Sunday 29 June 2014

NoMad 50 Ultramarathon Race Report

It is quickly becoming clear that one of the best things about ultrarunning is the people who do it. For me, the bulk of the 2014 NoMad 50 fell into two slices of time, each of which I'll remember chiefly because of the people I ran with.

It began early when, slightly anxious at the thought of my first 50-mile race, I arrived at the back of The Navigation pub to find the smell of frying bacon and a quiet start line under a grey sky. Most of the runners had opted for the 0600 start and were already gone - there were just a handful of organizers making themselves breakfast while they waited for the 0700 start. A local club runner, whom I later learned was called Eddie Mathieson, checked in just ahead of me and opted to head straight out at about 0630 rather than wait. I hung around to see if I could pick up any tips about the route from the organizers or other competitors. What I learnt was that I was going to get lost a lot. I thought about asking whether I could start a mile ahead of everyone else in recognition of the frantic extra mile I'd already run that morning after forgetting my drop bag and having to sprint back to my hotel.
A low-key sendoff at exactly 0700 saw a small pack of us set off along a flat offroad cycleway, heading fast after the runners who had already left. I found myself up near the front of the group with Janson Heath, Sal Chaffey - who was last year's First Lady - and Daniel Hendriksen. From the flinty grey eyes to the craggy features, Janson looked like Figure 1 from "The Big Book of Fellrunning Hard-Men". As we ran, he told us how he had recently completed the Bob Graham Round in some unfeasibly short time.
"You aren't carrying any food or water," Daniel said to Janson. In response, Janson gestured to two tiny pockets on his shorts. "I've got some stuff to eat in here." Presumably the pockets contained rusty nails and gravel.
Daniel himself proved to be something of a dark horse. At first glance he looked dressed more for a day at the beach than an endurance event, in baggy shorts and a loose T-shirt. I initially pegged him as an enthusiastic newcomer trying to keep up with the front-runner - an idea whose arrogant wrong-headedness became apparent when he casually mentioned his excellent performance at the Spine Challenger race back in January. Shows what I know.
The route dropped off the cyclepath and fired across crop fields towards Draycott. Past a hulking abandoned brick-built factory capped with an ornate clocktower, down a narrow alleyway and back out of town, I continued with Janson and Daniel as the route climbed onto a grassy bank and headed southeast before swinging around, over the river and down to Shardlow where we joined the canal for a few miles of easy running, the three of us men slowly easing away from Sal.
My training has been based around paying attention to my heart rate, which I find great for knowing I'm not pushing myself unsustainably when doing long distances. Unfortunately, everything was out of kilter that morning. At the start line, my watch was reporting 80 beats per minute - at least 20 higher than I'd normally expect when standing around doing nothing. I'd hoped to keep it down around 145 for most of the run, but as soon as we left the start line it went up into the 150s and seemed to want to go even higher. Clearly it was adreneline doing its thing [edit: I think it was actually the early signs of a cold, which hit me hard the next couple of days]. Along the canal my heart and I reached a compromise that, like all compromises, left neither of us happy, and I found a pace that kept things at a high but steady 155 BPM. As you can see from the screenshot below, I was able to run extremely steadily at this level of effort, going at an almost metronomic 5:08 pace. But it soon became clear from his frequent watch-checks and the almost imperceptibly widening gap between us that Janson was religiously sticking to 5 minute kilometres. As we continued to follow the canal, those few extra seconds per kilometre meant I slowly but steadily dropped back. Daniel stayed glued to Janson's heels and eventually, as I choked noisily on a hastily gobbled dried date, the two frontrunners disappeared around a bend and I didn't see them again.

A pleasant spell of running alone alongside the colourful narrowboats was disturbed when I glanced back and saw a runner in a white cap who, it quickly became apparent, was steadily reeling me in from behind. This was Matthew Ma, who soon overhauled me and trotted away up the towpath after a brief chat. Somehow I caught up with him again just before Checkpoint 1 where, remembering James Young's advice to look strong at aid stations so as to demoralise your opponents, I grabbed a handful of jelly babies, shouted something about how amazing I felt and then ran off, leaving Matthew behind. Weirdly, this tactic didn't actually stop Matthew from running faster than me. A few minutes later he caught me up and passed me as we climbed over the A50 and back to the canal.
