Ultra Marathon Running From Newbie to DNF!

Ultra Marathon Running From Newbie to DNF!

It started as what I know now, was the beginnings of a midlife crisis, I was 5 ft 10, and nearly 15 stone. I had recently been told I was obese by the doctor.

I Sat at my computer in summer 2017, Around August, I remember looking at an advert for a 100km race. What idiot runs 100km? I didn’t even know it was a thing!

So, I visited the website and entered. I wanted to be an Ultra Runner! (I will point out here that this would possibly be my third choice of midlife crisis, 1st would have been a Porsche…. Couldn’t afford that, 2nd Climbing Everest…. Couldn’t do that either as I have a major fear of heights!

I will point out now, I didn’t even own a pair of running shoes!

As with a lot of new runners I did a bit of research on the internet and downloaded an app for my phone “Couch to 5k”

A quick trip to a well-known budget shoe outlet for a pair of budget Nikes and I was set, I will say now, I had dabbled about five years earlier with an attempt at running, but when my running buddy got injured, I quit too.

My new shiny Nikes strapped to my feet, I bounded out of the door with a massive amount of enthusiasm, Damn! Who knew running was so hard! Well, it turns out after a lot of reading on the internet, a lot of people do know it’s hard, and they all talk to each other and support each other.

This online support network was crucial to me through my early days and probably even more so now, eighteen months later.

My Couch to 5K plan progressed well and with gym work added in I actually got ahead of the program and was running my 5k’s well before the end week of the plan.

I will point out here that I suffer with chronic back pain which stems from an injury I sustained when I used to be a canoeist, it turns out waterfalls are bad when your upside down.

This ongoing issue does hinder my running from time to time, but more of this later.

The event I had entered was Race To The Stones (RTTS), 100km straight through along the Ridgeway from Aylesbury to Avebury. Over 3000ft of elevation to climb. This event is part of the Threshold Trail Series. I started to do a bit of research (I know, A bit late) I found the training plan that Threshold provide for the straight through competitors, I printed it out and flicked through it, Daunting doesn’t even begin to describe it, a quick glance and runs to be completed of 35km, 45km and 55km jumped out at me in successive weeks later on. The task I had undertaken really started to sink in now.

I settled into a rhythm of short runs during the week with a couple of strength sessions and long runs at the weekend. I have a young family and made them a promise that I would try my best to not let my stupid new hobby get in the way of family things, So with this in mind, my short runs tended to be done late at night and my long weekend runs usually kicked off at 5am or for the really long ones 3am. This helped me keep a run/family life balance. This last point here is more important than most new runners give credit to. If you want to be an ultra-runner, you must put in the training and having your family’s support is essential for focus and marital harmony 😉

As I started to put more and more miles into my legs, I started having to take extra breaks, I started to get niggles and pains in my right calf, I started having to visit a physio regularly who would massage the knots out of my calf and keep me running, this started to get worse and worse and was starting to cost me more and more in physio bills. My physio asked if I had been to get a gait analysis done, I didn’t even know what this was at first. More googling later and my local running shopwas identified, Advanced performance in Cambridge.

I rocked up to my local running shop with my now rather battered trusty budget shoes, I was asked to run on the shops treadmill while wearing my trusty shoes, I had only been running for about 30 seconds when the plug was pulled and a rather bemused assistant asked “if my legs hurt anywhere” I replied to say “Yes, I have calf issues” They laughed and said “Not surprised!”

They proceeded to talk me through the video and describe to me the horror movie I was seeing. It turns out I overpronated really bad, my beautifully straight and I have a nice mid foot strike, but then it all goes wrong, My ankles crash over and my right is worse than my left. The shop then located me a number of different sets of footwear in my approximate size, every make is slightly different in fit, so I proceeded to try on lots of different shoes and run in them on the treadmill, I was prescribed medium supportive shoes to try and correct my over pronation. Due to most of my runs being off road I mostly tested out trail shoes, I settled on a pair of Brooks Cascadia 12, they were like comfy slippers compared to my cheap shoes.

