The St Peter's Way Ultra 2020 - from tri to ultra - step 1
1st female, 2nd overall, course record: 6 hrs
The St Peter's Way is an ancient off-road trail of 43 ish miles running through most of Essex, starting at Chipping Ongar and finishing in the sea, or thereabouts.
It was also to be my first real attempt at an ultra in a long time; last year I was unprepared for a 100km as was still distracted by pro triathlon, so that was my first DNF, at 60km, which was humbling, but necessary, as it ticked the inevitable out of the way. The legs just packed up very quickly after 50km.
The year before, in 2017, I was allowed to do one 30 miler which was successful on paper, but that didn't really tick the box in terms of enjoyability as it was still a very intense distance (and we cocked up the nutrition BIG time so that was all a bit grim).
So having not done much since the NDW 100 mile in 2012, I thought 40+ would be a good start point, with a 50 to come next, in May.
And I loved it. It's what I should have been doing years ago. But with a small window left to explore pro triathlon as a 'job', given I'm now 37, I'm glad I gave it a bash as I met some cool people and was pretty good at it, even though I can safely say now it's not really my cup of tea. Too many gadgets. Too much bike. Too much faff.
Anyway, after a false start (injury) I had to withdraw from my two planned races in the Autumn and New Year which was somewhat of a bollock, but hammered home to me that I need time to carve my path into ultra, and not dive in trying to break British records with huge weekly run blocks straight away. (My aim is to have a go at the 50 mile and 100km records at some point; only requires 4.30 km pace or thereabouts LOL, but one is allowed to dream big, and if it doesn't work out, it matters not anyway!)
But I do not want to be doing all that high-performance stuff right now. After a few intense years of pro life, and being told 'no' to this and that, I now need the freedom to do as I please and explore and enjoy, with no pressure whatsoever, except my naturally competitive instincts!
So no big record attempts for a few years, that's for sure. Timing is everything. And legs-dependent, of course.
Back to the present. The build up to this race was short. Coming back from a 10 week layoff from a calf problem, I started running at Christmas, and was quickly able to build to 45 mins. So I had a good 4 weeks of useful work by the time I'd built it up, then started the taper. With my longest couple of training runs being 26.2 miles once a week for 2 weeks (finishing the last of those 2.5 weeks out), I averaged 39.5 miles per week between Christmas and race day (Feb 23rd), with a max week of 60 miles. Very low for ultra, but what was key was that long, slow weekly run, which I ramped up as a 20, 25, 26.2, 26.2 each week. For the last marathon run, I did an hour the day before too, just to add a bit of pre-fatigue. The rest of it was just filler stuff; with no speedwork other than a duathlon I dropped into. I wanted to keep it safe and specific after the frustration of not even making an ultra start line (or a finish line) for a rather long time!
The ultra scene is just how I remember. Friendly, super chilled, no ego, no nonsense; you just get out there, zone out or chat as you fancy, and see what happens as you gradually push the boundaries! It suits me perfectly as I don't respond well to pressure and the anxiety that comes with pre-race nerves for a tri. That's all self-imposed of course, but there's definitely a different atmosphere, and I feel I belong here.
The race started very gently for me, although I was probably always around 6-8th place, the pace was ON from the beginning for a small group, but all I needed was to bank a safe finish. That was it goal-wise. Get the ultra ball rolling once more! So I set out well within myself (always a good idea in an ultra anyway!)
Even with 100+ runners over a relatively short ultra, it spreads out quickly, and you are alone for the vast majority. I found myself tracking a guy who as it turned out was local, and knew the trail inside out. Praise the Lord Above, as even with my fancypants Fenix 6X pro on FULL MAP mode, every time I tried to help with pace-making, I'd go wrong and have to wait for him to help! There were so many similar paths to choose at times. I'm very glad I had him and my watch. Thank you, good sir!
I do love a point-to-point race as you are actually heading somewhere which makes it much easier mentally, but I probably prefer out-and-backs. Out-and-backs still make you head somewhere and then have to get home, plus they give you that lovely lift at halfway where you get to see all the other runners too, and getting lost is harder to do, so I'll have to remember to enter more of those race formats. Recommendations please (not TOOO hilly!)
Anyway, as the race went on and we reached around mile 30, the man stopped for a break, and I thought I would have a go at cracking on. He was lovely but as we chatted, he told me he was just out for the day, training for Sky Running races (super steep high things) and not out to be competitive today, and whilst I love the idea of being non-competitive in an event, it's probably never going to quite happen with me! I was getting a little itchy to start exploring my limit a bit. And with a half marathon or so to go, I decided to set off. (I didn't dare turn my watch screen off map mode as it might not go back again (I know I know), so had relatively little idea how long or how far I'd gone; I only knew from the aid-stations that came about every 9 miles).
My quads were the only thing really starting to fatigue but it wasn't the dramatic undoing that I experienced last year. They just got sore, and stayed sore. But the range of movement was still ok and I was injury-free (it's important to learn to tell the difference between types of pain).
Coming into the last aid station, I was told I had pulled back 8 mins between the checkpoints on the second-placed man, who was just 2 minutes up the road. First place was out the question; he was long gone! But I liked the sound of coming second. I took my time through that aid station, filling bottles, grabbing pockets of sweets, having a chat, and seeing how a jaffa cake went down. Darren (other half, following aid-station-to-aid-station by car, taking lovely pictures) was getting itchy with what he perceived to be dithering. He's new to all this, and has only seen me in triathlon races where every second counts, but I know in ultra it is crucial to stay calm, take a moment every so often to pause, take fuel, and know that the final 9 miles is a long way to go.
As I walked out of the aid station eating sweets he was like "Alice, maybe you should get on with it?"
"I will. I will finish second." I replied.
Darren was not convinced, as the other guy had now doubled his gap. But 9 miles is a long old hoof. I was confident, if I maintained my sensible fuelling. (Can't recommend Maurten enough as the nutrition base!)
34 miles - final checkpoint
It took me a while before he was in my sights and he was running well. I deliberately didn't close too quickly; you know, being tired and all, but with about 5km to go I had the energy and desire, if not the legs, so I came alongside and we laughed a bit, as this was not the ideal situation with 3 miles to go! "I'm going to have a real bash now" I told him, like some 1930s schoolboy, "but I may well blow up, so I'll see you at the finish in some form!" We wished each other well, and off I went on my attempt. With only a parkrun to go (I compartmentalise like this a lot), I knew I could basically be at my anaerobic threshold now I'd got the fuelling right.
Only trouble was, the New Challenge of the Bastarding Headwind! We'd enjoyed a brilliant tailwind for much of the route, which counteracted the copious levels of mud and gunk, but you turn to the finish, and can see the finish chapel probably with around 2 miles to go. These ultra race organisers love to play with you though, so we got to enjoy this bonus extra dog-leg bit, and the finish never got closer.
It was fun though; and I had enough of a gap to enjoy the final mile or so, whilst breathing out my behind a bit.
Never once did I get bored or negative. With tri it was a constant mental battle for me; but with running, on most days, it's pure joy. They don't call it a runner's high for nothing.
Well dones to all finishers. A UK ultra in February, impacted by two storms, is always going to prove a real challenge!
Can't wait for the next one.
All photo credits to Darren: www.thatcameraman.com