Tuesday, 21 February 2012

London Ultra race report

And we're off, running through suburbia, confusing old ladies trying to parallel park and adjusting hip belts, drink bottles, pants. I followed the pack at a comfortable pace until we hit a stile (really) in the second km and we all had to queue, pass in single file then make our way up a railway platform!

Kms 3 -5 felt pretty good and I was a bit surprised to check my watch and find I was averaging 5:30 to 6 per km - I had planned to run 6:30/km at the beginning to play it really safe. The roads were quite undulating so I figured that I was slowing down enough.

The hills started to bite at km6 but by km8 we had a new obstacle: a subway full of cold dark water that was above ankle height to navigate, though some tried to find a way around the train tracks - the best way was through the water.

The first checkpoint was just under 10kms in, so I just grabbed a drink and some frozen snickers bar to hold in my hand till they melted! At some point we meandered on a trail and I thought "this is nice, come into your own". I note this now because I never felt this moment ever again in the race! I found the run very mentally taxing as you were always thinking of the route, where to put your foot in the terrain and so forth that my one strength, mental toughness, was unable to be used as much as I hoped. Luckily I had the word "smile" written on my hand in big letters and whenever I saw it, I did!

The next ten kms were very hilly around Norwood and Crystal Palace. A friend was trying to cheer me on but kept missing me, and I really felt like I could do with a lift. Fellow competitor who I know now as Claire Z, in her vibram 5fingers, came storming down a hill, making it look all easy and relaxed and I was very envious, but not as envious when a friend met her and ran with her some of the way.

Another checkpoint emerged at 20km, just next to an ambulance for a fallen senior, and stocked with more snickers as well as fabulous licorice allsorts. I stopped this time to drink water properly (ie not pour it all over me) as did a number of other runners, all gasping and saying "hills" as they came to a stop. They could have also said "giant squirrel" and "dinosaurs" - it was surreal running through Crystal Palace Park.

I was pleased that on some of the epic hills, other people were walking, and there seemed to be a bit of rhythm, as one person at the front walked, so we did further down the line. The same was pretty true for navigation, a lot of people were following the person in front or keeping people in their sightline as the route constantly turned corners.

The terrain was a mix of suburban streets - including road crossings, and boy do I love a red light now! - trails, parks, funny steps uphills, hillsides, railway platforms, bar terraces - you name it!

When we entered Wimbledon Park (30km) I realised my friend said she would spectate with her family, and all I could think about on entering the park was that she was in there somewhere. Park maintenance meant it wasn't quite clear where and I ran about a bit looking for signs until I recognised my friends watching and whooped and jumped with joy. Nothing like a baby cuddle for an uplift! The man at the checkpoint was lovely and motivating despite having about 11 miles to go and not having red sauce to go with the delicious cold sausage rolls. I used my friends to help with putting cold strips on my feet; the man at checkpoint took one look and offered first aid but it was just a bit of inflammation and a few dramatic capillaries. As I spent a bit of time there, I'd lost the regulars I was following and had to rely on my own ability to sport the green Capital Ring signs and what direction the level skewed arrows were really pointing at.

Richmond Park came sooner than I thought and I recognised a silhouetted figure against a fast bike as another of my private cheer squad; I was truly spoilt. Andy pointed out the actual route that no one else was following, which gave me quite an advantage as I didn't stop to get lost. The going at Richmond felt tough, with lots of undulating terrain and no deer.

I don't remember much after this except a long and lonely run along the water at Richmond, where I came upon the American Jacob looking really lost with the whole scenic rambling concept and helped him find the way over the bridge back to the hallowed ground North of the Thames and to the fourth and final checkpoint. I treated myself to an already opened can of coke and stuffed as many sausage rolls as possible into my cheeks like a hamster. It was only ten km to go at this point. Ten. Ten km! I dug out my ipod, to get into the zone as there was not many people in sight in front and Jacob seemed to be lagging. The navigation got tough, with the signs pointing along bar terraces (where I tripped), through car parks and garden centres; you name it. Once we were back on canals - the same surfaces I had been training on, my spirits lifted, and I started to give my Mo Farah Kick!

But disaster struck! Ok a small calamity. There was most definitely a London Ultra sticker pointing to a trail, but the trail was most definitely barred by a fence and a sign saying "no access, by order of the police" Mark F who had already got lost earlier on, ran ahead, and didn't think we were going the right way if we were to get onto the canal branch to finish. So Claire, Mark, myself and John (who had been swapping places with me from the start) squeezed through the fence, running through a good stretch of lumpy soamy clay before squeezing through another fence. Yes it's as hard to run in as it sounds. We all plodded off separately but together checking in when we weren't sure of the route. Once in one of those little parks we kept running through, the Capital Ring signs went right, and Mark felt we should go left. I was happy to stick with the signs and said as much. For some reason these poor people followed me and I think they decided it was the wrong decision. We ended up off route but at least with a location we could find on the map and work out the way back.

Unfortunately the way back involved a long slope uphill that seemed to continue on forever. We had passed 50km, Claire and Mark had padded off strong into the distance (hope they weren't mad for following me?) and John and I started to walk intersperse with a brief bit of jogging. John's Garmin beeped 50, and I confessed I had nothing left. As we emerged onto the final road before the sports track finish, Rita, an older modest looking woman came pounding past from the right path and strode off to the finish line. John and I were spent. We had intermittent coverage behind trees shielding us from the folk at the finish and we walked until we were in plain sight of the finish line, 53kms, 6 hours 48 minutes and 5 second later.


  1. Wow, that was some race! At least my 1st 50K didn't have me navigating all over London like that. Very impressive and quiet the adventure!

  2. Thanks Lisa, definitely an adventure!

    I just read the winner's blog and I feel really good. 1) because she also said it was mentally taxing to focus on the route 2) because she also got seriously lost!

  3. You are so brave to take on a challenge like that--I would be scared trying to navigate! And all that fence-hopping and subway-treading! Congrats again on an amazing race....I guess whatever you do next will seem easy, right?

  4. Nothing ever seems easy - really, and that's the only reason I keep doing these things! Maybe when I have 12 months straight running under my belt - I am nervous about running with Chrissie Wellington on a fun 5km! :)

    Thanks DR; and you know you can do anything too!

  5. Wow, amazing. I don't think I could stand it - no tomato for the sausage roll! Not thought of them as running fuel! awesome Rowena, am excited about what on earth you're going to do next! :-)x