Winter Madness (Peddars Way Ultra)

February 5, 2015

On Saturday I ran my first ever Ultra Marathon, the Peddars Way Ultra, a 48 mile race that encompasses the entire old Roman road from Knettishal Heath in Suffolk, north to Holme-next-the-sea on the North Norfolk Coast. It was one of 5 Ultras I plan to run this year and finishing just a few miles up the road from my Parents home I jumped at the chance to sign up to as local an Ultra could get. Ultimately running the 48 miles home would prove to be the easiest part of a day filled with blizzards, hail storms and even attacks from four-legged ‘friends’.

In the week leading up to the race my emotions were all over the place, I was going from nervous to excited, back to nervous again in 24 hours. I felt unprepared both mentally and physically and loads of thoughts were rushing through my mind. Had I bitten off more than I could chew? Was jumping from 26.2 miles to 48 too much for my first Ultra? Was the lack of training due to suffering with Flu in December going to bite me in the arse? Yet my biggest concern going into the race was not whether I had packed enough food, had trained hard enough or had any solid strategy in place, but could I last 8/9 hours without going to the toilet? And if I couldn’t how exactly would that pan out.

After a four hour drive down to Norfolk from Leeds I had enough time to take down a mountain of pasta before starting the process of packing my bag for the morning and settling down for bed. Being my first Ultra it was fairly safe to say that I had no idea what I was doing. Race Instructions/Kit Requirements stated that we would need food to cover us for the first 13ish miles, as there would be checkpoints at 13, 26.5 and 35 miles. So I packed 5 gels to take a random intervals throughout, a bag of Haribo, some Dextro energy tablets and High 5 Zero tablets to use in one of my two Ultimate Direction bottles. Beyond this I would rely solely on whatever food and drink would be awaiting me at the various checkpoints. Having only recently purchased my vest I’m still getting used to wearing it and packing it, so the only other things I stuffed in there were the recommended waterproof trousers, painkillers, headtorch and some babywipes and immodium incase things got messy.

After a disjointed four hours sleep it was time to get up and start to talk myself into that this was all a good idea. The bus from the finish would depart at 6am before heading to the start in Knettishall Heath, so after a quick shower to wake myself up it was time for breakfast, in particular porridge and a nice cuppa before heading the few miles up the road to Holme. It became clear on the bus that there were some seasoned ultra-runners taking part, all appeared focused as they began eating their breakfast and worryingly for me, all carrying significantly more in their bags/vests. Before I could dwell on it too much I fell asleep and woke up a few miles out from the start to see that snow had already hit select areas of Norfolk and as the bus pulled in to the car park, with ‘Ride like the wind’ ironically playing over the buses’ radio, it started snowing and the reality of the day began to dawn on me.

Now the nerves really began to hit, in less than 20 minutes time I would be starting my first ever Ultra and attempting to run the entirety of the Peddars Way’s 46 miles, plus the two extra they threw in for good measure. I’d held off from drinking and eating anything on the bus as I was already busting for a wee, but now ‘free’ I trotted off to as discrete a tree I could find before eating a flapjack I had strategically packed for second breakfast. Before long it was time for the race briefing, the entirety of the route is well sign-posted throughout either by fingerposts or smaller 3-foot posts but the key theme throughout was ‘follow the acorns’, as the symbol would be present on every turn. One key instruction was that the finish wouldn’t be at the end of the Peddars Way, but rather the Village Hall in Holme, so instead we would have to tear a page out of a book that was tied to the post on Holme beach, before running to the Village Hall to properly finish the race.

The first few miles were all about trying to ease myself into a gentle pace. I found myself towards the front of the group at the beginning of the race as I got a little carried away, before forcing myself to slow down to a more steady 10 minute mile pace and allowing the more experienced runners to get in front of me. The previous weekend I had stopped much longer than planned during a long run to check the football results roll in, and soon found myself glued to my phone for 5-10 hilarious minutes, but then when I tried to start running again found I had completely stiffened up and struggled for the rest of the race. Anxious of this happening again and keen to set as fast a time as I could I planned to speed through aid stations, refilling my water bottles if required and grabbing what I could before walking and eating it and then settling back into running. As I reached the first aid station it was already fairly busy, I grabbed a few chocolate cookies and a couple of cups of coke before continuing on. I took this opportunity to grab the Haribo out of my vest and put them in my jacket pocket for easy reach and started to ease back into running and headed to Castle Acre, the next checkpoint.

