Ultra-Marathons are no picnic!

A guest blog by Claire Adamson……..

After three years of supporting Ian doing ultra’s and watching him make them look easy I thought I’d give it ago, especially after being offered a free place in the 2018 Ultimate trails 55k after helping at an aid station in Glenridding last year whilst Ian was running.

I can certainly say that it was definitely not easy. I had signed up thinking ‘an aid station roughly every 10k’ that should split the run up nicely and was thinking of it as a picnic. You could tell I had never run an Ultra before.

Run day arrived and it was an early start, getting up at 5am to make sure we had everything we needed before heading off to the race start. We met our friends and fellow harriers Kirsty and Oli Jones, as well as Kevin Shelton-Smith. It was also lovely to see Bob Wells there as he had made a special effort to come and support the Bedford Harriers after we had bumped into him at Fell Foot Parkrun the day before. Just for the record I didn’t run the Parkrun…. I’m not that crazy!

I stood on the start line knowing I had trained hard, I was expecting it to be tough but achievable. I waited nervously to hear the race briefing and looked around at all the people who were stood around me. Standing beside me Ian was in a place he had never been before right in the pack, and to be honest he looked a bit out of place.

The gun sounded and we ran across the start line, out into the town of Ambleside surrounded by fellow runners. As soon as we hit the first hill everyone began to walk, filling the whole path so even if you wanted to run there was no room. I turned to Ian and said ‘it’s always like this. This is what I mean when I say if you wanted to run you can’t’. We started weaving in and out of people until we found space to run again. I had told Ian before we started that I was planning a walk/run strategy right from the off, even on the ‘runnable’ sections to make sure there was plenty in the legs to get me to the finish. Ian has never used this before, and you could tell he was raring to go, so I was having to tell him when to walk and when to run.

The first big climb led us up Kirkstone Pass, and to the highest pub in England. I started talking to two guys who had travelled from New York and Japan to take part in the event and they laughed as I told Ian to sprint ahead and take pictures of me while I looked fresh. Thankfully he got a couple of good ones!

When we reached the top of the climb Bob, Kirsty and her parents were there to cheer us on. The next section made for easy running as it was slightly down hill on grass but with rocks so you had to be careful where you placed your feet. I managed to navigate the path safely until we hit a boggy patch. I chose the wrong line and my foot sunk right into the mud. I shouted out and Ian turned to see what was wrong, laughing when I told him what I’d done. Luckily we then reached a small road section followed by a runnable gravel path where we were caught by two ginger guys who were moaning about the heat and how the sun was like their kryptonite. I don’t know about it being too hot for gingers, but it was certainly humid. The clouds seemed to be keeping the sun at bay though which I was very thankful for.

We were all running along comfortably with Ian leading the way along the narrow gravel path, and the two lads behind me chatting about Ultra’s. All of a sudden I found myself flying through the air and sliding across the floor. How had I fallen over? How did I fall over on the only flat bit? There weren’t even rocks or roots for me to trip on. I stuck my hand in the air and one of the guys quickly pulled me up. This was enough to really knock my spirits.  My hands, leg and elbow were stinging and all I wanted to do wash to was them. I had promised Ian when he agreed to run with me I wouldn’t moan, so I just asked ‘how far to the checkpoint?’ Ian told me there was only 8k to the next check point but for some reason I thought he had said 4km. I said to myself ‘that’s not far, you’ll be able to wash the grazes and get some food’.

I had been drinking my fluids regularly but I realised that I hadn’t had anything to eat yet. After the fall we did a lot of walking and I was biting my tongue so as not to moan… that was hard work. I felt that if someone pulled up in a car and said ‘I’ll give you a lift’ I would have jumped in. Lots of people who we had run with earlier came past us and Ian was really trying to lift my spirits. My arm felt really sore and uncomfortable being held in the running position though, so we were running 100m, walking 200m for what seemed like ages. Then all of a sudden something clicked and I got my bum in gear and just started running again. Unsurprisingly I started to feel hungry, so Ian passed me a homemade fuel ball.

