacon sarnies and tea were my immediate choice and after them I felt much better. I got dressed and sorted out the remainder of my kit, again checking carefully against my list. I was desperate not to forget anything – even the smallest thing can ruin a training run, never mind a race. The weather was pretty cold so I decided on a cap, Buff, light jacket and running tights as well as the usual gear. I have an UltrAspire Surge pack which isn’t the biggest in which to stow stuff, but I figured I could always tie my jacket around my waist if it got too warm. After listening to the NC100 briefing and waving them off, we had 15 minutes to do final checks and prep before boarding the bus for the start line. The NC50 route is identical to the second-half of the NC100, so the bus was to take us to the NC100 halfway point, effectively, and we were to run back to Rye from there.
I get very easily travel sick, particularly on coaches, so I shot quickly to the bus and sat at the front. The others must have thought I was an idiot, trying to win the race to the coach, but I knew what I needed to do – all those coach journeys as a kid, all those queasy feelings and the knowledge that the vom was coming. And then run 50 miles? No thanks. I intended to keep my lovely tea and bacon exactly where it was, and sitting at the front did it for me. After half an hour I started chatting to the guy sitting behind me, who was wearing a battered old Spartathlon hat. He’d done it 13 times, with 9 finishes, apparently. Hard core. The journey was mostly uneventful until the end, when the driver couldn’t find the start line and shockingly didn’t have the phone number of the organiser. It was a fairly barren area of Sussex to be fair, and one field did look very similar to all the others; but still, black mark for the organisation. Cue a hilarious scene on a moving bus with a dozen runners jabbing at maps and GPS devices, all trying to locate our current position vs the start, all believing they knew exactly where we were, but all pointing to different places. Nightmare. Eventually we saw Mike and his van, and parked up nearby.
Ashdown Forest (0 miles)
A few of us had a quick wee, it had been a long bus ride. Then I had an S! cap to make sure I started as I meant to go on with nutrition (I often suffer terribly with cramp at long distance so I’d recently been upping my electrolyte and water levels, which seemed to be doing the trick).
It struck me then how remote the place was, and how small the event was; I’ve done some small, low-key races before but I’ve never been to one that doesn’t have a start line or a clock. Mike asked us to follow him down to the start, and we walked behind him for a couple of minutes before he stopped us in the middle of a field. I was expecting him to then continue for a while, but it turned out that we were in fact at the start! He pointed up the trail and said something like “Rye is 50 miles… well, that way” and then counted down from 3 before we started running. I did appreciate the eccentricity of it, and knew I was going to love the next few hours as long as I didn’t get lost. Oh, dear, did I say lost?
About 10 minutes later a group of us were running down a trail following a guy who looked like he knew where he was heading; but it transpired he didn’t and we should have turned off the trail five minutes earlier. Cue an about-turn, a bit of grumbling, and a sprightly jog up a tarmac road to rejoin the real path as described by the GPS route. I’d decided that I was to use my Garmin 310 as a timer, to mark out run/walk intervals as I’d been training recently: 1 hour running, followed by 5 mins run/1 min walk, repeat until dead or finished. But after this early mishap I decided that relying on other people to navigate might not be the best option and switched to the course on my Garmin so at least I could be semi-independent! At this stage I didn’t think about consulting the map or directions provided by the organiser; of course now I would do either or both, but this was my first race of this kind and I really had no idea; I just trusted that everyone else would be going the right way. This thinking was to get me in trouble a few more times during the race.
After rejoining the Weald Way trail, following the ‘WW’ markers through Furness Wood, I felt a little better about things and settled into the run, regularly drinking water and generally enjoying it. A month earlier I’d been here and recced the first 7 miles of the course, so it all felt comfortable. I chatted with some of the other runners around me, the Spartathlon chap and a guy called Tom Sawyer, whose wife was also running but was likely some way behind us. We may have chatted a bit too much, and I may have got a bit too comfortable/complacent, as just after we tore down a hill (me imagining I was Kilian Jornet for a few seconds) we realised it was off the Weald Way, so we had to trudge back up the hill again. A little embarrassing and definitely quite frustrating this soon into the race.
