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How to run a 50km Ultra and manage the inevitable curve balls with poise ~ Pete Davies

Who needs toenails anyway?

I don’t want it to sound like most race start lines I have been on where fellow runners start to roll out their excuses early (“I rolled an ankle yesterday” or “I am still hungover from last night”) to justify why they might not set a new pb, but I was standing on the start line in a pod of five runners thinking “f@ck, what have I done” ….

I hadn’t had a great year in 2020. In six months I had clocked a total of 26 miles and a few steps (so far in the first six months of 2021 I have amassed 1,134.45 miles) and here comes my excuse….. A weak gene on my mums side had given me cancer (thanks mum!) so I had two resections of my bowels (because one is just never enough), followed by some chemo (during a pandemic) and just for good measure a partial mucosal resection of my stomach lining (it was gross) to remove early stage cancer from there too.

My body weight had gone from slightly overweight middle age spread, to size zero during chemo and then following the (terrible) advice of the dietician I soared like a chubster to my heaviest ever as she encouraged me to gorge on ice cream to keep my weight from dropping any lower (I seriously don’t think she meant for me to embrace it like I did but I have a very sweet tooth). I found myself talking to my consultant about what I was going to do to get fit again. Hearing that I had dabbled at running in my younger years he suggested that I restart with the proviso that I don’t sign up for a 10km race in a few weeks time only to do myself more injury, and why not consider something longer, slower, more like a marathon … or better still an ultra-marathon, where the training is long and slow and as he glanced at my belly mentioned that it will allow me to indulge in my sweet tooth at these things called “aid stations”.

So I came home and did a quick search online and found that Race to the Stones goes practically passed my door and was in seven months time. I mentioned it in passing to my family (who with hindsight clearly didn’t pay attention and readily agreed I could), and I signed up immediately. The next day I thought I would look up what sort of training it involved (in my younger days, I would have run a couple of six milers, followed by a social in the pub and even a cheeky smoke on the way home and considered myself almost a professional athlete) so was slightly dismayed to see time divided in to blocks with distances like 40 or 50 kilometres – and apparently, they weren’t typos. So I looked at the name of the person who designed the training plans, did a quick google and I approached Kerry for some help.

Kerry has been a wonderful coach, mentor and friend. She has kept me (relatively) grounded and given me encouragement and advice along the way that I would never have found on the internet. She listened to my history and devised a plan that I think I have managed to stick to (well almost) to the letter. I was encouraged to find an event so we could get some “real data” on how I coped and I could learn the ropes.

After probably the longest introduction in history we are back at the start line. Well almost… in my distracted state of an early Sunday morning I set off to discover that I had left my favourite compression socks at home – I even stopped the car and searched in my bag. I turned the car around thinking my race would be ruined without them only to glance down in the footwell and noticed I had tucked them into my trainers …. So I turned the car again and made it to the start without further incident.

The forecast was pretty dire, heavy clouds and long periods of rain and after the first of several visits to the toilet I was dithering about putting a waterproof on or carrying it with me. Despite the few drops of rain I noticed most people were not wearing sou’westers so I gambled on a t-shirt and once I had tied, undone and retied my trainers multiple times I joined the start line. Covid had put paid to a mass start so we ambled up to the start gantry and when half a dozen people had assembled they sent us on our way. I shot off, quickly overtaking the other members of my pod, rounded the corner and was suddenly… well on my own. I have never been in a position to have to think about where to go before as I am a mid-pack follower so it was a bit odd to have to concentrate on which path to take. Then with horror I realised that my t-shirt had started to ruck up with the movement of my race vest and anyone standing watching would have thought I was wearing a crop top (I can only apologise to anyone who witnessed my stomach) so I gave a firm pull downwards on my shirt only to rip the safety pins out of the corners of my race number. Anyone watching me running from mile one to two and half would have been wondering what I was doing as I galloped along trying to re-pin the number. Who knew a grown man could make it so difficult and as I managed to stick each safety pin into my thumb? I almost gave a yell of triumph as I refastened the third one only to realise I had only just stabbed it through the shirt and missed the number altogether and in doing so managed to pull out the first two and had to start again.

I tried to ignore my watch as I wanted to get a natural rhythm going without constantly staring at it but that constant buzzing was trying to alert me that I was going too fast. I was happily running on my own before a nice bloke called James appeared at my shoulder and as we chatted (well he chatted as I huffed and puffed) for the first five or six miles I realised I was out of my comfort zone and my heart rate was about to hit threshold (already!) In fact the first ten miles were all sub eight minute miles and it was when I was breathing really hard thinking I have another twenty or so miles to the finish that I finally slowed down a bit. James took it well when I told him to clear off and let me run my own race (congratulations to him for coming fifth overall). In an effort to distract myself from the exertions I was suffering I put on my headphones and selected the playlist which I had spent several hours compiling (which in hindsight had enough music to last a run to the moon and back) but if anything it made it worse and I found the music quite irritating. I switched to listening to Ed Byrne the comedian but when I realised I was looking slightly mental as I laughed out loud whilst passing a group of runners I gave it up as a bad job (I apologise if they thought I was laughing at them!) I guess its not for everyone.

