Well I made it! Sorry to spoil the whole report but I am so chuffed that I not only made it to the coast but managed to run all the way to the finish of the inaugural Norfolk 100, that I can’t keep the suspense building until the end.
It wasn’t without its trials and tribulations. In some respects this was one of the most challenging races I’ve run and in others the easiest. Read on to find out more.
As with my last race report, for those that don’t have the time or inclination to wade through what is likely to be thousands of words, here are the potted highlights:
- Finished joint 11th in a time of 12:27:40
- Ran pretty much the entire race with Karen Doak, who finished second lady. Great company and I’m sure pulled me through my the darkest parts of the race morale wise.
- Also hooked up with John Reynolds for the last 30km to become a group of three, great addition to the team.
- We became five with John’s club mate Simon Merrick catching us and Karen’s partner Paul joining us for the final 10km to the finish.
- The 4.3 miles of shingle bank from Cley into the final checkpoint at Weybourne was both un-runnable and tortuous!
- I had stomach issues from 10km to 70km, which got so bad I feared I may have to drop out at Wells.
- Custard and satsumas are the best thing for settling stomach cramps!
- As on other races, legs felt stronger as race went on.
I could go on but for now lets go with those.
For those that aren’t aware of the route. The Norfolk 100 starts under The Bailey Gate in the centre of Castle Acre in Norfolk. From here it follows the old roman road of The Peddars Way north all the way to the North Norfolk Coast at Holme. At this point we switch to the North Norfolk Coastal Path and head due East until Cromer, some 70km away.
Pre-race build up
I covered this in detail in my post the week before the race but in short my build up to The Norfolk 100 was pretty sub optimal to say the least! Repeated viruses or infections resulted in 3 separate courses of antibiotics and a chronic lack of training. This all culminated in my worst run ever the week before the race, resulting in me sitting in my parents garden seriously considering not starting at all.
I rallied and after a better run on the Sunday before the race, decided to give it a go. I had little doubt in my mind however that I would need to stop at some point along the course. I hoped I had it in my legs to at least make it to the coast (33km). I prayed I could drag myself as far as the bag drop at Burnham Overy Staithe (56km). With a tail wind and a lot of luck, there was the very slimmest chance I could get to Stiffkey (70km).
I considered anything beyond that, including the finish, a total impossibility. Sincethe Hardmoors 55 back back in March, my longest run had been only 22km, with my largest week of running topping out just shy of 50 miles. I did not have the fitness in my legs and was unsure whether my body could hold up to the stresses a race like this would put me under.
I stopped my latest course of antibiotics on the Tuesday before the race, to be sure they were completely out of my system. My body doesn’t react well to these kind of drugs and I was fairly convinced they were contributing significantly to me feeling so poor over the last week or so.
I ran a single taper run on the Tuesday at an easy pace and had planned to do another on the Thursday but with my legs still feeling tired from my run on the Sunday I decided to ditch this to try and preserve what little strength I had in my legs.
Other than a few brisk walks to and from work and at lunchtimes, that was all my training for the week. I even paused my usual daily core strength sessions to try and get as much energy into my legs as possible, as I knew I was going to need it come the weekend.
My race plans were a far cry from my previous aspirations when I’d first booked this race following The Peddars Way Ultra. Back then my aim had been to treat this as an A race, get a really good block of training in and go for a time. Now it was just going to be an easy long run, keeping my fingers crossed and seeing how far I could get.
I planned to travel as light as possible during this race. Originally this was supposed to help me achieve my target time but the fact I was now carrying a couple of kilograms of additional bodyweight, encouraged me to continue to minimise my kit.
As before my family were planning to be along the route to support me, plus there was the opportunity of a drop bag at the Burnham checkpoint at just over half way. This meant I could carry just want I needed as essential kit and grab anything extra I needed at the checkpoints along the route.
I was running with the Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra vest, which is an amazing piece of kit, able to hold masses of kit if required, so would have plenty of space for all my needs.
Nutrition wise, I was again going to rely mainly on the checkpoints for food and carry a small supply with me which should be sufficient to consume between the checkpoints during the race. This proved to be the case as I stated with 2 x Trek Bars, 4 x Naked Bars, 2 x Mini Malt Loafs and one pack of Shotbloks and finished with a Nakd Bar and two thirds of a Trek Bar at the end.
Although I didn’t have the best race digestion wise, I never felt low on energy or threatening to bonk at any point, so it looks like I got this right and my approach was correct. More on this later.
While I had originally planned to run in my Inov-8 Race Ultra 290 shoes, which are really light and comfortable, I had developed a niggle in the top of the left calf and was concerned that it was the lower drop of these shoes that was causing this. I therefore opted to run with my old faithfuls, my Brooks Cascadias, which had done me so proud in The Peddars Way Ultra back in January 2015. I would have my road shoes waiting in my drop bag in case I wanted to change but these were never required, in fact the terrain later in these race made them totally impractical, but more on that later.
Weather – too hot or too cold?
The weather in the week up to the race had been changeable and the day before was really warm and humid. After the blizzard conditions of the Peddars Way Ultra, I had looked forward to the opportunity to run a race in the warm sunshine. However as someone who is not a massive fan of the sun or heat, I realized on reflection this probably wasn’t ideal for me and the temperatures and humidity on the Friday would have spelled certain doom to my race chances on the Saturday.
As it was a change in the weather was forecast and what a change it was. On the Friday night storms were forecast to blow through dropping the temperatures and leaving Saturday cooler and cloudy. There was a possibility we’d get to enjoy tailwinds on race day. The only outstanding question was whether the rain would completely blow through, hang around or blow back in as the day progressed.
A cool, cloudy day with a tailwind were obviously ideal conditions for those of us running. For those spectating and following us along the course less so. My promise to our small boys that they could make sand castles on the beach while waiting for Daddy to arrive seemed a little hollow now. I felt sorry for building up their hopes and knew my wife would have a difficult day keeping them entertained.
Considering the conditions I opted to carry a waterproof with me, going with my Montane Minimus Smock as it was really light and breathable. I also opted to carry some arm warmers and a buff just in case it got cooler and a pair of calf guards in case my left calf started to play up. That, combined with the Salomon short sleeve compression top and X-Bionic running shorts I would be wearing, was all the clothing I had with me.
