To The Coast (Norfolk 100KM)

June 22, 2015

Last Saturday I ran my longest race to date, 63 miles of East Anglian trail in the inaugural Norfolk 100KM. My confidence going into the race was at an all time low, I hadn’t had a successful race in months. At Dukeries my legs abandoned me halfway through and in London my legs didn’t even start going. Whether either through my own fault or not I would have to go back to the Peddars Way Ultra in January for the last time I felt I’d run a race smoothly. Exactly one week before the race I found myself spending the entire day in bed with an ice pack after (mildly) spraining my ankle playing Basketball the day beforehand. The days leading up to the race would be spent strapping my ankle, icing it and occasionally testing its strength. On Friday evening I couldn’t walk on it without being in pain, but by Wednesday the swelling had gone and (most of) the pain with it. When I left Castle Acre at 7am on Saturday morning I did so not knowing whether or not I would finish, how long my ankle would hold up or even if I could make it half way.

The nature of trying to run 15 marathons in a year is that you never really have any time to properly train for any of them, the recovery time from one eats in to the taper time of another. In my mind I treated the Dukeries Ultra in May as my last big ‘long run’ before the race, but that went far from to plan. Ideally I’d have fitted in two back-to-back 20 mile runs in over a weekend, but other plans or general fatigue got in the way.

As is fast become pre-Ultra norm I booked another session with the sports masseuse on the Thursday before the race, thankfully my legs were less tight than before the Dukeries so it was a little bit more relaxing than last time. Failing to learn from my lessons of the past few races of trying something new on race day I packed some different food, Cliff Bars and Chiacharge flapjacks, into my new, unworn, Ultimate Direction SJ race vest. In hindsight these didn’t turn out to be an issue, but it was something extra for me to worry about.

When race day finally came I was feeling far, far from ready. I knew physically I hadn’t had a solid training plan going in, and mentally I knew I was far from prepared for what the day would throw at me. When I signed up for the race earlier in the year all I told anyone I spoke to about the race was that I wanted to get to Cromer before the Ice Cream parlours shut. I had visions of me sitting on the beach, basking in the sun, having run 60+ miles, ice cream in hand and reflecting on the race. Instead as the day drew closer it became obvious that these visions were mere fantasy and instead of sunshine and sand I was forecast humidity and thunderstorms.

I took down two instant porridge pots on the drive to the start for breakfast and generally spent most of the trip trying to calm my nerves, before chucking all my kit together at the last minute, as is tradition. Pre-race instructions suggested that given good weather road shoes would be fine, after running the Peddars Way Ultra in January in road shoes I was a little skeptical, but knew they would be the comfiest option. Nevertheless I packed my trail trainers in my drop back to change into if necessary, along with some additional food supplies, should I need them.

Race registration was simple, I collected my race number along with some course notes and a map detailing a slight diversion, and left my drop bag on the table. The Race Director gave a quick run through of the course, including any key, tricky navigational bits to look out for before warning us that when we reached the 4 1/2 mile stretch of shingle beach at Cley-next-the-sea that he expected a lot of swearing directed his way.

When I left the Castle Acre checkpoint in January I would be running into an oncoming blizzard, but there was a lot more of a peaceful air this time, one of anticipation and excitement, but also trepidation. The first few miles of any Ultra always seem to be a case of trying to settle into a comfortable pace, after 10 minutes or so the 38 of us that left Castle Acre would begin to spread out nicely along the road as we each found our rhythm. Before long we were at the first checkpoint at Dogotel, at the 12km mark and little over an hour into the run. Originally it was only meant to have water so I didn’t plan on stopping long, but after spotting some additional snacks, including fudge, I grabbed a couple, filled up my bottles and was on my way. Throughout the race I planned on adopting a strategy of stopping as briefly as possible at checkpoints, grabbing stuff to eat whilst walking to make sure I was still moving forward.

I used the short break to grab some additional items of food out of the back of my bag, and placed them into a more reachable pocket for later in the race. It took me the first 10 or so miles for my legs to fully loosen up, after Dukeries I was making sure to keep to a sensible, maintainable pace but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a little concerned initially when my legs were still feeling stiff. Thankfully though it was more a case of lack of proper warm up/race nerves than any general fatigue, and as I approached the 2 hour mark my legs were feeling much fresher.

