My first ultra-marathon. This would give me an idea of whether I could actually marathon-length distances on consecutive days. An ultra-marathon is any distance further than 26.2 miles, and the Druid’s Challenge is the length of the Ridgeway, 84 miles in three separate stages over three days. The timing wasn’t ideal. I was flying back late from a conference in Barcelona on the Thursday night, hurriedly packing everything together, grabbing a couple of hours sleep, before getting up early and driving to one end of the Ridgeway to drop off my car, catching the coach and being driven to the other end to start the race.
The coach was the first indication of how well organised and accommodating this event was going to be. Little touches all combined to give the impression that everything had been thought of and all-comers catered for.
You make good friends in these intense shared experiences, and it began on the coach sitting next to people with a variety of motivations for subjecting ourselves to the Druid’s Challenge. We arrived at Tring Cricket Club after chatting and dozing. We registered, picked up our race numbers and timing chips and put our overnight bags on the van so that we could be reunited with them that evening in Watlington. I’d been put in the elite starting group to start at midday. I thought this was a bit ambitious for my first ultra, but Neil, the organiser, reassured me that it wouldn’t matter. So I watched the walkers set off in the minibus at 10am, followed by the mid-pack runners at 11am, then it was our turn. We were bused up to Ivinghoe Beacon. Conditions were perfect. A bit windy but crystal clear, and chilly. After a few photographic formalities we were off.
Surrounded by elite runners, I set off far too fast. I was to pay for this later, but for now it was exhilarating. I think humans are pack animals. Flying up and down those initial hills, part of the herd, running alongside my fellow competitors. Looking at the data, my heart rate was maxing out between 160 and 192, and it stayed in this zone for 4 hours 45 minutes of the 5 hours and 32 minutes that I ran for on day one. I should have been keeping my heart rate in a much lower zone, 148-160. The effect of this exuberance was probably to deplete my muscle stores of their glycogen rather than burning fat. This was certainly corroborated by my appetite on day one, which was for sugary snacks all day. This was in contrast to days two and three when I ran at a more sensible pace and craved salty, savoury snacks.
Day one finished considerably slower than it started. The spectacular views disappeared as the dusk descended and the day’s running was completed with a head-torch. I clocked in at the finish having done 29.2 miles with 2762ft of ascent, in 53rd position after 5hr 32mins, having taken 47382 steps and having burned 5191 calories, with an average heart rate of 174, peaking at 192(!) We all spent the night sleeping on a school hall floor after a heap of food.
Day two was a lot colder and wetter. It took the legs a couple of miles to start working properly, but then, once they loosened up, the going was steady. The route took me through some beautiful (but rooty) woodland and along some familiar routes around the Uffington White Horse and Waylands Smithy. It was a lot wetter and muddier underfoot. At one point I was running through ploughed fields getting taller with every step as the clay adhered to my soles. At around midday an icy northwesterly wind came in which caught a couple runners unawares, one chap retiring with hypothermia. Since I was using this as Marathon des Sables practice, I was carrying a pack weighing around 4.5kg with additional layers. I managed to run some bonus miles at the end of day two by going off-course with a mile or so to go. It was stupid really, the Ridgeway signpost was angled slightly to the right so I followed a narrower path which then descended down for about a mile. With every stride of descent, the route felt more wrong, but I was also less inclined to reverse back up the hill. The path emerged onto a road with no Ridgeway signposts, and still my fatigued brain told me to crack on. I was saved by a hiker who, unbeknownst to me, had chased me down the hill to tell me I’d gone wrong. I will forever be in his debt, since I’d still be running off course now if he hadn’t stopped me. Amazing though that I knew I’d gone wrong, and I knew the best course of action was to go back to where I last knew I was on track, but my fatigued brain wouldn’t have it. I clocked in at the day two finish after 27 miles with 2272ft of ascent, in 75th position, after 5 hours and 40 minutes, having taken 45792 steps and having burned 4843 calories, with an average heart rate of 172, peaking at 187. Another load of food and a couple of informative talks from Susie Chan and Rory Coleman, both multiple MDS alumni, before crashing into my sleeping bag on another school hall floor.
Day three, and I have to confess to feeling quite queasy in anticipation of the day’s running. It took a mile or so for the initial stiffness and sick feeling to wear off and then I settled in to a steady plod. The weather was better than day two, but still quite a chill wind. Lot’s of sunny upland running on tired legs. It took me until day 3 to work out that it makes more sense to walk uphill rather than run, and arrive at the top ready to take advantage of the downhill or flat. It might even make sense to use poles on the uphill walks as well. I was overtaken by someone walking uphill with poles faster than I was running. It also took me until day three to work out a sensible pace for my heart rate not to be racing. The last three or so miles were fairly brutal with a very steep descent off the Ridgeway on a metalled road, and then a slog up the road to the finish line with pretty much everything hurting. I was paying for my pacing and heart rate mistakes from the previous two days, but I managed to cross the line after 27.5 miles and 1925ft of ascent in 81st position, after 6 hours and 23 minutes, having taken 46150 steps and burned 5160 calories, with an average heart rate of 129, peaking at 163. My overall position was 67th, and 25th bloke over 40.
A unique experience that was both humbling and encouraging in equal measure. I’ve learned a lot about pacing, nutrition and kit, while also confirming that I can get up the day after a long run and do another… and another. I have one more ultra-marathon planned for February and then it will be all systems go for Marathon des Sables in April.
If you haven’t done so, you can sponsor me at www.justgiving.co.uk/DamoIsRunningMDS where I’m raising money for the Lord’s Taverners. Anything you can give, however small, goes to creating sporting chances for disadvantaged and disabled children.