In addition to my road shoes I’d also included a spare long sleeve top, some clean socks, my head torch and some food in my drop bag. My family also had some other bits as well just in case. I was being overly cautious, was hopeful none of the additional clothing would be required and fortunately this proved to be the case.
The Night Before
I didn’t want to make the same mistake I made on Peddars Way, by driving to the finish from Ely on the morning of the race and getting the bus back to the start. Hardmoors 55 showed me the importance of a good nights sleep the night before, so I planned to stay at my parents on the Friday night, who live 25 mins drive from the start and then get a lift home from the race with them the following day.
My family were going to stay in Ely on the Friday night and then travel up and meet me somewhere on the North Norfolk Coast on the Saturday morning. I didn’t want to rush away, so opted to help with The Boys bedtime before hitting the road. This meant I didn’t get over to Norfolk until 9pm and but after a quick chat and last minute sort of kit I was in bed shortly after 10pm. With my alarm set for 04:45 I wasn’t going to get 8 hour sleep but 6-7 hours was still pretty good.
Race Day Dawns
I actually woke shortly before my alarm went off. While frustrating that I was loosing precious minutes sleep, it did mean that I woke up gently, making the early start a little easier to cope with.
I laid waiting for my alarm to vibrate on my wrist and as soon as it did I was heading downstairs to get some food. With the race scheduled to start at 7am, I was keen to make sure I was eating my breakfast by 5am to give it 2 hours to start to digest.
There had been rain overnight, not the thunderstorms forecast but the temperatures had noticeably cooled, a welcome change from the humidity of the previous day.
I made myself a pint of dilute orange juice, two small pots of porridge and munched on a banana. Not rushing my food, sorting out my kit and getting dressed as I ate. Matt, my future brother-in-law, had kindly offered to drive me to the start and we had arranged for him to pick me up just after 05:45. This meant I could get ready fairly leisurely and by 05:50 we were on the road.
There was little traffic, so we arrived in good time. I’d forgotten to check on the map the night before exactly where the Village Hall was in Castle Acre, to then discover I had no data signal as we entered the village. Fortunately the race team had placed a banner on the road, so we were soon parked up and I was registering for the race.
On the drive across I’d eaten my second banana and was drinking a 750ml bottle of Nuun. My plan as always, was to start the race fully hydrated. Although this would require a significant number of comfort breaks prior to the race start and probably in the first hour after it as well, I’d rather that than be playing catch-up with my hydration from the word go.
Registration was quick and simple and my drop bag was added to the pile. I dumped kit I wouldn’t need until the end back in Matt’s car, who wished me luck and headed back home. This was it, the next time I would see my family would be the Norfolk coast, hopefully I could make it that far!
In my drop bag I’d included some rice pudding, a spoon, some satsumas and some other snacks that I may want to add to my race vest at that point in the race. I’d eaten rice pudding at half way in The Hardmoors 55 and it went down well, so I decided to repeat that again in The Norfolk 100. I’d also eaten a satsuma during that race, which had been really refreshing, so again I looked to repeat that by including some as well.
We had been given race notes and a map for a new variation on the coastal path at the end of the race. I’d already created laminated copies of these and had placed these in the drop bag too. We wouldn’t need the map until the 90km mark, so there was little point carrying it from the start and the drop bag seemed a good place to pick it up from.
Even though I believed it was unlikely I would make it much beyond the drop bag, if there at all, I planned as if I was running to the finish. Better to be prepared and surprise myself than have a great race fall apart through my own laziness.
My parents had been left with a bag of kit, spare food and some additional soft flasks. The only annoyance with the Salomon vests is the soft flasks can be a little fiddly to refill and slot into the vest. We’d therefore planned for my family to have pre-loaded spare ones ready for when they saw me. That way I could just give them the empties, take the full ones and I was good to go. Nice, quick and slick!
At 0645 Race Director Kevin Marshall from Positive Steps PT delivered his race briefing. There was only 38 of us and we were all keen to get underway. Kevin warned us about the 4.3 mile shingle bank we would experience in the run into the final checkpoint, which there were some chuckles about, although I am not sure many of us realised the horror that awaited us at 80km!
And We’re Off!
Once Kevin had finished we filed out of the hall (after a final loo pitstop) and were led up into the village to the Bailey Gate under which the race would start.
We lined up, there was a gentle buzz of excitement. As there were people sleeping in their houses all around us, the team placed a banner in front of us. Once we were all in place Kevin and the team removed the banner and at 07:03 we were quietly on our way.
North Norfolk Coast here we come!
Leg 1: Peddars Way to The Coast
The weather was a little different than the last time I was here. 5 months previously, I was heading out of Castle Acre on the second half of The Peddars Way Ultra. My quads were playing havoc and it had started to snow. You can read my full race report to get a feel for what happened next, lets just say it was epic!
Today it was overcast, cooler than it had been all week and there was a slight breeze. Basically perfect running weather!
I had decided to run to heart rate and had set myself a target of 140 beats per minute (bpm) plus or minus 5 beats. This wasn’t a strict limit and I would generally run by feel only checking occasionally or when I felt I was pushing too hard.
I chose this range as its the same one I typically use for my easy long training runs, so was used to how it would feel, making it easy to monitor and self regulate. Additionally in my last two ultras I’d averaged 135-138bpm and had finished both races feeling really strong, so this seemed like a sensible limit to work within.
The first 5km of the route is probably the most boring of the entire course. Its basically 5km due north out of Castle Acre up the road. There are paths in the fields alongside the road in a number of places but the majority of it is on tarmac before you hit the trails.
I’d purposefully started at the back of the field and by the time we got to the edge of the village I had moved up and settled in with a group of 5-6 other runners. The field was already stretching out. There were around 10 runners in front of us who were streaking away up the road. Either they were trying to get some quick miles in while on the tarmac or were after an amazing time. The winner would finish in just over 10 hours so I guess the later was the case.
Behind us the field was stretching back and eventually as a group we ended up sitting on our own, with at least a hundred metre gap in front and behind to the next runners.
We were running at a comfortable pace. My HR was sitting a little above my set limits but it felt good so I went with it. I dropped back whenever I stopped to grab photos but would easily bridge back up afterwards and was ticking along quite nicely.
Eventually we hit the trail and it was nice to get off the tarmac and onto the trails. While not overgrown, we split into two of three groups as we tried to find the easiest line along the track. Although we were ticking along at an easy pace you had to switch your mind on as there was limited visibility of the trail surface, with other runners only a or so metre in front.
