Ladybower 50 miles, Feed The Warrior events, 18th September 2016
Having run for 38 years (I’m now 39), I thought I had running pretty much figured out. Turns out I’ve been doing it all wrong. I’ve not only been over-striding, but my average cadence is around 155spm (that’s steps per minute) which is roughly comparable to the BFG just prior to becoming airborne. Then there’s the heel striking, the under- or over-pronating – I forget which one I’m guilty of – and I’ve been told I’m using the wrong muscles, too. I had mistakenly understood you run with your legs, using principally your quads and calves. I now learn it’s your glutes that should drive you up those hills and your core strength which keeps you going the distance. Even my arms were apparently getting it all wrong. Clearly, there was much work to be done.
Equipped with some very expensive orthotics, an annoying metronome and a great coach (cheers Robbie), I was ready to start learning to run properly. Over the years I’d naturally adopted a running style perfect for the demands of daily life; fine for jogging to the shops or a kickabout in the park, but not for running long distances. I’d need to retrain in order to have any chance on race day.
The race in question was the Ladybower 50-miler. I’ve only ever run one other ultra; 30 miles around Ennerdale Water last year, and that hurt a lot! But armed as I was, I felt confident at the start of the season that this, my ‘A’ race would be a success, not least because I’m now able to use the terms ‘season’ and ‘’A’ Race’ in a sentence.
I erred from the plan slightly after a succession of novice injuries in the build-up to the race. These were caused chiefly by several ill-advised shoe choices inspired by ‘Born to Run’, but more embarrassingly from a severely sprained ankle due to attempting an Instagram selfie whilst jumping off boulders. Still, in the final build-up to the race I felt in surprisingly good shape and reasonably prepared. Little did I know.
Ladybower was to be the first 50 mile race for the Project Ultra team. Tim and I decided to run it together, and came up with a strict game plan of 9-minute miles that would theoretically see us finish in under 8 hours. A realistic target and a respectable top-10 finish, according to last year’s results.
Although 50 miles is a long way, 50 miles running in circles feels an awful lot longer. When we registered for the race I hadn’t realised the route was 3.5 times around a 15 mile loop. Don’t get me wrong: Ladybower is a picturesque reservoir set in stunning surroundings, but by the time you’re passing the same damned wall for the third time its beauty wears somewhat thin. Each bend, each tree, each incline served as a constant reminder of how far we’d gone, and of how much further we still had to go.
Everything started well. The course is easy to follow (just keep the water on your left!) and starts with a 5 mile loop which feels like a warm-up for the three 15 mile laps which follow. Upon leaving the registration tent you run along a grassy embankment towards the main bridge. Then there’s a short section of pavement before you’re heading back towards the dam and the main visitor centre, returning to the start for lap 2. This follows the same route, but instead of taking a left at the dam(ned) wall you continue to the end of the reservoir and along a quiet country road, back to the start which you then repeat again. And again.
A dozen or so runners passed us at the start and we were happy to let them disappear into the distance, confident that our 9-minute mile strategy would pay off, and hopeful that the intimidating pace of the other competitors wasn’t sustainable. There’s always a temptation to race from the start, but as I’d never run more than 30 miles, finishing was my main objective.
The first 20 miles flew by. We had already passed a couple of the faster starters and we revelled in the genius of our masterplan. Then came the innocuous start of my downfall. I had to stop to loosen my laces. I’m not sure whether my feet were starting to swell or my running shoes were just too new and stiff, but the discomfort seemed to pass. Five miles on, it happened again. I re-loosened the laces and carried on, but this time the soreness didn’t pass. Instead it got steadily worse, a lancing pain just where the top of your foot meets your shin. With every step it seemed to hurt more. This definitely wasn’t a part of the masterplan.
In the build-up to this race I’d worked on strengthening my glutes, adapting a shorter stride and faster footfall. I’d been to circuit training classes and I’d pretty much paid for my physio’s Caribbean holiday. Of all the possible reasons for a DNF, I never once envisaged a shoelace.
By mile 33 my foot was protesting so much that I was worried about long-term damage. I reluctantly decided it would be best to walk the remaining two miles back to the start and to call it a day, leaving Tim to go solo for the final lap. He did admirably, finishing in 8hrs 17mins and 8th place – testament to our pre-race plan.
Within a day my foot felt fine. I had half hoped for a grand-sounding diagnosis with which to justify my first DNF, and took some solace from learning the soreness does have a clinical name: Extensor Tendonitis. This is basically inflammation of the tendons that straighten the toes, generally caused from overtight laces particularly if you have high arches. It is easily rectified by ladder lacing, which has since proved a godsend.
I couldn’t let my season end on such a low, so within a few days I’d booked a place on the Ennerdale 50km race. It’s the only other ultra I’ve ever run, but it’s a great event and I thought it would be a good way to assess progress. It consists of a lap format similar to Ladybower, but this time in a clockwise direction. Thankfully the day passed without injury and I beat my previous year’s effort by 12 minutes. Running in circles may well be a sign of madness, but it seems it needn’t always be a thankless task!