After finishing my first ultra I can definitely tell you that it was one of the hardest things I have ever done but also one of the most enjoyable. I don’t think I had really quite grasped just how far 40 miles was until I got to about the 50k mark! I went through a lot out on the course – mainly mental which was a surprise, I thought my mind was stronger than it turned out to be but I was glad my body turned out to be more than capable.
I’m happy, and proud, to say I finished the 40 miles in 8th place with a time of 7:24:19. At the very least I wanted to finish in the top 10 and I’ll admit that before the start I had harboured ideas of a podium place – I continued to hold onto this idea until I was passed and dropped into 3rd at mile 18! It was at this point I realised I had underestimated the task at hand and gone off far too quickly but I’ll write more about that in the lap breakdowns below.
One of the biggest problems facing almost everybody on the day was the heat and humidity – I for one could not get enough water all day and because of this I feel more proud of my top 10 finish because of the climatic conditions than I would have if it had been cool. I finished the race dehydrated and depleted of salt; if I run in similar conditions again I’ve learned I’m going to need to add more Nuun tablets to my water and I’m going to need to carry two handhelds instead of the one I used this time around.
To round off my summary and introduction I would just like to say a MASSIVE thank you to the amazing crew and pacing support of a Miss Gabrielle Lee who was on hand at the end of every lap with supportive words, quick water/electrolyte refills and the nous to change up the food in my lap bags to something I could handle after the end of the second lap. A big credit to her as well because she paced me out at the start of my second lap which was not part of the race plan at all!
We set off for Grimsthorpe on the afternoon of Thursday 31st July. It’s a two hour journey and the sun had been shining all day long! Everything was prepared and ready to go all we had to do was find our hotel, check in and then head up to the race area to set up the crew tent.
Shortly after arriving at our hotel though the weather abruptly changed! The humidity peaked and then the clouds burst for about two and a half hours of torrential rain. My heart began to sink at this point as my research of previous year’s events told me that The Grim Reaper would be a very, very muddy course if enough rain fell for long enough. I tried to blank these thoughts from my mind and set to making up my lap bags for the race. Each bag contained one energy gel, an Anzac biscuit and 6 Haribo Tangfastics – as you will read, the content of the bags changed drastically after mile 20!
Once all the final preparations had been made Gabrielle and I set off for Grimsthorpe Castle to set up the tent and to say hello to other competitors, the Race Director and crew and to get a feel for the place. Miraculously it stopped raining almost as soon as we began the 6 mile drive and the heat and humidity began to build again! This cheered me up no end and when we arrived at the race area I was heartened to feel that the ground underfoot had not turned to bog and mud. After setting up the tent and sharing a few words with various people Gabrielle and I retreated back to our hotel in the village of Little Bytham for dinner and an ale or two.
Lap 1 – 16k/10 miles (1:16:40 – 2nd at end of lap)
There is a first time for everything and as this was my first ultra I thought I’d go for another first and start from the front row. In my mind I was thinking about a top 3 finish and I thought I wouldn’t harm my chance by starting with the front runners! The plan was to knock off every kilometre between 4:50 and 4:58 pace for this lap…that plan soon went out of the window when the hooter sounded and we were set loose on the course! Over the next 16km I ran an average of about 4:40 or thereabouts. Granted, I was feeling strong and confident and I was really enjoying being out at the front of a race for the first time in my life – it was strange seeing just one other person in front of me for almost the entire way. He slipped from my view around the 13km mark and I never saw him again!
I was conscious that I’d abandoned my race plan at around 14km when the Race Director shouted the guy in front was about a thousand yards ahead and I was looking strong. I ran on by with a thank you and listened out for him shouting out to whoever might be behind me and when I heard nothing over about 100m I broke one of my cardinal race rules – I looked back and saw not a soul! I’ll be honest, I can’t remember now whether that scared me or whether that spurred me on but I reckon it was probably a mixture of both. I ran on oblivious to anything for the next 2km with a smile on my face and enjoying the feeling of running a race pretty much stranded between the leader and the rest of the field!
I ran into the aid station at mile 10 to see Gabby already waiting to refill my handheld with 500ml of water and a Nuun tablet. We didn’t say much to each other and I just remember grinning as one of the race crew told me the leader was about five or six minutes ahead of me. I already had my pre-prepared lap bag in my waist pouch so after about a minute of information gathering and water refilling I set off again in a bid to close the gap on the leader and to create a gap between myself and the rest of the field!