It was strange how many places I recognised from Januarys race and was picking off features as we ran along. When I’d last ran here I’d been hunkered down in my hood in a blizzard, so had assumed it would all seem new to me. It was therefore strange to realise how much I’d been taking in at the time despite the conditions.
It was at this point that I started chatting to another runner in our group, Karen Doak. I can’t remember how the conversation started, some observation about the weather probably, but as we were running at a similar pace the chat continued.
Shortly after we hit the trails our group began to fragment. Two guys headed off the front, Karen and I moved to the front of the group and before we knew it we were running on our own.
Our conversation continued on and off but generally we were running along at a nice easy pace. It turned out we had similar race objectives. For both of us this would be our furthest distance raced to date and neither of us had had the best of build-ups, with injury or illness in the weeks before the race. Neither of us were running for a time or a place and it was all about completing the distance (if possible) and ticking the miles off at a nice easy pace.
Its no surprise then that Karen and I ran the remainder of race together. There was no specific conversation that I recall, other than the odd statement such as “I’ll catch you up” when one stopped but the easy company and similar pace and race objectives made it a great pairing – in my mind at least.
I hadn’t set out to find someone to run with and in fact was carrying a iPod Nano loaded with podcasts and music to keep my mind occupied during the day. While I’m always happy to chat with people in races, I’d assumed I’d be running most of it my own so it was a pleasant change to leave the iPod untouched for the entire race.
Personally speaking I think I have a lot to thank Karen for. Having someone to run with made the time and distance fly by and dragged me through my darkest periods of the race. I am sure that without her company I wouldn’t have made it to the finish and would possibly have even dropped out around Wells but more on that later.
So thanks Karen for your company and support, it was both enjoyed and really appreciated
Right back to the race!
The first checkpoint was at the same location as the last checkpoint on the Peddars Way Ultra, just before the A148, 12km into the race. This was always going to be a splash and dash stop before heading onto the second checkpoint and my first objective, the coast at Holme some 19km away (31km ran).
I was still trying to get the fluid in, and had set myself the objective of finishing one of my soft flasks (500ml) before the first checkpoint and getting it topped up, so I had two full flasks for the remaining run to the coast.
As we approached the checkpoint I drained my flask and retrieved my Nuun tablets ready for a quick turn around. Another decision I’d made since my last race was to decant the Nuun tablets from their tube into a zip lock polytene bag. This not only made them easier to pack but also to get to during the race and at checkpoints. A great time saver and something I will always do going forward.
The checkpoint staff saw me coming with the flask and an outstretched arm was waiting to take it off me and quickly re-fill it – many thanks! Salomon soft flasks are fiddly at the best of times with their narrow necks, so any assistance is always welcome.
Homemade fudge was on offer, so after a quick chat and a mouthful of fudge, we tore ourselves away and headed onwards just as runners behind were approaching the checkpoint.
The weather was considerably cooler than you would have expected for June and while this was fine while running you soon noticed it when you stopped, this was not going to be a day for standing around.
Onto the Coast
We’d both run The Peddars Way Ultra in January, in fact Karen had successfully defended her title of First Place Lady from the previous year – well done Karen! Interestingly her time of 08:20 at that race was the target finish time I’d set myself before my quads had other ideas, another confirmation that we ran ultra at similar paces.
The trail, as expected, had considerably more vegetation on it than the last time we’d run along it and with the overnight rain we both had soaked feet.
As we left checkpoint 1, the grass verge between the main road and the track we were on was totally overgrown, so without thinking about it we stayed on the track and followed this to the right. I could see the Peddars Way heading up the hill away from us on the opposite side of the road, realised this wasn’t the way I’d gone in January and, most importantly, clocked that we’d do a dog leg of around 2-300m if we followed the road around.
A quick check over my should showed the finger post poking up from the middle of the overgrowth, confirming that while not lost we were slightly off route. Now I’m not lazy and am definitely not one for taking shortcuts but if you are running 100km, even an extra 200m seems an effort too far. I quickly pointed this out to Karen, we found a place to get through the overgrowth and were soon over the road, back on the route and heading up the hill.
We’d been talking about nutrition plans for the race and I’d been explaining mine to Karen, which was the same I’d used at The Hardmoors 55, which had worked so well for me. This was obviously the kiss of death as shortly after this discussion I started to feel cramping in my stomach and the alarm bells went off. We were still running well but there was a constant discomfort which was both distracting and annoying.
There was a sloshing noise and sensation and I couldn’t decide whether this was my stomach or soft flasks. I decided it was the former and although I didn’t feel sick and could still eat and drink, I decided to be cautious and ease back on the fluid for a while.
My heart rate was still sitting a little higher than planned but I still felt good so continued to go with it. Shortly after leaving the checkpoint my expected bladder stop arrived and with a call to Karen that I’d catch her up I dived into a field entrance to “ease my mind”.
Another runner came flying past just as I was coming out of the field and I trotted up the track after him and Karen. As we were running similar paces it wasn’t a quick task to get back up to Karen. I was still conscious of keeping my HR in check and so slowly closed the distance between us. By now the countryside had become more open and rolling, so photo opportunities came thick and fast and I kept stopping to quickly snap off a few shots. This combined with our similar paces meant that it was probably 3-4km before we were back running together with the runner who had passed me on my comfort break now up the road ahead of both of us.
We were soon through 21km and the first half marathon ticked off. I was conscious that in the ten weeks since the Hardmoors 55, the furthest I had ran was around 22km mark so I would soon be pushing my body beyond its comfort zone.
Although I still felt good, as a steeper hill arrived I let Karen know that I was planning to walk to the top of it. She agreed that it was a great opportunity to use some different muscles for a change, so we marched to the top and were soon back into an easy run.
As we approached the coast we started to catch the runner who had earlier past us, who now appeared to be using a run walk strategy. We passed him on an easy incline when he was walking, only for him to blow back past us once he was running again.
The colours in the fields were amazing, with the barley turning and plenty of poppies growing in the hedgerows and headlands. We both took the opportunities to take a few photos and walked a couple of the steeper hills soaking it up.
We both had family meeting us during the race and text messages were coming in on our phones with updates on where they were. We were both also using the Racedrone tracker software on our phones to allow our friends and family to track us.
