Louise Runs 'Race to The King' a 53 Mile Ultra Marathon!
WHAT GOES UP MUST COME DOWN. AND UP AGAIN. AND DOWN…
At 40 miles I was no longer a runner, I was no longer me, I was just a woman, putting one foot in front of the other, willing herself on through the night.
But let’s head back to the start line. Actually no, let’s head back a few (or more) years shall we?
It all started when I was a child, sitting and watching the London Marathon on TV with my Dad every year, claiming that one year I’d do it to. Sadly I was never a particularly gifted runner as a child, as evident to anyone who saw me on Sports Days. Though I was always roped into running the longest races as I was the only one in my class willing to drag my backside around that bumpy, grassy 200m loop we called a track, I pretty much always came in last. Looking back I realise that while I was, and probably never will be, that fast, I am one very important thing. Determined AF.
Fast forward a few years, and I’d just been to see Run Fatboy Run with my other half and some friends, when one friend asked me to name one reason why I couldn’t run a marathon, Not wouldn’t, couldn’t. No lame excuses: simply why I didn’t train and do one. A few months later and the two of us finished the Prague marathon in blistering heat, knackered but so proud!
Don’t get me wrong, those first few weeks of training were HARD. 200 metres and I’d turn around and go home. This was also long before the doctors finally diagnosed me with adult onset asthma, which just added to the difficulty. But I was determined, so I just kept plodding through those training miles until I reached the finish line. After that I was hooked, I was slow, I wasn’t graceful, but I was a runner. Spandex clad, gel chugging Runner with a Capital R.
Since that day I’ve gone on to run three more marathons, 18 half marathons, 28 10ks, and a whole bunch of parkruns with the kids in the running buggy, I also completed a sprint distance triathlon (750m swim, 20km bike, 5km run) where I was actually last. The marshalls came and ran round the last 2.5km loop with me to keep me going and I got such a reception at the finish, as not only were all the volunteers there, but also everyone waiting to start the super-sprint a little later. Crossing that finish line felt amazing, to have that many people cheering me on and supporting me, not once judging me or making me feel anything other than proud of my achievements was a feeling you just don’t get every day.
Having completed that collection, and getting over the fear of actually coming last, I was more determined than ever to take on something bigger and more challenging. I happened to be scrolling through Facebook when someone in one of my online running groups posted about running an Ultra Marathon across the South Downs, and before I even knew what I was doing I’d hit ‘Register your interest’ for Race to the King (as registration wasn’t yet open). Skip forward a few more months forward and I nervously completed the sign up, actually shaking as I did so, even asking my husband over and over again was I being ridiculous thinking that I could complete 53 miles? Thankfully I have THE MOST SUPPORTIVE husband I could ever ask for, who never, not even for one minute, ever let me feel like I couldn't do this.
The thought of training was daunting at best. Where to start? Were there even Ultra training guides out there? How do I go from not having run a marathon in 9 years, and now having had two babies, to running 53 miles? So I did what so many of us do, I hit the internet and started researching training and reading every ultra marathon related blog I could find.
Now since having my second baby I’d taken up CrossFit. Don’t worry this isn’t going to become a big post about how much I love CrossFit, though anyone that does it knows the first rule of CrossFit is “Always talk about Crossfit”, but anyway enough of that!! The upside of this was that I was finally doing regular strength and conditioning training and I was really starting to see the improvements. Don’t get me wrong, I’m still not a fast runner, partly due to having severe asthma, and partly just lacking natural ability, but since taking up the training I’d managed to improve my 5k Parkrun time down to 25:56 so I was starting to see some decent improvements in myself, both mentally and physically.
A little while after I’d signed up for RTTK, my brother (who’d recently taken up running) asked if I’d consider doing the Brighton marathon with him. Figuring it coincided nicely with the Ultra training plan I thought, why not? Well, it was hard. I hit the wall BIG TIME at mile 16 dropping from a hopefully 4:45 finish to shuffling and limping across the finish at 5:35. I’ve never cried while running before, but being literally hit in the head by the 4:45 pacer’s balloon at they ran past set me spiralling down that dark path all runners come to at some point. Nevertheless, I kept dragging one foot in front of the other, and while it was still a Personal Best (PB) for me I was disappointed and started to worry that I’d made a big mistake. But being the determined (read - stubborn) person that I am, I put on a brave face, laughed it off to the outside world, and carried on training.
After a week’s recovery I hit the South Downs hard. Running up and down, round and round, watching the sun set with still another few miles to go, when I felt like I should have been at home putting my kids to bed. I tried to remember that this was only temporary, that pushing myself beyond my limits and showing my children that you can do anything if you put your mind to it and work hard, was more valuable than missing a couple of bedtime stories. (Gotta love parent guilt right??!). I also hit the gym hard, pushing myself to work harder and smarter, to work on my pacing, and strengthen my core and my legs, knowing full well that I’d need them.
Before I knew it Race Week was here. In the last few days leading up to the event everyone I spoke to kept asking how I was feeling, to which I could only reply “I’m fine” in a slightly unconvincing manner. Right up to the night before I knew I was going to give it my all and nothing was going to stop me at least getting to the start line, but I was still terrified. 53.5 very hilly miles lay ahead of me, and the only thing that stood between me and that finisher’s medal was, well, me.