It was like night and day when I went back out on my local route, no calf pain and my first sub 30-minute 5km run.

I decided I needed a target to see if I could drive forward and keep myself motivated, I therefore entered Inspire Races Snetterton Race Track Half Marathon, as a racing fan I have watched racing at that circuit a few times and its relatively local, and very flat. I also entered a local 10km trail race that was located just down the road from me, these would provide two stepping stones to see if my training was working.

I started to build up my runs and my regular “short” run had settled into a 60 minute 10k, with a 15/16km run on the weekend, I started running (Pun intended) into another problem which all runners can succumb to, increasing distance too quickly, I started to pick up all sorts of minor niggles, ankles, knees, hips, toes! You name it, I was falling apart. The internet came to my rescue again here, I asked for advice and it mostly came back saying to have a “rest week 1 out of 4” to let the body recover better, also another golden nugget was to not increase my weekly mileage by more than 10% week on week, let the body adapt and grown stronger. Now this isn’t that case for everyone, but I am not a natural runner it appears, or just a bit fragile! and I needed to be more careful.

My 10km race sneaked up and on me and the weather was unusually hot for that time of year, a local race with a hill at the start (This is Cambridgeshire hill by the way, not wanting to mislead anyone here) I set my target on a 1-hour finish time to be happy. This was my first event, I didn’t know the drill so arrived nice and early for a warm up, presumed I would be one of the slow plodders and slotted myself into the back of the starting corral. The race started and we were off, I hit the first unforeseen problem within 100m of the start, a bottle neck had those of us at the back walking for the next 50m as we funnelled through a gate, Then the dreaded hill….. I hadn’t really trained on any hills, slopes maybe…. But hills, nope. It was soul destroying to slog up that hill, probably only 400m but my legs were heavy already, I was panicking, I was well behind my target pace!

Once cresting the hill the middle part of the course is relatively flat with only very minor undulations, I set myself onto a pace that would get me back inside my target time and just got my head down, I was already hot by the time the water station loomed at 5km, I knew I needed a drink so made sure to slow to a walk to grab a drink and even took a moment to put the cup in a bin (I hate cups/bottles/wrappers being strewn around at races) I cracked on again, checking my watch, oops, behind pace again.

A short section of tarmac and concrete was next with a slight downward slope so I tagged onto the heals of the next person to pass me (Yes, there was lots of those) and upped my pace, I was now outside of my comfort zone to try and stay on target, I came into the last couple of kilometres really pushing, with about 500m to go my heart rate alarm went off, apparently I was about to die, so as any runner would do this close to the finish, I pushed on!

100m to the finish there was a narrow bridge, I was really going for it now when the lady in front of me stopped, I managed to avoid crashing into her and stopped, as she apologised profusely and let me squeeze past (Sorry to the lady if your reading this, I am sure my look was a death stare) I sprung off the bridge, breath ragged and legs pumping, glancing at my watch I was so so close, I sprinted hard, pumping my arms and legs, passing runners who looked like death (It was like looking into a mirror) I crossed the line and collapsed at the feet of my wife and kids who had come to cheer me on, I looked at my watch but the time was still running (rookie error number 25 in my first event). My legs started to cramp badly, I struggled to get up as the medal was hung round my neck and a bottle of water was handed to me.

I went to get an ice pack for my calf and a massage while my wife went to get my official time.

1:00:01 Yes, really, One miserable second over. That one second was so mentally destroying and haunted me for a long time.

But I had a half marathon to continue training for, so I just continued the training I was on, the nights were colder, the weather was starting to get miserable, as it usually does in the UK in autumn, My runs were all in the dark now, with a waterproof, chest light and gloves. I was feeling good whatever the weather and my 15/16km runs were going well, One evening I just decided to keep running and banged in a tester half marathon to see how it felt, The watch said 2:08. I had set a goal of 2:15 for my race so I was elated due to it being rainy, muddy and dark, this still remains my best HM time to date! I was elated, the HM distance had been achieved and I felt good. I duly continued my training and continued with my 15km long runs on the weekends.

