Despite suffering from a chronic knee injury and having to have physio and cortisone injections prior to the start, Elizabeth D'Andrea still managed to run a fantastic race in London and finish her first marathon. Here's how she got on.
I did it. I'm a marathon runner.
On the Saturday before the race, I got the DLR over to Greenwich to time how long it would take me to get to the start line. It was a glorious day so my husband and I picked up some lunch on the way and sat on a bench on the path that I knew less than 24 hours later I would be walking up to the start line of my first ever marathon. As I had a walk around the start area, I saw a fence with a sign on it saying “female urinals” and curiosity got the better of me so I went to take a look. I walked out mouth agape! Does anyone actually use those?!
The rest of Saturday went by in a blur; a quick walk around the Cutty Sark, then a large plate of pasta, set my running kit out, pinned on my number, attached my timing chip to my shoe and got an early night.
My alarm was set for 6:15 and I awoke at 6:05. I forced down some Weetabix and a banana but I felt totally sick, it was the hardest meal I have ever eaten. My groin was hurting so I did some last minute foam rolling and tried to keep calm. At this point, all I kept thinking was that over the last 2 weeks, all I had managed was a 2 mile walk/jog and a very slow painful 3 mile jog - and I’m about to go to the start line of a marathon! Part of me was getting very excited – I knew I had put all the hard work in training-wise over the last 9 months, so as long as it wasn’t so painful that I couldn’t actually run at all I’d be fine. Another part of me was petrified I was making a huge mistake.
I got my kit on and my husband took the obligatory photos. We got outside – wow what a glorious day! More photos. Right – let’s do this. There were not many other runners on the train to the start, I was feeling quite proud in my kit with my red bag. Each stop on the DLR more and more lycra-clad, red bag-carrying runners got on. There was lots of nervous chatter but I just sat in quiet contemplation sipping my water.
We walked to the start line, and just before saying goodbye – disaster – I turned my ankle on the kerb! What an idiot! There were gasps from all the people around me and I burst out crying, but luckily no damage done! Phew. Must pay more attention from here on in!
I said good bye to my husband; he had been by my side for the whole of my preparation for this, but from here on in I must go it alone.
I dropped my bag off and headed straight for the toilet queue. I got into my starting pen quite near the 4:30 pacers, my initial target time, but I knew I was no longer going to be able to keep to this pace.
The gun went off and we slowly started edging forward. My thigh was really hurting and I was trying to stretch it out as much as possible. Edging forward, it took 20 minutes until the start line was in sight. Oh god, here we go. I started my running watch and that was it – I was running a marathon.
I took it very slowly, aiming to go no faster than 11 minute miles. I was moving forward, I wasn't in pain! The support from the very start was incredible. After a mere 5 minutes it suddenly dawned on me that I would now have to keep going for a full 26.2 miles.
The first few miles went by in a blur; I was being overtaken by people of all shapes and sizes and plenty of fancy dress costumes, but I didn’t care. This was just me against the clock and I knew my game plan was to go slow and steady.
I finished my first 5km in 34:04, not the fastest, but in line with my new target time. It started getting hot. Very hot! Just keep moving forward, soak up the atmosphere. 10km – 33:21 – I’d sped up! I knew I had some friends waiting by the Cutty Sark so that gave me a boost – although the crowds were so immense that I didn’t see them, I’d hoped they’d seen me; they later told me they didn’t see me either.
Keep going. I felt a tap on my back. A guy in a fairy costume asked if I wouldn’t mind keeping to a straight line – sorry mate, I thought I was! Then I heard lots of jingling bells – what on earth is that? Oh – a Morris Dancer! He ran off ahead of me.
I knew my husband and my mum, dad, aunt and uncle were somewhere around mile 9. I saw the Hollywood Bowl come into sight – I’d run round this section on every long training run so I knew it well. There were my family – right next to Pizza Hut! “I’M TOO HOT! IT’S SO HOT!” I yelled. They looked so proud. I was surprised at this point at how many people were already walking, but I still felt strong. I knew exactly how much further there was to Tower Bridge. I was over taken by a camel and shepherd. As it happened, we would overtake each other about 5 times in total – the last time I saw them, they were walking through the Blackfriars underpass – I’m still not sure who made it to the finish line first!
15km: 33:49 – still keeping pace! I was a few minutes ahead of the 4:50 pacers. Hoorah! Oh – there’s that Morris Dancer again! “I’ve caught up with you!” I shouted “It’s only taken me 4 miles”. He laughed.
