It was a grey but warm Saturday morning as I toed the start line with just one other runner at the beginning of the Greensands Ridge Ultra. This was an ultra with a difference as the main event was actually the relay race which consisted of 6 legs along the 33 mile route. There were 30 relay teams competing and 17 soloists. Start times were based on your predicted finish time working backwards from 5pm. I was starting 11.45am alongside last years winner and solo course record holder. No pressure there then! It was very relaxed at the start with a few club mates were milling around for support.
LBAC had 4 relay teams competing and 4 soloists including myself. The other 3 solo club runners were running their first ultra - Ian, Joe (on the left) and Pete (on the right).
However all being accomplished marathon runners and faster than me meant that 33m was more than within their comfort zone, and only a small step up from the marathon. I hoped that Chris Taylor (last years winner) would go ahead of me from the start so that I could run my own race and this is what happened. As it was I never saw him again. He finished in a time of 4:53 taking half hour off his previous record. But this would not be the fastest solo time on the day as another soloist - Huw Lobb, was the favourite by some considerable margin and expected to smash the course record and run faster than many of the relay teams! Incredible stuff.
Each of the six legs differed in length. Leg 3 being the longest at 8 miles, and leg 2 the shortest at 3.9 miles. This makes little difference to solo runners though as we were running all 6. I set off at an 8:30 mpm pace, and tried to sustain this for leg 1 which went along the grand union canal for the first 3 miles before climbing up through the Stockgrove estate which brought with it the first few climbs. Some new greensands waymarkers recently put up did confuse things though and took you off the normal route. I should have known better than to follow them but soon got back on track and made my way to CP1 to dib in with an orienteering style dibber and carried on not needing to stop for refreshment as I had my camelpak which hold 1.5ltrs and filled with my drink of choice SIS energy drink.
Leg 2 was a mix of single track trail, and cut throughs across open fields. For the most part the GRW is very well waymarked making navigation easy. However at one point between two fields I took a left rather than a right as I couldn't see the cut though the hedge infront, and had to leap across a ditch and scrapped up my leg of the bush. No real harm done, but upon exiting the other style I spotted the stile just 10 metres away on the right which was well hidden! Doh. The only other point of note on leg 2 was being overtaken by a relay team runner. This early on surely meant that their predicted finish time was way to conservative. I averaged 8:45 pace for this section which I was pleased with, as I was trying to hold back on going too fast.
The start of Leg 3 is stunning as you run though Woburn Estate which is a large open space with lakes, herds of wild deer, and the impressive Woburn House. I stopped to take a few pics on route. From there it was a mix of single track, and fields, and definitely undulating! The sun was also now out and things were heating up making the going feel a little tougher at this early stage of the race. I had reccied this leg a few weeks prior with Pete (along with 4,5,6 also) so you would think that I couldn't go wrong, however I did take a wrong turn just before Evershott village and lost a few minutes. No bother though. I averaged 9mpm pace on leg 3, mainly because of the undulating terrain. CP3 was much needed as I was drinking far more than anticipated and was running dry. One of the volunteers filled by pak whilst I added the magic powder. Just at this point Pete came flying into the CP who had started a full 15 minutes behind me and had made up all this time in the first 17 miles so going just under 8 mpm pace! Awesome running.
Leg 4 was where the distance and heat began to take its toll a little. My pace began to drop not unsuprisingly so averaging 9:30 for the leg with my total average dropping below 9mpm for the first time. The plan for this run was to try and average 9 for the whole distance and clip under 5hrs, but the heat and wearrliness in the legs from this point onwards meant that maintaining 9s was looking an impossible task. Legs 5 & 6 was simply a battle to the finish, to keep going, dig deep and hang on for a respectable time. I was averaging 10mpm by this stage with some of the climbs nearer 12mpm. Leg 5 was field after field after field which you thought would never finish. However it was very peaceful with just myself for company, and despite the slow going I was still moving forward and enjoying the challenge. The end of Leg 5 and the CP was packed with people clapping and giving their support as I run in. I poured a 2ltr bottle of water over my head to cool the rapidly rise heat and downed the rest.
Just 4.7 miles to go to the finish and I put the hammer down... This is of course all relative and in reality I started doing 8.30 for the first mile which slowed to 9s and then 10s! This leg was very straightforward with a long stretch along a wide gravel track that went on forever. With fresh legs it would have been really quick but with 30 miles in the legs it didn't seem to make any difference. Nevertheless I started to feelthe finish and enjoy myself once again. I was still looking at the watch and working out times. 5hrs had slipped by a long time ago... 5:15 my original predicted time was also go... So the next target was the 2010 course record at 5:20 but as I got closer and closer to the finish I knew to that I would just miss out on this. It really wasn't an issue though as this was a training run for bigger things to come. The crucial thing was time on my feet and I was certainly getting that. My wife called to say she had arrived at the finish line with Lili and Jasper which was perfect timing with less than 2 miles to go. This spured me on and before long I was running down the final straight pass the church into Northill village and across the finish line where my family were standing. Perfect. My time was 5h24m. Average pace 9:40.
Going back to the favourite soloist Huw Lobb who I mentioned at the beginning of this piece... He did indeed demolish the 2010 course record by almost 1.5 hours in a time of 3.57 which is simply staggering. That's just over 7 mpm pace over 33 miles across undulating farmland and technical single track, plus the numerious stiles and in the heat. Huw also beat most of the relay teams too with only a handful of the 30 teams going faster. Unbelievable running. Pic below is Huw Lobb on the right and LBAC runner Simon who run a seriously fast 1st leg in 6 minute mile pace, and Huw kept up with Simon all the way!
So what do I take from this 'training run' in the build up to the NDW100 in August. Well quite a lot actually which I will list in no particular order...
1) Need more endurance = need to fit in more longer weekend runs (perhaps a little less ElliptiGOing!)
2) Need more speed = more focused speed work. Monday lunchtime being my preferred day for this session.
3) Must be mentally stronger. I found myself too often on this run thinking about how far there was left to go and how I was slowing down, instead of flipping it around and celebrating the distance I had covered and the pace that I was still able to average over the whole distance. I've got to get into a mindset more often of celebrating every success and blocking out any negativity or doubts.
4) New pair or trail shoes! Ok I don't actually need a new pair but I look for any excuse and the new Merrell foot gloves look awesome.
5) I must wake up realise that I don't and won't have the time with life's pressures to put in the miles that I know are needed to really excel in ultras. So recognising this I must manage my expectations about what I can achieve going forward. Which brings me on nicely to goals for the NDW100.
I had thought about going sub 20 hours and whether this would be possible. I'm not sure if it is realistic or not, but such time goals (especially very optimistic ones) I don't think are very helpful when you are in the thick of it and just battling on to keep moving forward. Why set a goal that could make things even more difficult for yourself whilst you are out there running cos you realise that you can't maintain the pace required which puts you in a funk and the wrong frame of mind. So I would much rather for an event such as a 100 miler remove the pressure on myself to hit certain mile splits/average pace etc etc, and not worry so much about pace or time.
The only thing that is certain is that I do want the NDW 100 mile-1 day belt buckle which only sub 24hr finishers will receieve. If you take longer than 24hrs then new just get a simple finishers buckle. So there.... I've said it... My goal IS to finish the NDW100 in under 24hrs. More achievable than 20hrs of course, and something more tangible as well, which should spur me on when the going gets tough.
Ok I had better stop talking and get training....
The Official Greensands Ridge finishers times are here