Lap 2 – 32k/20 miles (1:32:14 – 4th at end of lap)
After stopping very briefly at the end of my first lap I set off full of vigour and had decided to settle into my plan having abandoned it during the previous 10 miles! Lap 2’s plan had called for an average of 5:35 per kilometre and so I slowed to this pace and was feeling very comfortable now that I knew what to expect from the course seeing as it was a ten mile loop. I was rolling along with a smile on my face and not feeling particularly taxed all the way to the half way point of the lap – for some reason my cardinal rule of never looking behind in a race was broken again and I allowed myself a peek down the switchback as I came out of a wooded area onto a long stretch of road section. I saw nobody and so I thought my plan was working! I had a feeling I wouldn’t be catching the guy in first but I also felt as though nobody was going to be chasing me down anytime soon either.
I believe this was a mistake on my part – over confidence led me to rely on my plan too much and I zoned out of the race for a while. With 15 miles gone my mind switched off and I didn’t hear the guy who, at that time, was in 3rd creeping up behind me! If I had been more attuned to the situation then I might have been able to press on a little and hold onto my position but at around mile 18 he glided past me with a friendly word and asked if I knew how far the leader was out front. I replied as far as I knew the guy was maybe seven or eight minutes ahead and without another word off he ran! This blew my mind because as I watched him increase the gap I saw him eating and I realised then that I’d made a big mistake – I had not touched a morsel of food at this point and I’d been fuelling myself on a bowl of muesli and just under a litre of water. So it was that I pulled my waist pouch around and pulled out an Anzac biscuit – I had vowed that the gels were for emergencies only as I really wanted to complete the 40 miles on real food.
I took one bite of the Anzac and realised it was going to take some effort to chew, swallow and digest it – not only that it was also going to require me to take on more fluid just to keep my mouth from drying up. My splits from Strava tell the tale of this section of the race! At 28 klicks I’d been on my pace plan running merrily along at 5:30 and then I was overtaken, dropping into 3rd. At 29km I started to struggle with eating and slowed to 6:17 for that kilometre and was again unexpectedly overtaken by the eventual winner of the race, dropping into 4th. At kilometre 30 I was struggling with digestion and so had slowed to 7:00! Between kilometre 30 and 31 I was battling with my mind fiercely. I was arguing with myself about the stupidity of my food choices, berating myself for blowing it so early into the race and feeling generally annoyed that I was finding it tough before I’d even got to the marathon mark, it was then that I noticed I was about a kilometre from the end of the lap and still very much in the game for a podium spot if I could salvage my pace! So it was that I ran into the aid station at mile 20 trying to look strong.
All pretense of strength collapsed the minute I got to my cool box and Gabrielle. I think Gabs was pretty shocked to see my mental game had gone out of the window so early on! The plan at this point had called for her to force me to eat a banana and a handful of rice but that too went out of the window – as soon as banana touched my tongue I wanted to throw up so I spat it out before even chewing it and when I threw some rice into my mouth it felt like I was chewing gravel so I spat that out too! So, for the next four minutes Gabs tried valiantly to buoy me up and to feed me Haribo, water and orange pieces whilst at the same time emptying out my pre-prepared lap bag and filling it with orange slices and more Haribo whilst quietly jettisoning the Anzac biscuit that I had, before the race, felt to be my secret nutritional weapon!
Leaving the aid station on this lap was the hardest point of the race for me even though I hadn’t even gone marathon distance! It was so hot and humid, my race/hydration/nutrition plan had gone out of the window and I knew that I had only just got to the halfway point. Another 20 miles of constantly changing terrain with very little by way of shade awaited!! The plan was for Gabrielle to run out with me at mile 30 for 5km to keep my spirits up but she adapted to the situation and, although wearing a dress and a normal bra instead of her sports bra and running shorts she laced up her Mizuno and paced me out from the aid station – I will be completely honest, I think if I’d have been on my own at this point I’d have probably stayed in the aid station a lot longer, dropped a few more places and might not even have finished!
Lap 3 – 48k/30 miles (2:08:08 – 7th at end of lap)
I know there is no shame in walking during ultras but it took me a bit of time to get that into my brain during this lap. Gabrielle constantly had to gee me up for the first 5 klicks before she peeled off and headed back up to the aid station. We walked a little, we ran a little, we walked a little, we ran a little and then at about 3km into the lap I finally picked up my spirits and my pace and ran 2km before bidding farewell to Gabs.
