Saturday November 4th, 2017

The twelve hours or so preceding this race were a little stressful. I had kids bedtime to do on my own and the little mites wouldn’t sleep! Then I had a hour in the evening trying to get my kit ready – cleaning my hydration bladder, sorting out my mandatory kit, my clothing, etc., while trying to get enough sleep. I slept only around six hours, and after showering, found that my plan to eat porridge about 30 minutes before my bus, just after 5:30am, were ill conceived. I couldn’t even finish my porridge either. I ended up hastily packing my hydration fluid and sachets away, getting out the door to my bus too hastily, in a bit of a panic. When on the bus, I got listening to a random mix of Leftfield, The Album Leaf, doom bringers Thou, and then Run The Jewels (who I’m off to see Thursday!), before proceeding to get off the bus a stop early. No matter. I enjoyed my walk to race HQ, while gleefully uttering the words ‘RTJ3, motherf****rs’ with nobody about to hear, all while admiring the majesty of Pule Hill, which overlooks the village of Marsden, in early morning darkness. By now I could at least relax at race HQ and get my things prepared while counting down to race time.

Race day was finally here, some five months after that whimsical decision. The White Rose Ultra. One of northern England’s premier ultra marathons was finally here, in its 5th year, welcoming runners from far and wide to attempt one loop, two loops, or three (+ 10 additional miles) of its 30 mile course.
It was good to converse with other entrants, as it always is – in running you rarely need to talk about anything else – and I even met a regular from the Running the World Facebook group – before warming up, setting my baggage to one side. The room went from relatively empty when I first arrived to the whole visitor centre being full of runners, some new to this ultra game, others more experienced, coming from all parts of the UK and beyond.

Everyone began to gather outside. The rain wasn’t lashing down by any means, but the air was still damp. Plenty of time remained for selfies and some further warming up before Wane, the race director, debriefed the runners shortly before the race began.

As the 30 second warning went out, I realised I hadn’t switched on my watch! I quickly turned it on but of course, it was never going to find a satellite so quickly. Alas, the race set off, and my watch took a good minute or two before I could get it going. I was quickly established around the first seven or eight runners, already spread out as one guy doing the 30 had already opened up a gap heading towards Mount Road. Once on the hill, the gap spread out a little more, but we all kept in touch more or less. The race then took a tight angle to the left, heading back down Old Mount Road. I could only note the leader getting away further from the other lead runners. The downhill gradient was an invitation to inject some pace into proceedings, and I gained a few places, before ceding two immediately after mistaking a dead end for Binn Road, the road leading to the Wessenden Valley and Pennine Way. The hills were already proving challenging, but eventually it levelled out as the trail emerged. To the left, walls, bushes and hills. To the right, reservoirs, spillways and more hills. One of Yorkshire’s most spectacular sights, right on the edge of the Lancashire boundary. Notably, the leader was getting away even further. I thought he’d surely overcooked it, but who was I to know. I focused on my own race and continued to navigate the numerous puddles and muddy footpaths left by the overnight rain. Its a gentle climb up to the top of the Wessenden Valley, with only the last climb to the top having a bit of sting in the tail.

The first self serve water station was here, and I got some in my reusable cup, which was a bit flimsy in terms of keeping its shape and actually getting anything from it. At this point, I’d still not had any caffeine. I needed to shock myself, it seemed, so as the wind gripped at the top of Wessenden Head, I chucked the remaining water in my face. I seemed instantaneously awoken, like whatever punishment I’d sustained subsided and now it was time to enjoy some road running. I kept to my tactic though, of trying to stop for nourishment every hour, so I slowed down and finally took some of my caffeine drink, along with a slice of Soreen malt loaf. This allowed a runner to overtake me, so I ensured I didn’t hang about took long in my walk phase and got moving again, taking the left off the road to head through the trails leading to Blackmoorfoot reservoir.

