“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 – http://westhighlandwayrace.org/, 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 – http://www.zen31010.zen.co.uk/highlandflingrace/.  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”) http://www.ultratrailmb.com/. 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…