Running up Jamaica Road, wow the crowds really were immense. Lots of “go Lizzy” being shouted. “ I am going!” I shouted back. I turned the corner and Tower Bridge came into sight. I gave a wave up to the balcony of International House where my husband's colleagues were. I turned off the bridge and saw the elites going in the opposite direction towards the finish– wow they really looked like they were suffering! A few people limping, but they must have been on target for a sub 3 hour finish!
My patch I thought, a stone’s throw from my flat! Yet I was really starting to struggle. It was just so hot. My arms were getting pink from sunburn. I knew the friends that I missed at the Cutty Sark would also be here, but alas I didn’t see them again! 20km: 33:51 – well I’m still going! Half way: 2:22:38.
Running from Limehouse to Westferry I suddenly got some energy back – lots of people walking – but I was still going. COME ON! I did a few fist pumps. Turning right at Westferry, through the underpass. Suddenly feeling really hot and really fatigued. I need some lucozade – where is the next station? I poured lots of water over my head and face....aaaaah precious water. Mistake – what am I going to drink now?!
Mile 16 was a real battle. I really didn’t want to walk and I didn’t. I knew my family would be at mile 17 and I was not going to let them see me walk! THERE THEY WERE! And by pure coincidence, the group of friends that I had missed at the Cutty Sark and mile 13! “IM SO HOT!” I yelled again, “Where’s the next water station?” My husband ran up along the side of the road with me behind the spectators for a good half a mile until the next water point, cheering me on, if it wasn’t for that I do think I would have stopped. At this point it suddenly dawned on me that maybe I was out of my depth.
More water. Yes, a little downhill bit. Let’s go!
At mile 18 I was jogging so slowly that walkers were overtaking me. It dawned on me that I could probably go quicker if I power-walked. It was a real mental battle to allow myself to start walking, I felt like I was failing. I worried if I started walking I would not start running again. But without even realising I stopped jogging and started walking. I started crying. I felt like I’d let myself and my husband down. A guy in a bright orange t-shirt with Clive written on it who was also walking put his arm on my shoulder and said “come on”. I then realised that actually this was helping and that my legs were still moving and I felt much better. At this point I knew I could get to the end, even if I walked the rest of the way. 25km: 36:38, 30km: 38:48
5 miles to go. I was marching as fast as I could and I saw the 4:58 pace makers go past – I jogged to catch up – “how long did it take you cross the start line?” I asked – 16.5 minutes. Right – must keep up with them. I jogged ahead and then walked, they caught up. This happened 5 times until finally I couldn’t keep the pace. “Come on, you can do it” they said with a friendly pat on the shoulder. But at this point I couldn’t.
The last 4 miles went in a blur of walking and jogging. That darn camel again! Come on you can do this!
200 meters to go. My running watch said I had already run 26.2 miles, 4:55 – I’m going to make sub 5 hours after all! I sped up as much as I could. I crossed the line. I saw the two 4:58 pace makers and rather over-animatedly showed them my watch– 4:57:19 – I DID IT, I BEAT YOU! They both smiled and shook my hand. I’ll be back, I told them, to achieve the time I had initially set out to do.
A woman named Lisa gave me my medal. I told her I loved her. I’m a marathon runner.
Oh, and as it’s my first marathon – that’s a PB!
Race To The Stones is a trail ultra marathon that takes place on the stunning, historic trails between Oxford and Swindon every July.
I can’t explain the meaning of this race to me; I find I am drawn to the lure of the combination of stunning scenery and brutal distance and terrain and the challenge of going as fast as I can for as long as I can.
I did this race for the first time in 2016, shortly after the realisation that doctors could do nothing more to help my mum with her cancer which had spread from her bowel to her liver. This cancer had been diagnosed after emergency surgery in 2012 around the time of the Queen’s Jubilee. So we had endured 4 long years of chemotherapy and surgery and never any remission, but my mum battled on and was so strong.
I used running to deal with my pain and could easily do back to back long runs, so I signed up for this ultra marathon even though I had not run more than marathon distance.
In 2016, at just past the 90km (55-mile) mark, I was feeling great and was first lady. Sadly, by 60 miles, I realised I was hopelessly lost and had a DNF by the side of a busy main road.
2017 saw me complete the 50km route which I did with confidence and crossed the line second overall and first female having run a few other ultras in between Race to the Stones 2016 and 2017. I was determined my failure in 2016 was not my final chapter.
