Marathon #5 : The 50 Mile Challenge 2010 (A Double Marathon / 52.4 mile Ultra-Marathon)
(Technically I like to think of this as Marathons #5 and #6, but all official stats count it as 1 as it was a single event)
18th July 2010, Canterbury, Kent, UK
Finish Time = 13:01:34
I wasn’t really sure whether I would do the 50 Mile Challenge. I had finally entered it during an excited moment in June, after considering it many times as far back as March. I liked the idea of seeing just how far I could push myself at a slower pace. The course was a 6.55 mile trail circuit, giving runners the option of completing as many laps as they were able to, up to a maximum of 8 (52.4 miles / a double marathon) within a 15 hour time window. As an Ultra-Marathon is technically defined as any distance over a Marathon, I decided that I could attempt 5 laps (32.75 miles) and if I finished at that point I could have still said I’d completed an Ultra-Marathon.
In the lead up to the event I hadn’t really been doing any training for it. In July I hadn’t done any training runs at all and in June I’d run twice in the whole month. I had ended up being too caught up in starting up karate again, cycling to and from work twice a day and keeping up the gym. A lot of the time I was just too tired to go for a run by the time I got home. As it got closer to the day, more and more people said I shouldn’t do it or just laughed when I said I had entered a 52 mile ultra-marathon at the weekend and hadn’t been training. Naturally this all made me want to do it even more and prove that I could.
On the day before the run I prepared lots of food that I could eat during my breaks between laps. After checking in to the hotel I met up with my parents for an evening meal. Dad asked me how many laps I was going to run, I said all of them. He laughed and I said that 5 was my minimum goal but ultimately I’m aiming to do them all. I think it only works that way – you can’t aim for less to be your target and then go for more, because once you’ve set a goal in your mind it’s harder to then re-focus on something greater. I believe you have to focus on achieving the biggest goal and go for that, and if you achieve something less than you hoped you can still be happy knowing you at least tried for what you had really wished for.
After the meal we went back to the hotel, I got to bed around 11pm with a 4am start and fell asleep fairly quickly. I wasn’t nervous at all, not throughout the day on Saturday, not during the evening and not when I went to bed. I think it was because I truly believed that at a slower pace, my endurance and stamina could withstand a great test of distance.
When I woke up at 4am I think the reality of it hit home a bit and I did feel a little sick. After getting ready I arrived at the start in good time, picked up my number and signed the disclaimer that said I take full responsibility should anything happen to me. We set off promptly at 6am and we were on our way!
I was very conscious of not going too fast so I deliberately kept my pace slow. Once you’ve gone too fast and realise it, sometimes it can be too late so it would be a disaster if I pushed too hard. I stuck to a pace between 10 – 11 minute miles which was a very comfortable pace for me, and I took a walking break 25 minutes into the run, as planned, even though I didn’t feel I needed it. The result was that the 6.55 circuit took me around 1 hour 15 minutes to complete. After completing the first one I had barely felt like I had run anything. I went to the toilet and got some drink, and then set off again.
The route was nice, wide open fields and countryside, a mix of roads, gravel paths and grassy tracks. The grassy tracks were quite uneven and very hard to run on though, especially as some were through long grass and I’d say these made up the majority of the course. There was also very little shade and the sun was already out, it was going to be a hot day.
There was an area on the route where some kind of compost was smoldering at the side and sending smoke all across our pathway. We literally had to hold our breath while running through it and it caused a lot of the runners to cough and splutter.
There were quite a few water stations around the course, some people you would pass once each lap, some people twice, due to some of the route going back on itself. The people at the water stations ended up becoming friends, as due to the relaxed nature of the “challenge”, as opposed to a race, you felt you could take as much time as you needed. During the later stages of the race it really helped being on first name terms with some of them, they would say “See you on the next lap” when I left them, and it made me feel that I had to go back so as not to let them down.
On the first lap I had rounded a corner by some road area, headed down and then had to go up a hill for a bit. It wasn’t that steep but just looking at it I knew it would be trouble later. There was a man on the water station just at the bottom of the hill, when I stopped for water I commented to him that I was sure that hill would hurt later. He told me that they call it “Tourettes Hill” because later on all you hear when people get to the top is a load of swearing.
The last water / feed station was manned by a couple – Mark and Sharon. They were to become my favourite water station people. Not only were they really nice and friendly, but they brought a variety of food and snacks for the runners and every time I saw them I knew I was close to finishing another lap, around 10 minutes away.
