Taking down 100 kilometres in a day
On Saturday 10th June 2017 I ran my first ultra marathon. Those who know at least a recentish version of me know that I am a keen runner. Keen here probably equates to a mixture of insanely passionate, obsessed, class-A-level-addicted and so on. I have run several marathons over the last 12 months, each one nudging the finishing time marginally downwards. My first, on the South Downs in Sussex/Hampshire left me close to destroyed, but also elated beyond pretty much anything else I’d ever done. Subsequent marathons have seen me finish in faster times but nowhere have I come close to replicating the, frankly, life-changing journey and sense of achievement following that first one.
So, early this year it was time to plan for something else that would push me beyond what I knew my body and mind could do. Staying local for logistical ease and to honour a promise to my other half (then in the final throes of a PhD and busy), I signed up for the Norfolk 100km race, run by Positive Steps. And then pretty much continued to run as I had been doing during the previous months, the only real adjustment being pushing the long run at the weekends a little further than I might normally.
But 100k? Approaching 2½ marathons?? What on Earth?!
(In case you’re thinking that I do such things to impress, the reality is that any and all attempts I make to explain what I get up to are met by a response on a spectrum between incomprehensibility and pity, alongside a not insignificant dose of - usually - good natured mockery. One person actually got angry with me.)
Despite being a local event, it was still an early start to make the short journey to the start at Castle Acre, near Swaffham. Once the instructions and bag-drop logistics were dealt with we set off for the day, with feathery rain over the initial miles keeping things pleasantly cool. Most people seemed content to set a very gentle pace, which facilitated random conversations with a series of changing partners – in my case, a headteacher I’d once done some work with, a colleague, a lady worried about how her fragile back would hold out over the distance, and a chap who managed a good-for-age qualifying time for London but then forget to register during the entry window.
The Peddars Way turned out to be narrow, overgrown and uneven in places, but otherwise very runnable and the first checkpoint at Harpley arrived strangely quickly. After a brief pause I settled back into an easy and sustainable rhythm: everything felt good. The light rain cleared to dry but overcast skies, and the temperature began to slowly but perceptibly increase.
The next 10 or so miles were spent chasing among the backs and packs in front of me, in gentle undulating rhythms, with skylarks heard everywhere (but almost never seen), braying pigs and startled lambs for company. Easy, lovely running. Eventually we broke off the country paths to float through Ringstead, before the first view of the sea on the descent into Holme.
Having broken the back of the ‘first marathon’ and covered a good third of the course I took a little longer at the second checkpoint and filled up with sausage rolls and jaffa cakes, and refilled my water. By now mentally done with the straight and steady footpath, I was grateful for the shift to expansive coastal vistas and flora/fauna variation over the coming section – which I already knew to be the most beautiful stretch of the course.
Setting off once more from Holme, we quickly turned sharply eastwards and ran for some time on boards across the sand dunes. Beneath the hints of sun behind the cloudy skies we passed some frankly staggering coastal views - desolate, massive expanses of sand and marsh, with raptors hovering almost everywhere you looked. The sun really started to break through during the shortish detour inland to Thornham so, with the time probably moving on its way towards midday, it was a small relief to turn off back into woodland on the lead up to checkpoint 3. I’d run most of the race up to this point with a colleague but our pace had started to diverge by this juncture and we separated at the checkpoint.
Soon after this I found myself pacing out over the damp sandy expanse at Holkham, under a sun gradually growing more fierce. Actual running was difficult, but from time to time the sand compacted enough to make it possible in short bursts. I slowly chased down the person in front of me, who turned out to be working at the university I went to many years ago. More connections. He was in training for an even longer event in the summer so wasn’t pushing the pace, and it became a welcome opportunity to take stock and recover some energy before heading into the final third of the race. Moving among the many sunbathers, swimmers and general beach denizens, we chewed the fat for the mile or two to Wells, before parting at the start of the long sea wall which leads into the town proper.
In had by now developed into a blistering day and, on my own once more, I pushed on, picking up the pace again and didn’t see any other runner for a long time. This really wasn’t a position that I’d wanted to find myself in when endlessly thinking through the race in the weeks beforehand. I hadn’t been particularly worried about injury or energy, but I certainly experienced some fear about missing a turning, getting lost and adding unnecessary mileage, pushing a potential finish time way into the evening – or even putting a finish inside the cut off time at risk. I had planned on keeping another runner in sight preferably for as much of the time as possible. But with these sorts of distances and the smallish field of people willing to undertake them, it was inevitable that things would stretch out somewhat. So I found myself alone.