Roll on 2018 and the challenge was finding a way to train whilst also being a single mum with no support, so babysitters and taking the kids with me to training was the only option. I was not intending to do the race as I thought I couldn’t get anyone to look after the children, but my friend said she would look after them for me... Amazing!
For the 2018 race, it was a hot day and the heat was relentless. Thankfully, I love the heat! I was running well and I thought I was hydrating well as I had my hydration vest and I was sipping on water and taking electrolyte tablets regularly. However, after leading the whole race and being 2nd/3rd overall for most of the run, at 80km I started to feel unbalanced. Something wasn’t right.
Running suddenly felt much more of an effort, my chest started to hurt, and I felt a bit light headed, so being sensible I slowed my pace. I then got a stitch and had to slow for that and so getting from 80km to 90km was a real struggle and seemed to be mostly uphill.
After 90km, I tried to push on (this time the signs were a lot better and I went the right way!) I was determined to finish but my mental strength was starting to fade and I had a few grumbles to myself, but I thought, "Come on you’re nearly there." Time was slipping off what I had hoped to run and I felt very uncomfortable; each step felt like an eternity to the finish.
But, I did it! After finishing some electrolytes that were given to me by the medics, I felt a lot better and drove back home to collect my children and put them to bed.
I felt a sense of achievement that I had finally done the whole 100km. The only thing is, I went out to win it and did not achieve that so I’ll have to try again!
About the author: Sophie Carter is a personal trainer, ultra runner, and Sundried ambassador.
On Sunday 8th April 2018, I joined 55,000 other runners to race in one of the most beautiful cities in the world: Paris. The stars aligned and perfect conditions led me to enjoy a flawless race and run my first ever marathon with a smile on my face the entire time. Here's how I got on.
This was my first ever marathon and in fact I had actually been told a few years previously by a physio that I would never be able to run a marathon due to my hypermobility and generally terrible physiology for running! However, running is something I absolutely adore and I wanted to run a marathon simply to prove to myself that I could do it.
I signed up for the race in October 2017 but my training only really got under way properly in December due to going on holiday in November. I had good runs and bad runs but the overall feeling was that I couldn't believe how a 10-mile run that was once my absolute limit and would leave me hobbling and unable to continue soon became a quick, easy jog on a medium-length run day.
I signed up for tactical races in the lead up to the big day, the Thorpe Park Half Marathon in February and the Lydd 20 Mile in March. The Thorpe Park Half went really well for me and filled me with a lot of confidence. The Lydd 20 Mile, however, went terribly and I actually had to DNF due to gastric issues. However, this was a really important learning curve for me and allowed me to make plans to avoid that happening during the actual marathon. I'd rather it happen during a standard home road race than during my big day.
I really enjoyed the training and even my big 20-mile training run a few weeks before the race felt really good and filled me with more confidence. I really don't think you could run a marathon if you didn't genuinely enjoy running. The training is all part of the experience and you have to put in a lot of miles. I ran 100 miles in the month of March which is the most I've ever done. I ran routes I've never run before and learnt so much about hydrating and fuelling during long endurance events.
Arriving in Paris
We were very lucky in that we got to fly from Southend Airport and the flight was only 45 minutes long so we arrived in Paris feeling fresh and ready to start exploring. I had read that it's a common mistake to do a walking tour of the city the day before the race and then end up with sore feet, so we took the metro to the Eiffel Tower and had a picnic in the park. I had done lots of research on training, tapering, and fuelling before a marathon so I was very careful with what I ate and what activities I did. I also read a lot of past race reports so that there would be no surprises.
We went to the expo on the Friday to avoid the crowds and to pick up my race number. Once I had picked that up it started to feel very real! I was very nervous the night before the race but also excited. I had a good night's sleep and felt well set up for race day.
We took the metro to the Arc De Triomphe and emerged in the bright sunshine. The weather was absolutely glorious: a warm sun, cool breeze, and clear sky; so different from the freezing bitter temperatures and biting winds of the UK. The Champs-Élysées was teaming with people but didn't feel too crowded. I noticed a long queue for the one singular portaloo in my starting pen so tried to find somewhere else to go, but with no luck. So I entered my assigned starting pen and joined the queue for the toilet, something I have had to get used to doing all these races! It's the one down side.