After completing my second lap I had covered a half-marathon distance and when I ran back into the finish area my parents were there waiting for me. I still felt perfectly fine and it was great to see them and have some support there with me. I ate some food, talked to my parents about the run so far and we took some pictures. Off I went on another lap.
All the other runners were really friendly on the course. When people overtook you or you overtook them, they’d say well done, or smile. The people manning the water stations were equally encouraging and very helpful. When I passed Mark and Sharon they were cooking bacon with their portable frying pan, it smelled really good. I stuck to the jellies and biscuits they had on offer to the runners. I finished my third lap, completing 19.65 miles. With my slower pace I was feeling fine, although the sun by this point was scorching and I applied some more sun cream.
I set off on my fourth lap and I ran past the race organiser who was walking around the course. He shouted out to me “Paul – you’re making this look easy!” which made me smile. I felt like my Ultra-Marathon idol Dean Karnazes, I’d watched him in videos running along hot roads and tracks with his white baseball cap on, maintaining a good pace and just relentlessly pushing on. And here I was doing it now too, I was actually taking part in an Ultra-Marathon. They say a very small percent of the population runs a Marathon in their life, I don’t know what percent of people run an Ultra, but it must be very small.
During the last third of the circuit when I was running on one of the uneven grass tracks I landed on an uneven footing and pain started to come on in my lower right leg. You get pains and twinges every now again while running – you just get used to it, and hope that they go away. I walked for a bit which seemed to help and when I started running it was still there but it was bearable. When I reached Mark and Sharon at the final water station of the lap, they said to me that by this stage most people start looking at bit worse for wear, but that I looked like I was handling it really well. I did feel that it was starting to get hard but didn’t feel any where near as bad as I usually did after running a marathon distance. I think the refuelling on food definitely helped a lot.
I’d completed four laps and a marathon distance of 26.2 miles and I felt good. My marathon time was 5 hours 30, a slow marathon time on it’s own for me, but probably spot on for the first half of my first double marathon. Time was largely irrelevant to me and indeed to the event, it was about completing the distance and having not done it before I didn’t know what to expect, how much energy I needed to conserve for later, or how fast would be too fast. It was better to be slower than faster. After resting for a bit, I set off into the unknown distances – past the Marathon stage and into the leagues of the Ultra-Marathoners.
It was at this stage that I decided to start using my iPod. I hadn’t wanted to use it earlier as I prefer to run without music when I’m doing official events, I think you miss out on some of the atmosphere and participation even if there aren’t any supporters around. I also feel it detaches you from what you’re doing, which is why I use it when I want to be detached or distracted, like if I’m struggling or in pain. It was becoming difficult at this stage so I thought I would distract myself early on so I didn’t start thinking about how hard it was. I carried on around the course and I was getting texts from various people asking how I was getting on and sending words of encouragement which was really nice. When I ran down the other side of Tourettes Hill the guy on the water station asked how I was getting on. I told him that I hadn’t started swearing yet. When I reached the final water station with Mark and Sharon a guy turned up with his daughter and he was suffering badly from cramp. Sharon gave his daughter an ice pack and she tried rubbing it on his legs to ease it out. He looked in a lot of pain with it though so I wasn’t sure how much further he would manage. I still felt ok, and I even thought to myself – I’m going to end up finishing this thing and feel like I could have gone further. Perhaps I should just keep doing laps!
I completed lap five for 32.75 miles and had therefore now completed an Ultra-Marathon distance. If I stopped now I would get a medal and could say I’d done it. My Dad asked if I was going to stop, I said no way, I was going to complete them all. I still truly believed, like I always had done, that I was capable of doing so. The race literature had said you got a medal for 30 miles, a bigger medal for 40 miles and the biggest medal for 50 miles. I wanted the biggest medal. After sitting in the shade for a bit I realised how sunburnt I was getting, as soon as I stepped back out into the sun my shoulders stung and they were really red. I took the decision to change my vest for a singlet (which is more like a t-shirt with cut-off sleeves, and also a higher neck). It would cover more of my shoulders but unfortunately also be hotter for me. Then I came up with another idea, and we threaded my yellow vest through the arms and pinned it to the singlet using 2 spare pins. This draped over my shoulders covering the rest of the exposed skin. I turned my running cap back to front for get some neck shade and I was ready to go.
