In Part 1, I talked about my inspiration for running 50 miles and the injury-ridden preparation for my first ultramarathon. This is a report of how it went on the day of the Butcombe Trail Ultramarathon 2018, my first ultramarathon.
The Night Before
- Prepared power porridge: 50g oats, 200ml milk, 2 tsp honey, a banana, and some whey protein.
- K-taped my knee, essentially making my quadricep a quinticep. My physio had taught me how to do this a while back, when I got my patellar tendonitis diagnosis. It’s a handy way of distributing some of the load.
- Drank an SIS hydro, to make sure my electrolytes were topped up.
- Checked my GPS app had the map loaded, and printed off some navigation pointers.
My alarm went off at 5 am. I was awake before anyway. Demolished the porridge by 5:30 am, giving it two hours to digest before race start. Necked a small coffee, as I wanted the option to take on some caffeine during the race. Took another SIS hydro to top-up electrolytes, applied Bodyglide to any potential rubbing areas, and headed off into the windy, wet morning. Application of sun cream was not deemed necessary.
30 minutes later I arrived at a bustling car park of shivering ultra runners. It was a lot colder than I’d anticipated. I lingered in the car for as long as possible. Despite grumbling about having to buy extra winter gear to satisfy the mandatory kit requirements, I was now wearing everything I had (bar waterproof trousers) and was worried that I’d suffer if it got any colder. How did I underestimate the cold?
Start to CP1: Cheddar, Axbridge
After a quick race briefing (no holding hands over the finish line) we got going at 7:30, starting on an upward slope which crescendoed into a monster of a hill. 600ft of ascent in the first mile—good morning and wake the f
**k up. Any lofty ambitions of being ultra ‘runners’ were humbled as all but the elite were reduced to hiking and heavy breathing.
Even walking was tough going: my heart rate was already in Z3 (Threshold) and my previously cold calves were now on fire from the upwards march. This was supposed to be the part where I was relaxed and breathing easy…
After a brief flat at the top, there was an equally steep descent down the other side. There were lots of exposed tree roots and large rocks, so it was full concentration all the way down, with very occasional glimpses of the amazing views down to Cheddar.
Cheddar was eerily quiet, but at least brought some respite and a chance to settle. As we ran around the reservoir, and then into Axbridge, I tried to stick in between groups of runners who seemed to know where they were going. I’d not run any of the route before, and I was worried about getting lost. They were running faster than I wanted to (5:00-5:30 min/km), but I stuck with it.
With the initial adrenaline easing off, I started chatting with a few runners who were around me. There seemed to be quite a lot of people who’d run the race before.
After leaving Axbridge, we came into the first checkpoint (CP1). I was now uncomfortably hot in my waterproof jacket and stowed it away. It wouldn’t come back out again. After a quick water refill and a WhatsApp message to the family, I was off again.
Wavering Down, Loxton, Bleadon to CP2
Finally, we were heading back off-road, climbing up through King’s Wood and then across Wavering Down. More fantastic views, more fearsome hills.
However, I was already doubting my shoe choice: the super-aggressive Inov-8 X-Talons. We’d covered a lot of tarmac already, but more worrying was that even the trails were relatively dry and hard-packed. Where was the ankle-deep mud that had been a permanent feature of training for the last 6 months?
We sidestepped Crook Peak, taking a fast descent down to the motorway bridge, and into Loxton. Around this time I began chatting with a lady called Cat, who I noticed was also wearing X-Talons (or something similar). She said they would be worth it later on. I felt slightly better. After running together for a short while, Cat went off ahead. I later found out that she went on to win 1st Lady!
Not long after passing a marshall point, we began the loop down towards Bleadon. Whilst hammering down another concrete lane, I was surprised to see a man running towards us in the opposite direction. It looked like he was in a tracksuit with a standard backpack on; not your standard Lyrca-clad runner. I wondered if he was lost.
He wasn’t lost. I realised he’d already been to CP2, and looped back to us, putting him an hour or so ahead. His name was Leigh Horrell, and he eventually went on to win the race, and break the course record… a course record set when the race was 3 miles shorter.
The Long Leg to CP3
Another sharp descent with some friendly horses blocking the way, and we were into CP2 at Bleadon. Some marshalls were dressed up as superheroes, which was a fair representation of everything they put into helping us on the day.