Waiting for the toilet wasn't actually too stressful because I would have either been standing there in the queue or just waiting elsewhere in the starting pen. I got the front of the queue just in time as everyone started moving forward towards the start line. Music was playing, the sun was shining, and I felt absolutely amazing. What an awesome buzz. I was already having the time of my life.
Before I knew it we were off and I had started, I was running a marathon! We weaved around stunning buildings and before long were running past Le Louvre museum. The support was amazing with people shouting 'Allez Allez!' and waving banners. All runners had our name and country initials on our bibs so people could shout our name and recognise which country we were from. Any British spectators who saw me cheered me on and that felt amazing. But not only that, all the spectators cheered me on and called my name, the feeling was unlike anything else. I felt like a celebrity!
I had read about the aid stations being very precarious, with water flooding the cobbles and fruit peels creating a cartoon-like situation for people to slip and fall. The first aid station was at mile 3 and I couldn't believe that literally everyone was already reaching for water and fuel. I had my hydration bag, a bottle of Lucozade, and jelly babies so I took the corner very wide and avoided the aid station all together. It meant I didn't get caught up with anyone and could continue running without any interruptions.
The route was fabulous, passing all the famous sights and running through two different forests. There was some great gentle downhill sections which meant I could increase my pace without any extra effort and really no notable uphill sections.
I had read in people's race reports about having to run through 'endless' tunnels in which the air was thick, making it hard to breathe. In reality, running through the tunnel was immense fun because it was a brief respite from the blazing sun and they had dressed it up like a nightclub with lights and music. It had a fantastic atmosphere and it wasn't hard to breathe at all.
The miles passed quickly because I was so busy enjoying the sights and the support. At Mile 20 there was 'UK Corner' where the British supporters were advised to stand. There were people waving Union jack flags and dancing and that was where my boyfriend was waiting for me too. People on street corners sat in cafes sipping coffee and cheering us on. Before I knew it I was in the final forest for the last 5km of the course. There were members of the public out for their daily jog as well as dog walkers and cyclists.
I crossed the finish line with a huge smile on my face and I just kept repeating 'I did it! I ran a marathon!' I was so proud of myself and so happy that it had been such a positive experience. I would do it again in a heartbeat and already have the post-marathon blues. The only thing is I would worry that now doing another marathon wouldn't live up to this great experience! As such, it'd have to be another big marathon like London. Fingers crossed for the ballot!
I collected my medal and finisher's T-shirt and started walking back to the metro station with my boyfriend who had provided me with amazing support throughout the whole marathon journey. My feet felt absolutely fine with no blisters thanks to my favourite running socks and no signs of the dreaded black toenail people seem to get after marathons! My legs were a bit tight but other than that I felt great.
As we descended into the underground station it became clear I was one of the lucky ones as other people were being carried down the stairs! Those years of powerlifting training I did have paid off by leaving me with strong legs!
It was great fun seeing all the other people on the flight back home wearing their finisher's t-shirts and we all gave each other the little nod of acknowledgement.
Running the Paris Marathon was one of the best experiences of my life and I can honestly say I loved every minute. Yes, it was tough physically at times, but mentally I felt strong and happy the entire time. The route was great, as was the support and race organisation. I can't recommend this race enough!
My top tips for surviving Paris Marathon:
- It will probably be hot. It's early April but past temperatures on race day range from 18 degrees right up to 26 Celsius. Due to the fairly early Spring date, chances are you've been training in cold conditions so just be aware you'll need way more water and fuel than you did for your training runs.
- Don't walk too much the day before the race. I already knew it was a bad idea to do a walking tour of the city the day before the race but even the small amount of walking we did do left my feet a bit sore. Take it really easy on the Saturday to give your feet the best chance of survival on Sunday.
- Take your own hydration and fuel. France doesn't have the concept of Gatorade or Lucozade like the USA and UK so if that's what you've been training with, take your own. There are no gels or energy drinks at any of the aid stations, only fresh fruit and sugar cubes.
- Be careful at the aid stations. They hand out segments of fresh orange, banana halves, sugar cubes, and raisins. The food is first then the water (don't make the mistake of finding you're in a queue for fruit when you only wanted water). Beware the floor will be super slippy especially with the fruit peel on the floor. Take your time, there will be plenty of food and water left for you.
- You'll have to queue for the toilets before the race start. There is a McDonald's on the Champs Elysee but trust me, everyone had the same idea as you and the queue there is just as long. Join the queue for the portaloo early and you'll be fine.
