I got to the Haigh Hall where the race was taking place about an hour before the start. It was nice looking place, with a stately home, golf course , funfair, and a country park – the bit we’d be running 1 mile loops around. The first minor problem, was that the toilets at the main building thing were locked. I trundled down to the start, which was bloody miles away, thinking I was going to have to find a bush, but it turned out they were shut for cleaning and about to re-open. The start had been moved because some inconsiderate people had decided to get married in Haigh Hall and didn’t want us running around in their race photos, so the organisers delayed the start for 15 minutes and we all got a nice 2 mile warm up trotting up to the toilets and back.
At the start I saw a few familiar faces, including Gillian Verdin from Liverpool Running Club, and had a nice chat with a guy from Lancashire Walkers who clocked my SWAC shirt and said he’d been a member of the club that merged with them in the 1970s.
We got as much of a race brief as you need to run 1 mile laps, and one of the guys from Team True Spirit said a few words about the work their charity was doing with injured ex-service personnel, which the event was raising money for. A couple of their team were doing the course in special hand bikes, and the effort they put in was incredible.
Then we were off, for the first lap of god knows how many. I’d sort of set myself a target of 40 miles as that’s how far I would have run at Compton, but wasn’t sure how realistic that was in the time limit.
For a 1 mile loop, it was a pretty cool route – a million times better than the one in Orrell before Christmas. First we ran gently downhill on tarmac for about half a mile, then up a bit of a hill through the woods for quarter of a mile, and then pretty much flat for quarter of a mile with a bit of grass and then tarmac as we looped back to the start. I was glad of the hill, as it’d be more useful South Downs Way training than if it was flat, and it was the right way round for me, with a sharper up and a longer, more gentle down.
The first couple of hours passed pretty quickly. Mentally I broke it down into two hour slots, and in the first two I clocked 23km without too much bother. The route crossed at the top of the hill, and the last third of each loop was out and back, so you were always seeing the other runners coming towards you. Saying hi or waving to Gillian, the guy from Lancashire Walkers, and increasingly anyone and everyone, was a little boost, something to acknowledge other than the prospect of another loop and the clock counting down.
I hit four hours having clocked another 23km. I was feeling ok, and was a bit surprised to hit the same distance as the first two hours. As the route was a mile but my Garmin was counting kms, the splits on my watch were all over the place depending on whether the km I’d just run had any hill in it, so I mostly ignored it. Just after four hours, one guy who had lapped me twice came back into view as I caught him up. We had a chat and he as struggling a bit and intended to drop, which he did at 32 miles, two laps ahead of me. I had no idea where that left me – I knew some others had passed me, but some were doing half or marathon distance, and quite a few people starting the ultra dropped to the marathon distance mid race, and with people stopping to get food and drinks etc., it was impossible to know where I stood without asking. Part of me didn’t want to know, and just wanted to enjoy bouncing along in the woods. I was actually having a great day, felt really strong, and was enjoying having no pressure at all to do anything other than keep moving.
I managed to keep in that frame of mind for two more laps, and then I caved in and asked one of the lap counters who was in the lead and how far behind I was. She told me the guy in the lead had just gone through about four minutes earlier and I was right behind him. I managed to stay cool and just hold my pace for most of that lap. There was 1:45 to go, so whatever happened there was no rush to do anything silly, and I figured if I just kept plodding along, because of the loops on the course I’d soon know if I was catching him up and what it might take to try and get ahead. At the end of that lap we crossed by the start/finish with him about 500m ahead. I held my pace, banged out another lap, and this time when we crossed he was about 200m ahead. That was pretty encouraging as I was holding my pace steady and still making ground, which meant he was slowing down.
I had a bit of a wobble at that point. I think the thought of having a chance of winning broke my flow or something, all of a sudden it started to matter a bit more than a plod round the woods and I started to feel tired. The thought of duking it out over the next hour and a bit, either being right behind him or having him right behind me wasn’t appealing, and to be honest, I didn’t think I had the mental strength to be running neck and neck or thereabouts for the final stages.
Coming up the hill knowing I was closing on him I passed Gillian and said I was struggling, but plodded on to the top. When I came out of the woods though, I saw him only about 50 metres ahead. I’d made up another 150m on him and there was still a third of a lap left so I decided to stop messing about and finally accept it’d stopped being a training run and had become a race.
I kicked past him, doing my best to look fresh and strong, rounded the turn, and made sure I was smiling and hiding any sign of how tired I was when we crossed. Then I upped the pace and banged out a 5:03km and two 4:43kms on the bounce to put me well in front. From then on each time we crossed I was a little bit further on. It had stopped being fun by this point, but I felt pretty much in control. If it’d been a straight course I probably would have gone insane looking over my shoulder, but because of the loops I knew I’d have good early warning if he started to gain on me. All I needed to do was keep moving, not slow down any more than the guy chasing me, and not blow up.
All of a sudden I looked at my watch and there was only about 18 minutes to go. I finished lap 41, ploughed straight through the checkpoint, and knew I only had two more laps to hold on for. There was an outside chance I’d get through with time to start a 44th lap, but I knew I wouldn’t have to as there was no way the guy behind me was going to hit 43 before the 6 hours were up.
Lap 42 and 43 were kind of a blur, until the end of 43 when I passed the finish and saw the guy behind me sitting in the finish area with everyone else. For the first time I let the pace drop a bit, and just coasted down into the finish area, a few seconds too late to go out for one more, which to be honest, I was quite glad of.
I got my certificate, and a bottle of fizz which was really cool, and Gillian won 1st female which was great too – I’d been so wrapped up in my own race I hadn’t even realised she was the leading woman for pretty much the whole race!
Looking back at my splits for the first, second and third blocks of two hours, there were amazingly even. I basically ran 23km every two hours give or take a few hundred yards here and there. I ran a 3:45 marathon to start with, and ran 16km further than the last 6 hour ultra I did, and ran 3 miles further than the unrealistic target I’d set myself, so a good day all round.