I really fancied a sandwich and wondered what vegetarian options they would have at Glenridding. Finally we reached the village hall and I headed straight to the toilet thinking ‘bonus there is no queue’. I looked in the mirror while washing my wounds and gave myself a good talking too. ‘Claire get over it…. you fell over, but you’ve not injured yourself its just a few grazes.’ Leaving the toilet, I filled up my water and grabbed a chocolate spread sandwich which was not particularly nice and proved hard to eat. Once you leave the aid station there was only a little bit of flat path, before starting a massive climb which lasted 4-5 miles.

We marched up the climb talking to two men from the Wirral who had done this race before. They told me that if I could make it up this climb and to Grasmere before the cut off then I’ll finish the race, as this is the hardest section. We were making really good time and were well inside the cut off, but it was now getting really hot. I turned to Ian and said ‘I’m so thirsty. This water isn’t quenching my thirst’. I kept sipping my water hoping it would do something but it wasn’t. I had a bright idea… asking Ian if he had any chewing gum. Turns out that drinking with gum gave my water a light flavour and that really seemed to make it refreshing!

We carried on climbing up the rocky path and were able to see people for miles ahead of us. Halfway to the top I started to get cramp in my calves and every time I pushed of the rocks I could feel them starting to tighten. Ian gave me a salt tablet and miraculously after a few minutes the feeling had gone. We marched on, managing to overtake people on the climb which gave me a boost of confidence. Finally we got to the top of the climb and it was well worth it. We had reached the beautiful Grizedale Tarn and followed the path round the edge before beginning the descent down to Grasmere.

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The path started off very rocky, so I carefully watched where I placed my feet not wanting to fall again. I even stepped aside to let some mountain goats come flying past. One guy was going to fast he kept tripping and grabbing hold of things, He even grabbed on to my arm to stabilise himself, little did he know how wobbly I was. Finally we got to a narrow path which I could run on but there were rocks hidden and I kept catching my feet, thankfully I made the bottom in one piece.

We had been to Grasmere the day before to watch the England game with Kirsty and Oli, so as we came to the road I knew where we were. Running down the road, I felt like there was something attached to my shoe and flapping against the floor, I shouted to Ian to stop. I looked down and noticed that the sole on the heel of my shoe was flapping about. Thankfully Ian pulled it off for me so I could continue, but he warned me to be careful because now I had even less grip on one shoe.

We ran into the aid station, I filled my bottles up and remembered to add some high 5 tablets, had two little glasses of coke and grabbed a bit of flapjack before heading back out onto the course. As we ran through the village, Kirsty and her parents were sitting in a café tucking into some lovely looking cake. Kirsty shouted ‘you’re doing really well’ and to get some sympathy I showed her my war wounds, before carrying on to the next big hill which was just round the corner. At this point we had joined the 23 km race route and runners began to shoot past us. It was tricky though as we were climbing a steep single file path, so every so often there was a shout “fast runner coming through” and it was difficult to find a place to let them pass. When we got to the top of the hill (I use that term loosely) a marshall informed us that it was 2 miles to the check point, but those 2 miles might as well of been 20.

We were now in the beautiful Langdales where Ian and I had completed a Christmas pudding run last December. I remember before that race worrying about the hills on the road and Ian had said to me at least you aren’t running up those as he pointed to the fells. Well less than 7 months on and I was running on ‘those fells’ following a narrow undulating fell side path. I continued with my strategy to run the downs and flats, then walk the hills and it was working well so far.

We met a man called John and discovered he was also doing his first ultra. We ran/ walked through the woods with him for a bit until his legs wouldn’t let him run anymore and as we jogged off he started shouting at them to try and get them going. It obviously worked as he soon caught up again. Leaving the wooded path, it became really open and the sun was beaming down on us. I was starting to feel sick and empty. Ian instructed me to eat something so I took on a fuel ball. After a few moments I started to feel a bit better although the hours of running were starting to take their toll and unsurprisingly my legs were tired.