- Enjoy yourself! Don't forget to look around and take in all the sights. It really is a beautiful race.
The Spartathlon Ultra Marathon race is an historic ultra-distance race that takes place in September of every year in Greece. It is one of the most gruelling and challenging ultra-distance races in the world because of its terrain, length, and route. The total distance covered is a whopping 250km (roughly 155 miles) and is completed over a period of 36 hours with racers running through the night.
Spartathlon is rooted in history and was first developed by John Foden, a British RAF Wing Commander. As a lover of Greece and student of ancient Greek history, Foden was reading ancient Greek historian Herodotus' account of Pheidippides, the man who inspired the original Marathon race. It is fabled that before his famed run to Marathon, Pheidippides ran from Athens to Sparta, a distance of 250km, overnight. This inspired Foden to wonder whether it would be possible for a modern man to achieve this incredible feat, and so the Sparthalon was born.
The Spartathlon revives the footsteps of Pheidippides, an ancient Athenian long distance runner, who in 490 BC, before the battle of Marathon, was sent to Sparta to seek help in the war between the Greeks and the Persians. According to the ancient Greek historian Herodotus, Pheidippides arrived in Sparta the day after his departure from Athens.
From 1984 the International Association "Spartathlon" was founded, which since then has continuously organised the race each September. The choice of this month is because that is the time reported by Herodotus for Pheidippides’ run to Sparta.
The Spartathlon course sees racers pass through some of the most beautiful and historically significant parts of Greece, including The Parthenon, The Temple of Athena Nike, and The Acropolis. The elevation climbs a total of 1,200 meters (3,937ft) from sea level, which will certainly test the legs. The weather conditions can be a factor in the difficulty of the race, and each checkpoint has a time cut-off. Racers who arrive to the race control point after the cut-off time will not be able to continue the race.
As an international race, athletes from all over the world descend upon Greece to tackle this amazing challenge. The fastest winner of the race to date, Kouros Yiannis, did so in its very first year, 1984, in a time of 20:25:00. Only 18 racers took part that year, a number which has grown over the years to 370 in 2016.
Why was I contemplating running 100km nonstop?
Before I booked Race to the Stones I had only run marathon distance (42.2km) so why did I book it and what made me think I could do it?
Honestly, my main 2018 goal was a Middle Distance Triathlon (70.3) in June so I didn’t feel like I particularly needed a new one (in July) but my boyfriend wanted to sign up and the simple answer is... I find it really hard to say no! This trait has led me to getting involved in lots of challenging and amazing experiences, and this was one of them.
When I actually planned out my year, I figured if I could squeeze in an of-road marathon before my triathlon and a couple of long runs following it, I’d probably be alright. The down side is it would give me no rest after my triathlon and I’d miss out on a lot of run training because of the time I needed to spend on the bike and in the water.
From what I’d heard, the biggest part of an ultra marathon is the mental game and this actually gave me confidence rather than put me off. The more time you spend out of your comfort zone, the better you are in it and it’s is something I like to test.
When you spend time outdoors you are dealing with things out of your comfort zone: the weather, the terrain, nonexistent health and safety, food and water shortages, creative sleeping arrangements. I’m lucky that my life has been filled with weekends camping, sleeping in the back of a car, traditional climbing, big wall climbing, parents getting us lost on long walks/rides as kids, but I had also battled darker challenges such as mental health (anorexia) and loss of a parent. Most challenges will make you stronger, make the next challenge easier and offer life fulfilment. Hold on to your achievements and learn from life’s tests.
What is Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones (RTTS)?
The Route is 100km and can be split across two days. I thought if I’m going to do it, I may as well get it done in a day. The route is from Lewknor along The Ridgeway, the oldest path in the UK, to Avebury where lies the largest Neolithic stone circle in Europe.
My boyfriend and I chose RTTS as some of the ultra running community who we had become friendly with advised it was a good first ultra: the event was well organised, well supported and the route was interesting and scenic. What else was there to worry about! (And where did worrying ever get anyone!) Turns out my boyfriend got injured but my mind was made up, I’d do it anyway.
Triathlon training towards an ultramarathon
My training mainly consisted of cycling, swimming, and some running - consistent with a triathlon training plan! Once my triathlon was done on 10th June, I cut the cycling and swimming and had 2 weeks of running before I had to start thinking about the taper. I was cautious about staying injury-free, so on the long runs I focused on keeping going rather than pace, running technique (bad form can do a lot more damage across many miles), staying positive, working the mental strength and not worrying about how long I was out for. I figured time spent on my feet was a good thing. Day to day I tried to stand rather than sit which may seem a small alternative, but every little helps.
