“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 – http://www.hammernutrition.com/knowledge/). 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.

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