Ennerdale 50km, High Terrain Events, 18th October 2015
As one of four lucky competition entrants chosen to take part in Men’s Running Magazine’s Project Trail, I won the opportunity to train for a half marathon with Team GB endurance athlete Robbie Britton. Robbie regularly charges up mountains for fun whilst most of us are still throwing the alarm clock at the wall and putting the duvet over our heads. The training was pretty rigorous, and it occurred to me that I could be taking fuller advantage of it – Robbie recently ran 162 miles in 24 hours and using his expertise for a mere 13 miles felt a bit wasteful, like going to a posh restaurant for tea and ordering a Pot Noodle. So I signed up for my first ultra, the Ennerdale 50k.
I chose Ennerdale partly because it consists of two laps, clockwise, around a lake; as a novice ultra runner I didn’t want to have to worry about getting lost, so ruling out all right turns seemed expedient. There would be 25k racers running the same course, so if it all went to pot at the half-way point I could still feign a dignified finish.
I had run a marathon once before, but I did it by accident after a row with my wife after which I’d put on my gear and stomped off. I ran 26 miles fuelled only by low-level rage, lost half a stone due to severe dehydration, and didn’t get out of bed for two days afterwards. It wasn’t a majestic effort, but the fact that I didn’t die was encouraging, and now I had eight weeks in which to train properly.
Robbie’s training plan was full of proper, grown-up running terminology, and I therefore considered it reasonable to assert this grown-up-ness by spending a vast sum of money on kit. I worked my way through the mandatory equipment list, buying the tiniest waterproofs, phone and first aid kit available and hoping they wouldn’t be needed. Ultra runners are obsessed with really small, lightweight stuff; there’s an abiding fear that a DNF on race day could be down to an excessively heavy hat.
When race day finally arrived I spent a fretful, unproductive morning unpacking and repacking my gear, eating excessive amounts of home-made granola and filling bottles with various protein and electrolyte substances. I drove the 30 minutes from the hotel to the race start and found my friend Dave, a fellow ultra novice. There was a race briefing that I forgot to listen to, and then we set off.
I quickly settled into a steady pace behind the leading pack of ten very serious-looking runners – I decided I’d try to keep them in view for as long as I could. The first 10k was mostly a steady incline up gravel trail and forest roads, with Black Sail Youth Hostel – the first aid station – visible at the end of the valley. It was here that I caught up with one of the runners I’d chased since the start – I later learned this was Lucy Colquhoun, former Team GB athlete and one of the UK’s top ultra distance runners. We ran most of the next 15k together before she left me for dust, during which time I discovered the social side to ultra running; a 10k is too intense for conversation, but on an ultra it’s the distance rather than the other runners that feels like the challenge, and people seem to be friendlier, happy for the opportunity to while away some of the miles. We left the sanctuary of the aid station behind and returned along the far side of the valley, the terrain quickly changing from wide gravel roads to single track grassy paths and getting progressively rockier and more technical. There was some scrambling around and over cliffs before eventually returning to the start for lap 2. Thankfully weather conditions were in our favour, but on a bad day I imagine segments of this trickier section could be hard going.
Spurred on by the company of Lucy and some Jelly Babies, I entered the second lap feeling great, but it wasn’t long before the fatigue I’d been warned about set in. My joints ached and my mental strength started to ebb. Thankfully, I’d read enough about ultras to know that this was parr for the course so I set myself small milestones – for what seemed like miles I pursued and finally overtook a very elderly walker. Reward came in the form of half a banana and a cup of flat coke at the aid station, and as the marshals told me the previous runner wasn’t far ahead I set myself the new task of catching up. Then came a 7-8k stretch. This part was hard: I could see no-one ahead or behind and I started to question the honesty of the well-meaning marshals. I was aching so much that my pace slowed, and with it my drive to carry on. Running an ultra suddenly felt like a cruel and unusual punishment, and only the sight of a runner gaining on me finally gave me the impetus to go forward. I ran the last stretch using Robbie’s words as a sort of mantra: The faster you run, the sooner it will end.
4hrs 55mins, and 8th place! Only 46 started the race, but that didn’t matter – I’d completed my first ultra and finished in the top 10 in under 5hrs. I celebrated with another flat coke and an orange before very gingerly making my way back to the registration office where I collapsed onto the comfy sofa. I stayed there for an hour, watching a stream of broken runners stagger in, all wearing the same expression that says, unequivocally, ‘I will never, ever, do that again.’ That’s the weird thing about ultra running, though: We will definitely do it again. Probably tomorrow, if our trainers are dry.