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Finally we made it to the check point and I remembered I had some tailwind in the bag so switched my bottles to give me some more fuel. We set off again with me sipping my water. Ian tried to make a joke about my banter not being ‘good’ you can imagine my response as the last thing I was in the mood for was ‘banter’.

Now it was time for a tour of the Langdales and for the most part the path was in shade under the trees, however there were really open stretches in pure sunshine. It was now the middle of the afternoon, and the hottest part of the day, but I kept moving forwards with my run/walk strategy. The organisers had thankfully put in an extra aid station at 43km because of the heat, but this was at the top of another climb.

When we arrived they were running low on water but filled up our bottles and we left  hoping they had enough water as there were still 130+ runners behind us. Once again John had caught back up with us and we celebrated our longest ever run together as we passed 28 miles. We were back into a gentle run walk on tired legs, until we got to a long downhill were John sprinted off. Ian ran ahead as well and was at the bottom trying to take photos of me. My knees were now in bits and they felt like they were going to buckle with every step I took. They made me think ‘I cant get to the end.’ I put my hand in front of my face and had a little cry. I was determined to keep going though and we had a long walk while I talked myself into running again. Ian would say ‘c’mon lets run’, I’d say ‘I cant’, then take a sip of water and run/shuffle 100 steps before walking again. We kept going through this routine until we got to the final checkpoint at 49km.

I took another fuel ball off Ian and ate that and then went to the toilet while Ian filled up my bottles. I went into the aid station for coke, they hadn’t got any left and they didn’t have much food left either. So we left quickly, eager to get to then finish which we had been told was 8km away. John was sat down outside looking a bit broken. I knew I had to keep moving as if I stopped I probably wouldn’t get going again.  Ian told me we had a steep road climb coming up so we ran to the bottom and then started the walk. When we reached the top it felt like everyone around us got a second wind and could run again. I tried to run but my legs were so tired and I think my walking was faster than my running.

I cant remember much of this final section due to tiredness, other than the official photographer took a picture of me and that there was a long downhill stretch towards the finish. I had to hold Ian’s hand as the pain in my knees came back and was almost unbearable. A man ran past and patted me on the back, saying ‘your almost there’.

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When we reached the bottom off the hill we could hear the finish announcer and I knew we were nearly there. Someone then shouted that there was only 800m to go. We started to run and I again grabbed hold of Ian’s hand as we ran towards the finish line. To my surprise Kirsty, Oli and Kirsty’s parents were standing alongside the finishing straight cheering us on.

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After a collecting our medals Ian turned to me and gave me a massive hug whilst saying to me ‘You did it, you bloody did it!!’. Kirsty came over and gave me a big hug as well. I then just sat down on the floor wanting to take my shoes off as my feet were so hot. Ian went and grabbed me a diet coke and an ice cream to help cool off and to celebrate my finish. We then just chilled out and enjoyed the sun without having to move!

It is safe to say that I have learnt a lot from doing this event. 55 km is not a picnic and 58 km is even less so. It’s a whole day out, an adventure of sorts with many mixed feelings along the way. I truly can not understand how people can do these events often as it had taken so much physical and mental toughness for me to complete it.

I had put in extra hours CV and strength training and I still wish that I’d done more as then maybe my quads and knees wouldn’t have failed me.

Would I do another? I’m not sure, I definitely wouldn’t rush at the chance at doing a 55 km with so much elevation, as it is so hard to prepare yourself when you come from the flat lands of Bedford, but who knows. Maybe, just maybe that Ultra bug might have bitten me

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I am ever so thankful to Ian who was there with me the whole way, motivating me and willing me to the end. Ian had the faith in me when I signed up to the event and when I didn’t have it in myself. He has encouraged me with my training and helped me plan my races so I was as prepared as I could be. This helped so much.

Ian makes you believe that you can achieve anything you set you heart and mind on. I try and apply his knowledge and positivity in every run I do, but running with him for this amount of time really helped and without him I’m not sure I would have made it. Thank you sooo sooo much!

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