Several more miles of narrowboats, then back over the A50 a second time, skirting Findern and over some fields of corn, I must have been closing in on Matthew as I arrived at a scruffy farm just in time to call him back from heading down a lane in the wrong direction. We ran together for a while, over fields, around the edge of a housing estate and up to Checkpoint 2 in a pub car park. Here I grabbed a handful of flapjack pieces (which sat like fatty cannonballs in my stomach for the next hour - when will I learn not to eat these?!) and was off up the road whilst Matthew was still sorting out his bag.
The route led out of town, following yellow arrows helpfully painted on the ground by the organizers. These took us up to a dead-straight stretch of cycle track, and I ran bursts of faster and slower pace to avoid my legs doing exactly the same thing over and over. I got a nice morale boost as I passed three of the 0600 starters.
Matthew was a steady 150 metres behind me along much of the cycle track, but as I left that part of the route by climbing up some steps and heading north I somehow lost him and didn't see him again for the rest of the race. The route went across a long string of difficult and slow fields here. The ground had been mangled into ankle-turning badness by those twin environmental scourges: cows and tractors. Crossing from one lumpy and pock-holed field to another was made even more difficult thanks to the local farmers fighting to win the coveted East Midlands Most Preposterously Narrow Stile Award.
Here was the lengthy stretch of running alone that separated the two parts of my day. Eventually I hit Checkpoint 3 in another pub car park and passed a big crowd of 0600 starters, including a woman whose back was being flayed horribly by her rucksack. A few hundred metres on I called to a group of 0600s who were heading in the wrong direction up a hill and then, as the poor buggers lost the altitude they'd just painfully gained, I headed off over more fields of wheat and hairy barley, feeling the first signs of fatigue start to appear as I approached the half-way point. Over a road, and the land became more rolling. Dropping down a rough grassy slope I looked back to see a woman dressed in black come flying down behind me at an astonishing pace - indeed, she was going so fast I at first assumed she must be one of the relay runners (who each run just a fifth of the route). This turned out to be Helen Pickford from Sheffield, who later explained she only ever trains on hills and so is happier firing up and down slopes than running on level ground (I challenge you to a cross-Netherlands race, Helen!). She took up a position just in front of me and soon, as the route led us along a field-edge past Kedleston Park, we were joined by a lovely chap called Justin and, shortly afterwards, the three of us caught up with Eddie, whom I had last seen at the start. I'd started later than these three, and presumably they had steadily maintained right from the beginning a pace similar to what we were all now doing; the faster speed I had held up easily for the first leg no longer felt quite so feasible, and I happily slipped into the pace of this group.
Passing through a strand of trees with Justin a few minutes later, we hit the 42.2 km point. It's relevant to note here that I only started running 9 months earlier, and ran a marathon for the first time last December. As I ducked under a branch and looked at my watch, I was delighted to see that my 42.2 km time today, for what was just the first half of a race where I was having to hold plenty in reserve, was slightly faster than had been that death-or-glory lung-shredder in Portsmouth 6 months ago. A highly satisfying sign of my progress as a runner (or perhaps just testimony to the curry-and-beer pre-race ritual I've adopted since then).
Justin and I lost Helen and Eddie for a short while just before Duffield, a town in which the race organizers went above and beyond the call of duty - or perhaps anticipated the runners' mental collapse - by providing a marshall to press the pelican-crossing button for us as we crossed the main road. Leaving the town after Checkpoint 4 ("Only a half-marathon to go!"), we climbed some steep steps and headed back out into the countryside, thrashing painfully through shoulder-high nettles and scraping our flesh through more leprechaun-sized squeeze-stiles. Rejoining Helen and Eddie, the four of us nervously clapped and shouted our way through fields of inquisitive, drooling bullocks. Somehow, despite the presence of three new potential victims, I missed this opportunity to attempt the flock of cows joke*.
(*"Look, a flock of cows!"
