This has been a while coming but with the launch of this site I thought it important that I included a race report from my first ever Ultra marathon, the 40 mile Grimreaper Ultra.
It’s also worth sharing a little bit of background to my decision to enter the ultra marathon and the training and preparation, or lack there of, that went into it.
The main driver behind my decision was the fact that I turned forty this year (2014) and was always looking for challenges to celebrate/mark this. Having already booked the Intrepid Duathlon in the Autumn, I was still keen to find another landmark event.
Having taken part both the Cambridge Half Marathon and North Downs Trail 30km races earlier in the year, I was doing a lot of running, the majority of if off road. As the weeks went by I realised how much I loved off road running and was amazed with the distances I was able to cover, something I had always doubted would be possible following my leg break and ankle dislocation while playing rugby a few years ago.
For many the next logical step would be to do a marathon. However while having a great race at Cambridge Half, the large crowds really turned me off events such as this and with the popularity of marathons I had no desire to do one. The more I looked into it, the idea of an ultra marathon became increasingly popular, for a number of reasons but primarily because:
- Ultra marathons tend to be smaller more intimate events – less crowded!
- Ultra marathons tend to include some or even a lot of off road running
- Ultra marathons tend to be in beautiful locations, including the mountains I love so much
The itch had been created and needed to be scratched!
To drive my interest further I had also discover the Grimreaper Ultra, which offered a 40, 70 or 100 mile race in multiple laps of 10 miles. A 40 mile ultra in my 40th year? Surely it had to be?
Logic further drew me towards this race again for a number of reasons, including:
- It’s was based around laps of ten miles, which would make it much easier to manage a fueling strategy or so I thought but more on that later.
- It was on a private estate across a mixture of road and trail
- It was at the start of August so should give me enough time to build my mileage off the back of the North Downs 30km Trail run
A hamstring injury in early June delayed my entry but once I had the all clear from the Physio and survived an easy run around the North Downs route – physio’s orders! – I could hold off no longer and the entry was placed 3 weeks before the start of the race. But could I get the training in I needed?
As already mentioned I had been running a lot through the spring, the majority of this off road both in preparation for the North Downs race but also because I just loved doing it. The sense of exploration, trying to piece together farm tracks, foot paths and bridleways in the local area to make a continuous off road route just added to the enjoyment.
The fact remained though that my late decision to commit to a place on the start line meant that I had a limited build into the race. The recent hamstring injury limited me to steady runs only, no speed work allowed! That said for a first ultra this wasn’t a bad thing. My aim was always going to be to get around the course and enjoy the experience. I had read you should never set yourself time goals in your first ultra and so my focus in the weeks leading up to the race was to get the miles under my belt.
Regular long runs of ten miles plus were the stable diet of my weekly training schedule, with the odd swim thrown in as recovery and a daily set of core workouts, supplemented with a larger core session twice a week. My weekly mileage topped out at just over 80km, so only a handful over the race distance of 66km but it was just getting my body used to time on its feet and gaining confidence I could cover the distance, all be it not in one go.
I had two major sessions in the run up to the race, the first before I even entered as a sighter to give me confidence I could get around the course with my hamstring.
The first session involved covering just over 40 miles in a series of four back to back runs. Starting on the Thursday evening with a easy 12.5km run, this was then followed by a 30km run early on the Friday morning, another 12.5km that afternoon and another early on the Saturday morning. All went ok and on the final run while my legs were tired, I felt like I could run and run and run. My race entry was made shortly after this.
The final major workout was a 25 mile long run ten days out from the race. I stopped short of the full marathon distance, determined that I should pass this for the first time on the ultra itself. This was the furthest I had ever run and while I was not setting the record books alight with times due to the hamstring injury I was covering the distance at a comfortable pace with a good nutrition strategy.
All my runs were done at a super easy pace, using the MAF formula and keeping my HR beneath 140bpm. Speed was not an issue, the runs just needed to be nice easy plods which could go on and on. I also worked on my nutrition, moving away from gels, which have always given me wind, towards natural based food products. During my longer runs I practiced eating while running and also adopted the ultra strategy of walking the uphills. My mountaineering days came to good use here as I easily power walk the uphills when needed, sometimes covering the ground quicker than running.
