Nothing says “peak fitness” like a last-minute, late-night dash to get Strepsils and Sainsbury own-brand Lemsip.
Ian and I were slumped on our beds variously checking kit and phones with the vague plan of heading to sleep at some point because, you know, we had to run from London to Brighton the next day.
An overly elaborate travel and accommodation plan from Jersey to Richmond via Brighton including a last-minute change of hotel were all in the past as we wandered alongside the Thames, jealously watching people enjoying a Friday night pint while we waited for our carbload appointment at Zizzis.
We were also waiting for Del, our fourth Ace (for some reason our team name) who had the clever idea to try and drive (and thus park) to dinner.
Cheesy garlic bread to start, plus introducing Ian and Del to arancini, followed by bowls of pasta and some alcohol free beers and we were heading for registration in Old Deer Park in an increasingly beautiful golden light, as charity flags rippled in the fading sunshine and we picked up our numbers.
Ultra Challenge are a slick operation considering they are catering for runners, joggers and walkers covering various distances over one or two days. If you’re considering a first ultra, I would highly recommend them.
In, out and back to our Premier Inn within minutes with a surprisingly long time to kill.
All that week I’d had a bit of cold but just presumed it would be gone by Saturday morning. I’d also had a bad stomach for nearly a week. With 20 minutes until the supermarket shut, I made the decision to run alongside the dual carriageway for emergency supplies. It was going to be one of those runs… (pun slightly intended).
I’ve known Ian for over 30 years but there is a difference between being great friends and spending a couple of nervous hours in a small hotel room with little to no sleep. Let’s just say I visited the facilities in reception a couple of times.
It’s also a very different vibe to getting yourself ready but one that I really liked – checking each other’s kit, working out what we were missing and both being equally appalled by the pot porridge we sadly had for breakfast rather than the buffet other guests would soon be enjoying.
A quiet walk before London really woke up was a pleasant way to get to the finish line and we were early enough that we saw the previous wave start. Given the variety of challenges happening, it really was a mix of outfits and body types – someone was even wearing Crocs! But it was a bubbly atmosphere considering it was only 7am and soon enough after a couple of loo stops, we were lined up in the start pen after saying hi and bye to Vee, Izzy and Amy (who had brought the PB&J fuel).
After an overly energetic warm-up routine, and the same jokes the first wave had heard, we were soon off and running across the open parkland to the river and quickly through Richmond and off along the Thames.
It’s amazing how quickly races come back to your memory, even if you’ve only done them once before. Last time I was running with Andy and thought I might be going a little fast. This time I was running with Toby, Ian and Del but also thought I was going a bit fast.
It was a simple-ish strategy – go at six minutes per kilometre (10 minute miles) for the first 20k or so which were the flattest and most straightforward. Then hold on and see how we could do for the next 80k.
Looking back, I had doubts about this strategy from the moment it came up but this is one of the things about being in a team and needing to compromise.
Roughly the first 25 of the race is through a seemingly never-ending maze of South London suburbia and commuter-ville. If you had dropped me at almost any point, I could only have guessed “Middle England” as a philosophical location. I imagine there was a Privet Drive somewhere too.
That’s not to say it wasn’t pleasant or fun. Running in a group of four allowed for seemingly seamless transitions between each other as paces changed or chat went flat. We tucked into our personalised sandwiches and kept on top of hydration as the temperature continued to rise and in almost no time at all, we were at the first aid station.
I had grand plans for minimising the amount of time we spent at each station, to save ourselves a fair chunk in the long run (again pun only partially intended). However, my stomach was still giving me issues and I wanted to get everything as “right” as possible, so we took a little bit of time to get adequate food, drink and toileting.
And like that, we were back out and away. Through Malden Manor, Stoneleigh, Belmont and the delightfully named Nonsuch Park. We even passed a parkrun which had crossed my mind during training as a delightfully stupid thing to tag on to a 100k run. Maybe next time.
We were still moving pretty well as we reached the edge of the urban jungle at Coulsdon South and turned directly south on to Farthing Downs. I remembered it, not just because I always think it’s called Farthing Wood, but also because it’s the first real hill, and the first piece of actual countryside.
It’s almost a bit breathtaking in an understated way. A swathe of greenery and calm cutting through the noise of the M25 beyond. And this is where, at around 30k in, we began to slow.