Last weekend, Jess Gray was crowned female champion at Centurion's North Down's Way 50 ultramarathon. Not only that, but she was also second place overall. For someone who only started running ultras last year, I wanted to find out more - and Jess kindly agreed to share a bit about her background, her preparation for the race and how it all unfolded.
First of all, many congratulations on your race. Before we talk more about this race, I wanted to find out more about your running history. Is it something you've always done or a more recent thing?
From a young age I did a little bit of running, I won my first ever sprint race at nursery age 3, I remember being the first girl home at Cassiobury Park, Watford when I was about 9 doing the Blue Peter Fun Run (always been gutted that I didn’t get presented with a Blue Peter badge!) and when I was at senior school I enjoyed middle distance and cross country. Once I went to university running was only something I did in the gym on a treadmill as a warm-up, so it wasn’t really until I need to shift the baby weight in 2008 that I decided to don my trainers again.
How and why did you start running ultras?
When my fitness and running confidence grew I decided that I would like to complete one London Marathon to follow in the footsteps of my dad (and to beat his time!!) so in 2011 I received a ballot place and ran for the Alzheimer’s Society. The race didn’t go to plan and my fibula snapped half way round, so I signed up to Milton Keynes in 2012 and ran a 3.30 and it continued from there. The transition to ultras came about in 2014 when a running buddy suggested running London to Brighton as a challenge and not being one to turn down a challenge, I agreed. I really enjoyed the event and actually felt great all the way round, so I thought I would give a few more ultras a go.
You ran last year's Chiltern Challenge 50k and the Royal Parks Ultra 50k. Did you go into them thinking you could win?
Following London to Brighton, the aforementioned ‘friend’ talked me into joining the Mizuno Endure 24 Team. It was here I met Stuart Mills, who was also on our team, and he suggested that I should try longer distances as it appeared I was pretty steady over the longer distances. I entered the Chiltern Challenge as it was so local to me, but I had no expectation and it was a huge surprise to win.
Similarly with Royal Parks Ultra, I got a charity place through a friend and it was more of a ‘give it a go’ race. I was astounded to win the ladies section, but even more to get course record. It was only then that I thought maybe I should try a few longer courses to see what I was capable of.
When did you decide to enter the NDW50?
I was talked into NDW50 by another running friend who suggested this race because Centurion events are legendary and I was likely to have stronger competition in the ladies section. Although London to Brighton was longer, this was to be my first 50 mile event that I was actually racing.
Have you done any other races this year, ultras or otherwise?
My first race of the year was in January at Country to Capital and all was going very well until mile 32 when my knee decided to stop playing ball and I had to pull out. This was my first DNF and I was so bitterly disappointed. However, what I thought was just a twinge kept me out of training until the middle of March so it was pretty significant.
I completed the London Marathon again this year, but due to my injury and only just getting back into training, I used it as a training run for NDW. Just before NDW50 I entered a local 5-mile race which happened to also be the County Championship race and was pleased to retain County Champion status for the second year.
What sort of training do you do? And how do you balance being a mother and having a full-time job?
I am so lucky to have help from an experienced running buddy who keeps me on the straight and narrow with my training. We plan a week at a time as training depends on my weekly shift pattern and family commitments. In the course of a week I typically do one long run, one tempo run, an easy run and a torturous hill or speed session.
All my training and racing is only possible because I have the most supportive husband and daughter who take their role as ‘Team Gray’ very seriously and have never questioned the 5am alarm call on a Sunday for yet another race!
Did you feel confident going into the North Downs Way?
I believe that the psychological element of running has a huge impact on performance. I always want to feel confident going into a race, not confident I can win, rather having the confidence that I have done the best preparation to enable me perform at my best.
What was your race plan and did the race go as you'd hoped?
The plan was to start easy, which meant run the first 10-20 miles at an easy effort, then I was allowed to run as fast as I could from mile 30 (I’m sure my coaching buddy was having a laugh with this!) On a serious note, I have a tendency to race everything from the starting gun and this was an experiment to see what I was capable of if I ran within my capabilities from the start, leaving something for the end. It was also a confidence building race after my DNF at Country to Capital and to build experience with pacing for the events I have planned for the rest of this year.
What was your nutrition strategy for the race?
Eating in a race is something I find incredibly difficult. I was astounded by the amazing array of food that Centurion had on offer at their aid stations. Had I not been running I would have devoured the lot, but as always I had no appetite. I did manage a few bites of a chocolate spread sandwich, some satsuma segments and strawberries on my way round, but I know there is room for massive improvement for me in this area and am working on it!
It's often noted that women are better at pacing long-distances races than men, and given that you were in 12th place at halfway, clearly something you're good at. Is pacing something you focus on particularly?
As I mentioned earlier, I usually like to race from the start pistol and hang towards the end, but I am learning to be a little steadier, saving a bit for the end. It appeared to work at NDW50, and there was definitely a little confidence to be gained from overtaking people towards the end, rather than being overtaken!
There's been a big push to encourage women to get into sports recently, including this year's This Girl Can campaign from Sport England, and WMNRUN100. In addition, 42% of entries for the 2016 London Marathon are from women, which is great. But there's still quite a low percentage moving up to ultras. What would you say to any women unsure about running longer?
Self-belief and route planning!
For a long time I only stuck to routes I knew, which meant in order to increase my distance I had to do laps. One day my husband bought me an Ordnance Survey Map, I studied it and realised that as long as I knew roughly which direction I was heading my route opportunities were endless.
My advice for anyone unsure about running longer would be buy a map, take a backpack, a mobile phone, some water, a little food, get out there and enjoy what the countryside has to offer because if you don’t you are missing out!
What do you like about ultrarunning compared to shorter races?
I love racing any distance, but for me ultra races are the ultimate test of mental strength. The further the distance is, I find it is more a mental challenge than a physical one.
What's next for you in terms of races this year, and beyond? Do you have any bucket list races?
I am attempting my first 100-miler at the South Downs Way in June, then the Ridgeway Challenge in August followed by my first multi-day event at the Atlantic Coast Challenge in October.
I can’t say I have a particular bucket list, but I would like to compete in a few international ultras in the future as travel is one of my other passions.
You can follow Jess on Twitter: @tinkstrails