After another sharp climb back out of Bleadon, we skirted along some hills near Hutton. I started chatting with Marcus and John, and learned they’d run the London Marathon last weekend! We would run together on and off for the next few hours.
At this point, I was feeling ok. I remember seeing 20 miles on my watch. That felt good, but the thought of another 30 was pretty oppressive, so I put it aside for now and just pushed to keep up with the guys. I was tired but knew I had plenty left in me. That said, I really wanted my watch to start saying half-way. That would be a big psychological boost.
I was happy to cross the motorway again and be Westward-bound, but this leg went on and on for 9 miles and felt much longer than the first two. Our group grew as we bunched up to confirm the route through some unclear sections. I had used up all my water, so was very happy to finally arrive at CP3; The Swan in Rowberrow. Cat took off just as we arrived.
Across Black Down to CP4
I ate my first checkpoint food at CP3, as I had some savoury cravings. Salted peanuts and ready salted crisps really hit the spot. I also took a Pro Plus as I’d planned to around the 20-mile mark.
After once again failing to get all of a Tailwind sachet into my soft flasks—and showering white powder across marshals and my fellow runners—we set off.
As seems to be the standard procedure in this race, upon leaving the CP we were confronted with an immediate, ridiculous climb that was so steep that stairs had been cut in.
This was the beginning of a much longer ascent up to Black Down. The name is entirely appropriate.
As we began to climb, we hit the 40k halfway point, and then the 42km marathon barrier. That felt good, but also meant I was now into unchartered territory, beyond my longest runs, and with at least another 4-5 hours to go. On legs that had already run a hilly marathon. Dark, scary thoughts. Push on.
I found that I was constantly pushing to keep up with John and Marcus, and eventually gave up. It felt good to relax into my natural easy pace, but also meant I was finally running alone with no-one in sight. I kept a closer eye on my map and surroundings. This was ultimately a good thing, and something I wish I’d been more comfortable with from the start. Navigation was mostly straightforward, with the Butcombe Trail being a well-marked walking route.
The long trail across the top of Black Down was bleak. One of the paths was definitely just a stream.
I was feeling pretty tired now. I saw 50k on my watch, which was another mental milestone. Look ma, I’m an ultrarunner!
After descending from Black Down, I chatted a little with Suzanne who had been running a similar pace for the last few hours. This time I was more comfortable just settling back down and letting her run off. She looked strong and determined, and later claimed 3rd place lady.
I ran alone for a while along the endlessly straight Limestone Link, all concrete, and not pleasant to run on after the refreshing mud on Black Down. The descent carried on into CP4 at Compton Martin.
Ring O’ Bells (CP4) to Ring O’ Bells (CP5)
I saw Marcus and John leave just as I arrived, and we wished each other well. I sat for a minute at the CP as I devoured more crisps and saw another familiar face in Andy Fagg. It was hard to get back up but I could feel my legs seizing so I grudgingly pushed on.
I was however happy that we were now on the shortest leg, and that Gina and Reuben (wife and puppy, respectively) would be waiting at Hinton Blewitt, just 4 miles away. Every time I thought of them I felt emotional, as tends to be the case when you run for hours on end; emotions sit right on the surface and frequently vacillate.
(At this point I also put my watch on charge, with the Anker power bank I was carrying in my running belt. I’m glad I practised it in training; it worked a treat, and I didn’t want to be worrying about the charge at the end of the race. All I lost was an hour of HR data, but everything else continued to track, and I put the watch back on before the next CP.)
I quickly caught a group of runners, three of which I’d stick with until the end: Dylan and Taryn—brother/sister Ironman Triathletes, but both ultra virgins like me—and a more experienced ultra runner, Joanne.
I ran at the back of the group for a while and fortunately managed to catch sight of a sign that meant we were all heading in the wrong direction. We re-adjusted. I briefly felt like a competent human being and continued to lead our group for a bit.
In what felt like a lot more than 4 miles, thanks to another brutal climb, we arrived at CP5, another Ring O’ Bells, this time in Hinton Blewitt. My wife and dog were sat waiting on a bench.
I ate more salted treats as our dog happily licked the crystallised salt off of my face. It was great to see them both. I savoured a hug with Gina and she helped with my latest round of Tailwind antics. In what felt like nowhere near long enough, my team were ready to head off.