The Half Marathon event came around and the morning was beautiful, clear blue skies and 2 degrees centigrade. I changed in the car and headed to the start area (a rather long walk as it happens) I warmed up with a very lively group of runners and lined up on the start, the start area was marked out with expected finish times to allow you to arrange into pace groups, I started in the 2hr+ group. The gun went off and away we went, It was a euphoric start for me, everything felt right, I started at a great pace and settled into my stride with a small group who seemed to have the same plan, we stayed on 2hr pace until about 5km when I realised I had somehow miscalculated, I was actually on 1:45 pace, I didn’t panic as everything felt great, at about the 7km mark it all went horribly, no, catastrophically wrong. On the lap, which as you may remember is a race track, and very smooth and almost snooker table flat, they have a bridge which goes over a road, this isn’t part of the race tack but is a pedestrian and car access bridge, it has a rather steep transition up and over the track, I made the rookie error of lengthening my stride as I transitioned from the slope to the flat. Twang! A sharp stabbing pain in my right thigh, I stumbled for a few steps and slowed slightly while I worked out what had happened, the initial pain subsided so I continued to see if it was just some phantom niggle. I dropped my pace slightly as I could feel my hip beginning to tighten, after about another 5km it became apparent that there was definitely an issue, the pain had started to spread to my knee too. For the remaining half of the race my pace dropped and dropped, I had to take walk breaks and try not to fall apart, I was distraught, but I had paid for this and wasn’t stopping. The final 7km was a blur of pain and shuffling, The last 100m will be forever carved in my memory for two reasons, the first being a little lad holding out a board to be hit that said “hit for speed boost”, I duly thanked him and shuffled on, the second was the lady in the bright pink tutu who strode past me as I closed in on the finish line. My final few shuffled paces and I crossed the line to be handed my first proper medal, I looked at it round my neck, tried to smile and then shuffled off to my car, no post-race celebrations, at this point my leg hurt so bad, I wasn’t sure I could even drive. The walk back to the car park seemed longer than the race!

A hard lesson was learnt that day, if you pick up and injury (Turned out to be my IT band) stop, no race is worth damaging yourself permanently for.

The recovery from this involved lots of physio and acupuncture to try and get things working again, turns out that my glutes were inactive due to my ongoing back issues, this was causing my IT band to be too tight which was just a time bomb waiting to go off. I now must follow a regime of stretches and exercises to keep my glutes working fully and allow my ITB to do its work. The recovery took from November until the end of March, I did throw in a few short runs as testers, but stopped whenever any issues showed up, usually knee pain which had become my first indicator for ITB flare up.

I was now two months behind the due start date on my Threshold training plan for RTTS, but it starts out quite gently and I had already been ahead of the curve before my injury. I therefore just scrubbed off the first few weeks and jumped straight back in, It all progressed smoothly, I juggled my runs around family commitments quite well, shifted the odd week around to suite and generally started to bang in some quality miles, I seemed to have settled into a pace which felt comfortable and more importantly, I was starting to run injury free.

As the day grew closer a group of us started to chat on Facebook and had our own little chat group to support each other, Myself, Dean, Mark, Jennie, Monty and Sharon talked through how we were doing with training, gear we were using or what we still needed to find, from Headtorches to packs, footwear to hats, everything was discussed in detail. This really helped me as a new runner, tapping into some of their experience just helped take away some of the worry.

The weekend rolled round and I had booked to stay at the Holiday Inn Express in Aylesbury, its located about twenty minutes from the start so is nice and convenient.

My last few long runs had gone really well, my 55km run two weekends before went better than I hoped, I tested out hydration and eating strategy one last time, I had worked out I needed to tape my feet a certain way (dodgy toes!). I had arranged to meet Dean and Mark at the start, Dean had pulled out due to injury but Mark was starting in the first wave.