In January much of the final stretch from Castle Acre to Holme was run underneath a hood, with me looking directly at the floor trying to shield my face from the snow. It was therefore no surprise that I struggled to remember much of the opening 30KM, save for a few key points. My memory played tricks on me, making me think that certain landmarks were much closer to Holme than they were, which made for a challenging opening third of the race.

When we reached Ringstead I saw a group of confused runners up ahead at a crossroads, instincts suggested we should carry on straight ahead but arrows were pointing right. Soon another group of runners caught up and were equally as confused as to which way to go, after some consultation with a well placed postman we found out that the correct turn was left. Whilst most still seemed convinced we should turn right I confidently ventured off left and soon saw that they all followed.

After a couple of turns the route suddenly snapped back into memory, having run the course back in January, and worse having lived just a few miles up the road for 20-odd years I should have known where to go, but I blame fatigue. Soon some of the runners that were already waiting ahead of me at the crossroads came past, but almost went the wrong way before I shouted ahead to correct them. Thankfully this time I manged to escape Ringstead without being attacked by a ‘four-legged friend’ and rejoined the trail on-route to Holme, and checkpoint two.

In January the sight of the beach at Holme meant that I was a matter of a few hundred yards from the finish, this time I was barely a third of the way. I dove into the tent to see what food was on offer, flat coke in any other circumstance would be turned away, but after 20 miles of running it turns into miracle juice. Once again I refilled my bottles, grabbed a couple of sausage rolls and headed out towards the sea, to finish the last few metres along the Peddars Way before joining onto the Norfolk Coastal Path.

Despite spending my formative years just a few miles down the road, the Norfolk Coastal Path was completely alien to me, so as I made my way up to Thornham I made sure to take in all the views. With such a small field of runners I expected to run the majority of the race by myself, seeing maybe the odd dog walker or wildlife, but though never really running with anyone I was never too far behind or in front of another runner at any point, often catching up for a quick chat at a checkpoint.

The third checkpoint was again, another quick stop, I knew there was only another 7 or so miles to go to the bag drop so whilst I felt fine I was keen to keep moving. Soon after leaving checkpoint 3 we reached the boardwalks at Brancaster, which gave a very welcome spring underfoot, at this point I literally felt like I was bouncing along. Cromer was still a long way away, but if it was these boardwalks the entire way it felt like it would arrive in no time.

Well, I was bouncing along quite steadily until hitting the marshes, when I could see other runners up in the distance and the weather began to turn. The rain that had been forecast had suddenly hit, thankfully it was just light showers, but still it was very much unwelcome. As the rain fell several of the runners in front stopped to put layers on, allowing me to pass them. I knew the checkpoint was almost in sight so I opted to brave the rain a little while longer knowing that I would soon be able to stop and assess the weather and my strategy from here onwards.

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When I arrived at the fourth checkpoint I heard the best words I would hear all day, “Do you want a cup of tea?”. Biscuits are all well and good, but after running 30+ miles and with the weather turning, short of a warm bed to lay down in, a hot cup of tea was the best thing you could offer me. There was almost too much food at the checkpoint to take in; sandwiches, pasta, fruit, cake, chocolate, all of it looked tempting but not all of it could be eaten. I grabbed a tub of pasta and began tucking into that whilst grabbing my coat from the back of my vest and placing some additional food in it for the next stretch, the Jelly Babies in particular that I placed in one pocket would get me through to the next checkpoint.

After grabbing my cup of tea I put my bag back on and made my way up the path, at nearly 10 minutes it had been my longest stop at a checkpoint yet and with the weather turning I didn’t want to make it any longer. I adopted a gentle walking pace over the next couple of minutes allowing me to finish my tea and give time for any food I had eaten to go down.

After leaving the checkpoint my legs would take a bit of persuading to get going, after the issues I had last month at the Dukeries Ultra I was anxious of my legs completely falling apart again. I had made it to 30 miles without any signs of my ankle injury ruining the day, but after stopping for longer than planned at the halfway point I began to worry that I’d left my legs behind. After some gentle persuasion, maybe a little bit of slapping my hamstrings and swearing at them, I was able to settle into a gentle rhythm again.