After stuffing a few more pretzels in my mouth, we disappeared down another hill.
The Leg of Suffering
The penultimate leg. I knew from when I first looked at the BTU route that it was going to be really tough. It was the longest leg of the race at 10 miles, and deep into the tail end of the race.
The upside was that once we cracked it and arrived at CP6, the worst was over, and it was a short run to the finish. This was the real deal.
To compound the lead legs and exhaustion, my stomach wasn’t feeling great. I could no longer stomach anything sweet and felt like I was running crooked with tummy bloat.
My anxiety had threatened a few times during the second half of the race but fuelled by the nausea and pain it took on full demonic form. I knew it would rock up at some point and I was prepared. I quickly welcomed it to run with me, and asked it do its worst. It sputtered out and we ran together in peace.
I struggled on for a while and then wondered if a Rennie would help. I fumbled through my mobile drugs cabinet and chomped down on one. I’m not sure if it helped but at some point, the discomfort did shift into… hunger!
I hadn’t really felt that all race. It was refreshingly simple. It made sense, as I’d stopped my drip feed of Tailwind due to the intolerable sweetness. At least I knew what to do now: eat. I knew I had nothing savoury, but I did pack a couple gels for some variety. I didn’t want to suck on a sweet gel, but I knew I had to get something in me. It actually tasted pretty good after a day of sipping Tailwind.
The rest of the leg was all grit, blurred into one painful narrative. Our group bounced off each other and kept each other going, as we all struggled, one by one. Long periods of silence, with occasional toilet breaks and incoherent conversations.
Legs were seizing up and we were getting slower and slower. Navigation issues became more frequent. Every time we walked an ascent it was that much harder to get running again.
The countdowns began. Just a half marathon to go! But the mileage was ticking down painfully slowly. I changed my watch face to show heart rate only because it was depressing to see the mileage tick by so slowly.
10k to go! We knew we were getting closer to the final checkpoint, and our spirits began to perk up. At 70k, the Sun came out for the first time. I happily put my sunglasses on. It lasted about 4 minutes. I wasn’t complaining; the temperature was just right without the Sun interfering.
After what felt like a separate race in itself, we dropped into Priddy to cheers from Dylan and Taryn’s parents. They were as excited as I wanted to be if I had anything close to the energy to scream and shout.
We rocked up at CP6. It felt like a finishing party already.
The Sting in the Tail (x2)
I ate scotch eggs, pretzels, crisps, the lot. I refilled with water and gave up on Tailwind. I could get by without it for the final 4 miles.
There was also Malibu, beer & vodka on offer. Apparently, no one had partaken in the spirits yet, but a few runners before us had drunk a little beer.
I noticed Dylan walking off like a penguin while I was still eating. His legs were seizing up badly, and I noticed mine were too. We waddled together and regrouped with the girls before taking off for the last leg. With my savoury thirst quenched I finally had some tolerance for sweet again and fuelled the last leg with my remaining Veloforte bites.
Just a Parkrun to go!
It was the finishing straight, but boy did it go on. We continued to slow, and fields continued to open up in front of us. It was a looooong 4 miles, with increasingly ridiculous stone stiles that grew in height with each field we traversed.
As we approached the final descent, the views down to Cheddar were incredible. We could see for miles and miles and stopped briefly to take it in. Sunbeams were piercing through the clouds and lighting up parts of the landscape. It was angelic. My head was swimming, but my legs were still screaming.
The advertised “sting in the tail” was another surprise ascent before running down the slope we started the race from. However, we managed to inflict a second sting by missing the turn to the descent and starting the course again! I felt sick at the thought it. We probably should have retraced steps and found the turning, but instead, we cut across fields, scaled some barbed wire fences and finally, finally hobbled down to the finish line, 10 hours and 30 minutes after we’d set off this morning.
I was completely exhausted and elated. I caught sight of Gina and Reuben again which was an amazing surprise as I wasn’t expecting them at the finish. I wrapped my arms around Gina and shook in what I’m sure would have been tears, had I the energy or surplus water to produce them.
Joanne, me, Taryn & Dylan. Done. Photo taken from Dylan’s Strava activity.
