Man vs Ultra

To begin I should state that I can’t remember why, specifically, I entered the RRUM. It might be because it was the inaugural event, or because it was 31 miles (much less than the other ultras I’ve completed) or both, or another reason entirely, but I did find myself questioning my motives while out on the course last Saturday. I knew I wouldn’t be able to run the whole way due to insufficient training and injury. I was biting off more than I could chew, but maybe my original thinking was that even if I did get around slowly I would still get around, and that was the important thing. Fine. I’m happy with that.

Despite the lack of physical preparation, I had planned the rest of the weekend well, organising travel from London, accommodation and working out how to get from the Premier Inn to the event start on the Friday evening to collect the race info, as well as what time to get up on the Saturday morning etc. I had also spent a lot of time in the weeks prior to the event going over the course and having a good luck at all the sections that were viewable on Google Streetview to familiarise myself with landmarks and to help avoid taking a wrong turn. This was definitely a good idea, as I found that several times out on the course I recognised places and remembered where I needed to go. Added to this were the detailed instructions and maps given out by the organisers, the proliferation of very useful arrows at various points along the course, and being able to follow other runners. I had the route installed on my Garmin watch too, so there was never any real danger of going wrong. I almost took a wrong turn at one point, but that was it. The arrow stickers in particular made navigation uncomplicated. For most of the second half of the route I relied solely on these, and my faith was rewarded.

At about 7am I grabbed my gear and walked from the Premier Inn to the start of the race at the Wokingham Waterside Centre via the path along the River Kennet. When I reached the centre I had something to eat and drink with the other runners and made some last minute adjustments to kit. There was a definite sense of anticipation, with a few runners looking contemplative, wandering around near the start line, no doubt focussing on the task ahead. The thirty-odd 100km runners had set off two hours earlier at 6am, but their ghosts lingered – there was a feeling like we had been left behind, were late to the party, and maybe that too made people eager to get going.

At about five minutes to 8am we were called to assemble at the start line for a short race brief from one of the event organisers. If I forget to say it later on, I’ll say it here – the event felt very well organised and executed. I’m sure there was a hell of a lot for the team to think about and keep track of, but they did it without any obvious stress or panic, which can’t have been easy.

With no delay all 90+ of us we were counted down and sent on our way. I tucked into a small group and took it easy, thankful that most people didn’t seem bothered about getting off to a fast start. The first stretch, along the Thames from the waterside centre to Tilehurst, was nice and steady with no real obstacles and, naturally, flat. Rain had been forecast for later but this was hard to believe given how bright and warm it was. We reached the point where the Thames Path leaves the river and ascends to the Oxford Road via steps and a footbridge. Turning right at the top there was a short run along the road before diverting into trees then a housing estate. My right Achilles tendon which had been causing me problems for a while, and which had flared up during the small run to and from the waterside centre the previous evening wasn’t causing me any problems so far, but as we continued on and I saw the road continuing uphill, I wondered how long my luck would hold out. At a roundabout we left Nursery Gardens and headed onto Purley Rise, everyone calling out to those behind them if a car was coming. I’ve noticed before that in ultras, more than in other races, people are far more inclined to think about others instead of just themselves. It’s almost a team spirit, with everyone wanting everyone else to get through and finish the event. The fairly long stretch along Beech Road led to a turning that took us away from residential roads and into fields, a lovely section of the course that, despite the growing attention from the sun, was a joy to run. I wasn’t keeping track of the distance, so I was pleasantly surprised to come to a spot I recognised from recce-ing the course on Google – the playground just before Calcot Community Centre, aka Feed Point 1. The first nine miles were in the bag.

