Tears roll down my eyes when I cross the finish line and fall into Sara’s arms. I’ve done it. I made it. My first ultra. My big goal; running 50 kilometers, at the age of fifty. And what an ultra it has been. This wasn’t running, this was mud wrestling, here at the Endurance life Sussex, in England.
Well, I wanted an English experience, I got one. Right from the start.
Cold and rainy
It’s a quarter to eight when Sara and I pick up our bib-number. It’s cold, it’s raining. The event village is almost empty. All runners are hiding in their car. We decide to do the same. We have more than half an hour before the briefing. This is no moment to be outside.
Half an hour later I’m cold. My lips are blue, my hands are freezing. While I am listening to the briefing, I have just one thought in my head; let me start.
Back of the field
Fifteen minutes later we’re off. I find my place somewhere at the back of the field. This is my first ultra. I have never run more than 44,5 kilometers. Today will be 53 kilometers. I also have never climbed more than 1.100 meters. Today I have to climb 1.600. I have no clue how my body will react to all of this. On top of that, I know I am slow. The back of the field is fine for me.
Realistically this ultra is going to take me somewhere between 8 and 9 hours. As long as I can do the marathon in 7 hours, I am allowed to run the final lap of 10 kilometers. That should be doable.
However, I do have a bold plan. Although I have no clue what’s precisely awaiting me, I’ve written down a schedule on my arm that would have me finish in 7 hours and 30 minutes. Yesterday I looked at our training weekend in Spa and saw that my average pace there was 8.20 minutes per kilometer. So I decided on a race pace of 8.30 for this ultra. Okay, Spa was only 31 kilometers and 1.100 meters of altitude, but a little ambition isn’t too bad, is it?
Steep and slippery
The first climb of the day, after 10 minutes, makes me doubt my plans. It’s steep and especially slippery. Luckily I brought my running poles. Around me I see a lot of people slipping and sliding, but thanks to the poles I slowly make my way up.
The first climb is directly followed by the first downhill of the day. A gentle descent, but a tricky one with all the mud. Normally I win time by racing down, now I’m holding back to make sure I’m staying on my feet.
From Helen’s Garden in Eastbourne, we’re running along the coast, over wide, rolling hills. Continuously climbing or descending. Before I know it, we’re passing Belle Tout Lighthouse, Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters cliffs, after which we turn land inwards to the Country Park with the same name.
After 10 kilometers we’re running on a flat trail for the first time. However, the mud here acts like glue, sucking on our feet. Two little climbs and the second flat part takes us through Friston Forest. When I leave it behind me, I’ve got 17 kilometers done. From here on there won’t be any flat meters anymore. Just up or down.
Luckily the legs feel good. I feel good. Even the big climb around Folkington goes very well, and the long descent makes me happy. The only worry I have is my stomach. I think all the sugary gels and energy bars have started a fermentation process in my belly. It’s bloated, and it gives me cramps, but somehow it’s not slowing me down.
When I pass the half marathon point my legs still feel fine. I can feel all the climbing – something I am not used to – but running is no problem. Ten kilometers later, when I cross East Dean, that feeling has changed, and my legs are becoming heavy. Luckily I’m running alongside Yusuke Hayashi and we’re chatting about races, to make the time fly by.
From East Dean it’s just a couple of kilometers back to Berling Gap, which means we’ve done almost 35 kilometers, and can start the countdown. It should spur me on, but when we turn land inwards again, 2 kilometers later, I have a dip when I have to climb another hill. I try to keep eating, but my stomach keeps protesting.
Four kilometers later, when I can see the houses of Eastbourne, I dive behind a bush. It’s just air I’m releasing, but it takes away most of the cramps. Maybe it’s the relief not to feel my stomach, maybe it’s just the idea that I will see Sara soon, but I find some energy again, and run the last meters to the split for the marathon and ultra. I look at my watch and see that I’m still a minute ahead on my most ambitious schedule.
Sara is already awaiting me at the split with a Coca Cola, the magic potion to keep going on an ultra. I empty my pockets and leave all the energy bars and gels with her, except for two. After a quick kiss I’m on my way again, back to the big hill of this morning. The ultra is the marathon plus the 10 kilometers, Sara has been running today. Which means, we ultra runners have to climb the big hill twice.
It takes me almost a minute more this time. As every kilometer is taking me almost a minute more. I try to jog the downhills, but I have no energy anymore for the uphills. Strangely enough my legs are happy to walk. They just don’t want to run anymore.
Every now and then I manage to do a kilometer in less than eight minutes, but most of them are way over. Yet, I’m happy, I’m moving. Nothing in my mind is thinking about giving up, which can’t be said for almost 10 percent of the field today.
Back to Eastbourne
Where I go slow, the time likes to go fast, because before I know it, I’ve done 48 kilometers, and I’m on the last, long stretch back to Eastbourne, passing cows that look at me with their big, brown eyes. From here it’s just one big climb, followed by a small descent into Helen’s Garden.
I pick trees, gates, sign posts and fences to keep myself going. ‘Okay, just run to that tree on this flat bit, then you can walk the next ascending part’. It works and when I cross the sign for the last mile I have enough energy to jog a little. I might not do it within 7.30 hours, but I can come close.
When I turn the last corner I see the finish line, I see Sara. It overwhelms me with emotions. All these years without running, because of my ankle injuries, all the training I’ve done in the last months, and here I am doing it. Finishing my first ultra in 7 hours, 35 minutes and 16 seconds. I am 50 years old and I’ve been running more than 50 kilometers. I have done it.