If you do one 50 miler in your life, do a different one, this is grim. Timed to take place on one of the shortest days of the year with freezing cold temperatures and atrocious rain this is the running equivalent to Chinese water torture. The scenery around Rotherham is not the most scenic to say the least, a sewage plant and a ruined abbey represent 2 of the highlights. Not that it mattered much as we had to keep our head down to prevent slipping in the deep mud.
This race is however one of the most popular ultras in the UK, if not the most popular now that the Thames Meander is no more. Well over 200 people started this race. I had no choice but to do so this year as I had unfinished business.
Last year I started this race and it was to be my first 50 miler. I got food poisoning 3 days before and could not eat or hold anything down. A photo was taken before the race in which I looked like Millhouse from the Simpsons. I put in a brave effort but dropped out at checkpoint 2 (17 miles) as I was unable to run for more than a minute at a time. I vowed to come back and make amends and that I was I was doing.
We arrived (Ian, Oli, Jo) on the Friday night and just as we arrived in the sportshall where we were sleeping it started to piss it down. I did not get much sleep as I listened to the rain pounding the roof and knowing that it was softening the ground of the course and making the run a lot more difficult.
The morning was quite relaxed, I woke up just after the walkers set off at 6 and commenced my usual faffing routine. At five to 7 we all stepped outside and braved the cold. We were expecting zero degrees with a minus 3 wind-chill later on today. Right now it was a mild 4 degrees.
I don’t normally worry about the weather or terrain before a race as it adds to the surprise, however my motivations for doing this were different to normal, and so were the time pressures. I turned up only because I didn’t finish last year and had to finish in a swift time as I needed to get a train back to London and go to the Serpentine Christmas party. Ian, Oli and Jamie agreed that we should “jog” round in about 8.30 hours.
At 7am it is dark and you have to start off wearing a light. We ran over a few miles of roads, past a Morrisons and then onto some trail with a few hills. The 100 walkers who had already trodden the path had churned it up nicely for us. It was quite hard going getting up some of the slopes but we were still doing a comfortable pace, well inside target. I was going to make it to the party.
Checkpoint 1 – 1.30 ish – 10.8 miles.
We were held up at the checkpoint briefly while Oli had his blood taken as part of some experiment he was taking part in. I ate some of the biscuits and ran on. The route changed to some canal towpaths and then across a few roads into a sewage plant. Rob had mentioned this from last year but I did not remember it because I was feeling like a sewage plant at that time anyway. I remembered some of the parts I had time to dwell on last year, such as the blind corner that everyone nearly gets run over on and a DHL depot. Every step felt better than last year.
I was not really contributing to the map reading (again) and we ended up taking the same wrong turn as I did last year. It was not a major detour but made me get my instructions out just to be safe (or to give that illusion). This section contained a lot of runnable roads but it also contained the first of many ploughed fields that were really hard to run or even walk over. The rain continued and it seemed that whatever the effort there was no way of keeping warm.
The second checkpoint was near a town called Treeton and was just on the other side of a railway bridge. This was the point where I dropped out last year and had to walk into the town and find a newsagent to then get a taxi from. This time last year it also started raining which was to make it very difficult for those still in the race.
Checkpoint 2 – 17 miles – 2.50 (not that much quicker than last year)
Everyone started to comment about how dreary the course was. Well, not everyone, just those from the south. Whenever I told people that I’d come up from London to run this they seemed very surprised. Not that we weren’t welcome, quite the opposite. I think they assumed that Londoners only ever run flat road 5k races where there are emergency umbrellas on stand-by in case there is some unexpected drizzle that is likely to make ones hair go frizzy. I think there is a lot of justification to that preconception. The way the London based BBC blew the OMM race out of all proportion certainly adds weight to the argument that people who live in London are soft. People running? On a mountain? In the rain? Surely that’s like a death sentence?
It was hardly Davos. The rain made it hard to appreciate the beauty of abandoned canals and industrial estates. The difficulty of the race and the really slow pace we were running made everyone look for reasons to hate it. I was determined to finish, and if I didn’t it wouldn’t be because the course was not pretty enough.
The next checkpoint was halfway and just before there were the first of the really heavy ploughed fields that could barely be run across. We laughed a fortnight ago as Rob took us over some mud that we didn’t need to in the Gatcliff. I assumed at first when I saw this muddy mess that there must be another way around it, alas no. This was also the first time I noticed a relay runner overtake us, he seemed to slide across the mud at only a slightly quicker pace than us. We climbed up another muddy hill and then checked in at the first of the indoor checkpoints.
Checkpoint 3 – 4.10 – 25 miles.
I was pleased that we were halfway in slightly less than target time. We hoped that the mud we experienced the last few miles would not be repeated too much.
Indoor checkpoints are dangerous. They are like Sirens, calling you in with their beautiful aroma of tuna sandwiches and chicken soup. On a cold day like this the warm indoors feels so good that leaving is really hard. Sitting down could end your race. We limited our stay to 5 minutes as we wanted to keep the pace (?) up and didn’t want to get cold.
It was only 5 miles to the next checkpoint, easy we thought. What followed was some of the muddiest mud I have ever had to scramble across. Running (wading) across terrain like this is really difficult for a number of reasons. It is hard and takes a lot of energy but I think the hardest part is how you mentally deal with putting in so much effort and covering such little distance. This section blew any chance that I would make the 16.18 train as our pace fell well below what we needed. Times like this when you are travelling so slowly you have nothing else to think about other than how slow you are going. You start to perform the calculations in your head that tell you that you will finish in the dark and have hours and hours to go. This is hard to deal with.
After miles of mud we got to the checkpoint about an hour later. 5 miles an hour was not going to see me back at the Kensington Hilton for the meal that I paid £38 for. I thought if it improved I could at least make dessert. That would be the most expensive ice-cream I’d ever had.