I headed in, filled my water bottle (I only emptied one on the first section), had some Swiss Roll and flapjack, then left, walking first then jogging toward the gap in the hedge and Bath Road. Checkpoints are always a welcome sight on an ultra, and I only ever focus on the next one – I never think about the finish until I’ve left the last checkpoint. Bite-sized chunks are what it’s all about, otherwise such a distance can be overwhelming. I also try not to spend too long at checkpoints, particularly the first few, as I like to save any dawdling for the end of the event when I’ll be more tired and need the break more. Indeed, on this occasion I spent more time at checkpoints as the event wore on, but never felt like I stayed too long. And I should point out that all the checkpoints were well-stocked and manned by very friendly and encouraging volunteers.

Onwards from Feed Point 1 I was able to navigate from my memory of the route on Google, though shortly after coming off the roundabout I nearly went wrong, but thanks to another runner was steered in the correct direction, returning the favour not long afterwards when we reached Beansheaf Community Centre where the arrow marker was harder to spot. This section was shorter, only 5 miles or so, and was another pleasant stretch that followed Holy Brook and the River Kennet. But by the end of it I was finding myself already starting to walk in small increments. I decided I would run as much as I could to at least Feed Point 2, then even if I had to walk the rest of the course I should still make it back by my desired finish time of 3pm.

Feed Point 2 was at the Green Park Business Park. I filled my bottles, downed some more food and cola, then headed off, feeling fatigued now but not really surprised since my training hadn’t been enough to see me through the whole event at running speed. I tried to keep the runners ahead of me in view, but was soon on my own for the first time as I followed the narrow, enclosed, tree-lined track alongside the vast Tesco distribution centre on one side and the roaring M4 on the other. Eventually the track opened out and brought me to the almost elaborate pedestrian/cycle overpass which eventually deposited me on the Basingstoke Road. There were runners ahead of me again now, so I followed some distance behind, turning onto Church Lane then Hyde End Lane. After a fair distance I saw a runner up ahead motioning to the turn off to the left, so I waved in thanks before he disappeared and not long afterwards arrived there myself, heading across fields again before reaching another residential area and re-joining Church Lane. Shortly after this, while running up Oatlands Road, I started to feel a pain in the quads on my right leg, which seconds later became full cramp, making me stop, then kneel down on the ground in an effort to straighten the muscle out. This must have been quite a sight, and I had to reassure several helpful fellow runners that I was fine before getting back up and walking on. About ten minutes later I tried running again and the muscle seemed to have sorted itself out. My hydration and nutrition should have been fine, so I put the cramp down to no stretching before the race, and generally not preparing my legs for what I needed them to do.

The next stretch was a long one, with myself and a couple of other runners taking our time running and walking in turn along wooded lanes and farm paths. It was still warm, and again I wondered if we would avoid the rain altogether. Along Gypsy Lane a couple had set up their own feed point (‘especially for David,’ according to the sign), and not long afterwards I came to Mole Road, knowing that Feed Point 3 was very close. I crossed over the roundabout and entered Bearwood Recreation Ground, finding the checkpoint at Winnersh Community Centre. Here there were generous and tasty chocolate covered flapjacks and salted peanuts (I think I was craving salt at this point). I hung around for a bit longer here, using the loo and chatting to the volunteers. Again I remarked on the forecast rain missing us, but regretted these words shortly after leaving the checkpoint when it did indeed finally start to rain. I put on my ultra-light Salomon top. It isn’t fully waterproof but it did the job, although I was prepared to use the waterproof top I had with me if I absolutely had to. Ahead was another stretch I recognized from Googling the route. When I reached the Walter Arms pub I turned left, knowing there was a long road section now along Sadler’s End and Sadler’s Lane.

Thankfully, even though the rain was intensifying I could see the skies clearing, and not long after running under the busy M4 and turning off down Woodward Close on to Watmore Lane the rain subsided. My legs weren’t getting any better, but I was alternating walking with running, surprised that I had actually done this well. Robin Hood Lane took me over the A329 and remembering this stretch from research I crossed over, found the lane parallel to the road and backtracked toward the A329, following the lane around to the right at the end, passing Mungell’s Pond and soon coming to the car park where a group of people (possibly friends or relatives of another runner) congratulated me and wished me well as I headed into Dinton Pastures.