After crossing the A1065 Castle Acre Priory soon came into view in the distance, but there would be a few windy roads and a mile or two before reaching the next checkpoint inside the Ostrich Inn, just slightly off the track. For the few minutes I was there the shelter and relative warmth was a welcome change, having spent the past 4 and 1/2 hours out unprotected in the countryside, the sight of civilization with a roof, heating and a flushing toilet was almost too good to be true. And it came at the right time, I had just ran slightly more than a marathon and had to refocus and psych myself up knowing that the easiest part of the race was over, and as soon as I stepped foot back outside the toughest 20 miles of the race, and the toughest 20 miles I’ve ever run was to come.

For any race that takes place in the winter you are at the mercy of the weather, especially one that takes place across fields and farm tracks. I had refrained from keeping too close on an eye on the weather, there was little I could do to prepare for it and it would only add to my nerves, but on the Friday I saw that the snow that had hit the North of the country earlier in the week, was now heading south and it looked destined for the Peddars Way just after midday.

Sure enough as I left the second checkpoint at Castle Acre the snow began to fall, gently at first, before getting increasingly harder and turning as close to a blizzard as you are likely to get in these parts. I could see a few runners in the distance stopping to grab extra kit out of their bags, gloves, jackets etc., as for me, my waterproof jacket had been on since the minute I left the house in the morning, as had my gloves and I had nothing to help me get any warmer. I was completely out of my comfort zone, as I left Castle Acre I was officially an Ultra Marathoner, about to enter uncharted territory and with 20 miles to go I could no longer feel my hands. Over the next few miles both my feet went numb, along with both my hands and a few miles later my entire left arm joined them. I would learn later that 20 people (29% of those that entered) DNF’d at some stage during the race, I’m assuming due the extreme weather, and at this point had it been a training run I’d had long called it a day and been at home in the warm. Instead, I used my ignorance of running the distance and what it, and the weather would do to me to my advantage and plowed on.

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The snow starting to fall after leaving Castle Acre

The next 7/8 miles between Castle Acre and the third, and final checkpoint near Dogotel was the ‘hilly’ bit. Having lived in Norfolk for 20+ years, and now living in Yorkshire, I know full well that Norfolk doesn’t do hills. The entire race did manage to sneak in about 1,600ft of elevation gain, but with it also 1,650ft of elevation loss, so technically it was downhill. In the tips and guides I’d read on Ultra running beforehand ‘Walking up hills’ was a recurring idea, and it was one I was planning on taking on board, but in truth I didn’t really encounter any proper hills, it was the flattest run I’d done for a long time. With the temperature at freezing conditions I wasn’t in the mood to slow down without good reason, so I continued on at my steady pace until I reached the final checkpoint. By the time I got there the snow had subsided for freezing rain and everything was under cover, I searched around for the chocolate cookies that had fared me well so far, drank another couple of cups of coke and was on my way to run the remaining 13 miles.

In truth most of the running in between checkpoints is a bit of a blur, all my focus and attention was spent on surviving the distance that I paid very little attention to my surroundings. Half the time it was impossible to look around as the freezing snow was being blown directly into my face, that I had little choice but to look at the ground. For the last section of the race the hood was up, drawstrings pulled and I focused on running in as straight a line as I could, looking up and peeking out only when at a crossing to make sure I didn’t miss a turn.

One of the big decisions I had to make before the race was the choice of footwear. I had never run any significant distance (further than 26.2 miles) in any pair I own, but I had a choice between a pair of road trainers, that whilst comfy would struggle for grip on anything that resembles mud, or my hybrid trail trainers that would more than cope with the terrain but typically start to hurt my feet if I go beyond 20 miles in them. With my feet already covered in 4 blisters, three black toenails and another missing, my feet were hardly in the best condition to begin with, so I (foolishly?) opted for comfort, over practicality.

