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“50 miles? you must be crazy.” Part 2

Nikki Neal – Wye on Way 50 – 12th October 2013

Continued from Part 1

Now here’s the amusing bit: as I have already mentioned, I was really rather keen to bag that “1st woman” title, and at some point around the 35 mile mark, I could hear the sound of collective laboured, male breathing, marking the silent arrival of Blond Rival, flanked by a small group of purple-faced chick-fearing males. By this point, I had in fact being feeling a touch sorry for myself, and thus had slowed down proportionately to my self-pity. So of course, the prospect of a diminished podium position was exactly what I needed to jolt myself back into the race. with a few friendly words exchanged, I pulled away and off into the distance (“ha! that will show her!”, I thought).

From that point on, I ran almost exclusively on my own, occasionally enjoying the feeling of accelerating past the odd wall-hitter (was developing a good repertoire of “witty words of sympathy” by that point…sadly, the hoped-for violent reactions never materialized). There was one amusing moment when I closed in on a chap who had been unwittingly adopted by a dog – and try as hard as he could, he just couldn’t shake the damned thing off. So then the dog sees me and immediately thinks “Ah! maybe I’ll follow her instead”. Bearing in mind how much I hate dogs, and how much my quads were hurting at that point, I really was in no mood to be tripping up over this furry idiot any more than strictly necessary. Yet when I opened my mouth, even I was surprised by the tannoy-like quality and tone of language I managed to get across, I think the poor chap was quite taken aback (or at least, my husband was very mortified on his behalf when I regaled him with the story). Fortunately, the dog quickly got the message (“I may be MAN’s best friend…but WHO and WHAT the hell was THAT”), and I sped off laughing into the distance to the timid and ultimately futile sounds of “go away! shoo!”.

And on and on I went, and yes as the final miles ticked past it really did start to hurt, but I kept on going, and in fact put in a bit of a burn (10k to go…? yes, I can do that. 5k?…that’s Sausmarez Park, easy peasy…1 mile?…town relay…not a problem…400m…that’s the bit coming into the Mall, got to look good…sh*t, why is that 400m SO LONG…”).

So here’s the thing –

I crossed the finish line, and the first person to congratulate me was…(wait for it)…THE BLONDE RIVAL!!!

I’m really not sure who was the most confused, but it would appear that somewhere in that last 15 miles I inadvertently went off-piste, and then seamlessly managed to right myself again whilst unknown to both of us she had snuck past and into the lead. really, it was more funny than disappointing – she’s a seasoned ultra runner, so she deserved that win in a way that I certainly didn’t. What’s really inspiring is that I’m a mere spring V40 chicken against her V50 label.  The more you pour through ultra race results, the more you realize that age is absolutely not the barrier to high performance that one might suppose is the case. so there’s certainly hope for me yet, lots of.

The great thing for me was that I had actually finished the race at all. I had been so afraid of my attempt being sabotaged by unforeseen disasters like blisters, that on one level it was a relief to cross the finish line in one piece. It was actually the first race that I’ve ever had a huge sense of achievement for just taking part. I’m usually pretty scornful of those types trotting out the line “well, it’s just the taking part that counts”, because for me the winning (or at least succeeding in reaching some pre-determined goal) is much higher up there in my own regard than the mere act of just turning up (ask my kids). so yes, 2nd was a little annoying…but the flip side is that a fire has been well and truly lit, and I’ll be back next year with “unfinished business” to attend to.

So in respect of the course itself: it was c. 35 miles offroad (mix of rough track, footpath, grass, flat and very much otherwise), plus about 15 miles of road. a lot of the seasoned ultra types were complaining of “too much road”, which I initially thought was just a bit precious, until I actually experienced the tarmac/non-tarmac dichotomy myself after the 40 mile mark. Every bone-jarring step became living proof that yes, when those well-meaning square types advise you to “train offroad as much as possible” when returning for injury, they really DO know what they’re talking about. As it happens, I personally think that it in this day and age, urban pavements should be made not of unforgiving surfaces like concrete, but rather something more akin to an athletics track. It might put a few orthopaedic surgeons out of business in the long run, but would severely curtain all those “dodgy knee” conversations that we all have to endure in our everyday life, from athletes and non-athletes alike.

Yes, it WAS absolutely beautiful.

No, it WASN’T just a little trundle along the Wye Valley…there were several mountainous detours to keep us amused.

Yes, it REALLY WAS course-marked with hundreds of little yellow arrows (personally would have asked the slowest runner to pick them all up as they went along…one more reason why I wouldn’t make the grade as a professional race organizer). Sometimes I (and others around me) missed them due to lack of attention, and at other times my decision to keep my glasses in my backpack was to blame.

