Well, I f’ked that up!
The Millennium Way Ultra – despite milestone PB’s at 30 and 40 miles – left me feeling somewhat disheartened and proof that not all races go to plan.
For anyone who wants to know how not to race an ultra, read on…
The race itself is a 41 mile point-to-point run from Newport to Burton-on-Trent. The route runs the length of the Millennium Way – a national trail established 22 years ago to celebrate the millennium. Following mainly disused railway lines, waterways and farmland, it’s a relatively flat, runnable route; ranging from canal path, compacted limestone ballast to open fields.
The event is organised by ‘Beyond Marathon’ and offers an ‘affordable, low key race with the focus on running.‘ At £32 – (£37 with coach travel) – the race includes RFID timing, live GPX tracking and three well stocked aid stations – with the option of paying additional £’s upon race entry for a medal and race tee if one so desires . Something, which in my opinion, other race organisers should consider for environmental reasons.
The race starts in Newport at 8.30am – with a coach leaving Burton at 7am to transport runners to the start line. Last minute travel plans meant that I’d now get a lift straight to the start line as Ruth and the boys had decided to support me for the day – cancelling the 4am alarm and setting it for 6am was a welcome relief!
Arriving in Newport at 7:45am, this ensured we had plenty of time to register, pick-up my race number and tracker, use the facilities and head straight to the start line – a Waitrose carpark – no bells and whistles here!
After a short and concise race brief from the race director, we were sent on our way.
The first mile or so is all tarmac as you head out of Newport before joining the Newport to Stafford Greenway – an old train line through Gnosall, Haughton and Derrington. This greenway continued for the next 11 miles until we reached the first check-point.
I’d settled into a steady pace – albeit I had no concept of the actual pace as my watch was set in maps mode – in hindsight, this was my first mistake! I found myself running in a small group and the miles passed without incident. Conditions were ideal, the temperature was relatively cool and conditions underfoot were dry and compact. I never felt like I was over exerting myself or running out of my comfort zone, I was simply enjoying the trail for the early stages.
At mile 8, I caught glimpse of Ruth and the boys at the side of the greenway. It was a nice surprise and them appearing at random parts of the route would become a theme throughout the day. With the first check-point a couple of miles ahead, I’d opted for a quick high-five with the boys rather than stopping as I new I’d get chance to see them at the next checkpoint where I’d get to regroup and top up on supplies.
By mile 11 we’d finally turned off the greenway and arrived at the first check-point. I’d been running with a chap called Chris up until this point – a Villa fan for his sins (I didn’t hold it against him!) – and after a quick drink and catch-up with Ruth and the boys, we left the check-point together before crossing some fields (which had been waterlogged in previous years) and rejoining the greenway which ran adjacent to the River Sew.
Within a couple of miles we’d left the river trail and joined the Staffordshire and Shropshire Canal and the start of approximately 12 miles of monotonous, boring canal – my nemesis!
It was at this stage that Chris had mentioned we’d been running sub 9 minute miles up until this point and given the distance remaining, he’d be adopting some walking breaks into his running to conserve energy.
I opted to carry on.
Mistake number 2!
I was still feeling relatively fresh at this stage and made the decision to maintain pace up until check-point 2 (Mile 20) – whereby I’d then take some time out, regroup and get some fuel on board.
I ran the next few miles alone – and the monotony of the canal was starting to take it’s toll. I don’t do canals at the best of time, but 16+ miles into an ultra and the repetitiveness and nature of the canal was starting to hit me. There’s no visual distractions, there’s no sudden change in direction or technical terrain to navigate. There’s nothing to maintain focus – it’s just more of the same – mile after mile – and those miles seem to go on for longer and longer…
I plodded on until finally reaching check-point 2 at Wolseley Bridge (Mile 20) – where I was was greeted by Jill and Clive – (friends who were manning the check-point) and Ruth and the boys again. I took a good ten minutes to regroup here and take some fuel on board.
Whilst chatting to Clive and Jill, they’d informed me that I was currently in 15th position – which was much to my surprise – but it also sent alarm bells ringing. I checked my watch and it confirmed that I’d been averaging less than 9 min/miles up to this point – a pace I knew should be manageable but it also concerned me that I’d been struggling for the last 2 miles and there was approximately 5 more miles of canal path ahead of me before turning off into the countryside. I knew that would be the lift I needed to inject some energy – JUST MAKE IT OFF THE CANAL!
