Cees van der Land’s latest race report is about an Ultra marathon he recently completed.
It’s a long report to cover a long event, but is a thoroughly entertaining account of the physical (and mental) battles that need to be overcome during these type of events.
The White Rose Ultra 60 : Saturday 4th November 2017
No matter what distance you’re running in a race, whether it’s a 5k or a distance well over a marathon, every runner has had the thought “why am doing this?!” It usually happens while your legs are on fire during that final sprint or when climbing that hill just before the final coastal stretch of a well-known half marathon. For me this moment was reached the day before the race, when an hour after leaving Newcastle city centre I could still see the Angel of the North staring down on me in my car stuck in traffic. I was getting worried if start number pick up would be reached in time and almost started to agree with Nigel’s comments1) on how inconvenient it is to have other people to share the road with. Luckily, with a bit of loud Dutch Nederhop playing in the car and the road clearing up, those negative thoughts quickly disappeared.
The White Rose Ultra was first organised in 2013 with a 30 mile and 60 mile (two loops of the 30 mile course) event and a 100 mile (three loops and a bit) event was added in 2015. From a logistical point of view loops make sense as it limits the amount of aid stations the organisers need to provide, I’ll comment below if running the same loop twice is good for your head. The race organisation is local and small, unlike other ultra-runs they don’t charge a fortune and they didn’t require a qualifying distance to do the 60 mile run, all reasons for me to sign up for this race. The route starts in just East of Marsden, firstly follows part of the Pennine way going south (uphill), then turns NW in the direction of Huddersfield (downhill!) towards the river Colne, crosses that towards the north for another few steep hills there and then back to the start (but not before a very steep hill just before the finish!). The route is about 60/40 road/trail. The trail parts are largely forest tracks, there were only about four stretches where fell shoes would have made a difference, I ran on well cushioned road shoes.
Training for this race had gone reasonably well. As I could not do much training in the 4 weeks between the Chester marathon in the beginning of October and this race I increased the volume in my marathon training significantly to make it a bit more ultra-specific (?). Decided to follow the Jack Daniels 12 week marathon plan as that allowed for a volume increase. Basically two “quality sessions” per week and easy runs the rest of the week to come to a certain mileage (% of a highest mileage week you decide for yourself). The mid-week 20 mile long runs including 5 mile tempo stretches and 8 weeks in a row of 100 km per week felt quite intense. After the Chester marathon I took about 10 days off followed by only easy running for about 10 days and a short taper of a week. Arrived at the start-line with reasonable fresh legs.
After the small debacle on the A1 the rest of the drive to Marsden was rather uneventful. Dutch Nederhop was exchanged for the Beastie Boys. I did note that the roads got a lot steeper around the area were we would be running the next day. My Airbnb was about a mile away from the start which was located in the Standedge Tunnel & Visitor Centre. A nice location, however the event centre and bagdrop were on the first floor, which meant a stairs to climb in the middle of the run! Picked up my start number, checked that my mandatory kit (how do you define what a “thermal layer” is?) was approved and walked back via the first mile of the route towards Marsden for a quick bite.
Race day! As I had the Airbnb all to myself so, the day started with some Nederhop blaring through the house followed by some Fatwreck Chords classics. Good start to the day. The weather had a slightly worse start as it was raining. Checked and rechecked all of the weather apps and convinced myself that it would clear up before the 8AM start. Lots of runners were standing around with their jackets on, which made me doubt my choice for a jack-less start, pre-race nerves! Runners for all events were starting at the same time, the colour of your number reflected which race you were in. Unfortunately, with all the rain jackets, not all runners followed the rule of “always show your start number”, so I did not know on the first lap whether I was racing other 60 milers or mistakenly trying to outrun 30 milers! My solution was to initially stick within the top 10 for the first lap. This group would likely be mainly composed of 30 milers, but I could try and keep up? They could provide route guidance, company and perhaps a target to chase towards the end of the first loop.
The start of the route was a 5k out and back loop with 100m of climbing/descending followed by a steady 7km long 260m climb, that’s how much course knowledge I had, after that it was all unknown! Legs were feeling fine, took on an extra shirt while running uphill and was around position 5-10 in a pack running up the long climb. People broke away on the downhill, so I was running alone now. However, shortly after the first muddy section, all of a sudden there were about 5 runners coming towards me! Everyone had missed a turn-off (including me). I realised afterwards, as I was closer to the missed turn-off this was the moment I was accidentally leading the 30-mile race. The top 3 runners quickly created a gap again. I decided to stay with the person who noted the detour as he was running with a handheld GPS with the route programmed in it. Figured that would help with not getting lost. Gps tracking device offers you exceptional support. We now entered an easy road section with mainly nice gentle downhill running, so we spend some time catching up on running stories. At the well-stocked first manned aid station I had my first ever “proper” ultra-drink, coca-cola without fizz from my own foldable cup (the event was “cup-less”). After another gradual downhill road section, we crossed underneath the railroad and started a section that seemed to consist of endless steep road sections. As I was still running with someone else I was able to match his pace and not overdo it too much. Another aid station followed and this time I was greeted by (a mispronunciation of) my own name. They had been following us on the tracker and greeted every runner that came in with a personal hello, how nice! They told me I was in the lead for the 60-mile race, so I dared to ask how far they thought the second placed runner was behind me…. 10 minutes I was told. Another steep uphill road followed, which provide an excuse to walk and eat all the stuff I grabbed from the table. I had now dropped the other (30-mile) runner and was running by myself, this section had a few trails in it, a nice change. As I crested another little hill I could see the valley where we started, and I figured I was about 25 miles into the first lap. Although my watch told me I was already very close to 30 miles. This was the time when I realised that putting your watch into “ultra-mode” essential turns it into an expensive stopwatch. In the end my watch told me the first lap was about 53 kilometers, so overshooting the distance by 10% (30 miles=48km). Something I needed to take into account for the rest of the run. A real steep downhill road section followed, hardly runnable. I closely passed my Airbnb and realised I was only about a mile away from the halfway point along a flat road. Of course, the course designers had a final trick up their sleeve and sent me back up the steep slope I just came down! After a steep hike up and a gentle run down I was greeted with the sight of the event centre.
