Previous to this race I had only run one official ultra, the Stort 30 last October. I had been looking for another ultra to do and www.challenge-running.co.uk who run the Stort 30 also have the Saffron Trail ultra. Saffron Walden is my local town 4 miles from where I live, the ultra has the final checkpoint in my village and being born in the county of Essex it looked like it was meant for me to do. After completing the London Marathon in April I began trying to increase my runs again visiting Scotland for a 35 mile run. I also made a point of getting out on the course to help cut down on navigation time and had a 30 mile and 35 mile run on a couple of different sections. Knowing that certain sections are really wet and muddy I was hoping the weather would stay dry for a few weeks and dry the course out. This is the UK! no such luck, for the 3 weeks leading up to the start it had been raining. So from then on my hope was it would at least be dry for the run and make things reasonably comfortable.
Saturday July 12th 2014…Saffron Trail Ultra day. I had all my gear packed making sure I had all the compulsory kit plus anything else I thought I would need.
Waterproof Jacket (not just wind proof), My Berghaus Gore Tex jacket
Spare baselayer top and bottoms
Good quality headtorch with spare batteries, LED Lensor H7R.2
Working mobile phone (fully charged and on so we can call you if there are any changes or emergencies)
The capacity to carry 1lt of fluids either in bottles or a bladder.
Full size space blanket (not cut down), I took an emergency bivi bag
Hat or buff.
I also took a battery pack to keep my phone charged up, gels, cake, gloves, my own race notes (not used in the end) and electrolyte tablets.
I left home at 13.43, an hour into London, 10 minutes wait for my connection and then another hour out of London to Southend. The weather forecast was looking pretty bad with a storm moving in around 16.00, passing through, followed by another around 2am. I arrived in Southend at 16.00 and the weather was dry and very humid, no storm as forecast and took a slow walk toward the start area and was there for 16.15…no one in sight. The registration didn’t open until 17.00 so obviously I was a bit early and Lindley the race director hadn’t arrived yet. 16.45. 17.00, 17.10…something’s wrong! 2 other runners had turned up. I tried Lindley’s phone, no answer. A few minutes later one of the other fellas got through to him…the registration had been set up a couple of hundred yards back along the road. Panic over we made our way there, had all of my kit checked, registered and collected my number. I then just took time to chill out and keep calm and got talking to another runner. before long we were given the race briefing mainly safety, responsibility for litter, sensibility and looking out for other runners etc. 18.00, the magic moment, everyone was away! I took off really slowly as I set my GPS and Nike+.
My plan had been to make good time over the first 3 legs which was 28.2 miles, effectively get time in the bank for when I tired later on and helping to keep a reasonable average overall. I was pleased with the opening effort with my pace fluctuating between 8.0 minute miles and 9 minute miles. The county would be described by most as undulating, the hills maybe small but pretty damn steep! With the weather so warm and humid I was sweating heavily, I made sure I drank regularly and ate my cake. I had pretty much memorised the course and had no need to refer to my notes, little more than 2 miles in at Raleigh Castle Thunder was raging over the Thames Estuary, the storm was on it’s way in. I arrived at the first checkpoint in Hockley around 19.45, 45 minutes ahead of my set schedule. The next leg was a shorter 6.6 miles a quite straight forward heading North onto the banks of the river Crouch and then following it West to the village of Battlesbridge. I was taking 1 Torq gel per leg to help with electrolytes and energy. When I got onto the river for the first time I started to feel tired, still sweating in the humid air and moving at a reasonable pace maybe I was setting out too fast. I pushed onwards, the rain had started and lightening was streaking all around, It was a picturesque sight along the river. I wasn’t feeling good, another runner caught up with me and told me that the checkpoint was only a couple of miles away, he left me behind. I eventually came out onto the main road that follows into Battlesbridge and the checkpoint. I felt ill. I had some drink and something to eat, I couldn’t hold it down. Only 17.7 miles in and things were going downhill quickly, I couldn’t understand why! Was it the heat, humidity, not eating enough or the gels. I had some soup some more drink, topped up my drink bladder and added electrolyte tabs. Another group of people had caught up with me, Debbie, Graham and an American in the country on business who thought he’d give it a shot, Tre. While I tried to get my head straight they refuelled and I set out with them.
The next leg was 10.7 miles from Battlesbridge to Danbury slowly heading North through the county. I felt a little better and matched the pace of the group, it was comfortable if slow around 12 minute miles. It was good and I needed the time to recuperate. As we headed out across fields, railway tracks, through woods and along roads I was feeling comfortable again. I took another gel. About 3 miles in nearing East Hanningfield I started being sick again. The others moved off ahead, I tried to move after them, sick again. This continued for a few miles, I felt like I had been clobbered with a hangover from hell, I had around 50 miles to go…I was going to quit. I pushed on again and caught up with the group and helped navigate our way, I didn’t let on I was thinking of giving up. It was dark now as well and 2 thoughts from other experienced ultra runners were going through my head, never quit on a low point because invariably if you take your time you will start to feel better and never quit in the dark because the dark makes things seem gloomier and worse than they are. I would decide at CP3.