The middle part then came a little more … I guess enjoyable… if anyone can ever say that it is enjoyable whilst going into the unknown at top speed. I briefly noticed my surroundings and wasted at least thirty minutes wondering why a man was walking a rabbit on a lead along the Thames… (I still find this odd but it was a great distraction). I was trying to be self sufficient for as long as I could so I didn’t have to waste time stopping at aid stations, but the ever threatening rain had turned in to warm sunshine and I was drinking water quicker than planned and I had to organise a refill. I spotted a sign by the path that said “water station ahead”, and wanting to fly through as fast as a formula one pitstop I undid my empty bottle and left the straw in place so I could fill it, screw it up tight and carry on. In reality, I nearly tore the soft flask in half whilst going through a kissing gate when I managed to get it stuck in the lock, then when I was at the water station my hands were sweaty and I took ages getting the lid off the water bottle (shame on covid for making us have single use plastic bottles) but eventually the water was transferred in to my soft flask, the plastic bottle was placed in the recycling bin and I used the temporary lull in forward motion to take a big swig. Unfortunately the swig was so big I managed to pull the bite valve off the end of the straw and then half choking with water, managed to spit the valve on to the floor and watched in horror as it sank to the bottom of the dirtiest puddle at the bottom on the next gate. A puddle that had been stepped in by hundreds of people and my over active mind was saying dogs had probably peed or poo’d in it too. I then used all my new supplies of water rinsing the dirt off and wondered how my body would cope with whatever waterborne disease was coming my way.

My fuelling was going well, I had experimented with all sorts of delights in my training but settled on some “easy on the stomach” supernatural food which was doing its job (and doesn’t leave my fingers all sticky like gels which is a real pet hate). The fact I had run a marathon was lost on me as I was distracted by something rattling in my shoe. It became such a distraction that to my annoyance I felt I had to stop to pull out the stone or whatever it was* before it gave me blisters, and it was pretty disgusting to realise it was not in my shoe but actually in my sock which was quickly stripped off too…. a toenail. A toenail which had been damaged in my training by trying to find the perfect trail shoe by post (which meant I couldn’t try anything on in a shop so it was a bit hit and miss - in fact I had tried eleven different brands and/or styles before settling on the new innov-8 trailfly). So sock and shoe back on and off I go again.

I emptied the next bottle of water on my head as I was beginning to melt in the increasing heat (damn you BBC weather app!) and then I think I hit the only hill in this “perfect for first timers” flat course and I realised I would have to walk it. It still sits a bit weirdly having to walk, but everyone else was doing it and so I tried to power walk up like Kerry had taught me and I set my sights on a couple of runners ahead. For the first time I was feeling a bit intimidated, I was slowing down and every time I managed to get near these runners they pulled away again. Then I noticed they had beards, not nicely cropped beards but big bushy beards (think Gary Robbins trying to complete the Barkley marathons) and my tired mind was telling me to give it up as these were genuine ultra runners and what did I expect? A virgin ultra runner who had set off too fast. In reality they were just men with beards who were probably no different to me and I eventually managed to overtake them. I wasn’t sure how long I had left to go but it all seemed like hard work. How would I finish Race to the Stones which was twice the distance? I consumed my last date and sesame food pouch and that gave me the lift I needed to just keep going and stop my mind feeding me negative thoughts. It also helped that it had clouded over and was now spitting with rain so I could cool down a little. The route changed from a stretch of tarmac to a stony path, and I could see the finish flags which gave me the ultimate boost and after crossing a field I was charging down the finish tunnel to the end. I raised my arms uncharacteristically as I crossed the line and promptly burst into tears.

Inspired perhaps by Damian Halls “FFF” inscribed on his arm in sharpie I had written UvC (You versus Cancer) which if I found myself in a difficult spot I would try and use for inspiration, and I think after two years of my personal journey it was sweet release to prove to myself that I could. The word cancer is pretty devastating and I had had several dark moments wondering if I was going to be able to watch my young son grow up to become a man. I was clearly in a bit of a mess and a very sweet old lady made the mistake of asking if I was ok and I think I blubbed on her shoulder for a few minutes. By now the threatened rain had started and I felt sorry for everyone that was now coming in soaked to the skin as well as the people who would be on the course for several more hours; special credit goes to one of the race organisers who looked like she had jumped in the pool as she gave out race medals in the lashing rain. Its people like her who are often forgotten but make these events so special.

I hobbled to the car and drove home. The rolling start confuses any thoughts of race position as we don’t all start at the same time so I had to wait a few hours to see that I had to my enormous delight finished eighth overall and my smile was even bigger when Kerry messaged me to say I had come first in my age group**.

I could not have done this without Kerry and I am in her debt

Bring on July 10th and Race to the Stones (although I still have a few doubts about running 100km but I am sure I will work it out with Kerrys help).

*I ran the New Forrest Trail Marathon about twenty five years ago and as I was so intent on getting a pb I ran with what I later discovered was a small pine cone*** in the side of my shoe which rubbed all the skin off the arch of my foot and took weeks to recover.

**I realise that this was a relatively flat 52km race of the shortest possible ultra distance so have no expectations of grandeur or top ten finishes in any future runs. I take my hat off to anyone who completes ultra events as we are all on our own journey and battling our own personal demons.

***If you happen to bump in to me ask about the “frog in shoe incident” which I suffered at a later date…..


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