My parents were aiming to see me at Holme and I was delighted to get a text from my wife to say her and the boys were also on the way there and hoped to catch me.
Although I wasn’t aiming for a time, I had produced a pacing card based upon a 6:30 per kilometre pace, which my family could use to work out roughly where I would be at a given time. I’d told them that in all likelihood I would be ahead of this early on and then quickly fall behind this as the race progressed. It was hopefully a useful guide for them none the less.
The pacing card had us into Holme at 10:20am and at the current pace we looked like being 10-15 minutes ahead of that schedule. I took the opportunity on one short hill to drop to a walk and quickly send a text message letting my wife know this and ran onto catch-up with Karen.
As we approached the village of Ringstead just before the coast we caught the runner we had leap frogged with a few times as he walked. By now he was on his phone and clearly had an issues, which he confirmed was a blown IT band as we passed him. We gave him our condolences and after checking he was OK pushed on.
We wound our way through Ringstead recalling how tortuous this was coming at the end of the Peddars Way Ultra. We climbed the final hill before the coast out of the village and low and behold the sea appeared before us!
From here we followed the path down to the road, onto the beach road and down to the second checkpoint at the beach car park. My first objective reached!
I’d received a text from my wife shortly before I arrived to say they probably wouldn’t get to the checkpoint until 10:15, which meant we’d miss them, which was a real shame. My parents were there and I changed bottles. Originally we’d planned for them to meet me between checkpoint 3 and 4 at Burnham Deepdale but I suggested we saw them at checkpoint 2 which my Dad agreed he would arrange.
Karen and I briefly chatted with the checkpoint staff, took on some coke, water and the cheese straws cooked my Kevin’s (Race Directors) wife – amazing, thanks Mrs Marshall!
After 5 minutes or so we were both ready to go, so with goodbyes we headed for the golf coast and the coastal path. Objective 1 reached, could I make it to the bag drop at Burnham Overy Staithe?
Leg 2: Holme to Burnham Overy Staithe
We headed out onto the coast and turned east, 31km in the bag, 70km to go to Cromer. It was cooler out by the beach and the wind, which was supposed to be a westerly felt suspiciously like a northerly. Still while we were running it felt fine and we ran onto the next checkpoint at Thornham. Up ahead we could see another runner, who we’d obviously missed at the Holme checkpoint and was moving at a similar quicker pace than us.
The route to the next checkpoint would follow the sand dunes before turning back inland towards the village of Thornham. From here it would head further inland uphill before turning back to the coast at Brancaster. After that the route would remain on the coastline all the way to Cromer.
This first section felt almost like we were dipping our toes in the North Norfolk Coast, before heading back inland to build up the courage to plunge back into it for the remainder of the journey. Reminds me a lot of swimming in the sea off North Norfolk in my childhood!
Legs Checking Out?
By now we were heading towards 40km of running and I was well into my longest run since The Hardmoors. My stomach cramps still remained but weren’t too bad and I was sipping a little on my water. With the next checkpoint so close, there was no need to eat any of the food I was carrying and I was hopeful the cramps would quickly pass if I gave food a break.
As we turned back in towards Thornham a new sensation arrived. My legs suddenly felt really heavy and running was feeling like hard work! A quick check of my watch showed what I feared, my heart rate was climbing into the 150’s. I kept going, hopeful it would pass but this was not the case. Were the wheels starting to come off?
I had no choice but to take a walking break and mentioned this to Karen sure she would push on. To my surprise she happily joined me. I’m not sure if it was out of sympathy or not but again the company was welcome. I only needed a few minutes and I felt fine again, so we dropped back into an easy run.
Just those few minutes of walking was enough to drop the heart rate back to its previous level and afterwards my legs felt fine, with the heavy sensation and rising heart rate never returning.
We’d previously discussed the merits of run walk strategies and suddenly they seemed like a good idea, especially with the distance left to cover. We didn’t use a regimented approach to this. When either of us (usually me) felt like a short run break we would drop to a walk, sometimes 2 minutes, sometimes closer to 10 but we’d soon be back running keeping a nice steady pace. The one apparent downside of running in Norfolk and especially along the coast, is you don’t have the hills to introduce random opportunities to walk.
At this point, with the exception of a couple of hills, we’d been running pretty solidly for 30+ kilometres, so it was no surprise my legs needed a break. It was pleasing how quickly they would recover and I credit the approach we took to walking, to play a big part in getting me to the finish line in Cromer.
Once in the village of Thornham we picked up the road uphill out of the village and again took the opportunity the hill gave to walk for a short while, admiring the gorgeous houses that lined the road. At this point my family all drove up alongside us, it was great to see them and we arranged to meet where our route left the road and headed back onto a path.
We stopped briefly at the junction to say hello and I took the opportunity to introduce Karen to my family and our boys in the car. Dad said they would drive on and see us at the next checkpoint, so we headed off up the path.
We ran uphill back on trail and heading back towards the coast. We passed a group of walkers at one point and had one of many conversations that followed a similar pattern that day:
Walker: “How far have you got to go?”
Walker: “EXPLETIVE DELETED! … Good luck!”
The only variant to this was as we got closer to Cromer then they would follow the Cromer response with and enquiry on how far we’d come. The final response was typically the same!
We arrived at checkpoint 3 just as it was starting to rain. My stomach cramps were still there but I took on more coke and cheese straws to keep the fuel going in, conscious that the next checkpoint was 14km away at the bag drop at Burnham Over Staithe.
With the rain we soon cooled and were quickly ready to move on. There was no sign of my family but as we headed off down a farm track, I was pretty surprised to suddenly find them driving around a corner coming in the opposite direction. While this was fine for my Dad in his car, my wife didn’t look best impressed in our car. Another quick hello, reassurance we were fine and we headed down the track arranging to see them at the next checkpoint.
We ran down through Brancaster and out towards the salt marsh and the board walk fun commenced as we ran along these between the villages of Brancaster, Burnham Deepdale and on towards the mid-way checkpoint.
The boardwalks were a pleasant change to run on, with just enough give to make the comfortable. They were only wide enough to run in single file, which was fine for us but did make passing people a little awkward. This was further compounded by the fact that it was now raining steadily, so walkers had their hoods up and weren’t that aware of us approaching, especially when coming from behind.
A cheery hello normally did the trick and we could squeeze by but on one occasion we came up behind a couple of women, who nearly jumped clean off the boardwalk when Karen called hello!