But not really alone. Dog walkers and hikers were passing all the time, some curious about what I was doing, incredulous at how far I’d come and usually sympathetic (with the odd visible wince) about the remaining distance. The path continued to wend and wind and, contrary to my worries, there was little opportunity to err throughout the whole of this section. Instead of being concerned about going off-route, I was otherwise engaged by the visit of calf cramps, old and familiar companions, who would stick around, intermittently, for the remainder of the course. I get these far too often – usually during the latter stages of a hard-paced marathon, where they have a tendency to take down any designs on a good-for-age qualifying time that might be floating around at the time. By the time I got down to the checkpoint at Stiffkey, the pain was stabbing my legs with some regularity and I had to introduce longer periods of walking than was ideal – which was a touch frustrating as my energy levels still felt good.
Aside from this (and the lack of a runner to chase down), everything was going well and I didn’t stick around long at the checkpoint, munching down some peanuts and crisps, but probably not as many as I could have done with, due to the almost complete lack of appetite by this point. (Most of the food I carried in my backpack ended up surviving the whole race.) So, onwards and upwards and outwards along tracks which bent across marshlands towards the sea and then (rather viciously) took you back inland towards Cley, just at the point when you can actually see the beach you’re destined for a handful of metres across the way. And running back inland meant – as it did several times earlier – running into a strong energy-sapping headwind.
At Cley I actually lost the path. I found myself, oddly, in a pub garden which was hosting a wedding reception and I must have been a severely incongruous, muddy and sweaty sight in amongst the beautifully attired people getting hammered in the afternoon sunshine. I was pointed (roughly and hopefully) in the right direction and found a little door in the corner of the garden which had a sign leading back to the coastal path. Thoughts of sitting down and drinking beer forever wafted into the 99% of my being that isn’t the hugely stubborn 1% which won out and decided to get the damn thing done. After all, by now there were probably only a dozen or so miles remaining, although it was hard to tell exactly as my watch went its happy way to oblivion around this point. Then, for the first time in hours I was met by another runner, coming back towards me on hiking poles.
He too had lost his way, but had been working on the basis that the final checkpoint was in Cley itself rather than on the beach so had been wandering around the village in search of it. A robotics engineer from Poland, now living in London but a previous resident in these parts, he too was suffering with cramps. I set him right and we headed off back out towards the sea along the exposed mud path. Although he forged ahead and we took slightly different routes across the shingle beach section, we ended up completing the final section of the race together.
After a brief stop at the checkpoint, the shingle began. All my reading about this race beforehand had mentioned this section. Notorious and widely reviled, the difficulties of running (or trying to) along a shingle beach for 4 miles had been flagged up to me well in advance. And right at the end of the race too. In reality though, it wasn’t too bad, at least by the time I hit it. The tide had withdrawn enough to expose some sandy patches and so I chose to run right down by the gently foaming sea for as much as I could, ducking under extending fishing lines and occasionally dodging waves. The late afternoon sun was the strongest it had been all day and was searing into my calves (my god, what a state they were in over the following week) and around my neckline and hat, but by now my mind was only locked, lazer-like, onto the finishing line.
In a nice touch, the organisers set up an impromptu checkpoint at the end of the beach, at which the polish engineer and I took stock and prepared for the final section, which no-one could quite decide was 5k or 5 miles (or perhaps even another distance). We set off quickly, up and down some of the hilliest landscape on the whole course, a quick waltz through Sheringham and then back out, up and over Beeston Bump, where (unbelievably!) we were passed by a runner I’d last seen somewhere before Holkham. He very politely apologised and carried on his way. This was the first person I’d seen from behind me since about lunchtime. Right at the end!
The Race Director met us at the top of the Bump, congratulated us and then merrily informed us that we hadn’t quite finished. So, a short descent from the peak, then a gentle (ha! With those calves?!) jog along past some caravans and across a road before entering (ecstatically!) into the grounds of Beeston Hall School: the finish.
It took me 12 hours and 45 minutes and I finished in 12th position, which I was delighted with. At the very end, we drove to Cromer and I plunged into the water, letting the bitter North Sea work its glacial wonders on my battered legs.
A quite amazing experience that – naturally – I swore never to do again. But I will. Of course. Well, maybe not the exact same race (although maybe), but there’s something magical and transformative about days like this. After the soreness and blisters go away and the toenails repair and regrow, all that remains is the extraordinary memories of being free, being wild, testing yourself and pushing through whatever expectations you had of your ability. It makes you want to destroy routine and normality and convention and limiting self-belief, again and again and again.
Finally, it’s worth noting just how well organised an event this was. The course was well marked where it needed to be and the checkpoints were fantastic - staffed by cheerful and hugely encouraging volunteers and packed full of the good stuff. For more information on the excellent range of Positive Steps events (including some of more sensible distances), visit their website: https://positivestepspt.co.uk.