The sixth lap was tough. My right leg had started hurting worse, which I was doing my best to ignore. I was sunburnt, hot with my hotter running top and all the clouds in the sky had gone, the sun was relentless. I wasn’t managing to stick to my correct run / walk breaks very well any more. It was becoming much harder to keep up the running portion of the strategy. Eventually I finished my sixth lap and was back in the pub garden. I’d run 39.3 miles. I wasn’t sure if this qualified me for the 40 mile medal, but I assumed so. I didn’t really know how I was going to run 2 more laps, but at the same time I knew I would find a way somehow. After some much needed rest, food & drink I set off on my seventh.
This lap was even harder than the sixth. Things started to hurt, my right leg in particular but I ignored it the best I could and turned up my music. I was winning the mental battle, although by this stage there weren’t many people who were still carrying on for the full distance so I was mostly on my own, no-one up in front and no-one behind me, just long open tracks exposed to the hot sun. I had told each of the water station marshals that I would see them again soon for the last lap, including Mark and Sharon. As I came in to finish my seventh lap I had completed 45.85 miles.
I had quite a long rest, food, drinks etc and while it’s really hard to comprehend getting back out there and doing another lap, soon it was time to do so. I really didn’t want to go back out there, but there was no way I was stopping with only one lap to go before completing the distance.
As soon as I started though, all was not well. After resting, my right leg had become incredibly painful and I couldn’t actually run properly anymore – the best I could do was hobble jog along with it. I could tell this was going to be a really long lap ahead, and I was very glad it was my last one. I wouldn’t have liked to have dragged myself through more than one lap with my leg like that. I was annoyed that my leg had got injured because the rest of me felt ok – well, relative to the painful leg of course, the rest of my body was still very fatigued and aching. With my leg/ankle, it was so bad that my running time was about 1 – 2 minutes, and then I’d have to stop to walk, often actually yelling out in pain as I did so. Luckily there was no-one else around to hear me.
When I eventually got to Mark and Sharon I thanked them for everything and told them they’d really made my day. I said I couldn’t stay long as typical of me, my watch was on 12 hours 53 minutes, and if I set off quickly I thought I might just be able to make it in under 13 hours. I actually started running at a pace within the 9 minute mile region but could see my time slipping away. Mark and Sharon were further away from the finish area than I thought, and when it got to 12:59 I realised from where I was, I wasn’t going to do it. Slightly disappointed I stopped for a brief walking break and then carried on.
I was so relieved to see the familiar sight of the Gate Inn pub and it was an amazing feeling to be finishing. As I finished I met my Dad, grabbing on to him for some additional support and Mum was doing some filming on the camera. As the race organisers gave me my medal and wrote out my certificate I said that I was trying to sprint the last section to make it in under 13 hours. The organiser said to me “Paul, no-one cares! You’ve just run 52 miles, it doesn’t matter!!” I laughed, I guess that’s true.
I had stopped my running watch on 13 hours, 1 minute and 34 seconds. I had started running at 6am in the morning and it was now just past 7pm in the evening. I had run a double marathon back-to-back. According to my GPS watch I had also run over the distance, covering 53.25 miles, which often happens in races as you don’t always run the exact shortest route along a course.
I couldn’t actually believe it! I still find it hard to get my head around. How do you run for 13 hours? How do you run over 53 miles? I really don’t know, but somehow I’d managed to do it.
I had heard that Ultra-Marathons (depending on which ones you do) can feel very different to normal marathons, and this definitely was the case with this one. With time pressure off and the ability to rest when you feel like it and refuel with food, I actually felt a lot better at the end than I had done at the finish of most of my marathons. Some of the marathons I’ve pushed myself to the absolute possible limit and really felt in a bad way when finishing. When I finished this challenge, yes I was in pain but I didn’t feel like I was about to collapse, or that my body was dying or out of energy, or anything that I would normally associate with completing a standard marathon. The one thing I would do differently if I entered this again would be to control the time I took on breaks between laps. Sometimes I lost track of time while talking with my parents and drinking/eating. If I’d kept them to a specific maximum I think my time would have been much faster, but then again for me it was just about completing the challenge.
This will forever be a high point for me in my running and I’m so glad that I entered the event.
Just in case you were wondering, the next morning I woke up and my ankle looked like this (don’t scroll down if you don’t want to see):
It also creaked when I moved it.
I had x-rays done a few days later but they didn’t show up anything. In time it healed, so I’m not really sure what happened but clearly something did!
If you do this race, watch for the uneven ground and make sure you get some trail training in for ankle strength.
I can’t recommend this event highly enough! http://www.challengehub.co.uk/about-challenges/about-50-mile-challenge
Be sure to check out Mike’s other challenges too: http://www.challengehub.co.uk
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