I left the check-point feeling positive and made the conscious decision that I’d ease of the pace until I left the canal. I knew that I’d not be able to maintain even splits – I’d gone off way too fast to maintain that pace over 40 miles – but I wanted to run the majority of the race at whatever pace felt manageable.
Armed with my ‘Bad Boy Running Podcast’ and a Peperami, I made my way back on the canal path and headed towards Rugeley. Within a mile or so I’d started to struggle and the demons were setting in. I wasn’t physically exhausted, I was just struggling with the canal and the motivation to keep running was becoming increasingly harder to maintain. I fought off the urge to walk until about mile 23 – whereby I’d convinced myself that a ’40 second walk’ in a ’40 mile ultra’ was acceptable – and this is when it started…I’d walk for 40 seconds, run for while, walk for 40 seconds. ..the running stage becoming increasingly shorter every time. I was annoyed with myself. I’ve run marathons at 8:13min/mile pace – much further distance and faster than I had currently run today and I was struggling – WTF! Every slight thing was annoying me, the podcast, the canal, my shoe choice – anything to focus my attention away from the fact I couldn’t run!
But more importantly, I knew my race was over at mile 20!
I’d f’ked it!
It was never about finish time, placement or PB’s.
Like all my races this year, they’re a build up to RH100. I’d set myself a challenge to run the full distance – irrespective of pace – and I knew I’d failed miserably.
The run/walk strategy continued until I left the canal at mile 26.
Much to my relief, I now found myself navigating across freshly ploughed fields, farmland tracks and country lanes.
I felt alive again.
I’d replaced the podcast I was listening to with my RH100 Running Playlist – some classic (and non classic) 90’s Indie numbers mixed in with some random new material – all tunes which I’d hope would inspire me when I need lifting. It was working. I found myself running again and overtaking several runners who had passed me on the canal. It was also the only section on the route that had some elevation – no major climbs but certainly noticeable when the majority of the course is pan flat.
It was here that I made peace with myself.
I’d beaten myself up for the past 5 miles and had questioned why I was here. The fact was I was here because I had chosen to be – like all the races I do. Nobody forced me. I was in the middle of the country, outdoors, doing something I enjoy. Yes, it wasn’t going to plan – but who really cares? If I finish in 6 hours / 7 hours / 8 hours – who gives a sh*t? If I run, if I walk – what difference does it really make? I always tell my eldest son at football, whether he’s winning, losing, scoring or missing open goals – always play with a smile on your face. I took this sentiment on board and ate my words!
By mile 31 we reached check-point 3 – run by Dylan and Rachel – running friends of mine and it was great to see some friendly faces again. I didn’t hang around here other than to refill my soft flask and take some fluid on board – I’d run out after mile 26 and was keen to push on to the finish.
Leaving the CP, I knew there were a few miles of country lanes before we hit the canal again for the final 6 miles. I’d got talking to another chap – I forget his name – and the conversation had turned to 100 milers – and in particular RH100 which he had ran twice before – DNF’ing his first attempt but completing it in 2019. It was good to hear his take on the race and we ran together for a couple of miles before I saw the familiar faces of Ruth and the boys at the side of the trail at mile 33. It was perfect timing – I took some more fluids on board before waving goodbye and rejoined the canal, knowing that the next time I would see them would be at the finish line.
The remaining 6 miles were a bit of a drag again along the canal but I maintained focus and just got it done – taking the occasional walking break to ease off the boredom of the canal.
Turning off the canal for the final time and running across the finish line with my 3 boys certainly made up for an interesting day – it didn’t all go to plan but it reconfirmed my love for running – especially when I’m fortunate to have their support!
I finished in 7:28 – a massive 30 mile and 40 mile PB although I’ve got mixed emotions on the day. I’m delighted with the time – I just wish I’d achieved that with even splits rather than a fast 20 miles followed by a long, slow 20 mile finish.
But lessons have been learnt and we go again. We keep smiling!
Preliminary results suggest I was in 23rd position – I’ll take that.