The salt marshes were stunning and surprisingly large, sometimes stretching hundreds of metres out to the beach. There were birds everywhere and the Norfolk coast was obviously a twitchers paradise, something neither of us were into and I was surprised by how few we actually saw during the day. Two in total.
At Burnham Deepdale we left the boardwalks and headed out into the marshes, following the path along the top of a raised bank. The views were amazing, with the salt marshes stretching away to our left and right and the sand dunes in the distance. The bank on top of which the path ran had obviously caught oil seed rape seed blown on the wind from the farmland inshore. This had resulted in a lovely yellow colour along either side of the path.
We followed the path out towards the dunes, which would eventually loop back in towards Burnham Overy Staithe and checkpoint 4.
Karen’s partner Paul and some of their friends were cycling back along the route from Wells to meet Karen. They were well on their way and the question was whether they would wait at the next checkpoint or push on further towards us.
The ground was pretty rough under foot and as we turned back in towards the village our legs were starting to tire and we happily dropped for another short walk break. Typically at this point Paul and Karen’s support team appeared in the distance on their bikes, and while we’d been running pretty much solidly for well over an hour it must have looked like we were out for a nice morning stroll.
Introductions were made all around and we were told we weren’t far from the checkpoint and that my family was waiting there, which was good to hear. My stomach was still cramping but I was pleased to still be running strongly and about to tick off my second objective of reaching the bag drop. Perhaps I could complete this race after all?
We picked up the pace again and it was a pleasant run into the checkpoint, safe in the knowledge we were now over half way through the race and the start was now further away than the finish.
As we ran along the Staithe at Burnham, a shout of “Daddy!” came from my left and I saw the boys down on the edge of the marshes with my parents. I waved and pushed on to find Kevin and the team waiting at the checkpoint, with hot drinks, pasta and other delights for us. Stomach cramps or not, I was really looking forward to a warm drink and some more of the lovely cheese straws.
The marshals welcomed us enthusiastically, as they did throughout the race and warm drinks were soon in our hands. I dragged the rice pudding out of my drop bag and slowly ate it, although it didn’t sit really well and made my stomach cramps worse.
I had a brief chat with Kevin about how my race was going and the route ahead. He told me to take it steady, aware of my health issues having read my pre-race thoughts on this blog. The best advice he gave was to walk the shingle bank. “Its totally un-runnable and not worth the wasted effort to try” he said. Sensible advice but the sound
of walking 4.3 miles along shingle wasn’t the most inviting, especially after the sand dunes that were now lying in wait for us a mile up the track.
There were a few other runners at the checkpoint and another arrived while we were there, which turned out to be John Reynolds, who left slightly ahead of us and who’d we see more of later on in the race.
The second place woman was also still there and clearly injured. She left the checkpoint but soon returned and had to withdraw, which was really sad to see.
Everybody commented how fresh and happy we both looked, which was at odds with how my stomach felt, so maybe a career awaits me in acting!? There was still another 45+ kilometres to be run and I for one was getting cold, so I grabbed my laminated copy of the map to the finish, bade our farewells and we hit the trail once again.
Next stop Stiffkey!
Leg 3: Burnham to Cley next the Sea
Ahead lay the sand dues and the woods to the west of Holkham Gap. I was really cold as we started running and struggled to get warm. More worryingly my stomach cramps were getting worse and while they weren’t slowing me up, they were constantly on the mind and a real annoyance and pain.
Paul (Karen’s partner) was cycling with us back to his car at Wells, while his companions were cycling further along the coast and would hopefully see us later in the day. Karen was also hopeful of meeting more friends in Wells and I too had said I’d see my family at the Wells beach car park.
We quickly made our way out towards the beach and I was really happy to have made it so far. The finish was now closer than the start, a point of any race that I always love. This time however the stomach issues were putting a real dampener on it and I was probably at my quietest on this stage of the run.
The good news was that Karen and Paul had previously run this section of the route, so Karen was familiar with the best line through the dunes. I was expecting a mile or so of running through soft sand but with Karen’s guidance what we got was something much more runnable, picking up a small valley through the middle of the dunes, which was mostly hard packed sand and lead us straight to the trees.
John, who left the checkpoint ahead of us, was not so lucky and had followed the path right onto the beach and got the experience I had feared. We therefore overtook him at this point and didn’t see him again until Wells.
Once in the woods the trail became more obvious and we weaved our way amongst the trees, trying to pick the best line to Holkham Gap. We made great time, due to a good pace and Karen’s familiarity with the route and once at The Gap, we picked up the boardwalk through the woods to then follow the in-shore path onto Wells.
By now my stomach was making me feel really flat, so I called a walking break, which we all took together. My mind was playing good cop bad cop, with the later saying stuff like “Is this it?”, “Have you pushed your body too far?”, “Can you really run all the way to Cromer like this?”.
Physically I felt fine other than my stomach and having thought about it, something I’d a lot of time to do, I was convinced the issue was caused by my breakfast. Specifically eating porridge that was too thick too close to the start of the race, which was now backing up my digestive track.
Having read hundreds of ultra race reports over the years, I was more than familiar with how common digestive issues are during a race and how in the majority of cases they eventually pass. In my first ever ultra I’d also experienced this and it passed then, finishing the race strongly. In that case it took 5km but here I’d been suffering cramps for around 50km and now they appeared to be getting worse!
I quickly decided that at Wells I would try and get some custard and satsumas down me and told Karen and Paul of my plans. I am not sure why I chose these foods or to eat in particular but somehow this seemed the right thing to try and do.
We were soon running into the beach car park at Wells and I saw my families cars and my Dad waiting outside the cafe for me. Karen’s friends would be meeting them at the harbour car park where Paul’s car was parked, so they opted to push on and I told them I would catch them up there shortly.
Hitting Rock Bottom
Once my Dad saw me I could tell he was concerned and we walked to his car to get the food. The rest of the family were in the cafe enjoying hot chocolates and I was pleased about this, as I was in a pretty bad place and wanted to get myself straight before I saw them.
Sitting on the boot lip of Dad’s car I was struggling to get the custard down and feared I’d decorate the car park a hint of yellow. But stay down it did and with a peeled satsuma in my hand, we walked over to the cafe to quickly say hello to the rest of my family.