You can watch the Strava Flyby of the whole event here. Here’s my run:
Thank you, BTU
A few days later I posted on the BTU Facebook page:
I just wanted to say a huge thank you to everyone involved in the race this year. It was my first ultra, and although I’m still having difficulty with staircases, I am buzzing from the experience.
The course is beautiful and epic, the hills were tall and mean, the weather was kind, and I spoke to so many friendly runners as I moved up and down the field.
All the checkpoints were really well run and provided a much-needed break and motivational boost. It was great to see some familiar faces, and to put real-life faces to some Strava profile pictures! At each CP, my soft flasks were quickly taken from me and refilled, everyone was really supportive, and the selection of food (particularly savoury, past the 6-hour mark!) was spot on. The marshals in between the CPs were also a wonderful bunch and probably saved several very tired runners from swerving into oncoming traffic.
To top it off, all photos were also made freely available, which is quite a contrast to your usual running photo extortion schemes.
The Butcombe Trail Ultra was brilliantly organised and deserves a place in your running calendar. If you’re looking for a first ultra, the support is wonderful and the completion rate is very high. You couldn’t be in better hands! Keep your eyes peeled for 2019 entries, and come see the Mendips at their best. You’ll also nab 4 UTMB points.
There’s also some quality bling at the end of it:
There were a few poignant lessons I took away from my race experience:
- Run your own race. Clichéd, but it’s so easy to get caught up in other peoples pace. The trick is to see the subtle ways you get pulled out of your own groove, such as…
- Not being confident navigating. I had no issue actually navigating, I was just hesitant to do it in the first place, preferring the safety of numbers. Once I stopped trying to keep up, I could finally move at my own pace. That said…
- I never doubted I would finish. I just had no idea how I was going to get there.
- My knee held up fine. It didn’t bother me at all, which I find quite astounding. In fact, it was probably the only part of my leg that didn’t hurt at the end.
- Shoe dilemmas. If conditions were similar next time, I think I would go with more padding and less spike: probably the Hoka One One Speedgoats I mentioned in Part 1. I saw a couple of other runners wearing them. However, for my first ultra the X-Talons really helped me feel comfortable and stable over the trails and downhills. They were also lovely in the mud! It’s good to know that I can go the ultra distance in them.
- Depending less on one (sweet) fuel source, and packing for variety. Perhaps consuming more whole foods at the start, while my stomach is happy. It’s hard to appreciate your desire for sweet totally falling away, as it only seems to happen around 6+ hours; a duration you’re unlikely to achieve in training.
- Experimenting with less-regimented feeding. Tailwind is great for simplifying regular food & electrolyte intake, but I’d like to experiment running a little more au naturale and listening to my body as I go, instead of putting it on a strict feeding schedule. All in all:
- A return to basics. Some of the excessive planning leading up to this race was draining and stressful, probably as some compensation for not believing I was running enough. But actually completing the race has inspired me to reconnect with the freedom and autonomy that first drew me to running by asking: what do I really need to run? What can I simplify?
- Checkpoint strategy. My moving time was nearly an hour less than my finishing time—I expect most of that was from CP lingering that added up. Next time I’ll be a little more streamlined.
- Save your best for the second half. Ok, now I get it. The first part of an ultra is warm up. It’s getting food in you, feeling comfortable, relaxing and riding out the adrenaline. The second half is a lot more mental—in many ways!—and the less you’ve already taxed your body, the more you’ll be able to move forward with energy and intent, rather than clinging on for dear life. I will be walking that first hill plenty slower next time.
- Continuing to cross train. My injury helped me reconnect with cycling and strength work, and I don’t want to lose touch with them. I’m pretty sure the diversity in training is a big part of what allowed me to finish at all. After pouring over the Strava training logs of others who finished the race, it’s clear that there was a huge variance in training approaches. I was particularly interested in the triathletes amongst the starters, two of which I ran with, and one of which won the race!
The 100km Cotswold Way Challenge from Bath to Cheltenham. June 30.
Longer, hillier… ULTRA-ER.
If you’ve enjoyed these posts, the best way to say thanks is to donate a small amount to Mind, the mental health charity, for my 100km run. I’m fundraising for them as a one-off goal of mine to support and raise awareness of mental health. It would mean a lot to have your support. You can donate as little as £2, and make it anonymous if you like—although if you go that route I won’t be able to frame your picture on my wall.
p.s. You can find all my ultra race reports here.
5 May 2018