Finally I was ready for the race, or so I thought!
Kit and Nutrition
I’d been playing around with various items of kit and nutrition in the months and races running up to the Ultra. At the Cambridge Half marathon earlier in the year I had suffered from some serious chaffing when running in traditional running shorts, so had switched to X-Bionic Marathon shorts, which I had tried out in the North Downs Trail run and worked perfectly. On top I was going to go with a Salomon compression top, again tested on the North Downs, avoiding any additional chaffing issues and providing sun protection, some level of support and also good breathability.
Feet wise, well I was going to start with my tried and trusted Salomon XA Pro 3D’s, which are really comfy, lightweight with good grip. With mix of road, trail and off road running these should be ideal. The weather forecast wasn’t predicting rain but if that did arrive they should cope with any mud nicely. For socks it would be a pair of X-Bionic Sky Run socks.
As it was a lapped event I would take an extra pair of Salamon XA Pro’s and also Brooks Adrenaline just in case. I would also have spare socks and would definitely change them at the end of lap 2 but maybe also lap 3.
On my back I was going to carry by beloved Salamon S-lab Hydro 5 with 2 500ml soft flasks in the chest pockets, each containing water and a Nuun tablet, to ensure efficient hydration. During the North Downs, which was super hot, I consumed too much water and paid for it a little in the later half of the race. In this race I figured that consuming 1 litre per lap, with additional thrown down my neck at the checkpoint should be sufficient.
Nutrition wise I had been using Nakd bars, Chia Running bars and Clif bars during training and planned to continue with these. I was avoiding gels but would carry some Clif shotbloks as backup just in case. I figured that 550 calories per lap or around 300 calories per hour, should see me through the race comfortably, avoiding stomach issues and the dreaded bonk! The problem was I had never ran over 25 miles, so didn’t really know how my stomach would react to that and what I would feel like eating. Would I start to crave savoury food? Would I want fruit or salty food? In the end I ended up hedging my bets and taking a monster hamper covering all options just in case.
I took a similar approach with clothing and kit, again not knowing how my body or conditions would change on the day, so packed loads of different options into a bag. The setup for the race was that we were required to run it as if we were self supported and were asked to pitch our own tent at the end of the lap and place in it everything we would need for the race. The space was there so why not use it? Better to have too much than too little available to in me in my first Ultra.
So race day finally arrived. I opted to spend the night at home and make the 1.5 hour drive up first thing in the morning. Despite the early start I figured I would get a better night sleep in my own bed rather than a tent, speaking to a few other competitors it sounds like this was definitely the correct decision.
I arrived in plenty of time and after a little faff with where best to park my car, which still resulted in me being boxed in, my tent was up and kit all laid out ready to go. The usual queue for the toilets ensued, with good banter amongst all competitors. This was my first chance of the day to use the almost apologetic phrase “no I’m only running the 40 miler”. Only at an ultra race would this kind of thing be acceptable behaviour!
As always time flew by, so I quickly changed into my race kit, checked everything was laid out to hand. We listened to the race brief and before we knew it we were all on the starting line ready to go. There was a minor distraction with some cattle needing to be moved but finally we were off!
Lap One (0–10 miles)
So as previously mentioned, my number one aim was to finish, ideally still running. I did however have a plan of attack which I hoped would bring be in somewhere in the 6th hour if all went to plan. The plan was to aim for 1 hr 30 mins per 10 mile lap. I would try and keep the checkpoint time to the a minimum, with 5 mins at the end of the first lap, 10 the second and 5 again at the end of the third lap. Even allowing for some slippage, this still gave me 40 minutes to play with before the 7 hour mark and all based around an easy 10 mile pace.
I knew within minutes of the start that there was a problem. My legs felt leaden and I felt lethargic!
I had had an easy taper week in the run up to the race but during this I felt far to fatigued and my short runs felt hard work. I consoled myself that while this was not normal for me it would pass before race day, how wrong I was! The rushed training in the run up to the event obviously meant that I had carried way to much fatigue into the race and was going to have a long and difficult day.