We soon found our way again on the Weald Way, finding a rhythm to the run and taking in the innumerable stiles and the changes in terrain without too much trouble. At around 5 miles I knew we were about to cross the A26, an extremely busy road, and during the recce I’d lost the trail here and it took me a good 20 minutes to find it again (although 15 minutes of that were taken up with finding a small shop with great pies, and the consuming of a pie and a packet of crisps). I felt a bit smug that I knew the way here, so I was disappointed to find that all the other runners around me seemed to navigate it with no problem J
Uckfield (6.0 miles)
The first CP was stocked with water, biscuits and sweets, so I grabbed a couple of biccies and a couple of cups full of water (and, ok, a handful of cola bottles) and walked on quickly, esting as I walked. I think the fact I was esting a biscuit and looking quite chipper, it’s likely this was the point where a chap took the photo here. I later found out it was Stuart Miles, a very good Ultra runner who’s won a ton of races – I felt quite honoured to have my photo taken by him, and even more so to see what he wrote on his website: “As I watched the leaders of the 50 mile race pass through the drinks station I took a few photos.” The leaders. Get me!
At the 1 hour mark I started to run and walk, as planned – 5 minutes running followed by 1 minute walking. My Garmin was taken up with navigating the course so I got a bit nervous about the timing here – I’d been quite strict about the 5/1 ratio in recent training runs. I fiddled with it for a little while walking, and worked out that I can set time intervals while it’s still navigating. So it beeped every 5/1 minutes, which I thought would be ok.
The next 6 miles were fairly uneventful, in that I continued to feel strong and navigated the way quite well.
East Hoathly (12.6 miles)
The St John Ambulance crew was in force here, and nobody needed any help so they were sitting and enjoying the sun while chatting to us as we stocked up on water and snacks. I was surprised to see a bunch of guys who had been running strongly take some rest here, one of them phoned someone to let them know how they were doing. I grabbed a pack of Hula Hoops and half a Mars bar and set off walking quickly down the lane. Jamie Elston caught up with me here, and we walked and chatted for a while before he ran on ahead, and then shortly afterwards a bunch of others, including Martyn Turner, arrived and we ran together for a while.
As we headed towards Hailsham, a group of 6 of us, some following the map, others directions, and others (like me) GPS, we headed confidently through Ashburton Estate, only to fond that our apparent route was blocked by some serious-looking ‘keep the f**k out’ fencing surrounding a vast building site. There was no apparent way through, yet four people from our group decided that breaking through the fence and crossing the land would be the best course. I figured that was taking GPS tracking a bit too far, so me and Martyn decided to carry on to find a main road. We stopped and asked a local who advised us that the main road ahead wasn’t very runnable and could be quite dangerous, so we hot-footed it back the way we came and took a longer but safer detour. (Note: afterwards I checked on the map and the main road ahead was the A22 towards Eastbourne, and that really would not have been a pleasant run!)
Shortly afterwards just as we had found our way out of the maze-like Ashburton Estate we spotted Jamie again coming the opposite way! I felt annoyed that we’d lost so much time fannying around in a bloody housing estate. I ran with them both for a little while, then gradually pulled away as I wanted to keep a slightly higher pace. I always find this a quandary; on one hand invariably ultra runners are solid, decent people and nice to chat to, but on the other hand I rarely go the same pace as them – I’m either faster or (more likely) slower, and in which case something has to give. It’s a measure of my increased confidence as a runner that I can pull away from people knowing that I feel strong, and just go for it.
Hailsham (21 miles)
Reaching this aid station had seemingly taken forever; the road approaching it looked quite short on the map but I think this was the first time my mind played tricks on me, and I felt like David Byrne on the Road to Nowhere video. I think this was the first aid station that had sandwiches, and they were plentiful but unfortunately all were peanut butter. I don’t like peanut butter. I decided I was feeling well enough to keep going on crisps, sweets and gels. I was hungry by this point though, and a nice bit of bread and butter, or a ham or jam sandwich would have gone down a treat. The four guys who had gone a different way at Ashburton were here, and we left at about the same time.
Shortly after leaving the CP, just past the Lookers Cottage, there was a real “FFS!” moment. After climbing a few stiles we crossed a river, and I was just about to hop over a stile to the right and run to the left of a small river when I heard a shout. The other guys were pointing back another way, saying their GPS was pointing there. I made the mistake of taking their advice. Their route took us, comically, over a gate, through a field, through another field, then over another gate, only to find that it was the same place again. About a mile round in a bloody circle! I resolved that this was the last time I’d follow anyone else. Bah!
