6 Things I Learned from an Imperfect Race

Chiltern Wonderland 50 mile ultra - 2nd female, 6th overall, 7.46.

I recently took part in Centurion Running’s Chiltern Wonderland 50 mile ultra. Centurion is one of the UK’s premier event organisers (the logistics that enable runners to have a fully marked 50 or 100 mile race, enabling even the most directionally-challenged of athletes safe passage, is mind-blowing) and it’s a huge bonus that most of their events take place within a short drive of Windsor.

My long-term aim is to become as fast as possible at 50 miles and 100km. The CW50 was never going to be a fast day out given the terrain, but this year and next, I aim to build a base of strength and experience, and this was a perfect race for that. Taking a step back from professional sport and becoming somewhat of a beginner again, I have been through this process before, and know it simply takes time. For now, I know I have weaknesses and I am not yet ready to ‘race’, but my natural speed and triathlon endurance should plonk me towards the front of most races - if I don’t cock up. And whilst I made a big nutritional error this time, I came good in the end and clawed my way back to being competitive at the front end, and most importantly, performed best at the end of the race (after all, it's easy to do well at the beginning!)

Here’s what I learned in my first competitive 50 mile event:

1. If you think you’re going too fast, you’re probably right

This is so difficult for me at the moment. Having been used to running sub 1.20’s off the bike in Ironman 70.3 races, I am used to running strong and fast when tired, but any shift in distance or sport needs specific training. That background is useful, but I don’t have the ability to run anywhere close to that speed on tired run legs. Ultra is a different game entirely, and pressing on early is risky business. So far, I have done well when I start super slow, but this time, I wanted to cover ground on the flatter section which was at the start. Whilst I didn’t set off at a crazy speed (around 7.50 min miles for the first 20 miles) that put extra strain on the digestive system, as I was using more oxygen/blood in the CV system and muscles. 8 min miles would’ve been preferable.

2. If you think you’re eating too much, you’re probably right

I’m 5ft 10 and therefore require quite a bit of fuel per hour. I can also operate at quite a high intensity, but again, that requires fuel. So fuel was my focus. Unfortunately I had read about the lady who had successfully done a Bob Graham Round record and fueled at 80g carb per hour, so I was downing Maurten in abundance. In hindsight, less would have been better. As with overtraining, if you overdo something, it takes a lot of time to correct it. Had I slightly underdone the fueling in the first 3 hours, a focused 30 minutes would have corrected that, rather than leaving me hugely uncomfortable and a bit miserable for 2 hrs and with a very dodgy stomach for the rest of the race! Ideally, you want to get it just right, and not be over or under, so this is something I will most definitely focus on now. I simply didn’t have the confidence to fuel on less, but this can be sorted in training.

3. If you think it’s game over, you could be wrong

A big mistake of mine was to assume the race was over after an hour of wonkiness. Luckily I had just passed a checkpoint, and you are encouraged to DNF at a checkpoint if possible, so I had a simple goal to make it another 8 or so miles. Had that checkpoint been within easy reach, I’d have probably pulled the plug, but by the time I got there a good hour later, the tide had turned, and finally my stomach was a bit more settled: enough to work with! I will know from now on that no matter how bad you feel, if you slow down, ride the wave and do whatever you can to manage things, you can turn it around.

4. Have flexible goals

I knew this wasn’t the ideal course for me, and the competition was strong, but I will always aim to win. Whether I fall short of that, that doesn’t really matter, but I know now I am both stubborn as hell and mentally fragile at times, and I think anyone can expect to have waves of both in a long race. I can run through leg pain to a point, and mini injuries, but there is nothing more debilitating/depleting in my eyes than incessant nausea or ongoing stomach problems. I will try and be far more astute to that – my focus so far has been more on muscle fatigue and effort, but now it will be perfecting nutrition and listening to the clues.

Should stomach problems arise, the first thing to do is slow everything down. Get that blood back to the stomach to help it digest and let things settle. Stop bouncing! Walk it off. It’s ok to sit down for 5 minutes (Although it may cost you a valuable position, it won’t cost you a good result!) Realise that it may be a good hour before you can get running well again, but keep moving forwards. Change the goalposts. This I feel I did very well (well, after a desperate phone call to the boyfriend where I was giving up running FOREVER). I started walking, and as a few people passed me, I realised it was a nice day, and I hadn’t been taking in the beautiful scenery as I had been operating too much in ‘race-mode’. Here was a chance to embrace not trying to win for once. And what do you know? Once I’d relaxed and taken care of the frustration, things started to settle, the nutrition started to absorb, and running well was possible again.

5. Finish if you can

I have to stop kidding myself in races that aren’t going well that I would be totally accepting of a DNF. I play this game all the time in my head during bad moments. “Oh I’ll be fine; a bad result is no different to a DNF and a DNF is easier”.

100% no. This is just that voice in my head trying to give me an easy get out, that would feel totally crap once the dust had settled. I will try and refuse to listen to this voice from now on: a finish far down the field is far superior in every way, unless you are actually going to do permanent harm finishing (of course, then a DNF is by far the most sensible option). Switch your mindset and you can actually enjoy being a participant rather than a competitor.

6. To overcome is as satisfying as any win

Now ultrarunning is becoming ever-more competitive, you can expect any mistakes to be capitalised on by your competition! Much of the execution is in my control (how I pace, how I fuel), and comes with experience. But the more extreme the challenges, the more chance there is that you will come up against obstacles along the way. Overcoming these obstacles means you have conquered your own demons and setbacks, which is more valuable than any external finish position. The satisfaction I gained from having lost out in a good battle with the winning lady Laura was just as good as if the tables had been turned. I finished the race knowing this will be one of my most valuable ultras ever.

Photo credit: Stuart March

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