Back when I entered this race it was going to be ideal preparation for the Devon 100 which was then cancelled. So now this was not so ideal preparation for the London Marathon which is just 5 weeks away. However I was far more interested in running this ultra in the beautiful Mavern Hills than I am at the prospect of plodding around London.
The race started at 6.00am (sunrise at 6.01) in the setting of Eastnor Castle Deer Park in the middle of the Mavern Hills. And hills there were!!! Hills which I would become very familiar with through the course of the 12hrs. Like every ultra I’ve run to date the start was a low key affair. The gun goes and everyone sets off to little fanfare or excitement. Just intrepidation at what lays head. What was of interest were the teams competing whom should be setting of far quicker than the soloists and pairs. They did indeed set off quicker but not at the pace I might have expected.
The first 2km were straight up on soft grass and muddy trails. And to add to this the course director had decided to incorporate a ditch into the course which you had to cross from one side to the other 3 or 4 times. Amusing the first time… very slow going by the tenth! I used the first lap to get familiar with the course not knowing what to expect or what pace would be sensible.
The highest point of the course was at Herefordshire Beckon at the 3km mark. The views from here were great especially in the sunshine with clear skies for miles around. This weather continued for the whole day which was a real blessing. Unfortunately I didn’t take any photos as I was running very light with just a water bottle. The fourth km went straight down, soft underfoot, where you could let go and let gravity take the strain (fastest part of the course – at least for the first half of the race anyway!). From 4km to 6km you then wound gradually uphill again, with the one and only water station on the course. Lucky I was running self-sufficient otherwise I would have been completely screwed. Clearly the organiser was not catering for the soloists. Note to race director for next time.
6km to 7km was definitely the most runnable part of the course. It was a lovely single track technical trail that twisted and turned through the woods, akin to a rollercoaster ride. A great feeling running through here even on weary legs later in the race.
7km to the finish/start area gradually descended on concrete farm roads with clear views of the finish area. You could even hear the tannoy system announcing team position updates. There were a number of switch backs meaning that just when you thought you were nearing the finish you turned and run back the other way before you the turned again and climbed up to the finish/start area. Lap complete.
It’s fair to say that the entire 9km (and a bit) were constantly up down but that the first half of the route was definitely tougher than the second half, although none of it was a walk in the park. So the strategy was to conserve energy on the ups, make good progress on the downs and keep it steady on the flats. In the early laps I was unsurprisingly feeling good and enjoying this challenging yet inspiring course. My first 2-3 laps were in the low 50s. I hooked up with two other soloists during these laps. One of the guys – Patrick was the winner of the Thunder Run 24hr last year (but I didn’t know that at the time). I would catch him on the down hills, and Patrick would pull away on the flats, which happened for a few laps. At around lap 3-4 I think I then passed him in the start/finish area whilst he refuelled and I didn’t see him again.
Refuelling was going to be an extremely important part of the race. As I mentioned there was nothing provided for soloists (unless you wanted to go into the catering tend for a burger) so luckily I came fully equipped with a stash of goodies. This included buttered malt loaf, flapjack, jelly babies, bananas, energy gels, and a snickers bar (and nurofen) all washed down with my SIS carbo drink. Yum yum. This was definitely the most I had ever eaten whilst running but I didn’t have any ill effects so I was very pleased.
The laps wore on and things got harder. I was running 9:45m/m in the early stages, which increased to 10:00m/m and then 10:30m/m and this theme continued. I don’t think pacing (no matter how good it was) would allow you to run even splits on such terrain. Inevitably the hills were going to grind you down and all you could do was to keep going no matter what pace, and still try to take advantage of the downhills. Even they got harder as the ankles started to feel a bit over-used.
By lap 5 or 6 I was feeling an uncomfortable rubbing under my right foot and the start of a blister. I decided I would get it seen to by the kind people at St John Ambulance at the end of the lap. I spoke to a marshal on the way around and asked them to call ahead so they knew to expect me. Every second counts! I had caught it early so they dressed it and all was good again….well as good as it could be 30 or so miles into the race.
I think it was on the next lap that I got the surprise of my life. Everytime you went over the timing mat in the start/finish area the announcer would say something like… ‘and here’s Stuart Blofeld from Leighton Buzzard AC’ or similar. This time however he said ‘and here’s Stuart Blofeld our race leader’. All I could say to him was ‘what’!? Surely my timing chip had been mixed up with someone elses. It was such a shock that I didn’t really know what to think or do. What could I do but just continue as I had been, as I slowly plodded up the hill to start another lap.
Knowing that I was 1st somehow changed everything whilst at the same time changed nothing (that’s as best as I can describe it). From this point on I just focused on one lap at a time. Trying not to think about being in the lead or how much time or how many laps I had left to go. Although I always had a lap target in mind which was 10, but at the pace I had set out at I was looking good for 11, perhaps even 12 at a push.
There isn’t a lot more to say of any significance until the start of lap 11. I finished lap 10 at 4.25pm with still 1h35m to go on the clock. I had run lap 10 in about 1h10m so I was facing a bit of a problem. 1) I ran much slower and time it just right so I finished lap 11 just after 6pm (but potentially risk getting caught), or carry on at a similar but painful pace, and see what happens with the prospect of running a 12 lap a real possibility which would have me running for nearly 13 hours (I thought it was called the wiggle 12hr!). The way I was feeling right then meant that running a 12 lap was not something that filled me with joy.
I plodding around lap 11 at a slow pace not by choice but because that was all I was capable of. With over 90km in my legs things weren’t pretty but it was now just a case of keeping going. Because of the team format I continued to be passed by much faster and fresher runners who were perhaps running their 2nd lap of the day. The give away sign of a team runner was A) their clean socks, and B) their inappropriate footwear with many running in ordinary trainers. But despite the poor choice of shoes they were still way faster then me, as all I could do was watch as they disappeared off into the distance.
My right foot was again playing up as the dressing applied by St J.A. had come loose, and became painful. I stopped and did what I could to reapply the torn dirty dressing to cover the worst effected area. To my surprise it did the trick, and I kept moving forward. Despite my slow progress I was still going too fast to complete the 11th lap at 6pm. There was still no sign of second place either. The way in which the route wrapped around the contours of the hills meant that you could see across the valley at one point and see if anybody was in chase. No one was.
It really was a case of mixed feelings at this stage as it looked like I would win my first every ultra race if I just kept going, yet I still had the prospect of having to run another lap which loomed large in my mind. And so it was as I crossed the timing mat at 5:40pm with still another 20 minutes on the clock. The options were to declare my hand there and then with 11 laps complete (100.1km) with a time of 11hr40m or run another lap. The risk was that 2nd place would come around the corner before 6pm and run a 12th lap and snatch the victory. I really had no choice but to go out again, and make sure of the win.
This was probably the longest and slowest victory lap in history. I don’t know what I was feeling at that point. Mixed emotions of achievement, and astonishment, but mostly just the feeling that after one more lap it will all be over. And so it was that I finished lap 12 in the rapidly fading with a personal escort on a quad bike accompanying me for safety reasons. I was the last person on the course yet as I ran across the finish line I had won. I shook the race organiser’s hand who congratulated me, and said you know you didn’t need to run that 12 lap, but I knew that I did. It turned out that the 2nd place solo male (the guy Patrick who I was running with at the beginning) was half an hour behind me. In a way though the 12 lap did matter and showed me that I did have the will to continue even when I was being told I didn’t have to. Ultra running isn’t about taking the easy way out. It’s about leaving everything you have out there in the trails and I certainly did that in the Mavern hills.
At the finish!!
On the podium.
Click link to see official photos -
click here for full solo male results