Disturbed sleep before an important race is a common enough occurrence. Nerves and anxiety about what is to come are not conducive to restful sleep.
What isn’t talked about so much is the night after the race. Back home, after the CTS Anglesey Trail Ultra, I’m lying in bed. My legs are aching, my stomach rumbling, and my mind unwilling to switch off. It is still playing through the race, still running mental footsteps, while my wet, muddy race shoes lie festering in my kit bag. The adrenaline has worn off, the caffeinated gels long since metabolised, but the body and mind has gone into survival mode. Alert and awake. This is obviously somewhat frustrating, as I have been up since 5:30am, raced my first ultra marathon, and sat in the car for 4 hours to get back home. Skim the surface of a superficially wired mind, and I am fatigued. It is the ultimate cruelty – my every effort is put into crossing the finish line, my conscious focus ends as I have my SportIdent tag cut off my wrist and a medal is thrust into my hand. The rest of my mind has other ideas however.
I get up, and creep downstairs, painfully and stiffly. The walk of a man who’s quads are letting him know that they’ve been asked to go beyond the usual call of duty. Bowl of cereal, toast, back to bed and eventually sleep comes. It feels light though, and I’m back awake before 6am, content lie still and to feel my body repairing itself – my heightened heart-rate, my still sore legs (definitely the biggest difference between endurance riding and running. My legs feel tired after a 24hr race, but not as stiff and sore as after five and half hours of this trail race). It is a pleasing indulgence. A tired satisfaction, not based on race results, times, positions, winning or losing – just one of completion. One of testing my body, taking it close to its limits, and keeping it there.
EnduranceLife, who run the CTS have a motto on their merchandise – Never Give Up. This reminds me of a No Fear t-shirt I bought as a teenager, which had something along the lines of “Never, Never, Never Give Up” (a quick google suggests this was a Winston Churchill quote originally – presumably talking about something a little more serious than a race…). On one hand these are cheesy “motivational” quotes, that don’t have any substance. We are talking about a race, a game, something that we do for fun. No one dies if we do give up, and, really it is not that hard. I am incredibly lucky to be fit and healthy enough to contemplate running for a few hours in a row, to be outside in the elements, to be able to afford to drive across the country to indulge my superficial obsessions. On the other hand, to keep pushing oneself isn’t easy. To eek out every last bit of effort when “that’ll do” hurts. It is easy to give up in the moment, to ease off, to listen to all the physical signs, to end the hurting now. Except, after the event, all the aching is still there, the physical tiredness is still there, but there is a deeper emptiness. There is no satisfaction, no indulgence. Just a hollow feeling – that of cheating myself.
I didn’t need motivational quotes at the start. The weather was exactly as forecast. Rain, due to steadily get heavier over the course of the race. It didn’t really matter. I was just looking forward to racing again, after being injured for so long. We set off after a count down, along a waterlogged track, splashing through puddles, setting the theme for much of the 34 miles. I set a steady rhythm, not pushing too hard, but mindful that after a couple of miles, we would hit the coastal singletrack around (and up Holyhead mountain). I wanted to make sure I was able to move at my own pace through that section, rather than getting held up by others. It was easy running, a pleasure to just have a light race vest on my back, rather my usual commute-run 30litre rucksack. The day and mile stretched out in front of me, and I knew a relatively conservative approach now would serve me well later. I was part of a loose group, making up the placings from 3rd to around 7th. (A pair set off at a sprint together and finished joint first, comfortably breaking the course record). This group fractured going up and over the west flank of the hill, before dropping down to the lighthouse. I found myself alone, occasionally getting a glimpse of runners in front of me, and a few hundred metres behind. Trail gave way to tarmac, gave way to coastal trail – wide open, closely cropped grass, which would have been lovely in the dry. As it was, the top couple of inches were waterlogged, making forward progress slightly harder, energy generated by leg muscles lost to cutting through the mud. The sea to my right was wild, and if the terrain had been even a little more even, I’d have enjoyed the view. As it was, I focussed on where my next foot placement should be, and treated myself to the odd glance to the side.
Time passed quickly, as I was lost in mental calculations of pace, questioning when I last ate, was it time for another bar? Was I warm enough? Was the now heavy rain going to persist? Was it worth swapping my sodden windproof for a waterproof?