Before the event I had been deliberating over whether to wear road or trail shoes. Some discussion on Facebook helped me come to the decision to wear road shoes as there was more road than was originally thought, however I (and no doubt other runners in the same position) questioned this decision on the Dinton Pastures stretch of the course. It was a beautiful section, winding around White Swan and Black Swan lakes, Heron’s Water and following the River Loddon, but after the rain shower the path was more than a little bit slippery. The positive side of this was that I discovered that running on it was a lot easier than walking, so it encouraged me to get moving again, and before too long I was out the other side, emerging onto Whistley Mill Lane, turning left to cross over the River Loddon, soon taking a path to the side to, thankfully, get off the road before entering a field near Copperbridge Brook and crossing that to soon reach the Land’s End Pub. Ignoring the delights of the pub (a good sit down would have been more tempting than a pint at that point) I turned left and followed Park Lane, knowing that Feed Point 4 wasn’t far away now.

Sure enough I reached the Piggott School and saw the checkpoint set up not far away from the road, so I headed down, had my number taken and helped myself to some more cola, Swiss Roll and flapjack. I filled my bottles again too, but wasn’t worried about nutrition now as there were only around four more miles to do. I chatted with the marshals for a few minutes, telling them how well the course had been marked out and how enjoyable it had been, then headed off just as another runner was arriving. Back on Park Lane I followed it down to and over the roundabout, turning left onto the Old Bath Road and following that to the next roundabout and along the A4 until the point where the course crosses it. Once on the other side I remembered that this was a fairly long stretch of hard, pavement walking, but that I was pretty much now in Sonning, and once on the river would only have a mile or so to do before reaching the finish. I tried to run again but only managed a few minutes as the legs weren’t having it. After turning off to the right into a residential estate I heard then saw, perched in a tree, a sizeable bird of prey. It sounded like there were a few more around, kestrels maybe, no doubt waiting for me or another runner to give up and collapse so they could have something meaty to peck on.

A few minutes later and I was passing quaint old cottages, and came to St Andrew’s Church which I remembered from walking the Thames Path in May this year. Unfortunately on entering the church yard I must have missed an arrow, as I followed it down the right side of the church and into someone’s front drive. Instead of backtracking I just walked to the road, then down to the river, knowing I would be on the river path if I had gone the right way anyway, and was soon leaving Sonning behind.

The sky had been darkening for the past twenty minutes or so and I had been moving faster in the hope that I could get to the finish before it started raining again, but no such luck. I, along with a few walkers and a father and daughter in a dinghy got caught out as it started to drizzle again, and as I reached the Thames Valley Park Nature Reserve I saw the finish in the distance and so started to run again. Only a few seconds later the cramp in my right leg returned and I was on the floor again trying to straighten the muscle, no doubt to the bemusement of the older couple walking behind me. Typical – neither the rain nor the cramp could wait five minutes for me to get to the end. Again – if the cramp sounds a bit odd it shouldn’t - I knew I wasn’t fully prepared for the ordeal I was unleashing on my poor legs, but I hadn’t planned on a great performance, so I can’t moan too much. Once my leg had quit complaining I walked on along the river and then as I entered the final straight risked a bit of a run and managed to keep the cramp at bay until over the line.

My exhausted body now had a nice medal hanging from it, and I had a drink and a chat with the marshals before heading up the steps to the nerve centre of the race to collect my bag. I chatted with a few other runners and ate a very welcome Danish pastry. It was still spotting with rain as I stood out on the balcony and watched a couple of other runners come in. I had finished at 2.45pm, a quarter of an hour before my ideal time of 3pm. I had walked a fair bit of the course, but I was still happy with what I had achieved. After having a couple of years off running ultras because of injury, this was a good indication that, maybe, I was back.

From my perspective the inaugural Round Reading Ultra was a great success. It was well-organised and a lot of fun. I may well be back again next year. Who knows – maybe I’ll run the whole way this time.

#reading ultra #ultramarathon #purplepatch

Aug 12th, 2017

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