If I could apply ‘endurance’ Sophie to ‘life’ Sophie, how I treat myself and cope with adversity, ‘life’ Sophie would be more confident and self-assured and life would be pretty stress-free. Note to self to keep working on that!
Race week - it’s a holiday!
A well-timed family holiday in Southbourne meant that race week consisted of an exhilarating day out at Pepper Pig World, a dip in the sea, coastal walks and a massive night out for the World Cup semi final. I think the lack of focus on the ultra and general family entertainment meant that I was well on the way to being so relaxed I’d forget how to tie my shoelaces. But what was there to actually worry about? I’d done all the training I could so I now just needed to get it done.
I’d slept the best I ever had pre-race in a lovely B&B near the race start of Lewknor and woke up without the usual butterflies and stomach rumblings. This was going to be a good day. Though it was set to be a hot day (up to 30 degrees) with no rain. The positive was that the wind was pretty calm and steady.
I wore shorts, t-shirt, a running vest with two 500ml soft water bottles (plus on empty spare), trail shoes, running socks and bra, sunglasses and my Suunto Ambit 3 Sport watch. I also carried a blister care kit, spare hair bobble, a buff (read on to hear why), a couple of energy gels (which I didn’t use due to excellent feed stations), electrolyte tablets, phone (which died), and a head torch (which I didn’t end up needing).
Lessons from the start
I’d chosen 12-14 hours for completion when I’d booked it many months before with no idea of what I was capable of. At the start line I hung at the back of the pack as thoughts were on being surrounded by a pack of ultra-runners who were faster and lighter than me with mindsets akin to Forrest Gump. If I had my chance again I would have had more confidence in those few moments as what I didn’t know was that the first 20km is through small trail paths and forests and uphill. I spent the first 20km waiting for spaces to overtake. I just had to stay happy and think ‘it's probably doing you good to take it a little easier’.
I had discovered in my training research the rule of walking the steep hills. The key is to walk fast. You do so much work running the lesser inclines, flats and down hills, it feels like you're undoing the hard work by taking the uphills too easy. This would also be my advice to those training for their first ultra.
George of the jungle, watch out for that...
The second thing I’d do differently is not fall over a tree root. One second I’m running, the next I'm flat on the floor. The next second I was back on my feet shouting back to some kind men ‘I’m OK’ and ‘nothing to worry about here!’ I don’t mind feeling a bit of a clumsy joker, however I did mind the niggling pain that started in my knee.
By 25km I was hobbling and the downhills were pretty unbearable. My boyfriend-turned-cheerleader was carrying an old knee support that I hadn’t needed for years so I called him, but unfortunately he couldn’t get to me for another 15km. So that became my next focus: getting through the pain to the 40km mark. So that was it. All I had to do for now.
Once I got the knee support (and took some painkillers, which I never do normally) it was a bit of a mental boost, but I really had to focus on my running form and my downhill running was completely affected. I managed to work out a sort of limp run for the downhills which put a lot of pressure through my good leg but more forgiving on the other knee and more forgiving in terms of losing pace.
The next hurdle then was getting to 50km where I was so happy to see two friends and their new baby with my boyfriend! The fact that they had come out in this heat to see me for a few moments whilst I did this meant a lot. It was great just to chat normally with them and have a bit of a laugh in the food tent. They also provided me with a mango ice-cream which was the best, most satisfying, thirst-quenching, cooling thing I experienced all day. If you have on-the-day support, I highly recommend you request one!
My friends told me how surprisingly good I looked (we camp together often so they had clearly seen me in much worse states!) and I told them the ultra was in the bag. How could I be sure I would finish when I still had 50km to go and a painful knee? My knee was painful but not broken. I already hurt so what was a bit more pain? All I had to do was keep putting one foot in front of the other. And as bizarre as it sounds, the first half really didn’t seem that long.
I didn’t realise that I already knew what mental strength was before I started looking into it the last year or so. The things that kept coming up I was already doing and I thought everyone else was too. I say ‘come on Sophie’ to myself regularly. I think about the positives of how the event is going not the negatives. I deal with the pain in the present and not worry about the rest of it to come. I think the biggest one is thriving in the situation and enjoying it – after all you’re the one that put yourself there!