I was annoyed and the adrenaline was coursing, so I ran on a bit quicker than the others. The trail moved from the Weald Way to the 1066 Country Walk, which we would remain on until back at Rye. It didn’t feel much different, to be honest; still pretty trails, just the signage was a bit different J
And then I got lost. I was traversing a field and I could see from my GPS the place I needed to get to, but it was across a fairly wide stream. Jamie and Martyn were about with me, but the others had gone a completely different way. I took the lead in trying to get the three of us out of the field, heading alongside the stream to try to find a way across, past some interested cows. As I came to a trail across the river I saw a signpost and ran on, confidently, leaving Jamie and Martyn behind. Another sign on a weird stile in the middle of a field, where presumably there used to be a fence.
The trail then took me past Herstmonceux Castle, a very pretty structure with a giant moat. Mental note to pay a visit there when I wouldn’t be in such a rush. I took out my route directions at this point because it looked like a big pile of fields and stiles ahead and the route through didn’t look obvious. I found my current position relative to Herstmonceux, and found that I had to zig-zag diagonally across 6 fields, taking the stile in each opposite corner. Thanks to the organisers for providing those directions!
However, the quality of the instructions hit a blip when I reached a road, they weren’t easy to follow and my GPS pointed me along the trail, and there’s no way they’d put a CP 100 yards the opposite way from the trail, would they? Of course they would. No matter, I only ran half a mile in the wrong direction before realising I wasn’t going anywhere and took a asked a local where Reid Hall was, and he pointed me back the way I came. Bah!
Boreham Street (26.6 miles)
Marmite-only sandwiches at this CP. A massive pile of them. No solid food again except crisps. Rubbish. Mental note to pack sandwiches next time.
I ran again down the A271 Groundhog Day Road, as it shall now be known to me, and tried to make up some lost time. A few miles down the road I saw Martyn up ahead, running quite slowly, really laboured. We chatted for a bit and he said he’d missed the Boreham Street CP altogether, and he was really hurting. I sort of knew he was done for. Just up ahead though I could see Jamie, and he looked strong. I caught him up, and chatted about Martyn for a bit before we reached Ashburnham – 2.7 miles from Boreham Street. I’m still not sure why they put on both of these CPs.
Ashburnham (29.3 miles)
The chap here was just really handing out water, surrounded by massive bottles of the stuff. I thought I’d ask him how many people had gone ahead of us, thinking that we must be almost last after all the missed directions. He said he thought we were probably 9th and 10th place. That, to put it mildly, gave me a lift! Jamie and I ran for a little while, and then he said he was going to walk for a while and I should run on. This was about 31 miles, just about the longest I’ve ever run (previous longest was 30.37 miles), and I felt really good. I couldn’t quite believe it. 9th place, 30+ miles, and feeling good. I thought I could at least tell my grandchildren one day that I’d been 9th at one stage in an ultramarathon, and that thought kept me going all the way to the next CP!
Battle (35.9 miles)
Still 9th! The guy and girl at Battle CP were really helpful, pouring water into my backpack and helping me stock up with crisps and sweets. I asked the chap to pour me some cola. “Of course, sir!” he beamed, and did so. I drank it in one go, and asked for another. I knew it was a risk, because I’m not used to fizzy drinks while running, but it just felt like the right thing to do.
Before I left I sat down on the ground to retie my laces, and while I was sitting there I heard voices. It was the four guys! I quickly finished, and ran off while waving hello to them – and they waved back with a cheery “hallo!”
I really felt a buzz now, with people on my tail. I’ve never felt like this before, a proper rush, so I did what I felt was right and ran – right up to a level crossing just as the barriers were going down. Bollocks. I paced up and down, trying to keep moving and look much less annoyed than I actually was, all the while glancing back up the road expecting to see the 4 blokes following me appear and all the good running I’d put in go to waste. A chap in a van shouted out “What race are you running mate?”. I shouted back “Norman Conquest”, and he looked nonplussed. Not sure what he was expecting me to say – the London f**king Marathon? Anyway, the barriers went up shortly afterwards and I celebrated by pulling the half-Mars bar out of my backpack and eating it while walking quickly on. Feeling strong!