Before entering East Hanningfield village you pass through an abandoned graveyard, the church burned down in 1883. Debbie had arranged for her husband to meet us prior to reaching the official checkpoint to fuel up. He met us in Danbury only a couple of miles short of the checkpoint, I can’t thank him enough for his help. He gave me some eno salts, vegetarian sausages, cheesy biscuits and fruit pastilles. It really picked me up and made me feel better. We headed on to CP3, there were a couple of runners there and I overheard one of them dropping out, I filled by water, took on more food and filled my pockets. I wasn’t going to quit, I felt better. The next leg headed around the south side of the city of Chelmsford following the river Chelmer for the most part before turning North to Stacey’s Farm near Broomfield. We crossed over fields and could see the city lights, over a small bridge and onto the towpath passing under the A12. I now had a terrible backache and had to stop and take some Ibruprofen and adjust some kit, the rain was taking it’s toll on my gear. They all headed off. Got set and carried on, I couldn’t see them, no bother just stick to the river path and I should catch them. A little further I thought I could see head torches and knew they couldn’t be far. I just couldn’t seem to catch them, and headed on into Chelmsford. Passing through the city centre was a bit surreal with everyone spilling out of pubs and clubs drunk and drowned rat me running by. Heading along something didn’t seem right, I had taken a wrong turn, damn!! I hadn’t used my notes and realised I failed to take a left and was on the wrong stretch of rivers, I had turned along a subsidiary stretch. I turned around and made my way back onto the correct stretch, with my mistake they had to have a good 30 minutes up on me now, I was going to have along way to go on my own. nearing Stacey’s Farm I was met by Maxine one of the checkpoint helpers. There had been an altercation with a farmer and they had to move CP4. I filled up my water with her and changed my torch batteries and carried on to the checkpoint. I’ve never felt so hungry!! I had piles of cupcakes, chocolate cookies, sausages, sausage rolls, sweets, crisps and a couple of coffees! Food never felt so amazing! I probably waisted 15 minutes there and was told the other group were about 15 minutes in front at my arrival, so about 30 minutes by time I got going again.
Leg 5 was up to a track named the Flitch Way which runs along the site of an old railway line near the village of Great Dunmow. I was having regular walking breaks by now and being sensible walking up hills to conserve energy. I found the section straight forward with no mistakes or dramas. There were a lot of overgrown areas so I was getting badly stung and scratched by brambles. I was wearing 1000 mile compression socks so it minimised the worst on my lower legs but my knees and lower thighs were getting a beating. After plenty of twists and turns, field crossings and roads I came up to the Flitch Way and made it along to CP5. The group were now 50 minutes ahead of me, I didn’t think I had much chance of catching them now. I was still inside the cut off time and was beginning to feel really good to the point I was doing far more running than walking. I didn’t stay long and cracked on, I was heading into home territory and feeling more confident. The following leg was going to be a tough one and headed to CP6 at Broxted. Coming up to a wooded area and farm building I could see runners, I caught up with them, they were feeling things and starting to find it hard going. They told me the group were only a short way ahead, I charged on. Rounding some trees The way ahead sloped up a slight hill across a field, I could see the group I had been with. It really boosted me to keep working and after 10 minutes or so I had caught them again. They were tiring as we headed into Little Easton, I was feeling strong again and decided to leave them. I had now passed 5 people. following the paths along I saw 2 runners way off course as I headed along the correct path I whistled to them, got their attention and waved the right way, they seemed to ignore me. I carried on, now I ‘d passed 7 people! A touch further along they made up the half mile and we discussed they way to go, I was happy with the direction we were going, they weren’t, again I left them. Following on to Tilty and through a field with Abbey ruins out across the fields I saw the same 2 runners heading towards me! They had taken some wrong turns ended up on the right track but in the wrong direction. Yet again I left them and pulled out another half mile lead. Making the CP6 2 other runners were only 100 yards ahead. Ernie was there again and I had another dose of eno salts, I was told they were tiring badly and slow so I grabbed a banana and carried on after them. within half a mile I had caught them, it was Colin I had been speaking with at the start plus one other. I told them I was on home ground and to follow me. Again I began to pull out a lead on them and began to play Psychological games with them. Every time they came into view I made sure I was running, as soon as I was out of sight I would take a walking break. I had about a 1 mile lead on them. At Henham they had obviously put a good effort in and I saw them about 1/2 mile behind. I started running again told hold the lead charged through a really muddy and slippery woods which I was hoping would slow them down some. Flew downhill on painful legs and had to walk uphill again. As soon as it levelled I started running again, downhill for about 1/2 mile and onto a road section. Some more woods and into Widdington, across the fields, along some track way and into my home village of Newport. Along the High Street to the last CP7…65 miles done and 5 to go…I was going to make it come hell or high water. Took on more drink and grabbed a banana to take with me, I was feeling absolutely dead on my feet having now passed 9 people over the last 2 legs. I forged on having to walk large sections, there are some steep hills in the last 5 miles. I wanted to run into the finish as well not walk. Now filled with paranoia I kept checking over my shoulder expecting them to have caught me, it didn’t happen. I followed the road up to a cut through on fields, through parkland on the edge of town and was running again. I passed a couple out for a jog “You can go ahead of us you look faster”, “I don’t feel like it, i’ve run in from Southend 70 miles away” queue flabbergasted expressions. out of the park gate, along to the traffic lights, cross, 200 yards and into the finish at the town fire station. I had made it..all 70 miles under my own steam, from throwing my guts up and thinking of quitting to digging in, grinding out the pain, discomfort and making it. And not just making it either but finishing in 5th place which amazed me, I thought I would be middle of the pack at best.
I am now recovering, my legs generally are no worse than doing a marathon but my thighs are red raw and bleeding which is the most painful thing to deal with at the moment. I have some more ultras planned and am supposed to be going to the south downs on Friday 18th July to run 35 miles, it may not happen. Thanks to Lindley at www.challenge-running.co.uk and everyone that I met along the way.