When we reached Holkham I took a little diversion up unto the beach to take a photo and see if it was as scenic as I remembered as a kid. Afterwards I learnt that apparently it is a nudist beach, probably not wise to have been so snap happy at this bit but fortunately the weather wasn’t pleasant enough to see any (un)welcome sights. After climbing back down from the beach I saw a group of runners both in the distance and coming up behind me that seemed to both be having difficulty identifying the correct path to take.

The instructions read to keep to the left hand path of the pine wood once you’ve passed through the dunes, I left both groups behind, opting instead to simply run out and see which way to go, rather than stop and think about it. Thankfully I was heading in the right direction and after clearing the dunes I made my way to the left hand side of the forest, looking for a clear path.

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Whilst I knew to expect some very scenic views throughout the race, particularly when hitting the beach at Holkham, I wasn’t prepared for beautiful pine wood we would run through, perfectly juxtaposed with the coast just a hundred metres away. As I ran deeper into the forest the views got better and as Sikth’s Tupelo came on whilst deep in the middle of the trees it made for an epic 7 minutes. I slowed a little to double check the instructions we were given as I knew there would be a turn to make shortly after Holkham Gap, and I’m grateful I did as I would have otherwise probably missed the sudden 90 degree turn back towards the beach and continued inland.

The next few mile and a bit felt nice and familiar, as I had run along the Wells Sea Wall several times before in the North Norfolk Marathon. Instincts took over when I reached the end of the wall and I took a right turn away from the sea back up towards what would be Holkham Hall, thankfully I soon realised what I was doing and turned round before going too far off track. Just a few miles further and I had reached the penultimate checkpoint at Stiffkey, once again I grabbed a few sausage rolls and a very welcome cup of tea and generally made sure to make the checkpoint count.

Before leaving I asked a question I already knew the answer to, “How far away is the next checkpoint?”, “20KM”, the answer I was expecting, but not the one I wanted to hear. Not only was it the longest stretch between checkpoints but it would also prove to be the longest 20km of the race.

As I edged closer towards the 50 mile mark the course began to feel monotonous, there were a couple of groups of runners that I would run the majority of the next 5/6 miles with. We found ourselves often changing positions as one stopped to grab something from their bag or readjust their kit. The stretch from Blakeney to Cley-next-the-sea was another, agonisingly winding path, through marshes, although just a couple of miles it was made to feel longer by the indirectness of it.

To give a little perspective Holme-next-the-sea to the finish line by road would be 34 miles, but for us, on foot was about 44 miles. This was it, at the 50 mile mark I had now run further than I ever had, but still had another half marathon and several hours of running to go and I knew it was about to get tougher. Upon reaching Cley-next-the-sea the route would take us very briefly into the village before dropping down past the windmill, back onto the Norfolk Coastal Path and heading towards the dreaded beach section we were warned about at 6:45am.

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Leading the drive through the shingle

4.5 miles of shingled beach lay between me and the next checkpoint, with 52 miles (2 full marathons) in my legs at this point it was possibly the worst type of surface to be thrown at you, but it was very much a case of the faster you get through it the faster it’s over with. I could see runners in the distance trying to run along the bank, but it seemed to be sucking more energy out of you than it was worth. At this point, this close to the finish the idea of a good time had gone out of the window, I was only focussed on finishing so I simply put my head down and marched onwards.

After a couple of miles I noticed another runner move towards the shoreline and start running, it turned out that, though still shingled, this section was reasonably runable. So I made my way down and spent the next 2 1/2 miles trying to dodge the incoming waves, sometimes more successfully than others.

Jenny had text me earlier in the race to let me know that they would be meeting me at the Weybourne checkpoint, after about a mile of running along the shoreline I made out two figures waiting in the middle of the beach before realising my parents had parked up and made their way out onto the beach to cheer me on. I made a quick, painful trudge up the shingle bank to say hello, before then diving back to the coast. I think they were both surprised to see me looking in relatively one piece at this stage, I knew the end was in sight and had to plow on so we could all get some dinner.

Eventually the cliffs at Sheringham came into view and with it the next checkpoint, I stopped very briefly to fill my bottles before powering on to the finish across the cliffs, through Sheringham and into Cromer. After leaving Weybourne another runner caught me and we began chatting and ultimately ended up running most of the remaining 6 miles together. After spending the majority of the race running alone, with only podcasts and music for company, having another person to help see these last few miles out was a welcome change.