I have wondered since the race whether I would have dropped at this point had I not been running with Karen? Part of me hopes I wouldn’t but I vividly remember thinking that if I was to stop I’d need to let her know and as she was down in the village, I’d have to get there first.
So I arranged to see my family at the next official checkpoint at Stiffkey and pushed on. Apparently having seen me my family were convinced that I was done for and that I would pull out at the next checkpoint, that was how rough I looked – so much for the acting ability!
It was around a mile along the sea wall to the harbour car park in Wells. After a cuddle from my eldest son, which I found really emotional, I walked up the steps eating my satsuma and at the top started to run.
I think I will forever think of the mile along the sea wall as a magical mile, as the transformation was spectacular. I left the beach car park feeling pretty rough and a beaten man, and arrived in Wells feeling tip top and ready to run to the end.
As I ran I slowly ate the satsuma and as I did the stomach cramps subsided until they pretty much disappeared. I’m not sure if it was the custard, if it was the satsuma, if it was just the porridge shifting south or (most likely) a combination of all three. What I do know is that by then time I got to the harbour car park I felt great and ready to push on.
Karen and Paul were talking to their friends and I apologised for making them wait. Paul’s plan was now to drive to the finish at Cromer, park the car and run back to the final checkpoint at Weybourne before running to the finish with us. It was therefore just Karen and I that headed along the sea front for the run due east across the salt marshes to the next checkpoint.
We weren’t alone for long though. As we reached the end of the road in Wells we could see John Reynolds ahead, who waited for us to catch him up. He was curious quite how we’d managed to overtake him and was obviously frustrated when we compared routes through the dunes and realised the sand fest he’d had to endure.
I had complete sympathy with him, as I’m sure if I’d been on my own I would have done exactly the same thing. Another huge thanks to Karen and Paul there for their route guidance at that point – thanks Guys!
The run to the next checkpoint was pretty straight forward through the salt marshes, with a couple of quick navigation checks at junctions just to be sure we got the right path. My stomach was feeling loads better by now and my body was feeling strong running wise, with no return of the heavy legs or racing heart rate I had experienced when we’d first hit the coast back at Holme. For the first time I started to think about getting all the way to Cromer, could it really be true!?
We arrived at Stiffkey and my family were there and the surprise on their faces was pretty obvious to see. I did my best to reassure them and took on food, coke and fluid from Ian and the checkpoint team before making ready to head off. Their were tinned peaches out on the table here, something I’ve never considered before, and I wolfed down a bowl of those before we left – delicious!
Our next checkpoint was 20km away, so I asked my family to meet us at the beach car park at Cley immediately before we joined the shingle bank. I knew this leg was going to take us a while and it also acted as a safety net in case the stomach issues returned or my legs finally gave up on me.
Just as we were about to leave, John’s club mate Simon ran into the checkpoint behind us. John had a quick chat with him to see how he was and whether he should wait for him. Simon waved him on, so we made our farewells to the everybody and the three of us headed out together.
From here we would follow the path east, passing Morston and into Blakeney where we would then head out into the marshes once again to run a large arcing loop to Cley next the Sea, before returning to the sea and the start of the shingle bank.
The terrain under foot was pretty easy going and we chatted as we ran, taking the occasional short walking break but mainly running. At Morston beach car park the path was poorly sign posted and we headed slightly further inland than we needed, before cutting back across the car park to pick it up the coastal path by the refreshment stall.
As we continued our run to Blakeney, Karen announced that this was now the furthest she had ever run. This is always a great moment in any race and we congratulated her. I knew my turn would come shortly around the 85km mark, as I passed my previous furthest distance from the Hardmoors 55.
Playing a Duet
As we ran into Blakeney we were greeted by the noise of a local band practicing in a garage, something which I am sure the local residents and tourists appreciated, as we could still hear them as we ran out of the seaside village on the far side of the harbour.
As we ran along the sea front I suddenly got the urge for the toilet and the public loos seemed the obvious option. Karen and John pushed on while I headed into them. I won’t go into a lot of detail but suffice to say something had obviously shifted in my stomach as while I didn’t actually need the loo, I did play quite a loud and ongoing duet with the band across the harbour as my body released gas – what a relief!
I could see Karen and John walking about 400m ahead of me as I left Blakeney. I walked a little way while I sorted my pack out but as rain began I broke into a run, caught them up and we pushed onto Cley together.
The looping route to Cley was agonisingly long, made even worse by the fact you swing out almost to the beach car park at the end of the shingle bank before the estuary blocks your route and you have to head inshore to the village, to cross it and run back out again.
As we approached the village we saw two other runners heading out on the path on the opposite bank, the first we had seen for a long while but still probably a kilometre or two ahead of us.
We broke into another walking break as we reached Cley next the Sea and made our way through it, keeping an eye open for the spray painted marker on the road that Kevin had promised at the race briefing. This took us down past the windmill on the edge of the village before a cheeky set of short steps up and back down showed us how tired our legs really were.
We were soon back on the path and heading out to the beach and the dreaded 4.3 miles of shingle that awaited us before the final checkpoint at Weybourne.
My family were waiting in the car park as planned, and I grabbed some more satsumas for us all, had a quick look at the sea with our eldest son before crunching out onto the shingle and pushing on to the final checkpoint.
Leg 4: Cley to Cromer and The Finish!
There is not a lot to say about the next 4.3 miles, other than it was a blooming long way and the “crunch, crunch, crunch” of the shingle still makes me shiver a week later.
I think we all knew this was going to be tough but nothing can prepare you for the monotony of it, other than previously walking it I guess.
We initially weaved up and down the beach trying to find the easiest line, before realising that:
a) this would easily make 4.3 miles become 5 miles or even further
b) there wasn’t such thing as an easy line!
We finally settled on the smaller shingle towards the top of the beach and got on with it.
There were a couple of false dawns, when we spotted some vegetation on the back of some banks and on climbing to the top found a narrow trail of sorts along the ridge. This was runnable and we were soon ticking along, however after 400m it stopped and we back into a crunching walk.
A second ridge appeared shortly afterwards, which again was runnable but barely lasted 100m. After that there was nothing for it but to get our heads down and push on.
The drop in pace, along with the off shore breeze and spots of rain meant my body cooled quickly. I toyed with pulling on my rain jacket, which was still unused in my race vest but instead I pulled out my arm warmers. These immediately took the edge of the chill and I ran in these all the way to the end.
