Beyond the Cheese Toastie - my first ultra experience ~ Sam Neusinger
I HATED running at school- particularly cross country. So much so, I would get friends to write fake sick notes (I had a ‘heavy period’ most weeks) or I would simply hide, hoping not to get found out. It was a sporty school and very competitive, so I found it easier not to be involved.
Fast forward 20 mostly sedentary years, and I am slightly embarrassed to admit that I signed up for my first event to impress a man (it worked, we are still together) taking part in the Fan Dance race on the Brecon Beacons. I worked hard for it, training over 4 months, and It went really well. I finished an hour faster than I had thought I could. I came away with a feeling, that maybe, physical challenges weren’t beyond my limits; I could achieve things if I really set my mind to it. I had given it absolutely everything, and knowing that, whatever the outcome, was so satisfying; and I wanted more. Plus, now being in my mid- thirties, let’s be honest- I needed something to allow me to continue to eat exactly what I wanted, in the quantity I wanted.
I took on a few other races and challenges over the next few years (not all of them successful I might add) and that is how I came to Kerry, and the start line of my First Ultramarathon.
I had been training with Kerry and working towards a multi- day race in Jordan which was, as expected, cancelled last minute. Scouring the local -ish races we found the Dorset Hillfort Ultra, 57km of hills and trails on the south coast. While considerably less exotic than Jordan, it sounded beginner friendly; less sandy and the six ‘cake stops’ on the route sealed the deal. I was in.
With the months of training under my belt, I felt ready to see how I would cope with a longer distance, and a race environment. I managed to ‘recce’ parts of the route in the weeks before the race. This was a huge plus for me as the trails were very different to my local haunts, and it gave me a taste of what was to come (fields, and knee deep mud) as well as giving me some confidence and reducing some of the nerves on the day.
There was a staggered start, so I was in my holding pen at 7.06 am, ready to go and having a final jacket on/jacket off panic – I went with on, a mistake as I was roasting within minutes. We set off, and the other girls in my start group set off at a pace much faster than mine. I stuck to what I know and began at a slow, consistent pace. The first section was mainly road, so easy, and enabled me to settle in. After a week of fanatical weather checking, it was better than I had expected and not cold at all, if anything it was unseasonably warm.
The whole course was fairly undulating – some steep hills but nothing lung busting. I took Kerry’s advice and focused on walking most of the hills, especially early on. This helped me to stay consistent and not get too tired. I was making good time, and the first few cake stations ticked by. At around 20k, the route took us up above Abbotsbury with some amazing views over towards Chesil beach. There were quite a few other runners about at this stage, and it was nice to chat to a few people and hear their stories – and it helped the miles pass. Another aid station, more cake, and still on recce’d ground.
At this point I started to get a pain in my hip, which was getting worse as time went on. It was totally new, and became pretty painful, and still such a long way to go. I resolved to keep going, even if I had to walk, I would just keep going.
I knew a crossing of the A35 was coming up, and a section of farm track that was hard going when I had done it a few weeks earlier. When I got there, it was knee deep, black, sticky mud mixed with cow s**t, and barely passable. It was horrible. I had a proper diva strop – expletives, the lot – by myself. My feet had been fairly dry, and now I had 30k to go with mud and poo filled shoes. I have read that a lot of runners have a ‘mantra’ that helps them through tough parts of a race. I certainly haven’t thought about mine specifically, but my head was saying ‘just keep trucking!’. I’ve no idea where it came from, it’s certainly not profound and sounds like something Trump might say – but it kept me going and I soon got over my diva meltdown.
The next sections were more mud, lots of ups and downs and some more great views out over the Dorset coast. My hip was getting worse, and I kept stopping to stretch it out. I was starting to wonder if it might cause me to stop; or at least continue at a walk rather than run. I tried to ignore it and keep going. Everything was going to get tougher from now on. The next big aid station was at about 40k and was the furthest I had been on the route.
I had a plan to eat something every 45 mins, and I set a reminder on my watch, and it worked well for me. I have a sweet tooth, but 5 hours of pure cake and sweet treats left me yearning for something different. When I was offered a cheese and ham toastie I could hardly contain my excitement, I think I basically snatched it. After a near miss with a spicy samosa on one of my long training runs, I can honestly say the cheese toastie hit the mark for savoury, salty goodness and it lifted my spirits immeasurably. I clutched it with a big smile on my face as I trotted off. This was short lived- ahead lay 15km of uncharted territory, further in distance and longer in hours than I had ever been before, and I had no idea what to expect or how I might cope.
To top it off, the weather really set in – driving rain, fog and high winds. After another crossing of the A35 and a helpful volunteer managing traffic, I found myself alone with no one in sight for the first time. My hip was hurting, I was worrying about having taken a wrong turn, and after several fields my feet were sloshing again. This was the beginning of the hardest part, between 45 and 55km; such a long way, but still so far from the finish.
Eventually I came to small water stop. There were a few supporters at most of the stations, and one lady I recall seeing at almost all of them – I am not sure who she belonged to but she was so encouraging, and at this particular one her cheering really spurred me on, which I was desperately in need of at this stage.
I finally caught up with some people, all men at this point. Everyone was digging in. There were a few who were looking a bit fresher, uttering encouragement as they ran past. Eventually I ended up in a group. There was a lot of chat about how far we had to go. It can’t be more than 5k now, surely? The guy I just saw said its 4 miles from the next aid station? According to my watch, we have 7k to go!
When we arrived at the next cake stop, at the top of a hill in the driving rain, we were all mortified to learn we still had a full 5 miles left. It SIMPLY CANNOT BE!! This was the only point where I felt like it would never end. I never felt I wanted to give up or stop – but I did want it to be over at this point, and 5 miles felt like forever.
I resorted back to my rather dull mantra, and just kept going. As I came into a village, I caught up with a guy who had no idea where he was, and could he tag along with me. Having company really helped in the last few miles. I gathered a few more waifs and strays towards the end, all of them having lost their directions/running buddies and no idea where they were going. I felt like a muddy Pied Piper (thanks Garmin) as we all made our way through the fog, and finally, at last, down a long track to the road, the village, and the finish. There were lots of people cheering, which was so lovely, considering the weather and COVID. Almost made it through without a mention of the C-word!
There were a few people coming in at a similar time to me, so it was all over before I knew it. I think I said out loud ‘I’m not sure what to do now!’ to no one in particular. The post run brain- fog was thick; but as I gradually made my way to the medals and the post -race Brownies, the feeling of achievement was very clear and very real.
I have to say I have thoroughly enjoyed my recovery week. Its not very often that I feel contented with doing virtually nothing. There is always something to be done, something to feel guilty about not doing. Having achieved my goal, I really felt I had earned that time to relax and recover, and I was on such a high. It also gave me time to think about the next challenge!