Last year I trained as hard as I ever had for a race and exceeded my expectations. It's all about preparation, you see? This year... well, I didn't quite forget I'd entered but I certainly misjudged the amount of time I'd have to train for it after a big fat holiday. In the end I had about 5 weeks to get my legs moving, build some endurance and prepare myself mentally for a tough day.
Having done it once before, I was far less nervous and genuinely excited to not only run the route but also catch up with some of the amazing people I've met in the last year. In 2014 I knew James, Cat, Martin, Coxy and that was about it. This time there was Drew and Claire, Shaun and Susie, Travis, Andy, Piers (two of them) Louise and a few I knew vaguely through Twitter including Steph, Sorrell and Laura, as well as James, Martin and Cat again. Finally, there was Jon, who James and I used to work with and who I thought had a good shot at a podium place. He'd only done one ultra before but with about a 1.15 half marathon PB thought he'd figure at the sharp end.
All of this catching up on the train to Wendover meant I was so relaxed that I actually thought I'd forgotten something important like shoes. I hadn't, although it was about a mile before I realised I needed to pull my socks up. I mean this literally. I'm averse to running tights but long socks I can buy into - I'd just forgotten to pull them up - and when the MASSIVE BLIZZARD arrived my legs felt it.
For a while we were running straight into the snow and it crossed my mind that if it got any colder my contact lenses could freeze onto my eyeballs. It never came to this but some goggles with wipers would have helped. The section to the first checkpoint is mainly through fields and along woodland footpaths with the odd bit of road thrown in. With less rain that last year and more cold, the ground was harder and less muddy but the roads were a bit treacherous with the fresh covering of snow. I arrived at CP1 in Chesham without any mishaps and in an almost identical time to the previous year.
Start - CP1 (7.8m)
2014 - 1:15.36
2015 - 1:15.06
I wasn't pushing the pace at this stage, mainly for fear of blowing up spectacularly come the second half. What I was doing this year was to spend a lot less time faffing around at checkpoints - refill bottle, grab a slice of Go Beyond's delicious fruitcake, and get on my way. As I left this first one I bumped into Travis who was doing his second ultra and was I think more than happy to tag along with someone who (supposedly) knew the way. After passing a field where kids were playing football, there were a couple of options and I decided to go with my gut and luckily it paid off. The alternative route apparently got you to the same destination but via some icy stepping stones over a stream which I'm grateful to have avoided.
Then we came to a road and I wasn't sure if it was left or right, at which point Piers appeared and thought it was left and he was right. It was left. The great thing about ultras is that when you see someone you know you can have a proper chat rather than just a fleeting 'Hi! Bye!' that you might in a shorter race. Like Louise, Piers is also doing Thames Path 100 in May so there will be more familiar faces at that race.
The snow was still falling and the massive flakes were turning the countryside into a veritable winter wonderland, something I've almost entirely failed to capture with my mid-race photography.
Still, at least I knew where I was going this year and even managed to navigate around the huge puddle just before CP2. Not only did I keep my feet dry for the whole race but I later found out that someone who went through the Puddle of Doom twisted his ankle and had to drop out. A harsh way to learn a lesson, that.
CP1 - CP2 (9.7m)
2014 - 1:44.31
2015 - 1:39.34
Without meaning to, I'd surged ahead of Travis a couple of times. He was struggling with his shoes a bit and I could see why - pure off-road shoes tend not to have the best cushioning. So he was keen to pick up his road shoes from his crew just before the canal. I slowed down to let him catch up but in the end it wasn't quite a natural pace for me so I pushed on. On the plus side for him, it's hard to get lost but there's quite a lot further than you think from hitting the Grand Union Canal to reaching CP3 and like me he was keen for that landmark. I remembered the next section from last year and I wasn't looking forward to it. It's only 3 miles from when you first see the water to the checkpoint but like last year, my legs were feeling it and for the first time (excluding hills) I had to employ a run-walk strategy. Not ideal, but with 20 miles still to go, pragmatic.
CP2 - CP3 (7.5m)
2014 - 1:32.30
2015 - 1:31.50
The sun was shining by now and with some more cake inside me, as well as a couple of cocktail sausages and a sausage roll, and a change of gloves and Buff I was ready to tackle the next section. There were very few people around by this point and so I put my earphones in to take my mind off the monotony of the towpath. That stretch around Uxbridge and West Drayton simply isn't very picturesque and with more than a half marathon to go, the finish line at Little Venice can seem a long way away.
The left turn with the sign 'Paddington 13 1/2 miles' was a boost but the distance to the next checkpoint seemed much further than the previous year. It hadn't changed at all - it's just that last time I was feeling good. This time, the mud was stickier and my legs were complaining more and more. Where is the bloody checkpoint?! Ah, there it is.
CP3 - CP4 (7m)
2014 - 1:17.39
2015 - 1:16.44
"See if you can guess what flavour that electrolyte drink is," said the checkpoint marshall as I necked a bottle of it.
"Fruit," I announced confidently. They all laughed and conceded that I wasn't wrong but I never found out what the actual flavour was. I did however discover that it was 10km to the next and final checkpoint and then another 10 to the finish. This wasn't what I wanted to hear but luckily I don't think it was quite accurate because despite a few walk breaks and the unedifying sight of a dead, bloated fox face down in the canal, I made it to the final checkpoint in reasonable time.
CP4 - CP5 (4.3m)
2014 - 0:48.11
2015 - 0:49.25
As it had just passed 3pm, the marshalls told me to run with a guy who had just arrived. It's a safety thing as there can be some unsavoury characters long there in the darker hours. However, it was still bright sunshine and more to the point my new running partner was running quite quickly. I told him not to wait for me - I didn't want to be responsible for ruining his race and felt able to defend myself from any potential ne'er-do-wells I might encounter. Three or four other people overtook me and I realised it was time for my emergency caffeinated energy gel. After a little while - and I still don't know if it was the gel or the knowledge that the end was near - my legs loosened up and while not quite breaking any land speed records, managed to overtake five of the people who'd passed me not long before. They congratulated me on my "comeback" and I revelled in at least 800 metres of glorious sub-9 minute-miling. Delighted though I was to see the finish line and collect my cake (and medal), I could quite happily have carried on. So much for timing my gel.
CP5 - Finish (6m)
2014 - 1:03.36
2015 - 1:02.46
All of which meant that this is how last year stacked up against this:
2014 - 7:42.03 (120th place, 33rd M40 category)
2015 - 7:35.25 (105th place, 40th M40 category)
Despite that 7-minute PB, I think I ran slower this year - perhaps not surprising given my lack of training - but made up the difference at the checkpoints, so at least I learnt something from last time. The canal section would have been infinitely more bearable if I'd been in better shape but overall it felt like a solid performance and the memory of that snowy start is truly something to treasure.
I think pretty much everyone I knew who ran it had a good day out, a PB, a brilliant debut, or a combination of all of the above and none more so than Jon, who finished in 3rd place with a time of 5:13.24. I hope he continues to enjoy the ultra scene, not least because he's clearly a top quality runner.
Thanks as ever to the Go Beyond team for organising such a great race, the selfless work of the marshalls who are so supportive and helpful, particularly in such cold conditions, and of course, for the cake.