At the start of the bank you couldn’t see the finish, just shingle stretching for miles in front of you with the faint outline of the cliffs into Sherringham beyond.
My turn to break my run ceiling came shortly after we started along the bank at the 86km mark and I passed my previous longest run at Hardmoors 55. My stomach pains had pretty much gone and my legs felt good, although there little to celebrate as the beach stretched away for miles ahead of us.
The further we went the more detail we could make out at the end of the beach and after around 3 miles Karen and I could both spot the checkpoint tent which was a real morale boost. The Muckleburgh Collection, a military museum sited on a former military camp at Weybourne, also provided some element of distraction as we passed it, we knew we were close now!
John was attempting to break his club record for running 100km, so was acutely aware of the time we were wasting on this stretch. My own pacing card was totally out of the window, as although we were only 10 minutes down on it at the Burnham checkpoint, I hadn’t adjusted the pace for this stretch and instead of the 10.5 minute mile pace it assumed, we were pushing closer to 18 minute miles.
On a positive note we were still just in front of the time needed to hit John’s record and a good final 10km into the finish should see him easily beat it. I can appreciate the frustration he must have felt as time was slipping through our fingers, or through the shingle more accurately and although we were keeping up a good pace, in all I would estimate we lost at least 30 minutes along this stretch.
We chatted back and forth as we walked but spent a lot of time walking in silence. John’s club mate Simon could be seen less than a kilometre behind us and we could also see another runner a mile or so ahead of us, both tackling this alone. My hat goes off to all runners who attempted this section of the course solo, especially those who did so in the dark. It must have been brain numbing in the extreme and I really appreciated the company of both Karen and John more than ever for this stretch of the course.
As always all “good things” must come to an end and after an hour and seventeen minutes we finally trudged into the checkpoint. I think the expressions on John and my faces in the photo below show how mentally draining this part of the race had been!
It was great to finally make it and we now knew we only had around 10km to the finish. The only concern was how would our legs react to running after the shingle bank? How much had it taken out of us? Would we start to cramp as we hit the cliffs?
For now it was one final chance to refuel and quickly chat to family and friends who were waiting for us. Paul was there as planned, having run back from Cromer, along with other friends of Karens. I’d been told that my sister and her family would be there waiting for me here, whom I was looking forward to seeing. It was an even bigger surprise to find my entire family there, along with my brother and his wife as well.
We chatted briefly but were aware how close we were to the finish and how cold we were getting. So after 5 minutes we gave our final farewells and prepared to head off towards the cliffs at the end of the beach. Simon had also arrived at the checkpoint by now and he along with Paul joined us for the run to the finish and our band of 3 became 5.
The final stretch saw another topography change for the route, with cliff top running to the finish now. It was amazing to step off the shingle and onto hard ground and I almost felt like falling on my knees and kissing it like The Pope. Only concerns my legs would cramp and I wouldn’t be able to get back up stopped me from doing this.
Onto the Cliffs
We walked the climb up onto the cliff top and with Paul as guide were soon trotting along the path towards Sherringham.
The views were great and the rolling landscape was a welcome change to the flat terrain since Thornham. My stomach cramps had totally disappeared and for the first time I knew I was going to finish the race, which was an amazing feeling considering the previous months and my stomach issues in the race itself.
As we ran I felt stronger and comfortably able to run along, stop for the occasional photos and run to catch-up with the group. The opportunity to run downhill was also great and it was so refreshing to be able to soak in the views and run as afternoon became evening.
It gets me every time I race an ultra but when you start saying “evening” to people as you pass them on the trail, it really brings home how long you have been running. Its a silly thing I know but still surprises me in every race.
We rolled along the hills, past the golf course, up to the Coastguard look out station and suddenly there was Sherringham before us, with Beeston Bump, the final hill of the route behind it. Before we knew it we were running past the boating lake and down the flight of steps (ouch!) onto the promenade.
When I had first entered this race I had envisaged us running along Sherringham sea front in lovely sunny weather surrounded by people eating ice cream and playing on the beach. What we actually got was something closer to a wet March evening, with the sky grey, the sea at high tide crashing below us, the shops and kiosks shut and barely a soul in sight!
Karen and I were running through Sherringham mainly from memory of our previous visits there and also the route notes we had read. We found the marker on the ground provided by Kevin and were quickly up the steps and climbing to the summit Beeston Bump.
As we approached the summit of Beeston Bump, an enthusiastic runner appeared coming in the opposite direction, cheering us on and telling us we didn’t have far to the finish. From his accent I immediately recognised him as Carmine De Grandis, a talented ultra runner who lived locally and I knew through Facebook but had never had the pleasure to meet in person. We exchanged greetings and gave him our thanks as we hit the summit. It was all (mainly) downhill from here!
John was focussed on his club record and although we weren’t entirely sure of the distance to the finish, we knew we should finish under 12:30, which would give it to him. We encouraged him to push on for the finish if he wanted to, although the tricky navigation through the caravan sites was to come and he opted to stay with us for that.
The first two caravan parks were pretty straight forward, following the cliff top along the left hand side of the parks. I finally got my laminated map out as we ran and with Paul’s direction we managed to make our way across the final campsite to hit the road on the edge of East Runton.
As we ran through this campsite we passed three Guys having a barbecue and a beer at their tent. “How far have you ran?” they called and I looked at my watch to see it tick over to 100km exactly. I can’t write the reply they gave when I told them! I shared the news with everybody else and with whoops of delight we headed down the home straight.
The Home Straight
From the feedback we’d had at Weybourne I knew that we were all running in joint 10th place. I hadn’t said anything yet but as we approached the finish was going to suggest we all finish together and take it as a team. However as we entered the caravan park a runner appeared in front of us, obviously the person who had been a mile or two ahead on the shingle bank. From the look of his run he wasn’t moving quickly so I encouraged John to push on a take him, saying “that’s 9th place right there waiting for you John!”.
John pushed on ahead and Karen and I continued to run together with Paul. Simon had dropped behind us slightly but was still within sight and it was a great feeling to be so close to the finish. Today had always been about seeing how far I could go and not about the time or finishing position. With Karen’s assistance and later John, Paul’s and Simon’s I’d made it to the finish, something I’d never believed possible.
While normally my competitive spirit would have seen me throw it all out and chase the runner ahead down, today I was happy to enjoy Karen and Paul’s company to the finish and will John on to get the extra place and his record. Having come so far together it was great to be able to finish my journey with Karen, especially knowing the issues she’d experienced in the run up to the race too.