My alarm went off at 5:30am so that I could get up and ready, get some breakfast and fluids in and make sure to be on time for the 7:30am start, Having two small kids to get ready too hindered our start a little, we were running a bit behind schedule by the time we arrived at the race start, We quickly located Dean and he pointed me to the truck to take my finish line drop bag to, with bag duly dropped off I made my way over to the toilets, what a que! I looked at my watch and decided to deal with that later. I gave my wife and kids a hug and they wished me all the best, I was a bag of nerves at this point. I located Mark in the start coral and walked over to shake his hand and introduce myself, we had talked a lot online but never met, He really looked the part and looked kitted out for the MDS event!

A start line selfie

I had cut it close, the starter shouted “one minute” I walked over to give my family one last hug and to receive best wishes.

The weather was very hot, at 7:00am it was already 25deg Centigrade.

We were off, Mark and myself had a discussion and decided to let the racing snakes head off and walk the first 100m to give us some space, Dean walked over to see us off before making sure Jennie was ready for her start (Dean was crewing for her)

We walked out of the start field and as we hit the trail we broke into a gentle jog, chatting away and generally looking forward to what would come our way in the next hours. We hadn’t gone more than 1km when my decision to not use the facilities 20 minutes earlier came back to haunt me, I had to go for, what my son calls, “a wild wee”, Nature called and I said to Mark, “Don’t wait for me, I’m off to find a tree”

Mark Smith 1062 and I 0392 looking happy to be on the way

When I came back to the trail, I was on my own and now the last of my starting group, Mark was no where to be seen (I Suspect he put a sprint on at this point as he didn’t want to put up with 100km of me talking rubbish). To be honest, I was expecting to run alone, I didn’t want the pressure or expectation of someone else’s pace. I settled into a rhythm of 6:30 paced km’s and walking the hills. Now, having trained in Cambridgeshire, the first hill came as a real shock, it was like a cliff! Up I went until I crested the rise onto a higher trail with some beautiful views, I stopped to catch my breath and look around at the magnificent views over the farm land. I settled back into my pace and plodded on, the first checkpoint came at around the 11km mark and I topped up my soft flasks here and took on some snacks of flapjack and crisps, these had been my long training run staples, I also had gels in my bag which I was aiming to eat every half hour. I stopped at this checkpoint for approximately 8 minutes, there were no real ques to worry about, I did have one concern here and that was regarding my nut allergy, I had spoken with Threshold about this prior to the event and they assured me that nut products would be on a separate table, this hadn’t happened so I didn’t approach most of the food area for fear of setting off anaphylaxis.

I walked out of the checkpoint and settled into my run again, the well-known spot on the route named “The Field of Dreams” approached quickly and I was still in good spirits, The temperature was now over 30deg C and still climbing. I was drinking more water than I anticipated and kept making sure to add my salts to the mix, I was taking my gels probably too slowly at this point, probably every 40 minutes when it should have been every 20.

Flying Feet in the Field of Dreams

Running through an area called Grimms dyke, a lovely wooded area with nice trip hazards everywhere! I managed to navigate it safely but could feel a warm spot on both feet developing, I slowed my pace a bit as I approached check point 2.Sometime around 17km I got a message saying my GPS tracker wasn’t working and still showed me at the start, I had taken one myself to allow my crew/family to keep track of me and let the kids meet me along the route, my daughter even ran along for 1km with me at one point. I did the usual techy thing of switching it on and off again, and voila, it worked.

The marshals with spray bottles of cold water were a welcome feature entering checkpoint 2, I was feeling the heat by this point at approximately 22km in. I chose to take a longer stop here to sort my feet out, I had a drink of water as I stopped and then took a chair in the shade and had a check on my feet, I didn’t have any blisters but a couple of red patches on each outside edge of my feet, I took the time to tape them and put a fresh pair of socks on. I topped up on crisps and flapjack, threw a couple of gels down and decided to take the tape off my leg that was supposed to protect my IT band, but it had started to come loose so I decided it would be a distraction tore it off. Total time stopped here was 20 minutes. More than I wanted but the time looking after your feet can make the difference between a finish and a DNF. I power walked out of CP2 drinking a half litre of flat Coke and snacking on some more flapjack.