Checkpoint 4 – 30 miles – 5.15
Ian and Oli were not enjoying the race. They had said so several times in the last stretch and suggested they were going to drop out at the next checkpoint. I think it was much more my kind of run than theirs. Though our paths cross at many events we are all different runners. This was doing nothing for someone who intends on running road races faster or Ironmans. It was however of great benefit to myself who intends on running 260 miles in one go next year.
I try to remind myself when I am doing a long run that I enjoy running 95% of the time and then 5% of the time I might ask myself what am I doing? I think about the 95% whenever I am suffering the 5. There are times when this 5 gets stretched out into a longer slog and you run the risk of not seeing what the point of it all is.
Forgetting the point is what pulls people out of races. When you can’t see the point in finishing it is easy to drop out. The longer this feeling goes on for the more likely it is to happen. I had a 5 hour spell in the GUCR which was the hardest period of running in my life. I pulled through and am still enjoying the rewards of finishing that race.
I would say that I didn’t really enjoy any of the race so far but this was part of the test. I know that during the Thames Ring I would have to endure prolonged periods where I’d be running at a snails pace and wondering what the point of it all is. This is good practice for those moments. For this reason I continued after checkpoint 4 when Oli and Ian went home.
The checkpoint was filled with cold runners trying to warm up. About 20 entered a small building and were eating soup and sandwiches (and aniseed balls?) and contemplating going on, or not. One of the marshals asked for a show of hands for those who wanted to drop out and return to the start. There were 12 hands.
I carried on and did so with Drew who I seem to bump into every weekend nowadays. I was glad to have him to run with as this wasn’t much fun on my own. After the longest stop yet we stepped outside into the cold and were blown away by the temperature. I had never been so cold in a race.
Drew and I continued over more muddy fields and my time expectations were revised again. Doing this is under 10 hours would be a good outcome, then I’d get a later train to London and only be there for the drinks. The thought of missing my meal did not compare to quitting this race. I wanted to get this done so I didn’t have to come here again.
The terrain improved slightly and there were actually some sights to take our mind of the ordeal. There was a nice forest and a hideous lake. We were getting passed by more relay runners, one of whom ran past with steamed up glasses and complained that he could see “cock all”. Must be a northern thing,
I was getting quite confident about the map reading and was able to direct us most of the way without getting lost or having to hang about too much.
Checkpoint 5 – 35 miles – 6.30
This was the last of the indoor checkpoints and hence the last of the big temptations to stop. We made it out fine and the route got a little easier. In fact there was the first bit of nice scenery after 40 miles. There were the ruins of an abbey. We ran through them and commented that this was the first “picture” moment we had in the race so far.
This quickly turned back into wasteland and mud. The next checkpoint was a tent on a road where there were chocolate fingers.
Checkpoint 6 – 41 miles – 7.40 ish
We asked at the checkpoint what the winning time was. We were told that it had not been won yet. Last year Matt Giles ran this in 6.30. We could not believe anyone could get over that mud in such a quick time and it was comforting to know that this was not the case this year. The winning time was about 7.30 this year, an hour behind last.
The 6 miles to the next checkpoint seemed to take a long time. There was more of the muddy fields but more relay runners to follow. It was helpful to have people in bright yellow to follow. My energy was being used in trying to keep warm and move forward, there was not much left for thinking about instructions.
The last checkpoint is only 3 miles from the end. It may seem strange but was a real lift knowing that you didn’t have too far to go when leaving the last checkpoint. I was starting to see the end of the day, I saw the end of daylight at least. This is the first time I’d ever run through sunrise then sunset, I’ve only done it the other way round.
Checkpoint 7 – 47 miles – 9.20 ish
A few others doing the full 50 had caught us by now and we were kind of running together. I had to put on the headtorch to finish and was informed at the checkpoint that the rest was on road. This was not the case, there was canal towpath which would have been hard in the dark.
The navigation was a bit tricky winding through streets and steps. There was a point where the map mentioned an “illuminated cycle path”. There was a path with some lamp posts on but they were not lit. I assumed that the instructions were aspiration in this sense and carried on. I saw the sports hall and went for it.
Finish – 50 miles – 9.54
It was nearly 5pm. There was no chance I was getting the 5.18 train so decided to get the 6.18 instead which meant I could enjoy a nice shower and food. I’d been thinking about the shower for hours and was glad that I didn’t have to rush it. I changed into my dinner jacket and aroused confusion among the others who were putting on tracksuits.
Today was a test unlike any I have had before. I know I can run 50 miles comfortably. This was not a test of running or endurance but of pushing myself through misery. The route around Rotherham is as uninspiring as you are ever likely to get, which means you have to be prepared to find other ways of getting through it.
On the train home I felt terrible. I tried to sleep but would be woken by bouts of shivering or sweating. Breathing in icy cold air for 10 hours and made an impact on my lungs. I was coughing a lot.
The trains ran fine and I got to the party at about 9.15. When I arrived I was barely able to speak when I ordered a pint of Guinness from the bar. I went to sit with Mark and Rob and let them know that I never need to return to Rotherham again.
This was before I even started drinking
At this point I also decided that I would not run Hastings tomorrow. My lungs were so full of fluid I thought it would be bad for my health, so I was determined to forget all about it and get pissed instead.
While enjoying my second pint of Guinness and feeling a bit better John Cullinane was announcing the winners of various prizes. While doing so he decided (prompted my Mark) to announce to everyone that I’d just run 50 miles and that I was going to run the Hastings Marathon tomorrow. I had no choice now, I had to.
I decided to try and put it out of my mind and get really pissed instead. And pissed I did get....