As we hit the road for the final time you could see the finish marquee a few hundred metres ahead of us. I’d always assumed it would be pitched at the opposite end of the car park to where we entered, so was surprised to see it so close.
I was both happy and sad to see the finish. Delighted to have made it and sad that our journey was about to come to an end. I’m not sure if everybody gets this towards the end of an ultra? If they do, it just goes to show there must be something a little weird about us ultra runners!
Kevin Marshall in his usual style as Race Director kept a final surprise in his back pocket for us. As we entered the field and started to slow our cadence, he was there with a smile on his face encouraging us on and pointing to a finish banner he had hung on the far side of the car park. With one final push we kicked on and finally made it to the finish line in joint 11th place in a time of 12:27:40.
Karen was also second placed lady overall – well done Karen!
Post Race and Closing Thoughts
That was it, the race was over. We all shared congratulations and thanks for the company during the day. John had not been able to catch the guy in front unfortunately but still finished in 10th place and 12:27:09, getting the club record he was after – well done John!
Worryingly Simon, who was right behind us as we ran through the last caravan park, was no where to be seen. Paul offered to head back and find him and went to grab his bike from his car. Shortly afterwards Simon appeared, having missed the turn in the park and finished in 12th place – well done Simon!
Sadly my family weren’t yet at the finish as they were off getting the boys some tea. I quickly texted them to let them know I had finished and then dived into the marquee to warm up and get a drink.
As is usually the case, I didn’t feel at all hungry on finishing and struggled to get food down. I quickly demolished two cups of hot chocolate though before my family arrived with a warm change of clothes and I soon warmed up.
Later in the evening I forced myself to eat a tin of soup, conscious I needed to get some calories in. I was shattered but managed to slowly get it down, at which point the stomach cramps returned with vengeance!
As I sit here writing this a week later my legs feel pretty good and I’ve even managed a short recovery run plus a decent amount of walking. My stomach however is a totally different story and is all over the shop.
I’m now questioning whether it’s something other than poorly timed porridge? With all the antibiotics of recent weeks I’m guessing my digestive system was pretty wiped out and despite taking probiotics pretty solidly, I’m guessing the stress of the ultra caused it to revolt. Hopefully with more time it will sort itself out, so will wait and see how it goes over the next few days.
So that’s it, another ultra in the bag. No earth shattering records, times etc but against all the odds I made it to the finish which I am really really happy about.
Thanks once again to Kevin Marshall, Positive Steps PPT and all the marshals and support staff who made the event so enjoyable.
Thanks to my family for yet again following me across the county of Norfolk as I undertake a crazy run. Their support, both on race day and during the weeks and months before is very much appreciated and it was great to see them, especially when I was feeling so low.
Thanks to John for his company in the final 30km or so, really appreciated it and good luck with your races this summer. I look forward to hearing how you get on.
And finally a huge thanks to Karen for her company for the majority of the race. It was great to race with you and I am sure that your presence played an enormous part in me making it to the end. I only hope that my presence contributed positively to your race at some point along the way. Thanks once again and the best of luck to both you and Paul for your upcoming races.
A massive congratulations to all those that finished, ranging from the winner – nearly 2.5 hours ahead of us – to those that finished well into the night. Fabulous running one and all across a great course, superb efforts all round!
If you have made it this far through my race review, then hats off to you and my thanks for reading my inane ramblings. Hope you found it an interesting insight into the race? If you are interested in reading more about the lessons I learned and the kit I carried then read on.
For the rest of you, thanks for reading. Be sure to check back from time to time to read how my training goes in the run up to my next race, the exact date and location of which is yet to be decided. Watch this space!
So as is usual, its time to quickly note the key lessons I learned during and after this race, which I can hopefully take forward into future races. This includes things I did right and also things I would change.
So the list is, in no particular order:
- It is amazing what the human body can do! I went into the race after a run of poor health and training but still managed to run 101.6km. Still not sure how I did it!
- Running by heart rate is a good approach, especially if you’re just focussed on finishing. I wasn’t overly anal about this and ran by feel mostly but it was good to be able to set myself a target range (135-145bpm) I could work off during the race as required. In the end I averaged 136bpm across the entire race, so obviously got it spot on.
- I ate my breakfast too close to the start of the race and got the consistency of it all wrong. Runny porridge is good but thick gloopy porridge is very very bad. In future I’ll put more fluid in than they recommend, an oaty drink similar to my breakfast before the Hardmoors 55 is obviously more beneficial.
- Flat coke, peaches, rice pudding and homemade cheese straws all go down well on race day.
- Custard and satsumas appear to work miracles for a dodgy stomach.
- You can run surprisingly well even with stomach issues.
- Having someone to run and chat to when you are feeling rough will help you through those dark periods!
- As with my previous races I felt stronger as the run went on despite the lack of recent training, which was great to see.
For those that are interested, here is the kit I wore and carried for the race. As previously mentioned the idea was to travel as light as possible. There are a few things I didn’t use, so arguably could have done without, but in all cases they were pretty light and had the conditions been different I would have needed them
What I wore
- Salomon compression short sleeve top
- X-bionic running shorts
- Injinji liner socks
- X-Socks Sky Run
- Helly race number belt, with race number attached of course
- Brooks Cascadia 9’s
- My race vest – Salomon S-Lab Sense Ultra Set
- Blueseventy running visor
- Suunto Ambit 2 watch
- 4iiii Viiia heart rate strap
- Adidas sunglasses with orange lens – great for lifting mood but also protecting my contact lens
What I carried
- Montane Minimus Waterproof Smock
- Laminated A5 copy of the route notes and map of new route at finish.
- Whistle (attached to bag)
- Arm warmers and buff
- Food – 2 x Trek bars, 4 x Nakd bars, 2 x mini Malt Loaf and one packet of Shotbloks
- Tub of Nuun tabletsemptied into a zip lock poly bag.
- Minimum of one litre of fluid in two 500ml Salomon soft flasks
- Mobile phone in waterproof case (fully charged and on)
- iPod nano and headphones
- Personal emergency pack which contained some toilet roll, blister patches, antiseptic wipes, zinc tape, small tub of Vaseline, £10 note and an emergency back-up light.
For those that are interested, below are the stats from the race.