That said I was still running, and kept putting one foot in front of the other. I had some podcasts lined up to go but had decided that for the first lap I wouldn’t use them, socialise with other runners around me and really get my bearings on the first lap.
Despite the lethargy in the legs it was great to be running and around 250 athletes set off on the first of either 4, 7 or 10 laps. There were some quick people off the front like whippets but I was playing the hare and the tortoise game and was confident that patience would see some of them come back to me later in the race. The final results would show that this judgment was good, with a lot of people struggling on their final lap just as I was getting stronger but more on that later.
The route started downhill, initially on a farm road before heading out across fields on farm tracks. Despite being in Lincolcolnshire the route was rolling, with a handful of hills of note all be it not very long or steep. There were a few long stretches off road, mainly on grass, the first of which came about 2 miles into the lap along a long tree lined avenue.
This was where the first significant event of the race occurred for me and a number of other runners. I was running along chatting with another competitor when we both became aware of runners ahead of us doing some sort of crazy dance/jig. We just had enough time to comment on what was going on before we found ourselves doing the same. Wasps!
The early runners had obviously disturbed a nest on the way past and now the entire nest was venting its fury on anybody in shorts and trainers coming along the path. The guy I was running with got stung on his Achilles and I got one slap bang into the top of my thigh – ouch! Later, back at the checkpoint, other athletes claimed they thought the were hornets rather than wasp as they were so aggressive. Personally I thought they were wasps but what what I did know is that my thigh hurt like Billyo at that point in time and we all broke into a sprint to get clear.
The other surprise for everybody was how warm and sunny it was! The weather forecast had it as being overcast with rain arriving mid afternoon. Instead we we running in warm sunny conditions, which while pleasant did mean that my kit selection did need to be revised. By the end of the first lap my glasses were covered in sweat, which combined with the lethargy in my legs made me feel like I was really struggling. A quick clean of these and also grabbing my visor before heading out on lap 2 sorted this out, one problem overcome!
Back to the first lap and while annoying the wasp sting wasn’t getting and worse. I ran the majority of the remainder of the lap with the same group, including one guy dressed as a banana!
A quick comfort break a mile from the end dropped me off the back of this group but I rolled into the checkpoint in 1:34, a little off my planned 1:30 pace but not far. One lap down, three to go!
Lap Two (10–20 miles)
I quickly restocked my nutrition, cleaned glasses, grabbed my visor, refilled my water bottles and I was ready to go. While I didn’t have any antihistamine cream I had fortunately taken a tablet in the morning, so hopefully that would keep the leg from getting any worse. A quick check of the thigh showed some inflamation so I improvised and applied some cooling gel to it before heading off on lap two.
A number of people were arriving suffering from stings, a few needing assistance from the medics. I and a few others spent some time describing the location to the race director and suggesting a minor re-routing of the route may be the safest course of action. He headed off in his van promising to look into it and I was back out running. As it turned out the wasps or hornets (whatever they were) did not make a reappearance on the remaining laps and the route was not altered. Like I guess many people I upped my pace when running through this area on the remaining laps. Nothing like an interval session in a 40 mile ultra!
As I left I was running on my own, so this time I plugged in the headphones and started up the podcasts. The sun was still beating down but the visor was stopping the sweat and my glasses were remaining clear. While the pace was still not stellar it was great to be out running in beautiful countryside.
The second lap was pretty uneventful. I was now eating according to my nutrition plan, mainly a combination of Clif and Nakd bars. My water was always gone by two thirds of the way through each lap and I was pretty thirsty by the checkpoint, where I consumed an additional 3–500ml before heading back out again. It didn’t feel as if it was adversely impacting my ability to run and after my experiences in the North Downs race, where I felt I had consumed too much water (a litre per hour), I stuck with the plan.
Lap 2 was finished in 1:42:02, still slower than hoped but I was now half way through and it was homeward bound from here!
Lap Three (20–30 miles)
This is where the wheels came off through one silly mistake! I’m not sure why I did it and don’t even recall making the conscious decision to do so but to put it simply I ate way too much at the checkpoint and suffered for the next five miles!