Restocking my supplies in the middle of the race is something I had never done. After 30 miles I was obviously tired, but I managed to put on dry socks, drink electrolytes, restock my water, restock gels. Only forgot to eat the porridge I had put in a thermos, oh well. When I came down the stairs I discovered another table full of food which I didn’t notice on the way up. I started chatting a bit and spent a little bit too much time there. When I left the building I saw a runner up the road who yelled/asked if he was supposed to come in? I figured he was a 60 miler and in second place, so I assured him he needed to come in! Apparently, I had wasted my entire 10-minute lead eating and chatting to people! This realisation caused a slight panic, especially as I noticed the other runner looked more like a more experienced (don’t ask me how you can tell this, you just can) ultra-runner so in my mind he would be much quicker in the aid station, especially as he had just seen me.
Lap 2, not off to a good start. I started the little 5k up/down loop by looking back all the time, never a good sign. Once I had started the longer steady trail climb I started to calm down a little bit. I started to negotiate with myself, started to picture being overtaken, which wouldn’t be the end of the world. Started to think per section, thinking, if I’m still in the lead at the top of this climb it will be OK. If I’m still in the lead at the first aid station it will be OK, etc. Funny how your brain starts to renegotiate the condition of what you’re doing while you’re suffering from doing it. I reached the top of the long climb and was now settling into a reasonable downhill pace. My stomach had settled a bit. In hindsight this was the section where I struggled most during the race. I spoke to the runner behind me afterwards and he said he could see at the top of the climb at one point (I looked back a few times, I guess I was lucky I didn’t see him). He figured he was only a few minutes behind me and made a push to catch up on me. Luckily for me he blew up on that uphill and by the time he got to the top I was well out of reach again.
The first (third) aid station was reached quite quickly again, I was now about 40 miles into the run, a few miles into unknown territory as I had never run further than 37 miles (on a flat course). I could not feel any blisters and my quads were not entirely shot just yet. I’d like to thank my Hokas for that, 20mm of cushioning between my legs and the road/trail. The only rubbing spots were on the top of my feet near the shoe laces. As I now had course knowledge I was not so looking forward to the endless steep uphill road sections just ahead. On this lap it involved a lot more walking (which, I have been told, is allowed in Ultras!). I had set myself a few mental targets while struggling up the first long hill of the second lap. One of them was getting to 75km (my metric trained mind on an imperial island switches back and forth all the time, endless fun converting distances and paces in your head while running), I figured if I would be caught after that point I could hang on and still try to win it. I had completely forgotten about this and despite my watch being completely off I was confident I had passed this point. Another friendly chat at aid station two (four) left me in good spirits for the last 10ish miles. By now my pace had dropped significantly, but it didn’t seem to matter anymore, the course record was far out of reach and now I was convinced I could finish this race in first place. My quads were pretty much shot, so the steep non-runnable downhill road section was done in some sort of weird hopping rhythm, which involved a sideways hop, purposely landing on my heels. Must have looked very strange seeing me come down that hill. With only one steeper climb to go all the pain in my legs didn’t matter anymore, I was going to finish this bloody thing. For no apparent reason at all (besides being very happy is was almost over) I picked up my pace to a staggering 6:30 min/mile which felt Usainian fast. By now it was dark, and it had started raining, with only 2 people outside at the finish it made finishing strangely uneventful.
Back in the warmth of the event centre I ate and drank everything I could find. The card machine didn’t work so I couldn’t buy myself a beer, luckily the bartender offered me a beer for free! Hot food was provided, and I spent about 2 hours chatting to the second placed finisher about running and life. It was nice spending some time there, watching other runners come in. We even saw the first place 100 miler come it. He power-walked to his bag, spent 2 minutes there and was on his way again. As the weather had turned pretty grim by now I cannot imagine doing another 40 miles in that.
The White Rose Ultra is a well organised event. The tracking devices worked perfectly, making it possible for people elsewhere to track your progress. Apart from one missing arrow, the course was amazingly well sign-posted. Doing a looped course means that you have course knowledge on the second loop, which helps in the later stage of the race when you’re tired. For me, this was another step up in the ultra-distance. Three more ultras including the Hardmoors 110 miler are planned for next year, with the goal to qualify for the illustrious Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc in August 2019.
Last, but not least, as an ultrarun is “basically a lot of eating with some running thrown in” here is my race day nutritional summary:
0.5 litres of water
1 bottle of lucozade
2 bowls of porridge
1 granola bar
1 Mars bar
During the race (own supply and aid stations):
1.5 litres of electrolyte drinks
0.5 litre of water
8 cups of coca-cola
8 SiS gels
3 strips of cliff shot blocks (10 each)
4 sausage rolls
2 slices of chocolate cake
2 pop tarts
3 half bananas
4 scoops of Jelly babies
3 Mars bars
That doesn’t look like a lot, no wonder I was hungry afterwards!