Here I made some inroads into the positions, gaining two places, but my jacket was loosening from my waist, and I decided it needed to go back in the bag. I got to a corner in the road, having really worked hard, took off the vest and set it down to put it back. Only, the zip jammed. It would not open. I was overtaken again, and so, furious with myself, ran off carrying the jacket for a short distance before tying it back around my waist as the route crossed more trail. I got back into my rhythm and noticed up ahead that two runners were crossing by the Blackmoorfoot Reservoir. I was still some distance behind at this point, but as I left the reservoir behind, I began to catch up these two runners at the first food station. I reached the food desk just as they left, grabbed a sausage roll and more water, and quickly set off again, feeling I could keep my pace up over this relatively mild section.

Heading towards Linthwaite, I was enjoying a rich vein of running form. I seemed to be running well at this point, and the view from above was even more enjoyable due to the presence of two deer, absolutely at peace. The route barreled down towards Linthwaite village, and before I knew it, I’d overtaken the two men (one doing the 30, the other running the 60) and was keeping the pace downhill.

I kept up the pace as the race reached Linthwaite, but I knew what was coming next. The next 6 miles or so were filled with steep hills, winding through Wellhouse, Bolster Moor, Leymoor, and then up towards Scapegoat Hill. I had slowed up a little to try and retain a much steadier momentum up the hill, but I’d forgotten how steep the incline towards Bolster Moor was! I dropped a few places here and saved my legs as the race led to the right, once past the farm shop. At this point, I came across one of my club mates from the Halifax Harriers, who had come out for a little while to take some photos, all of which took place on some of the less stressful sections of the route, which were taking their toll already. I did my best to smile – I was genuinely pleased to see someone I knew out on course. He would appear again a little further up the road. Apparently the front runners were only a couple of minutes ahead, but realistically I knew I was beginning to suffer.

Leaving Bolster Moor. Looking strong at this point!

I reached the trail section known as Hollin Hall Lane here, which is all downhill into the village of Leymoor, but the overnight rain made going down in treacherous. The runner behind me said it was dicy in road shoes, and my toothy Salomons had little grip either. I jarred my left achillies at one point, and near the bottom I managed to whack my left ankle with my right foot. That one seemed particularly painful at the time, but on I went. It didn’t inhibit my gait, and the road was a nice diversion before heading up the cobbles of Dodlee Lane. This one was run-walked. Further along the next country road was the next aid station, combined with a water station as well. More water and a couple of Jelly Babies, I was off again. 

Still going well…

The next section wound past the Outlane golf course. This is pretty much where my race as I knew it began to unravel. My quads had basically had enough. Scarily too, had my lower calf muscles. I found myself stopping to stretch them at one point, but I felt good to continue. Seeing the M62 up ahead meant I must be near the top, but there just seemed to be another hill every time I turned a corner. Eventually, I came out onto the end of Pole Moor, heading towards New Hey Road, and I could no longer see anyone in front. My race had truly gone to hell, in the sense that any pre-race strategy was out of the window as walk breaks were far more frequent, and that my quads, going uphill at least, were deadweight. The nutrition remained more or less the same, as I started taking gels to try and give myself a boost. Even on New Hey Road, I was struggling to run and I really had to remind myself this was left foot, right foot stuff. I looked back as I took the next turn, and saw no one behind me. Not that I cared for where I finished, but it was surely a matter of time before someone else caught and passed me.

I started to pick up a little more energy at last, heading into mile 23. I felt like I had the reserves to move things up and even if it was still, to me, a nine minute mile I was running, it was still progress on before. The race was now entering its closing phase, winding through Bradshaw, Slaithwaite and finally into Marsden. I felt reasonably OK until I felt some sort of cramp coming into my quads, fearing it could be curtains if it took hold. So I stopped, trying to do a quad stretch and nearly made it worse. Finding it better to keep going, the cramp oddly disappeared and I was able to keep going at around nine-ten minute miles, as the course became very undulating. Down one drop and a right hand turn, along the road, then another right turn.

And there it was. Plains Lane. At mile 29/59/89 depending on which race you were in. It starts off steep, then flattens a little before becoming even steeper and finally turning trail and. retaining its steepness. Goodness knows what gradient it is, I already made my promise to myself weeks ago I was walking nearly every inch of this hill, and I delivered. It was a massive slog, and yet, as I took one last look behind me, looking down the hill, still I found no one behind me. If I was getting caught anywhere it was this hill, but as I finally reached the peak, nope, still no one had passed, and I had my running legs again.