I don’t really remember too much about the first seven miles or so of this lap. The main thing I recall is repeating to myself over and over “Hike the ups, run the downs” and so this is what I did – on the flat sections I also ran 500m and then hiked 500m regardless of terrain. The Grim Reaper course is difficult, in my opinion, because of the changing terrain – it’s made up of around 50% pavement, 15% grass and 35% crushed limestone. Normally I like to run on road and I love running on gravel, limestone and other hardpack trail surfaces but, equally, I hate running on grass because it saps all the energy from the legs! Therefore I found three particular sections of the course very hard going.
At around the 6km mark after a short uphill section through some woods you find yourself on a long stretch of flat grass – I think it was probably just over a kilometre long which meant it just wasn’t feasible to hike the whole section if I didn’t want to lose places but having said that I dropped from 4th to 5th at this point even with the run/walk strategy in full swing! Then, with about 2.5 miles to go you find yourself going from a largely downhill pavement section into an open, very hot and very humid wheat field. I could find no discernible trail on the field at all and so on every lap apart from the first I hiked three quarters of the field and ran the last bit as it swung around to a gentle rolling downhill limestone trail section. I ran out of water at this point on the second lap and also the third because I just felt the need to hydrate because of the heat in the field! Finally, with just over a kilometre to go you transfer from limestone hardpack to the final grassy field. Although this field is eminently more runable than either of the fields preceding it, because it’s at the end of the lap I found myself struggling with the idea of running it even though I knew at the end of it was a 500m limestone/hard pack trail followed by the final 500m stretch of pavement to the aid station!
Anyway, I digress! The reason I don’t remember much about the first seven miles or so of this lap is because at around this point I was awakened from my mantra of “Hike the ups, run the downs” by a rather large herd of cows straddling the course. Now, at the best of times I’m pretty scared of the bovine species and as this could not be described as the best of times I was feeling pretty petrified! The worst part was that I noticed them just as I was about to pick up my pace from power hike to run but stopped dead in my tracks instead. Because the cows had calves with them I thought they posed an even greater threat than had they just been adult cows on their own. I looked behind to see that the guy behind me was also looking pretty lost for words and the guy behind him suggested we all run through together. As the three of us began the cows started to pick up their pace too and ended up running by us and we ran through the middle of them! Looking back, this was where I lost my 5th place and dropped to 6th. I ran and hiked the next two miles shoulder to shoulder with the guy in 7th – he confided that his hamstring was giving him hell and he’d need a big push to get out of the aid station at mile 30. He had no idea he was in the top 10 until I told him! I thought it would help him out but although surprised and happy with the news he urged me to carry on to the end and so I pushed on from here.
I got the aid station feeling pretty pleased that I had only one lap to go! My shoulders at this point were killing me but my legs felt quite strong so to keep them that way I took the time to put on my compression socks, eat some orange and drink some water. All the while Gabs was filling a lap bag with orange pieces and more Haribo. I asked the race crew which position I was in when I arrived at the station and they told me I was in 7th so I decided I’d wait for the guy who was behind me who I’d run with to see if I could persuade him to come out on the last lap! I spent about 10 minutes at the aid station and he came in just as I was planning on getting a move on – he was still in 8th at this point but couldn’t get over the cramping in his forearms and legs. It was sad to see him pull out at such a late stage but he gave me encouragement and told me to get a move on!
Lap 4 – 64k/40 miles (2:13:43 – 8th Place)
Gabs paced me out again on this lap and joined me for about 6km, we went with the run/walk strategy again and found ourselves next to the guy who had just taken 8th for most of the first 5km of the final lap! Once Gabrielle peeled off at the 6km mark I bunny-hopped between 7th and 8th until about the 8km mark at which point I picked it up a little and headed out for the last five miles determined not to drop out of position again!
My strategy was firmly entrenched at this point: power hike 500m and run 500m on the flat, hike the ups and run the downs – no matter how difficult! And boy was the last push difficult! My friend William who was running the 100 miler caught up with me just after Gabs had peeled off to return to the start and we hiked and chatted for a short while – his indomitable will spurred me on a lot during the last ten miles as he was never really too far in front of me. We ran a few sections and hiked a few sections together and I took solace from the fact he was looking so strong and hadn’t even got halfway through his own race and his first ultra! (He finished in 17th place, 24:43:11 and it seems he hobbled the last 30 miles on a broken ankle!!)