Settling into my stride again and feeling really good despite the building heat, the next section through a town and country side was a bit of a blur, I had settled into a pace of 6:30km and walking the hills, I was feeling good, arriving at checkpoint 3 I grabbed some crisps, topped up on water and flat coke, grabbed a couple of slices of watermelon and left straight away, This was my second mistake, I don’t recall putting my salts in my drink here, I just set off with barely a 2 minute stop.

Everything felt good, the immediate section after checkpoint 3 just starts to climb and climb and climb, it heads up relentlessly, not impressively steep, but as someone who had trained in Cambridgeshire, it was a long hill! I just got my head down, eating and walking. Looking back at my heart rate trace I really pushed it here, too much. Error 3. The hill most mostly shaded and the heat wasn’t too bad, in the sun it was now 32 degrees Centigrade.

As the top of the hill arrived the trees stopped, the sun beat down, it was now hot, really hot. I passed a couple of runners here who were pulling out of the race and heading back down to CP3, then a km or so later another runner was pulling. I was still feeling good and running the pace I wanted and walking where I had to due to hills or very rough hard ground. Then at about 40km it went wrong, I suddenly felt dizzy and lost my vision, I staggered to the side of the trail and sat down in a spot of shade, it was very exposed, the first runner that passed me looked over and kept going but every other runner asked to make sure I was Ok, I started off putting a front on and saying “Yes thanks, just taking a rest” but after 10 minutes of feeling bad and noticing I wasn’t sweating and didn’t feel like a drink, I was more concerned. A couple of ladies approached and asked if I was ok, this time I said “Not really” They immediately stopped and sat with me, (At this point I apologise that I don’t recall their names but did manage to thank them on Facebook shortly afterwards) I was cooled down with water and one of them dug into her own kit for some salt tablets for me to take, they sat with me for a good ten minutes while helping my cool and drink, I started to feel better and the shakes had gone away. I still felt a bit weak so broke out the running poles at this point, They helped me to my feet and proceeded to walk with my for a couple of KM until I felt OK, they went on their way while I walked a bit more to make sure I was OK, I started to run again and felt fine, making sure to drink lots but the damage was done, about 1km from checkpoint 4 at 44km I started to crash again, spotting it earlier this time I slowed and got the poles out again, I steadily walked towards the CP and saw Dean walking down the track towards me, he didn’t say anything but the look said so much, I just said “I have a decision to make”

Dead man walking

Arriving at checkpoint 4 in the blazing heat, now 35 degrees centigrade, there was no shade. I went to the food table to grab some crisps but suddenly felt bad and had to sit down, I crashed down against the medical tent, someone must have seen me as “Dr Laura” popped her head round the tent and asked if I wanted somewhere to lie down, I took the opportunity straight away, I was in a mess. My heart rate wouldn’t come down, I wasn’t sweating, I couldn’t eat or drink. I rested like this for half an hour with Dr Laura checking on me every few mins, there were other people there suffering from the heat too. Dean was a rock here, I must have been in a mess and may not have been at my most polite when asking him to fill my water bottles, but he did and even brought me an ice-cream, which I couldn’t stomach. Considering he was crewing for someone else he was looking out for me well and making sure I didn’t make any poor decisions.

After an hour of trying to get back on my feet and carry on, I took the only decision left, I officially DNF’d at checkpoint 4, A call to my family to come and pick me up, and lots of “what ifs”.

I had worked so hard to get here, as had all the other runners and walkers, that to DNF this early hit me hard, it probably took me 3 months to mentally get over it. But as Dean said to me, DNF stands for Did Nothing Fatal! Which, if I had carried on, could have happened.

My autopsy of the event surmised that I had probably eaten right, my legs felt good at DNF point (good enough to run a half marathon two days later) mentally I was good going in, nervous but good. It all came down to the heat and my expected hydration with salts. I thought I was drinking enough but, being wary not to over hydrate I probably just went under the line and paid the price. I also probably skipped too many gels, this added to the DNF with the lack of essential salts.

So, the best thing I have done is learn from this and move on.

I put the 2019 event in my diary within 24hrs of my DNF, I will be going back to slay the beast.

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