In terms of the perceived level of difficulty; really, the first third of the race was pretty easy and hugely enjoyable. By three hours, I’d been on my feet for the duration of a road marathon, so was still very much in my comfort zone. The next third remained perfectly manageable, though perhaps with a little more concentration to keep my form together. I was also very conscious of my poor downhill technique; the “correct” way to do this is “let go” and allow gravity to do it’s work. The incorrect way (which I’m ashamed to admit, despite best efforts is still very much “my” way), is to effectively apply the brakes on every downhill step. But as we all know, knowing what to do in theory and actually putting it into practice are two very different things. Whilst I could cheerfully get away with my technical deficiencies to a point, it was in the later stages of the race that the impact really started to show. A lot of people who have completed a marathon will know that “seized up quads” feeling that makes every further step agony. In my case, I could happily run uphill, and even on the flat was pretty well OK, but when it came to the downhills…well, by the end I was pretty well hobbling down them, cursing every step of the way.

If there was just one lesson to be learnt from the race, the importance of good downhill technique has to be a strong candidate. and as anyone who has ever seen my nervous cycling descents knows, just “letting go” is not one of my strong suits.

Having confirmed that ultra running is definitely My Thing, the plan is to complete 4 ultras in 2014, including the Wye Rematch next October. My primary goal will be the 96 mile West Highland Way race in June –, and by way of dress rehearsal I am also entered into the 53 mile Highland Fling in April, which covers just over half of the very same route –  So then that leaves an unfilled race vacancy for late August, and when entries open I will be trying for a ballot place in the catchily-named Sur les Traces des Ducs de Savoie (“TDS”), which in turn is part of the rather amazing group of races centered around the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (“UTMB”) To all you wannabe long distance triathletes out there: save your $825 Kona entry fee, for a mere €210, UTMB is really where it’s at…

“50 miles? you must be crazy.” Part 1

Nikki Neal – Wye on Way 50 – 12th October 2013

50 miles? you must be crazy.” Part 1

That’s pretty well the usual response when I tell people that I recently completed my first ultra, the Wye One Way 50 on 12th October 2013.

For anyone new to the world of ultramarathon running, an “ultramarathon” is basically any race further than marathon distance. so far, so crazy. The big difference, however, between most marathons and ultramarathons is that whilst the former is run primarily on a tarmac surface, the latter usually involves a hefty proportion of off-road mileage.

an “ultramarathon” is basically any race further than marathon distance. so far, so crazy.

And it is this particular aspect that has drawn me into the ultramarathon world, borne from a belief that actually, human bodies weren’t really designed for all that pavement-pounding. whilst I’ve been blessed with 23 years of virtually injury-free running (touch wood!), the truth is that it’s been so much fun I’d like another 23 at least before I consider I arrive at any Forrest Gump like conclusions (referring of course to the bit after three years, two months, fourteen days and sixteen hours of continuous running when he simply stops, and comes up, Steve Dawes-like, with the immortal line: “I’m pretty tired, I think I’ll go home now”). Hence my decision to divert into an offshoot of the sport which appears to cater to injury-fearing souls like me.

So back to the Wye adventure…well for starters, having been subjected to the ruthless commercialism of that money-making machine which dominates the world of triathlon, I can confirm that this race was a complete bargain. For the princely sum of £81, you get: race entry (£38), 2 nights of hostel accommodation (£35) and bus transport from the accommodation, which is located at the race finish, to the race start, which is halfway across Wales somewhere.

So on the Friday night before the race, I tipped up at the hostel in Glasbury and checked in. I was given a race number, map, and various forms to sign my life away on. The formalities having been dealt with, I was shown to a bunk room, which I was to share with three other ladies who were planning to run the race together as part of a fun girls weekend away from their respective husbands/kids/responsibilities. One of the great things about races like this is the huge range of the type of people who do them and their motivations. Some are there to try and win, some to merely take part and have fun…but at the end of the day, you’re all sharing the same start line, all turning up because basically, you just want to be part of it.

So the morning of the race started pretty early at 05:30, and by 06:00 we were on the bus and ready for the journey to the start. Would have been lovely to sit back and take in the beautiful scenery, but unfortunately it was extremely dark. those who like to excitedly chatter did so, whereas I just sat back and took in a lot of the ultra-related conversation going on around me. After all, this was to be my very first ultra and very much intended as a “learning experience”, just to see if I actually enjoy the ultra thing as much as I believed I would. So I was very much in information-gathering mode, rather an information-dispensing one (mindless chatter? never!).