Again, I digress, largely because at this point I was feeling slightly confused and a bit emotional as I was nearing the end of my first ultra! Just like the previous lap I can’t remember much detail about this one. All I know is that on the final downhill pavement section with about 4 klicks to go I found myself running with the second placed lady in the 40 and eventual 9th place overall finisher. We exchanged a few kind words and encouraged each other to keep on keeping on – the next time I saw Jessica was as she crossed the finishing line looking happy, tired and very surprised when they told her she’d finished as 2nd female!
Another thing that sticks out about this lap is losing my 7th place with about 1.2km to go! A guy who I thought was running the 70 was gaining on me and as he approached I asked how he was doing, he told me he’d had a tough lap and wasn’t feeling so great – I told him he should take solace from the fact that although he might not feel strong he was looking it…and then I asked which race he was in. We made eye contact, both smiled and then both said we were in the 40 and then I remember him saying “Well, I guess that means we’re racing to the end!” and then somehow he managed to pick up his pace! I tried to cover the move but as we came off the limestone and hard pack trail onto the final field I broke into a walk and he carried on relentlessly towards the finish – in any other race to date I would have relished the prospect of a racing finish but I was just too happy to feel the finish getting closer. I really didn’t want to risk upping the pace and potentially imploding and having to power hike the finishing straight and possibly losing my position in the top 10!
The best thing was that instead of giving up after losing out on 7th so late in the race I looked up and saw Gabrielle jogging towards me! I broke into a run for a little bit until we were shoulder to shoulder and then power hiked it to the final gravel path section that leads into the 500m finishing straight. Being an amazing pacer, Gabs could see I was feeling dejected about losing my 7th place so she told me I was being chased down by some other runners in the 40 and as I got onto the final path I started to run again! The truth of the matter was that there were runners behind me but they were by no means chasing me down, nor were they running the 40 miler but I cannot begin to explain how important it was for my morale and my race to be told that at this point. Gabs took one final photograph of me on the gravel path and then ran up to the finish line to get a shot of me coming in to complete my first ultra!
About a hundred metres out Jennifer (a lady from the winning 100 mile relay team) and Gabs shouted out for a sprint finish! I grinned to myself and thought I’d give it a go and, I have no idea how, I managed to pick up my pace significantly and sprinted those last hundred metres like my life depended on it!
Yeah, I’ve finished my first ultra in 8th place. Yeah, I’ve finished it with just one blister. Yeah, my pacer and crew member was totally amazing over the preceding 7 hours 24 minutes and 19 seconds. But when I’d finished and sat down I felt like the happiest man in the world because Gabrielle gave me a yellow Jelly Baby thus proving that ultras do crazy things to your mind and your appetite! Another bit of proof to support this fact is that I craved tea almost as soon as I got my medal around my neck – I haven’t drank tea, or milk, for well over a year but I went straight to the kettle and brewed up with milk and two sugars. I had another two after that as well!
It took a long time for me to feel settled once I’d finished. Gabs kept the Jelly Babies coming and kept plying me with water but for some reason I could not face eating anything other than Jelly Babies. After leaving the aid station area and heading back to my own crew tent I stripped down to my shorts, threw myself on the ground and asked Gabrielle to pour a litre of water all over my body from head to toe – once she’d poured it over my back I turned around and urged her to pour another litre over my front! Shortly after this I got some pretty bad cramping in my calf muscles and rushed to get my compression socks back on. We had a laugh about this for almost an hour as my calf muscles kept forming into very random shapes and making my legs involuntarily spasm – in between severe spasms they just danced their own merry dance.
After a short lie down and some phone calls we took the tent down, I put on some non-running clothes, grabbed an ale from the cool box and then did the rounds of the campsite/crew area to say congratulations to 40 mile finishers and good luck to those 70 and 100 mile runners that were still around. It was awesome to meet so many new people and to see a few people I knew at the race. The sense of camaraderie, fun and encouragement is something completely different from anything I’ve experienced at any other race and I hope my next ultra will be just the same in terms of atmosphere.
So, that’s it! The longest race I’ve competed in so far and the longest race report I’ve ever written!! I hope you’ve enjoyed the read 🙂
PEACE & BLESSINGS