To the end!
And so, with an iced body, ice cubes down my top and in my running vest, I set off on the final 50km. I ended up having a better second half than the first. There was more space with the crowds thinning and more open paths, and as I started to group with runners of a similar pace there was more opportunity to start conversations and run side by side with other interesting ultra-runners. One lady chatted about how the ultra was a ‘treat’ as she had a young family and had been given a ‘pass’ to sign up and spend the many hours training for it. With another gentleman we spoke about Ironman triathlons, getting older and going further and our technique of ‘getting to the next tree/sign/rock and then I’ll run/walk again’ as a way of pushing a little harder and keeping the mind in check.
The terrain was more testing, rocky and broken paths, painful on the knee downhills, a few long climbing slogs. But each step was a step in the right direction. I started to notice a few people running with sagging heads and caught a few disheartened conversations so I’d make a point of arms up physically cheering when I got to a point that I thought was worth celebrating - ‘20km to go!’ ‘another hill in the bag!’ ‘it’s not dark yet!’
I do wish I'd spent a little more time looking up, but with the early fall, my knee and the uneven terrain I did have to watch my feet. I also decided to take no photos on the run. Besides knowing there would be official event photos and not wanting to lose time, I knew it’s the feelings and lessons learnt that would stay with me long after the images mean anything.
The final few km
By 80km I knew I'd make it home in the light and beat the 14 hour mark. I usually love the downhills and make good time on them so it was a little frustrating I had to hold back as I felt I had more to give. But the feeling of getting to the Stones and the last km to the finish was simply great. ‘I’ve done it’ on repeat. My boyfriend’s face at the finish as he was allowed to present me with my medal was the thing that made me realise what I’d just achieved more than anything else. He collected my finisher's ticket and I was surprised to see I was the 102nd person to finish. It later transpired I was 19th female overall. Whenever I see results I'm always shocked and end up thinking ‘oh if I’d just done this or that I could have done better’ but at the end of the day, I didn’t, so be proud and get conjuring up the next challenge!
The pain I hadn’t heard about
Why did nobody tell me that the pain when you stop running is more than when you are running? I could deal with the pain when moving, but pain when sitting was quite unbearable! ‘My legs hurt’ was about the extent of my conversation on the drive home! This may sound crazy, but I recommend cycling to work (or similar) 2 days after the event, it really helped my legs get back to normal.
Fueling, hydration and blister strategies
I filled a litre of water at each of the 9 feed stations, which equates to a lot of sweat, so 1 electrolyte every other litre. I also soaked my buff in cold water and squeezed it over my head a few times before heading off with it soaked around my neck. That worked a treat - for 3 minutes. I ate some pasta and an ice cream at 50km, but apart from that I took 1 item (such as an energy bar) and 2 slices of fruit (deliciously amazing!) from each feed station to keep me going and found that was enough.
I lost my toenail to a toe-sized blister after a marathon in May so I was prepared to lose a few more. I took the time to tape up some hot spots and blisters at 50km, but after that they felt ok. I came off with at least one blister on every toe, but I honestly didn’t notice them on the day. A few other painful distractions to think about!
As I was running, I thought this is probably a tick box job and back to triathlons and shorter running events. Whilst I do love the variety from a triathlon, the sense of achievement and joy was pretty big after the ultra. Maybe a shorter but steeper ultra. Maybe doing this ultra will help me if and when I sign up to a full distance triathlon…TBC
- Anyone can do this race. If you want to do it enough, you can. The Dixons Carphone Race to the Stones really is a good first ultra-marathon.
- The more you look at the race as an exploration, adventure or fun day out the easy it is and the better you'll be. Embrace the discomfort and accept it’s going to be tough. Your mind has the most power to make or break your day.
- Keep it fun and injury-free!
- Staying injury-free is so important. If you decide to do an ultra, it’s because you really want to do it. Incorporate some strength and mobility work into your training. You can find videos to do this at home, attend a class, get a plan from a gym (many offer this for free), seek advice from friends/fitness groups with more knowledge, or find a personal trainer.
- Keep doing the things you love. If you’ve had a few weeks of your training plan and really fancy getting on the bike instead of running one day - go for it! Don’t automatically say no to things because you need to go for a run - can you do both? How can you make it work for you?
About the author: Sophie Kennedy is a personal trainer, runner, and Sundried ambassador.