It was a gloriously sunny day, maybe not the best for running an Ultra Marathon due to lengthy exposure, but my goodness was it pretty. I got to the start line with my husband and kids, dropped my bag and headed for one last nervous wee, before saying goodbye and entered the starting pen for wave E - aka the party wave! Then we were off. That was it, I was running through a field attempting my first ultra marathon. The girl who still can’t manage a sub-5 marathon, the mum of two with late-onset asthma. But here I was, running across the beautiful English countryside with a few other hundred equally crazy runners.
The first 23.5 miles were wonderful, everything went according to plan. I walked the ups, and ran the flats and downs. I kept my intended (slow) pace and reached the halfway Basecamp feeling pretty good. I’d stopped at the two pit stops along the way to refuel and re-suncream, and get the grit out of my shoes. So it was nice to stop and sit for a few minutes. I grabbed my plate of pasta, bread, and potatoes and gave my watch a charge while I caught up with my social feeds and watched a few wonderful videos and voice clips my friends had started to send me - which I’ll admit, did make me tear up a little bit. But before I knew it, it was time to drag my backside out of that marquee and get back to running.
Having planned to walk for a mile or so after lunch, to let everything settle, I decided to hit up the ice cream van as I left, treating myself to a Calippo-esque ice lolly. As I wandered out I spotted someone else who had done the same, but with a Mr Whippy: we exchanged rather large smiles! The walk however went on a tad longer than anticipated due to there being a larger than expected road section. My knees and ankles were not impressed with the sudden switch to hard ground and impact, but I did eventually get going again, in part as I was meeting my husband and kids at 30 miles, hopefully before my husband needed to get them home for bedtime!
Six and a bit miles later I’m running down a nice long hill and I finally spot those familiar faces at the bottom waiting for me. They’d managed to park at a car park right next to the path, so we took a wander to the car where I changed my socks and had a cuddle, then it was time to shuffle off and tackle Buster Hill, which quite frankly could bust right off.
By this point there had been some nasty hills. Harting Down was a very nasty up, followed almost immediately by going straight down. This was so steep that there were even mountain bikers pushing their bikes up and down! There were also a few stretches, although not as steep, that just seemed to go on forever and ever and ever. But Buster Hill? Well, it’s generally regarded as the worst hill in that race for a reason. It’s not the steepest, nor really the longest, but just enough to really hurt at 31 miles. Determined old me just kept following everyone else and putting one foot in front of the other until we reached that next pit stop.
Sadly the pit stops from this point were no longer on grass, so if you chose to sit, it was in a camp or deck chair, which was all well and good until you tried to get up! But the crew were brilliant, and helped us all get food and drinks and made sure we were hanging in OK.
After halfway it was just the non-stop folk plodding on, with the two-dayers having stopped for the night at basecamp, so the pack was getting a little thin. We’d started to recognise each other and have lots of little chats at the stops and when we passed each other (some were faster on flats, some better on hills) until it became a little group of us all finishing within about 15 minutes of each other. If you were in the 04:30am-ish finishers group, Hi!!!
By the time the sun began to set I was at 38 miles and feeling strong, but tired. I stopped at pit stop 5 and had a cheeky coffee and Cadbury Fudge bar, and put on my night gear. This mostly just involved popping on my long sleeve jacket and headtorch, but doing it while it was still just about enough light was a sensible plan. I plodded along until checkpoint 6 at 43 miles and this is where things got tough.
I sat and had a packet of Walkers Ready Salted crisps and another coffee (mmm salt, carbs, and caffeine!) and watched a video that my friend Maz had sent through before she went to bed. It was midnight now, and I got super emotional, and then got the shivers. I threw my waterproof jacket on as I realised that I was getting too cold sitting down. If I’m honest I started to get a little worried, unsure if I was just cold or getting ill. I knew that the last checkpoint was only 3.5 miles on from here: a last refuelling stop before the final 7.3 miles. I thought to myself I can walk that in an hour, if I walk fast to keep warm. If I don't, then I’ll have to stop into the next aid tent and talk to the medics.
So I got moving. About a mile later I started to feel dizzy and not at all right, I walked for about 20 mins, not sure if I wanted to cry, sit down, or what. Before I knew it I was hunched over in a bush throwing up. I must say, throwing up in a bush by (head) torch light was a new experience for me, and not one I’d care to repeat, but good grief, I felt 1000% better afterwards. I’d read enough Ultra blogs to know that it only takes a slight water/electrolyte imbalance to make you feel like utter crap. I had a gentle walk for a bit, and picked it up heading into the final pitstop - number 7. At this final pit-stop I had a cheeky cup of soup and felt ah-may-zing!
At no point in this race did I let the little brain goblins win. I knew I would finish. I reminded myself constantly that I could do this; that it was about finish lines, not finish times. My biggest concern was that my friend Mary was meeting me at the finish and I felt bad that it was taking me so long, that she might get cold. So I focussed on consistent pacing and getting to her as fast as I could.
The sun started to come up around 3am and I could finally see Winchester in the distance! I knew I could do it! I shuffled my tired legs as fast as they could into the town, following those little glow sticks and hi-vis arrows around each corner, stopping for a quick selfie at the final mile marker of course!
And there it was. Winchester Cathedral! I had made it! As I ran those last few meters I realised I couldn’t see Mary at the finish. Where was she?? As I got closer I saw someone wrapped in a red blanket, and thought to myself I have that same blanket at home. Wait? That looks like my son? Hang on!
And there they were, my amazing husband Paul and the kids! He’d sneakily booked a hotel near the finish and been in cahoots with Mary the whole time. He woke the kids up at 4am to watch me finish! I just sobbed as I finished. With exhaustion and so many emotions swirling around my body I hardly knew which way was up, but I knew which way was home.