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The thrill of completing my first ultra marathon!

The thrill of completing my first ultra marathon!

Is there a better feeling than crossing the finish line when you questioned whether you could do it?

Many people take the step up in distances. Whether it's going from Couch 2 5k up to a 10k, or from a half marathon up to a full marathon, we all often challenge ourselves and push further than we initially thought we could go.

Whatever your step up, when you finally get to the start line after weeks or months of training, there's often doubt in your mind as to whether you've made the right decision to take part.

Can you complete the distance? Can you complete it in a time you have in mind? Will you complete it comfortably or collapse as your cross the line?

For me, it was whether I could make the step up from a marathon to a 50 mile ultra. 

Having previously completed 5 marathons, I knew I was capable of covering 26.2 miles in around 4 hours, but the prospect of covering another 24 miles on top and running for another 6/7/8 hours was one that I questioned!

Looking back, I was confident in my ability to go the distance. Why? My training period had run over 4 months and included more training than I had ever done.

Regular sessions including speed work and long runs, plus hill runs to get some elevation into my legs, as well as back to back runs to imitate the feeling of running on tired legs were all included.

These were all things recommended by runners I know who have completed Ultras, so if it was good enough for them, it was good enough for me.

I chose the Centurion SDW50 as my ultra. Centurion have a great reputation for ultra events and I know that the South Downs Way is a spectacular place to run, so those combined made it my event to take on.

The route started in Worthing, Sussex, and snaked up onto the South Downs Way and then all the way along into Eastbourne and to the finish located at Eastbourne Sports Park.

When you think of ultra distance trail runs, you imagine the scenic settings of rolling hills and blue skies and we lucked out this year! The hills were indeed rolling, but the weather was perfect. Clear blue skies and a slight tail wind to help push us along and made the occasion perfect. 

The morning of race day had the usual early start, made even earlier by waking up up at silly o'clock and allowing my mind to switch on and think about what lies ahead. But by the time you're up and getting ready, you switch into race day mode and the start line is all you can think about.

Before we knew it, 400+ of us were at the start line and ready to go. There was lots of nervous chit chat and last minute checks before the start and then we were off.

From that moment, the race went brilliantly! A few miles heading north, out of Worthing, and onto the South Downs Way. Before we'd even completed the first couple of miles, you could see a snaking line of runners head of you, winding up the hill and onto the crest of the hill.

The different between a trail run with a few hundred runners, and a mass event road race with thousands, is that once you're moving, the field thins out quickly. Before we knew it, we were in single file dodging trees sticking out, hurdling spiky thorns and avoiding pot holes.

After several miles, we'd settle into a rhythm and were covering good ground. We were already running with people of a similar pace, chatting to random runners you'd never met like they were your usual club run buddy and passing the time in a fairly enjoyable fashion.

With pacing harder on a hilly run, it was a case of ticking off milestones and my favourite were the aid stations.

Oh the aid stations!

The first aid station came after around 11 miles. I'd heard about them like a running myth, so to arrive to a spread of food and drink that any king would be delighted with, was amazing!

There were savoury foods including sandwiches, bread sticks, crisps and so jul more. On the sweet side, there was chocolate, jelly beans, cakes and a whole host of sweet treats. 

There was fruit, and a lots of it! A personal favourite for the drinks was coke. Flat, but so needed. The choice was frankly too much and I could have stayed there for hours, feasting on what was in front of me!

After each aid station there was usually a hill. A long hill.

One tip I had been given before the run was to take a zip lock bag. 'Why?' I asked when it was initially mentioned. Well because at the aid stations, rather than stand around eating for 10 minutes, you can tip the food you want into the bag and then head off because as soon as I hit the following hill, my plan was to walk up them and that gave me the opportunity to tuck into the food. Brilliant idea!

Fueling on long runs like this is so important. The cut off for the event was 13 hours, so for anyone running for hours on end, you need fuel. 

The aid stains were approximately 6 or 7 miles apart and they fell about an hour apart for me. This was ideal to timing to eat enough to see me through to the next one as well as an opportunity to refill on liquids.

I tried to stick with savoury to start with. Sweet food is always the more appealing but I know from previous long runs that I can't maintain eating sweet stuff for that long and I also find it hard to revert to savoury after sweet.

My previous longest run was a 32 mile training run a few weeks before. I probably didn't eat enough on that run in hindsight, so I knew I had to take more calories onboard and that is exactly what I did.

Aid station after aid were ticked off. Milestone distance came and went.

Marathon distance of 26.2 miles went by. Then I passed 32.8 which was my longest ever run in training. At this point I was telling myself that this was the furthest I'd ever run - although the realisation that I still had 17 miles was slightly daunting!

Then hitting 40 miles, breaking down what was left into a 10k, then a parkrun all helped split up the remaining miles.

Then before I knew it, it was the descent into Eastbourne and the final few miles through the town to the stadium which hosted the finish....and crossing the finish line.

Overall, the experience was EPIC!

From the weather being perfect and allowing to get the idyllic images of running under clear blue skies, to striking up conversations with fellow runners for miles on end to pass the time.

The community of ultra runners is often talked about as being really inclusive and engaging and we totally experienced it. From the start area and finding conversation really easy, through to finding yourself covering ground at the same speed as others going up a hill, down a hill, back up another hill. 

There was banter at every stage. Even the final few miles after hours of running, people had high spirits and the finish provided a great area for people to grab a chair and slump back in an exhausted celebration of what they've just achieved, whilst eating a hot dog and chatting the person next to you about how they found it!

Oh the hills.

The event involved over 6,000 feet of elevation. Oh the hills. They rolled. Up, round, then up some more. Then you ran downhill to the bottom of the next hill. Oh the hills.

I look back with a smile on my face really. Elevation like this makes you change tactics from a standard, flat 10k run. Walking up them is the norm which is something I found odd in training. Why walk part of the event when you can do it quicker? Well the hills dictate how your body will end up feeling, so walking up anything over 1 degree of elevation was fine in my book!

At the time of writing this blog, it's been a week since I completed the event. My legs have recovered, I've been out for a run to check they still work and I look back with such positivity at the day. 

My initial thoughts was 'could I complete a 50 mile ultra?' and I well and truly answered it was a big YES.

The organisers, Centurion, hosted a brilliant event, the volunteers along the route were supportive and encouraging, the previously mentioned aid stations were fantastic and all of these things made the occasion brilliant.

I'd thoroughly encourage anyone contemplating an ultra to go for it. Create yourself a plan or get a get an expert to write one for you and then commit to it. The feeling of seeing 4 months of work in my case come together was a fantastic feeling and I would love anyone to go through the same feeling.

Now I have one ultra under my belt, my thoughts turn to my next - the South Downs Way 100 in June..... oh the hills....!

If you have any questions or you're looking for advice, then drop us an email to info@unr.co.uk and we'd be happy to help.

Craig
Team Runr.