Much of the remaining miles would be run along the cliff tops of Sheringham and West Runton, but a change to the course due to coastal path erosion meant we were diverted through a caravan park. Thankfully a high spirited runner/marshal met us to help navigate through this section, without him I would have no doubt had gotten lost even with the map we were handed at the start as I was mentally exhausted. Eventually the car park at the finish came into sight and as I saw the marquee I began to slow, believing the race to be all over only to be told that the finish was at the other end of the car park by the fence. Suddenly, after nearly 14 hours of running I found the energy to sprint to the finish line and bring a days worth of running to an end.

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Of the 38 runners that left Castle Acre at 7am in the morning, 33 finished and of those 33 I finished 15th with an official time of 13:46:18. At 26 years old I was also the youngest finisher, with the race having an average age of 42. Whilst I was initially, ignorantly, hopeful of a time around the 12 hours mark I am more than happy about those statistics, and as for the time, there’s always next year. One thing I did learn was that it is probably going to be better to leave a 2 day gap in between the race and the massage next time, just to make sure my legs feel fresh from the start.

The morning after the race I noticed some very obvious swelling on both my feet, along with a couple of blisters and a very sore, swollen little toe. After removing the nail on said toe most of the swelling subsided, leaving just a sore, open wound. A couple of days on, after mostly walking around sans trainers at work, and I could move about fine, still a bit of tenderness here and there but there was no more awkward waddling around like I’ve shat myself.

A week or two before the Norfolk 100KM I posted the above photo on Instagram as  ‘Throwback Thursday’, partially as inspiration to other people but mostly as a reminder to myself of how far I had come as a runner on the dawn of my biggest race yet.  At 17 years old I started running because I was fed up, fed up of being overweight and fed up of being miserable. Unbeknownst to me at the time I was suffering with depression, 8 years on and it’s still a battle I face on a daily basis, but I made a decision one day that has, as clichéd as it may sound, changed my life.

When I started running it wasn’t a new hobby, but an intervention and something I knew I had to do. Show 17 year old me what I’m up to now and there’s a good chance he wouldn’t believe you, same as I struggle to recognise myself, back then, now. Running didn’t come easily when I started, I would have a 0.92 mile loop that I would attempt to run each time I went out, not even a full mile, and there would be multiple rest points. Gradually it would get easier, but it wouldn’t really become enjoyable until the weight began to fall off.

A few years back at the Three Lakes Classic in 2013 I remember hearing a couple of other runners discussing the Round Rotherham, a 50 mile Ultra through South Yorkshire. I’d ran a couple of Marathons at this point, but had no intentions of running any further, the idea very much terrified me. Roll on a couple of years and it feels like I’m running a marathon every other weekend and I’ve just completed my 4th Ultra in 6 months.

When I started planning out this year the two main aims were simple, raise awareness of mental illness and raise money for charity, but I also hope to inspire people along the way. There’s no denying that at times running sucks, but if you stick at it the highs you can experience are unmatched, it has physically and mentally taken me places I didn’t think were possible.

What is the worth of anything, but for the happiness it brings

What is the worth of anything, but for the happiness it will bring

I made no secret of the fact that before the Norfolk 100KM I was nervous, as I mentioned my confidence was shot, I had no run of ‘good race form’ to fall back on and the only thoughts I had going into the race was when I’d break down, not if. When I saw this sign at the bottom of someone’s garden it gave me a spring in my step and there was no choice but to finish.

The depression and anxiety have leeched away the enjoyment from most things, recently my head has been a complete mess, questioning everything, and I’ve felt stuck in a rut and more down than usual, failing to pull much enjoyment out of life and unable to see a ‘normal’ and ‘happy’ future. But last Saturday, for those 14 hours at least, I was able to regain control and I was briefly reminded of what it felt like to enjoy myself.

There’s a certain self confidence that comes with running an Ultramarathon, crossing the finish line after pushing your body far beyond what you think it is capable of leaves you feeling like you can do anything. I’m still waiting for my appointment for the therapy to come through the post, and hopefully it will come sooner rather than later. At the moment I’m still living off the high of completing the 100KM, for the most part it’s working, but it will only last so long. The darkness is waiting round the corner for me, but at least now I feel like I’m a little more ready to fight it.

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 and/or please help share this post or my JustGiving page.

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