Race: Coastal Trail Series, Exmoor Ultra (34 miles)
Conditions: Slightly overcast/then sunny, 13 degrees
Terrain: Coastal path, some technical trails, mostly grassy…but who had time to notice with all those HILLS??!?!? (“extreme” rating)
As any ultrarunner will tell you, there is no such thing as perfect race prep.
The last few days before a race, you are supposed to be feeling your best. In an ideal world, when you show up on the start line, you should be locked, (carbo) loaded, and ready to go. In reality, this rarely happens. This holds true across the spectrum of runners, from the novice to the elite. Ray Zahab, my fabulous coach and world record holder, once told me that he has never actually started a race or one of his epic global challenges feeling 100%. Sometimes far from it!
Leading up to the Exmoor Ultra last weekend, I was feeling a little like a creaky old 80 year old woman. Stiff joints, a bad hip, and a hairy chin. Okay scrap the last one – I had yet to start growing fuzzy facial hair, but yeah, the body felt a bit old. I went into see a chiropractor in South London, Dr Craig McLean at Putney Chiropractic Centre, for a much-needed crack of my geriatric back. He did a very thorough assessment as I nattered away about my “robust” injury history. After seeing the state of my right hip, he asked “So Stephanie, how are you going to run this race on one leg?” After replying that I hoped it would be a loop course, he went about his business, adjusting me from the neck down to the foot (for which I am very grateful!!).
The adjustments definitely helped, but there is only so much one doctor can do. My days and weeks have recently consisted of either running full steam ahead out in the English countryside, or sitting at my computer for hours on end typing out 18000 words of human rights law exams (ugh). Not ideal for the back. So there I was on the morning of the race, winging about the pain in my back and the stiffness in my right hip. I should have walked down to the race start with a blue rinse in my hair and peppermints in my purse with the way I was carrying on.
Luckily, my friend Alex Howarth, who would also be running the race, was not to be outdone by my pre-race complaining. He came up with a few good stories about BMF-related muscle tightness and his overall lack of running-specific training in the weeks prior. We both knew that we were just trying to come up with excuses ahead of time for why we might completely bonk on this course… Anything to keep our egos intact. And as we gingerly walked down the hill – the VERY steep hill – to the start, the excuses got louder and more elaborate. By the time we got to the registration table, Alex was questioning whether he was suffering from potential kidney failure and I was wondering if maybe I had early-onset osteoporosis. Or maybe carpal tunnel?
The Exmoor races, organized by Endurance Life, included a 10k, 21k, 42k, and, new this year, an ultra course. Alex, another friend Phil and I were really excited about doing the ultra, until we saw that just 34 people had signed up. And only 6 women. Clearly we were the nutters of the bunch!
We set off at 8:15 in the morning and within about 30 seconds of leaving the start line we were headed straight uphill. It would be the first one of many. Of course, we all tried to show a good effort at the beginning, charging ahead with vim and vigour. No mountain could get in our way! Well, our “vim and vigour” quickly retreated as we resigned ourselves to a slow climb upwards. It was going to be a long day…
Although the field was small, right away it was obvious that it was competitive – but in the “wow, I’m at the back of the pack” kind of way, not the “I’m worried this person is going to push me off the side of the cliff” kind of way. I really enjoyed conversing with the other runners during that first hour i.e. the only part of the race when I had enough breath to speak semi-intelligently. There was one guy who was not only running the Exmoor ultra, but also was going to attempt a DOUBLE London marathon the very next day. Rock on dude. Of course about 60 seconds after talking with this legend, I, a mere mortal, fell HARD on my geriatric rear end, instantly feeling the pain shoot all the way up to my neck. Rock on me
When I regained movement back in my neck (ha), I couldn’t believe the scenery in front of me. The course ran along the coastal path in North Devon, over the hills and countryside, across wooded paths and streams, through the “Valley of the Rocks”… It was like running an ultra through a slightly more refined Lord of the Rings movie set (this is England after all). Every once in a while we passed through a little village, including Lynton and Lynmouth, or the “little Switzerland” of the UK. As I was bounding down the boardwalk of these towns, staring up at the quaint little B&Bs and shops, I vowed to come back sometime when I could sit on bench, eat an ice cream, and simply enjoy the view. With peppermints in my purse, of course.
Quite a few of us were taking photos or videos during the race – it would have been a shame not to. These 55 km were some of the most beautiful I’d seen in all of the UK and I wanted to be able to remember it when the oxygen returned to my brain! I kept sending the images from my phone mid-race to those who I knew couldn’t be there that weekend, but that stopped as soon as I received a reply reminding me to stop acting like a tourist and start running like I meant it! Neither snapping photos nor snapping my fingers would get me to the finish. Right. Keep calm and carry on!
I am happy to say, I didn’t have any major issues during the race (unlike the last one!). I made sure to keep eating, drinking, and I ran when I could and walked when I had to. I did start to have some cramping over the last 10 km, but by taking some electrolytes (Hammer Endurolytes) and eating some crisps for some extra salt, I was able to keep going without too much hassle.
The last 5 km were probably my best. I was definitely feeling it in my quads and calves, but relative to the few other runners around me, I seemed to be faring slightly better. I could smell the finish line (or was it that fishy coastal air?) and I was ready to be done!!!
I wound up in 11th place, which I was pretty happy about… Until I found out that this put me in the bottom half of the women’s field! Actually, I was just really impressed. There were three freakishly fast women at the front of the pack and I was slightly in awe. Not that I met them. Oh no, by the time I crossed the finish, they were long gone! Showered, fed, probably had time for a nap too… (just kidding).
Then came a little dose of post-race reality. I don’t know how I do it, but sometimes I really don’t feel pain when I’m running. This is a huge asset in a lot of ways, but sometimes it can lead to, er, nasty results. I had forgotten to bring my body glide or vaseline with me for the weekend, which I usually put on my back and hips to prevent chafing from my backpack. Sometimes I even pre-tape if I’m particularly worried about it. I’m extremely prone to chafing for some reason, regardless of the backpack, so you’d think I’d have learned by now… Anyway, I decided it wasn’t that big of a deal and I would just suck it up and deal with the consequences later.
As soon as I took off my pack, I realized it would be bad. And it was. OOOOOH the pain!!!! I had open wounds all across the bottom of my back, around my hips, and across my stomach. Even the inside of my belly button looked savage. UGH!!! Trying to shower after the race was completely out of the question. The salt that had built up on my skin from sweating during the race made the water feel like vinegar and even a drop made me scream out in agony. Yikes. Thanks to Alex and a some self-mummification techniques, we managed to bandage me up so that I could hobble over to the pub for post-race celebrations. I’m pretty sure he went above and beyond the call of duty on that one, so thanks Alex I’ve got your back (chafe) anytime!
All in all, a great race and a great weekend. Looking forward to the next one in just two weeks! Keswick 2 Barrow 40 miler….