This was a really long section, 9.8 miles total, and so a good one to be feeling good in if you see what I mean. I knew that at the end of it I’d be 45 miles to the good, and then coasting in to the finish at 51 miles. In fact, honestly this was a FANTASTIC section. I remember undulating fields, a golf course, and beautiful woodland. I can see from the instructions now that I crossed a giant trunk road, a horribly rutted field, a big pile of stiles, some more roads, yet pretty much all of that is lost to my memory, replaced with all the wonder of nature. Amazing, I think this might have been the best case of runner’s high I’ve had, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. I exchanged texts with my wife Sarah along the way as well, and she and the kids were heading for the Icklesham CP – I think that added to my enthusiasm for finishing this section too J
Icklesham (45.7 miles)
I saw Sarah! I saw the CP first, a small trestle table with a bored-looking young guy behind it, and I looked around for her car. I couldn’t see it at first, but then there she was, running towards me. I noticed Billy, my 9-year-old son, getting out of the car too. Big hugs and kisses all round, and “well dones”, and Sarah apologised because Daisy, my 3-year-old daughter was asleep in the car.
I had another couple of cups of cola at this CP. Maybe that’s the secret of good running – fake Coke! Sarah helped me drop a bit more water into my pack (good job, the disinterested guy probably wouldn’t have) and then they waved me on my way and told me they’d see me at the end.
Then starting to run again, I realised I was on the last page of instructions too. I did a little mental dance. The people behind me were nowhere to be seen now, even though I’d been a good five minutes at that CP. Natural doubts appeared, like “what if the guy had been wrong, and I wasn’t 9th after all?” Seemed like a reasonable question, but hey, I only had 6-odd miles to go, and I’ve done that distance a hundred times before, so let’s just go for it.
This section is honestly pretty hazy. I remember the following:
- Running into a churchyard by accident instead of the path down the side of it. I was a little scared of being caught so I hoisted myself over the chain link fence at the far end of the graveyard, after apologising to the souls I’d just stood on. I got stuck, and realised my previously watertight Stuff Sack had snagged on some barbed wire and I just wrenched it loose. I could always buy another! Onwards.
- Crossing a railway line via some gates. I’ve never been across a rural crossing like that, it wasn’t a level crossing, it was right across the rails and up to me to worry about the presence of a train or not. I looked left, then right, then left again, and (to paraphrase Wells from Assault on Precinct 13, “I got this plan. It’s called “Save Ass”. And the way it works is this – I slip through one of these gates and I run like a bastard!”
- Two miles of cycle path heading into Rye. More David Byrne. Unbelievably long, like being on a dreadmill.
- It was getting dark, and I *really* didn’t want to have to get out my headtorch.
But then I could see the lights of Rye, and I was on Wish Street then Cinque Ports Street, looking at all the people not at all bothered by my presence, nobody waving, nobody cheering, and I wasn’t the slightest bit bothered. I was only happy to have done it, to have got there in about 12 hours, to have gone 56.7 miles in the pursuit of a 51.3 mile goal, and to have lived to tell the tale. To find Conduit Street made me very, very happy. I burst through the door of that village hall, and was greeted by cheers.
Rye (51.3 miles)
The cheers were from Sarah, the kids, Mike’s mum who was still behind her table, and the St John Ambulance people in the corner. Mike’s mum confirmed I was 9th (YESSS! GET IN! TOP 10!) and then went off to get me a bowl of stew and rice. Which Daisy, now awake, proceeded to eat with me. Bless her, she had no idea what I’d just done. I almost wept when I saw the medal, a good chunk of metal, and a nice T-shirt too. Lots of hugs and kisses. I waved to the St John people, saying I didn’t want to disappoint them but I probably wouldn’t need their services this evening. I did, as it happens, have a small blood blister which they helped me pop, but otherwise I was feeling great. In this ‘training run’ I’d kept to my plan, I’d stuck with it despite getting lost a few times, I’d avoided my usual cramps, I hadn’t had any downers or ‘walls’, it had just gone well. My training run had just become my best ever race, probably my best ever run. I was an Ultra runner, and I had the bug.