By 07:00 dawn was approaching and we tipped out of the bus ready to run. As is usually the case before a race, I was warily eyeing up the other women, trying to work out who my rivals would be. Essentially, I tend to view the men in such circumstances as mere props and pacemakers – for me, the “real” race is on between me and my testosterone-lite adversaries.
the “real” race is on between me and my testosterone-lite adversaries.

So the 07:30 time drew close and we reached for the starting blocks. “Remember”, one voice piped up, “this race is all about what happens in the first four hundred meters.” This broke the tension nicely, whilst I repeated to myself “for God’s sake, Nikki…start slowly. just don’t get carried away…rest assured, if you don’t then you’ll have plenty of time to regret it.”

In fact, I was pretty restrained and soon figured out that if I could just head to the top of the womens’ field, I would probably be OK. It didn’t take me long to realize the identity of my main rival, easily identifiable by her very blonde hair. My personal preference is to slink along in androgynous shades of black, the only clue to my gender lying in my somewhat diminutive stature. To run along with “Woman Athlete Here” signs pinned to my back would just act as a magnet to the sort of bloke who strides to the chant of “I must NOT be chicked!”. Kind of fun in a Sausmarez Park 5k (eh, Warwick/Russ/Tim/Rich/Bob/Jon/Mike D/Toby?), but for eight hours plus was something I could really do without (no offence, guys).

So yes, for the first few idyllic hours, I jogged along somewhere ahead of my blonde rival, basically chatting to whoever happened to be running near me. I soon figured out that the ability to talk was a pretty good indicator that the pace was broadly OK and the old fat-burning mechanisms are getting a chance to kick in. To venture into the zone where breathing becomes difficult at this early stage would have been to invite trouble further along the road, of the wall-hitting variety – not an experience I was actively seeking to relive.

A word about kit at this stage. All participants in the race are required to carry certain compulsory items of kit throughout the race. I spent a fair amount of time before the event paring this down to the absolute minimum, whilst ensuring that I wouldn’t suffer from the lack of anything. The decision of what clothing to bring and wear was critical – I decided on wearing some brand new thermal “skins” brand three-quarter length leggings and long sleeve top, primarily acquired because (a) I had some prize vouchers to spend (on myself for once, rather than the perceived “needs” of other family members), and (b) at 50% off, they were as unmissable bargain. I wore some Asics trail running shoes, and had my very nice Pearl Izumi waterproof in my bag. Anyone who’s ever been thoroughly cold and p*ss wet for long periods of time would understand the compelling need to not cut corners on that particular piece kit. Fortunately for me, it didn’t see any race action that day – it’s mere presence in my rucksack was probably enough to scare the rain gods away. All this, I stowed away in a Hilly run-specific backpack, an Easterruns prize from a few years back that had miraculously avoided being trashed by the kids in the meantime.

The other kit-related aspect that I lost loads of sleep on in the run up to the event was that of nutrition. The majority of athletes appeared to favour Cambelback, or similar feed-tube-and-reservoir hydration system, which can comfortably hold up to 2 litres or so. However, I really couldn’t be bothered with all that faffing around to refill those things, so instead I opted for a basic 500ml bottle (one of the endless stream of free ones that one accumulates these days), which slotted into the front of a specially designed race belt (yet another auspicious Easterruns prize! sometimes being Guernsey’s 4th fastest senior female endurance runner has it’s advantages!). with 9 aid stations on the route, the longest I would need to go without a refill was 8 miles, so my “little and often” refilling solution worked pretty well. I also carried a tube of nuun electrolyte tabs and stuck one in each time – one of the other runners had assured me this was a good idea, that sometimes mid-race, one’s mind would think the body was crying out for food, whereas in fact all it really needed was to restore electrolyte balance.

But of course, a girl can’t thrive on electrolytes alone, and so in addition I carried 8 energy gels (Accelerade 2nd surge, as recommended by Guernsey’s very own fledgling sports nutritionist Viki Marr who knows all about the importance of seriously yummy “with protein” gels), plus a couple of protein bars. I knew that for instance the girls I had shared a room with were carrying nothing short of a banquet on their backs, but I for one was taking the weight-minimisation thing very seriously. was also aware that whilst I might well be burning up what 400 calories per hour, there was just no way the body can actually replace this from food/drink intake whilst attending to the essential business of running (source of good info, here – Hence ease of digestion was absolutely paramount; fortunately, I’m blessed with the ability to consume large quantities of very basic foods without getting sick of them (that would be the spud-loving Irish within me then), so the lack of “proper” food bothered me not at all.

Follow to Part 2 
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