Looking back now I can only guess it was a reaction to the fact that during the third lap I would be runnng into the unknown. Until then the furthest I had ever run was 25 miles, so from half way around this lap it would all be new. Some how I convinced myself that I was going to hit some sort of wall nutrition wise and therefore needed to load in some calories to avoid this – big mistake!
As soon as I left the checkpoint I realised my mistake and the stomach cramps began. The next five miles were a classic demonstration of the run walk strategy, with an emphasis on the walking! Strangely I didn’t panic. I kept putting one front in front of the other, ditched the nutrition plan for the lap and sipped slowly on water waiting for the cramps to ease. At around the half way mark I tried to start running again and this time the cramps didn’t get too severe and I was able to keep running and slowly got stronger and stronger. By the end of the lap I was running comfortably and with just one lap remaining was feeling really good.
Into the checkpoint for one final time, with a lap time of 1:50:53. Time lost for sure but I was now feeling strong and raring for the final lap!
Lap Four (30–40 miles)
The undersides of my feet had stated to feel a little tender towards the end of the third lap, so I decided to switch to my Brooks for increased support and cushioning. I’d changed my socks at the end of the previous lap and again decided to treat myself to another pair, I don’t need blisters now!
The change of shoes was a mistake. While they didn’t stop me running, the lack of protective rock plate in the sole was immediately noticeable on the rocky tracks and I wished I’d left my Salomons on. Oh well nothing I can do now and less than ten miles to the end!
After the nutrition cock-up on the previous lap I was feeling great. I started to eat Nakd bars again, conscious that ten miles was still a way to go and I would need a few calories to keep the stomach ticking over.
Although moving slowly I was running and was actually picking people off quite quickly. We all carried timing keys attached to our wrists to dip in at the start and end of each lap, plus two points out on the course. There were three colours – grey, yellow and red. I had grey and until now had assumed that anybody wearing grey was ale doing the forty miler, with the yellow and red for the 70 and 100 milers. However after quick chats with few people on the final lap, it turned out that this was not the case. Not only was I overtaking forty milers but in some cases I was lapping people who were on their third lap. Hmmm not so shabby after all!
This did wonders for the confidence but it was just great to be running without stomach cramps and in beautiful weather. I was loving my first Ultra!
The miles were ticking down now and part of me was sad to be finishing. I was still using my ultra strategy of walking the uphills and this was still working well, with me still overtaking people even while walking.
It was at this point that I was gaining on another male runner. He looked to be moving nicely and I assumed he was running either the 70 or 100 as I was gaining on him. As I pulled alongside we exchanged a few words. He complimented me on how strong I was looking and I told him about my nutrition issues from earlier and returned the complement.
As I pulled ahead his parting commenting was the fact that this was his last lap and would be finished soon. Dam it! He was in my race and with a mile to go we were racing to the finish!
He asked what I was doing and I explained that I was also doing the forty and that I guessed that meant we were racing to the end. Just what you need after 39 miles! While I am confident of my sprint finish I wasn’t even sure if I could muster one after 6 odd hours running!
I decided to leave my headphones out, I’d need to be aware of what was going on behind me. Keep your pace up and then see what you have left at the end of the race. Oh and what ever you do don’t look back!
We ran along a limestone track, at the end of which was a ruined barn and a nasty kick uphill turning almost 180 degrees into a field. This gave me the opportunity to check behind and he was right there! Oh well keep going, same strategy as before. Round the field and up the far side, walking the final kick uphill into the forest. From there it was only 6–800 metres to the finish line.
As I turned onto the final run up past the tents I checked I snuck a final quick check over my shoulder and there was nobody on sight behind me. I pushed for the finish all the same and crossed the line in 7:20:32 with a final lap of 1:44:41.
Later Alistair would come and find me at the finish to congratulate me and said he couldn’t stick with me. I was surprised to put nearly 4 minutes into him over that final mile, however if you read his account of the race you would understand why. On any normal day I would expect him to be well up the road from me and am sure like me he will learn a lot from his first ultra.
