My first ultra: what happened

I have many blogs to catch up on, especially events from last year that I partook in. The GR20 novella hasn’t had a look in, but there are lots of smaller chunks to churn out in the meantime.

Just before Christmas 2010 I signed myself up for the 2011 26Extreme Mourne Way Ultra Marathon on June 11. Following the Mourne Way from Rostrevor with a sting in the tail at the Newcastle end, before turning around and going back. 52 miles of trails, streams, mud, and some tarmac. Something like 2400m ascent/descent. Apart from a random running of the Belfast City marathon in 2009 I had barely maintained my shorter runs, with the possible exclusion of the MMM in 2010 which involved sporadic running over a long time. People do these things, I am a person, ergo…

My training was to be cutting edge: as little as possible. My aim: to see if I could do it.
For strength I spent 12 weeks doing 15min/10day gym sessions doing a ‘big 4’ workout to failure, then another 12 weeks doing 45min/week kettlebell workout focussing on stability, core, and minimising imbalances.
For running I did a tabata sprint session on Tuesdays, a 4 mile hilly forest tempo run on Thursday, and a 3-mile each-way run to work and back on Sunday wearing a pack. That’s 12 miles/week! About 10-25% of what most ultra-runners would be doing. At the end of each month I did a longer slow run from 11-15 miles. Finally, at Easter, I completed the official Mourne Way (didn’t know about the difficult modification to the route that makes up the marathon distance and adds considerably to the elevation): this was walked with an overnight pack, although I felt good and ran much of it, taking only 6.5hrs. I felt ready.

I planned my food based on advice read from Scott Jurek that your body can only take on so many carbs/hr: approximately 1g/kg bodyweight. I may have ignored the rest of his vegan-organic philosophy…
I made up 11 ‘hour packs’ with the plan being to eat half of a pack (1 portion) every 30mins. I would start without breakfast so my body was primed for fat-burning, and start eating my packs after settling in for half an hour. Each portion was:

  • 1/2 slice Soreen malt loaf
  • 1/4 Clif bar – peanut crunch
  • 1 custard cream biscuit
  • 1-2 Clif shot bloks

I would drink 0.5 – 0.75 litres of water /hr.
My bag also carried gloves, beanie, spare socks, windtop, phone, iPod shuffle, FAK containing painkillers, wrap bandage, tissues & blister kit. I wore a LS synthetic zip top, my old white shorts, my yellow cycle cap, and Merrell Trail Glove shoes.

The evening before, I got the bus to Rostrevor, had a low quality fish supper and signed on, before setting up my tent and getting an early night. Unfortunately, the families around me were having fun until quite late, and then two women turned up and pitched near me before starting to get drunk and listening to music from their car stereo. Not the most relaxing night.

Up at 5.15 to get ready for the 6am start. Around 50 competitors milling about in the cool light, quietly getting psyched and wishing each other well. A quick briefing, and away we go…trying to go easy, everyone immediately slowed to a walk up the hill. It was a big hill, but the trend continued as we made our way out through Rostrevor Forest, even on the smallest rise. My calves didn’t like walking uphills, and having trained powering up 10% trails I felt happier to bound these small obstacles. I wasn’t making any point, just keeping my legs happy, but felt silly overtaking the likes of Hannah Sheilds who I knew would finish long before me!

Water, half bananas, & cake slices at the aid stations; the first came before the sharp climb over the col at Tournamuck. I remember enjoying the descent of Hen track and feeling good until hitting the tarmac at Spelga. I walked up to the 13mile aid point and ran slowly down the road until back on the trail at Fofanny dam. The section from here to Tollymore is my favourite part of the route and I enjoyed it all the way to the stepping stones, chatting with a fellow runner. I smiled at the organiser Ronan at the end of Trassey Track and joked something like, “too easy”, to which he replied, “wait until you cross the river”!

Indeed, there are many miles of climbing through the forest and up through Donard Wood to the quarry, then a punishing steep trail down to the half-way mark (the lead runners had passed us about 1hr before I reached the half-way, and sure enough, Hannah had overtaken me at this point and was going strong). 5.15 to get this far, and although I knew I had covered a marathon, was feeling pretty good. Took a 10-15min break and chatted with my friend Simon at the aid point before starting back up the steep climb. I noted that I am really bad at power-walking. I can run, or stroll, but strolling causes a loss of progress at these times. At the top, I picked up a bit on the gentler downhills.