At some point, I caught a pair in front, we ran as a three for a while, until we were just two. We dodged waves on the sea front, then waded through the sea… I guess it was the Coastal Trail Series after all. Turning in land, the trail tightened, right angled turns along wall edges and avoiding low trees. And after one turn, I was alone. Hitting a stretch of straight tarmac, I looked back and saw no one. Head down, content in my own world.
Moving north again, on the “back” leg of an out and back, I was re-collected by the runner I’d left in the twists and turns, and we in turn caught up with the runner in 3rd. Moving as a three we chatted, all starting to feel tired, all aware that our pace was not what it had been. Holyhead mountain stood proud in our line of sight, playing tricks with distances, as it appears much larger than it really is. It still took a long section of tarmac to reach it, during which two became three, and we were passed by the eventual third place finisher – looking as fresh as he did when I was running with him in the first two miles.
The final 10k+ of the course were the most technically challenging of the race. Rocky, and steep, we ascended to the trig point at the top of the hill, before dropping back down the start finish. Once again, I was on my own. I could feel my energy draining, my legs had lost the elasticity and spring that they had been carrying, each footstep felt jarring rather than fluid. Jenn had walked her way to the top and after cheering me, told me I looked pale and told me to eat something. Good advice. I finished the descent, knowing it required my full attention, before passing through the finish… only to carry on running, back out to do a final lap of the 10k course. The sting in the ultra tail.
Necking a gel had little immediate effect, but I continued, concentrating on forward progress, regardless of pace. Hitting the climbs meant walking instantly, clambering up rocky trail, hands on rock to steady my path. Looking around nervously, I knew I would be losing time to others. It didn’t matter… forward progress was all that mattered. Creeping towards my goal. Down to the lighthouse, one last, long climb to go, and twinges of cramp ran down my quads, never enough to bring me to a halt, but enough that every misplaced footstep was painful. Somewhere below the trig point, mixed in with the 10k runners, I thought I was passed by another ultra competitor, frustrating, but inevitable. Cresting the top and turning for the final steep drop, I could see him below me.
I usually love fell descents. I can let my legs go, tumble, roll, fly over the terrain, dabbing feet purely to maintain momentum, as my body continues smoothly on its downward trajectory. Now, I bumped, stalled, thudded my way down, wooden legs unable to work as quickly as my mind willed them to do so. Picking my way between other runners, I eventually found a rhythm and started to build pace, increasing as the trail became smoother, if no less steep.
It wasn’t enough to make up the place (or another that I must have lost at around the same time), but I crossed the finish line having pushed myself to the limits of my current capability and experience. There was a bit of a mix-up over placing at the finish, but checking the results, it looks as though I came 6th. In retrospect, it is annoying to have given away a couple of places so close to the end, but for my first running race of this kind of distance, I’m still pleased. While I’m satisfied for now, I’ve already got the nagging feeling that I can go faster, push harder, train better, race better… it is why I keep returning to races.
Lessons: what went well:
-I love my Salomon S-Lab race vest. It is a revelation to have easy access to fuel while running, without the downsides normally associated with a rucksack
-The Salomon Fellraisers were the perfect shoe for me on the terrain. I missed having something a little more minimalist, but they gripped superbly in the mud, and weren’t too slippery on wet rock.
-Clothing was bang on. A windproof kept me just warm enough despite the rain. I was glad I had a “just in case” waterproof and hat with me though
-My pacing was broadly ok. I could maybe done with leaving a little more in the tank for the last 10k, but I think that was as much to do with being further than I have run before, rather than over enthusiasm too early in the race.
What I could improve:
-General experience of running longer distances.
-Fuelling was mostly bang on, but I should have had another gel or two earlier than I did on the last loop
-Carried a little more water, as I was loathe to stop for long enough to fill up my bottle. I had just enough in the end, but would have been sensible to have had another bottle.
Finally, thank you to Jenn for being brilliant and travelling with me, despite being too ill to race herself. She cheered me on during the race, generally looked after me once I crossed the finish line, and drove home. I know how frustrating it is to not be able to compete, and I wouldn’t have blamed her for wanting to stay at home and do something else altogether. It meant lots to have her there.