For the most part this wasn’t a regretful decision, until the 40 mile mark when a 2/3 mile stretch of very slippery, muddy farm track did its utmost to put me on my arse. Having ran the majority of past 20 miles in the freezing snow/rain I wasn’t prepared for it to get any worse and through sheer will power alone I managed to defy gravity and stay on my feet. For the 40 minutes or so it took me to get back onto a drier surface I turned into Malcolm Tucker, swearing at myself, choice of footwear and the weather.Before long I arrived in Ringstead and the pavements were a welcome respite from the slippery, muddy tracks. These last few miles were some of the ‘tougher’ sections to navigate as the roads bent round, corner after corner, but still well signposted throughout by the red and white tape that was present at every turn.

Coming out of Ringstead with only a few miles to go it seemed like the struggle was nearly over and it was going to be a simple end to the race. As I turned the corner to see Ringstead’s sail-less windmill I saw a couple of dog walkers in front of me on the path, I stepped out into the road to try and pass them, to tired to check if anything was coming, and before I knew it I could see a Labrador going crazy and leaping towards me. I had just enough energy to move my arm out of the way, but not before felt its teeth wrap round it. Fortunately I was able to retract my arm before it was able to take a proper bite, and after the snowstorm and previous 40+ miles it barely even phased me. Over the last few miles, as the sea drew slowly into focus, my feet felt a lot lighter and I was able to slightly up the pace. What once seemed like a crazy idea was actually becoming reality and I began to think of the number of times I pulled the ‘my knees hurt’ card when I was too lazy to run the cross country and High School, or how much of a struggle running 0.97 miles was when I first started out, this fat bastard was about to run 48. After crossing the A149 and heading down a Beach Road I spotted a couple of runners I had ran with at various stages of the race coming back from the beach, we congratulated each other before I ran towards the end of the Peddars Way to grab my page from the book. In my head it was like the training montage from Rocky when he runs up the Philadelphia Museum Steps, or even Jesse’s air punch at the end of Free Willy, but I imagine my celebrations looked far tamer in comparison. The road towards the Village Hall seemed full of an impossible number of twists and turns, but eventually I could see the lights and my Mum & Dad waiting outside to see me stumble in and cross the line.

The excellent organisation and support laid on by the team was on display throughout the race, but never more so than at the end when seconds after taking a seat after collecting my medal and T-shirt I had a cup of Tea in my hands and a bowl of Chilli ready to reflect on the achievement. On average I only lost 2 minutes at each checkpoint either grabbing food, or walking whilst eating. On reflection I lucked out a lot during the race, I didn’t eat that much at each aid station, I eat far more over the 8 hours I spend sitting on my arse at my computer at work than I did running just shy of 50 miles in horrific conditions. I didn’t have a spare change of kit and risked hypothermia, my phone battery died just after half way and the replacement I had wasn’t working either. It could very easily have gone very, very bad, but it didn’t, whether down to beginners luck or whatever else I found my first Ultra relatively easy, and in a way that terrifies me.

After a well needed warm bath the rest of the evening was spent soaking in the day’s achievements, eating Chinese takeaway,  sporadic bouts of shivering and cursing the blood blister on my big toe that was persistently throbbing and keeping me from sleeping. The next morning I was expecting to be in a bad way, but normal post run stiffness aside I felt fine. I had accidentally/intentionally left my foam roller back in Leeds and by the time I went to bed I was too tired to do any proper stretching, so I was expecting to be in pieces, but was surprisingly nimble. A few days on and I feel fine, bruised toe aside, and ready to do it all again.

I’ve began reconsidering the Ultra’s I plan to run this year, looking at potential 50milers/100Ks and even chewing over the idea of running the White Rose 24 solo. One thing is for sure, as much as it may have tried, the Peddars Way Ultra didn’t scare me off, and I’m even entertaining the idea of coming back for more next year.

All this suffering isn’t just for fun, it’s part of the 15 marathons/Ultras I plan to run this year for Mind. So if you have any spare pennies, please visit my JustGiving page.

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