And that was it, my first ultra in the bag, I am an ultra runner! What happened next was a total shock. On checking the results in the timing tent I was stunned to find that I had come 7th overall out of over a hundred athletes running the forty mile race. Amazing!
Obviously at that point the “what if’s” began. What if I hadn’t screwed up my nutrition? What if I had tapered properly and had been able to hit my 1:30 lap targets? 6th was achievable but was 5th?
On looking at the results it was gratifying to see that while my laps varied somewhat, if you took lap three out of the equation they were all within 10 minutes of each other and even with lap three, they were still within 15 minutes. Also I was one of only 8 runners within the top 20 to do a sub two hour final lap, proving that my slow and steady approach at the start of the race really did work.
So there it is, four ten mile laps completed. All that remained was to rehydrate, eat some post race nutrition, get changed, strike camp and head for home.
Scores on the doors
My final time was 7:20:32. The official timings only showed lap times and not time spent in the checkpoint between each lap. I did attempt to track this myself during the race using my Suunto, however in my excitement to get back out on the course for the final lap, I totally forgot to trigger the lap counter until I was a couple of minutes out from the checkpoint. All is not lost and using the official lap times, combined with the Suunto data and some elementary mathematics on my part, I have come up with the following which hopefully provides a fairly accurate breakdown of how my race went:
Lap 1: 01:35:32
Lap 2: 01:42:02
Lap 3: 01:50:53
Lap 4: 01:44:41
Total: 7:20:32 – running time 06:53:08, checkpoint time 27:24
Interestingly while I thought that I wasted a lot of time at the checkpoints it was only 07:24 more than the 20 minutes I originally planned (5, 10 and 5 minutes respectively). There was quite a drop off between lap one and two (nearly 7 mins) and again from two to three (nearly 9 mins), although the later is to be expected due to the stomach issues I experienced.
It was good to see my pace return for the final lap and based upon these times, without the stomach issues I should have been looking for something like 01:43:?? for lap three which would have saved me 6 minutes or so. That combined with being slicker through checkpoints could have given me an extra 10 minutes overall. Still not sub 7 hours but would have given me a shot at 6th place.
I appreciate that all of the the above is purely speculative of course but its always fun to think what if!
I am conscious that this report has gone on a bit and if you are still going I am impressed. To speed things up, here are the lessons I learnt after reflecting on the race in the days and weeks afterwards:
- One litre of liquid per lap was marginal considering the conditions and should up this slightly for warmer races or if checkpoints are further apart in future races
- Nakd bars rock and are so easy to get down. Definitely my go to fuel in the future
- Implement a longer taper for future Ultra’s to ensure I am fresher on the start line.
- Brooks Adrenaline are no good for off road rinning, stick with the Salomon’s in the future
- Limit calorie intake at the checkpoints. Its far to easy to get carried away and pay for it after leaving. Have a plan and stick to it.
- Be a little stricter with myself at the checkpoints to ensure I minimise time wasted. I had a plan but didn’t really watch the clock and while its not a lot of time, some could have been saved there.
- Try and incorporate speed work into training. Injury played its part in limiting the opportunity for this in the run up to the race but I suspect this also contributed to the slower than anticipated lap times.
- Finally carry a buff to use as impromptu sweat band, sun protection, handkerchief or whatever. They are lightweight and more flexible than a visor and would have helped on lap one of this race.
And finally, what next?
Well regardless of the result, this race proved that ultra running is for me. Great atmosphere and getting to run on a mixture of surfaces in a stunning location, what is not to like? The opportunity to run in the mountains is an obvious attraction for me, given my mountaineering background and so I have decided to embark on a journey that hopefully culminates in me running The UTMB.
I have not set any time constraints on this, conscious that I still have a lot to learn not to mention the UTMB lottery to get through first. I would also like to try some of the shorter races run around the UTMB course first, probably starting with the OCC or even CCC.
So the immediate plans are to run more ultras and start accumulating points to support an application to take part in UTMB CCC or OCC in 2016 if possible. Only time will tell if this will happen and through this website I hope to document the journey
Thanks for reading and hopefully see you out on the trail!