The lead marathon runners flew past like the amazing athletes they are, having covered the ground from our turn-around point in half the time. Then the main pack swarmed past by the time I made it out of Tollymore. My friend Mike was doing some trailing support for the marathoners and caught me at the Trassey aid station, right about when I was feeling things were taking a turn for the worse. He walked with me for a mile or two and we tried to eat some fuel and pick my spirits up. This was my favourite section after all!

He continued on but my legs failed to produce much forward momentum. Walking and running were merging into the same pathetic speed as my heart rate continued to fall. Down, down, try as I might I could not keep it pumping, until I was eventually ticking along at barely 100 bpm. Marathoners and Ultra-runners around me at this point were all struggling in one way or another. Slogging up to the Spelga aid point, I was entering the pain cave. My friend Simon was there but I could barely conjure a smile or talk. He was very good, being upbeat but not pushing me to continue. Positive options, and food and drink in, either way. Scattered around the carpark we paused, vacant faces looking for inspiration or confirmation: a handful not to start again; others, slowly trickling out and onward.

I didn’t think, but automatically followed after them. Together we entered the slop but I couldn’t keep with them. Then the worst thing happened: the course back-marker, who was collecting the route canes, caught up with me. He was just walking along and he was faster than any of my efforts. Waiting if he got too far ahead, we played the worst game of cat & mouse towards the Leitrim Lodge aid station. He tried to get me to eat but my body refused everything. I found a banana left for me on a rock, but I left it to the birds. Breathing and moving were all that existed. 10K to go, that’s nothing; but this last paragraph condenses the reality of that section, for it took me hours.

My insides were protesting and I tried to find some cover in the open landscape to see if a toilet break would help matters. Turned out I didn’t need to go, but wasted time and energy. Onwards. This wasn’t the first time I’d been this worn down. I’ve trekked for days on no food, or with a heavy pack when ravaged by illness, or in the heat at the end of my tether. The reason was perhaps different this time, but experience was similar. As much as I pressed on, I discovered nothing new. Eventually, as I crossed the stile near Batt’s road, I reassessed with the back-marker. He reckoned there were 4 miles left to go and it would take me another 1.5 hrs at my pace. I’d been on the go for 12hrs 45mins. I could get there, but I wouldn’t make the official cut-off of 13hrs, and that wouldn’t officially cut-it for me. The campsite office would be closed and I would be unable to return my facility keycard and get my £20 deposit. Mike was waiting for me to take me home (as was Simon, even after I’d left: I couldn’t think to contact him. Thankfully we’re still friends)! I was holding back the staff…

Crossing the line could have been done, but what was the point? There was no discovery for me other than something hadn’t gone right according to my expectations. It wasn’t a ‘once in a lifetime’ occasion: I could try again the next year, and risking injury or illness (12 days before a boxing match), should really have stopped 3 hrs ago. I called it a day, and we got picked up.

Mike packed up my tent as I returned timing chips and campsite passes. I went to freshen up and couldn’t believe my face caked white with salt: it felt a cool, overcast day, but the light breeze and wicking base layer belied the sweating!

To add further insult, I spent the following night vomiting almost to the point of unconsciousness and could barely eat or drink all of Monday. Even though, the legs had no pain by Tuesday and I was back at boxing training that night…thoughts already turning to 2012.

photos thanks to Simon Watterson @

5 Replies to “My first ultra: what happened”

  1. Well credit to you pal,you gave it your best shot,better to try & fail than never have tried at all,very well written

  2. Craig, you looked in really good form at the half way station – better than some of the other competitors – and I was quite shocked when I saw you later on at the Spelga Dam station. I said it to you at the time and I’ll say it again now, you might not have finished the ultra, but you did finish a tough marathon and then kept on running after the other marathoneers would have stopped. Whichever way you cut that cake, what you did was an awesome thing … especially on just 3 months unconventional training. Be proud, you deserve to.

    Tour de Mont Blanc next year? 😉

  3. Exactly John: it’s only by trying that you get anything done. I reckon people that fail more are just trying more, and eventually achieve more 😉

  4. Tour du Maybe… it’s very hard to get into, but is on the brink of my mind for the future. WHW race is a definite goal though. If I continue my training through to next year I should manage that (if I get in).
    I was certainly pleased to get where I did. After all, when I signed up 6months before, my rationale was it was only £5 more to enter than the marathon – and if I only got half way, I’d still have done the marathon. Just over two months now until I do it justice!

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