There was still one gentle climb to navigate but the miles and yards were running out on this race. Eventually, a left turn would see myself looking downhill, and at last, a left pointing arrow directing towards the finish. I found some resolve, bolstered by the knowledge the end was near, and finally found some pace as I ran the remaining fractions of a mile. I got those knees lifted, those shoulders moving, and as the right turn approached, I even lengthened my stride! I charged down the hill, turned left and crossed the finish running stronger than at any time since about mile 16. I was quickly informed at the finish line I’d finished tenth! Not a bad result at all.

Heading back upstairs, the chief organisers Wane and Kate, whom know me on first name terms having partaken in the Pieathlon and having got hilariously lost during the (Wo)Man vs Barge last year, presented me with a medal and t-shirt. I confirmed to them I didn’t want to do another loop of the course, and headed off for the post-race grub. Vegetarian chilli!

This was far from a perfect race for me, mostly in terms of my own transgressions against myself – not setting my watch at the start was most unlike myself, though I only wanted it mostly for recording my run rather than tracking my pace constantly.  Trying to keep up the pace and not stop for rest at aid stations was a rookie mistake. The decision to take out my jacket at the start of the race when the rain, in retrospect, wasn’t so bad and was beginning to clear, wasn’t a great one due to the faffing about with the jacket, especially when I stopped to load it into my race vest, which itself was a bane during and after the race due to a label getting caught in the zip. Nothing quite like mid-race for your kit to malfunction. And as a minor point, the water stops weren’t entirely consistent with what was stated pre-race. Every five miles turned out to be more like this (as a rough guide); mile 6, 11, 18, 20 and at the finish (or end of lap for the 60/100 runners). Of course, I don’t expect a water stop right in the middle of a three mile section of the Pennine Way. But the lack of a water station around mile 25 meant for myself, I was tapping into what was left in my hydration bladder (mostly empty of caffeine drink) and a single water bottle which was intended for consumption with gels and basically as and when required. I had enough to get to the end though, and nobody else saw it as a particular issue, but 10 miles without fresh water just wasn’t something I’ve ever experienced at miles 20-30 of any race. Hey, I’m new to this ultra running lark!
The race had so much more going for it though. My own recce from the summer was invaluable on the day, but had I not done so, turning up and running the route for the first time on race day would have been just as reassuring. Incredibly well signposted on the day, it really felt impossible to go wrong. That’s what you want from a 30 mile loop where it would be difficult to get enough people to volunteer far and wide. So top marks to the organisers there. The scenery, like most places in Yorkshire, is simply stunning, from the Wessenden Valley to Pole Moor, to Scammonden Water and the hills over Marsden itself. The work you have to put in to see such sights though!

And on a personal note, I must thank Wane, the main man at Team OA and race director, for allowing me to participate in this race for free. This was a transfer for a cancelled race earlier in the summer and given the generally higher costs of entering an ultra marathon, that kind of generosity, whether in reparation or otherwise, does not go unnoticed. So cheers for a brilliant day Wane!

And as if the Canal Canter hadn’t taught me so, I’m in awe of the ultra marathon community in presence at the WRU. This is without question one of the hardest races on the calendar, absolutely worth its UTMB points accreditation, but beyond that is an indomitable spirit among everyone at this race who put themselves through the ringer, from the record breakers in the 30, up to the 100 milers staying out into the early hours in pursuit of the ultimate endurance goal, to those who did their utmost to finish and those who had to make the distance to drop out part way through. You’re all incredible. Its not about times, it’s not all about speed. Its determination, a mindset, the ultimate enjoyment of running. The pursuit, and celebration, of adventure and adversity.

But am I glad to see the back of this race? Yes I am. I found this such a punishing, gruelling race that I’m canning the long distance runs now until I begin training for the London Marathon. Its been a long, successful year, and with a couple of shorter December races to follow, I really have had enough for now of running even 10 miles at this point! I think I’ll simply take the time to ease back into running, enjoy the shorter distances and find the time to reflect on the amazing memories and experience I can take from this race.

White Rose Ultra official website