Herd of cows"
Of course I have, there's a flock of them over there")
We ran through woods on a muddy track, Helen and Eddie slightly ahead, Justin and I trotting along together as he told me about running the fearsome-sounding Ring of Fire race. At one point he sealed his place as Best Person in the World by looking over at me and saying "I'd kill for a running style like yours". Helen, Justin and Eddie were all great company and I was grateful to have them pull me along and make sure I didn't get lazy at this point, as I fear I easily could have done. We passed more fields, then a lane, a track, and a dog barking on a wall. When the dog barked we turned left, because that's what the race directions told us to do. (Reading the directions the week before, I'd thought this sounded like something out of Father Ted - "Turn left where you see a barking dog on a wall" - and yet the directions were all correct and the barking dog was indeed on the wall telling us where to turn.)
Still we ate up the miles. As we ran up a gravelled drive I quaffed a gel and then stopped to spray a nettle patch with disturbingly cola-coloured piss. But my looming dehydration was forgotten as we passed through the last checkpoint and set off on tracks that were now increasingly familiar to local boy Eddie. Through a kissing gate and up an alley, back into fields full of green wheat and swelling rapeseed pods that swished around our thighs and tried to trip us with their roots.
And so into the final stretch. We ran across the fairways of a golf course under the revolted stares of the players; at this point Eddie and Helen scented the finish line and showed their class by digging deep and pulling ahead. But that's not to say Justin and I were out of it. As we realised we could respectively break 9:30 and 8:30 finishing times, we also found the reserves to up the pace considerably for the last few kilometres. Off the road, down a narrow and overgrown footpath, and then we powered through the final few fields, my watch counting down the distance to the finish line - 800m, 600m... (Incidentally, I'd like to nominate the last field for a special award in the East Midlands Shit Stiles Contest. Not content with the traditional barriers of barbed wire or laughable narrowness, this farmer had somehow contrived to wedge a pony into the gap we were meant to pass through.)
A narrow stretch of ground by some railings and then suddenly the path opened out and there was the inflatable arch and I was finished! Eight hours and 28 minutes after starting. Janson and Daniel were already standing there, having finished in 7:41 and 8:10 respectively - thoroughly deserving gold and silver medalists. I thought that might mean I had come third, but I didn't know for sure - I had no way of knowing whether any of the 0600 starters had run a fast race.
The placing was resolved after a slightly awkard moment when the third-place medal was handed to Helen along with her Fastest Lady trophy. Helen quickly handed it over to me, and after some checking of paperwork, the organizers agreed that I had indeed started later than the other finishers who had just crossed the line and so had run the course in less time, meaning I was officially in third place. Phew!
I hung around the finish for an hour or so, cheering in some more runners (including Matthew, who had lost time by getting off-route) and Jonathan, who had kindly given me a lift that morning after deducing that the person walking up the road in shorts, calf-guards and clown shoes might be a fellow ultrarunner. I would have stayed longer but there was a brown dog scratching at the back door begging to be let out, so I had to head back up the road to do awful things to my hotel toilet.
Walking up through the outskirts of Long Eaton, the brightly coloured Buff hanging off my head, the embarrasingly tiny shorts, the weird rolling plantar fasciitis limp... things that had looked totally normal back in the ultra world I had just left were glaring oddities back in the real world. A woman walking her dogs glared suspiciously at me, clearly wishing for a small child so she could have pulled it to safety. I didn't care. I'd just put up a better performance than I could ever have hoped for in my first 50-mile race, particularly as a 40 year old who has been running for only 9 months. That would do me just fine. Balls to the suspicious dog-walkers of Derbyshire!
And the NoMad 50 itself? Well frankly it was a great event. The organizers were enthusiastic and helpful, the event was low-key, fun and surprisingly cheap. And there was even a well-stocked goody bag. It is, when all said and done, mostly around and across fields, and so isn't the place to come if stunning mountain trails are the only thing that move you, or if you're terrified of nettles and cows. But with the great organization, friendly atmosphere and lack of climbing (less than 800m in total), I would definitely recommend the 2015 event to anybody who wants a great day out and to go for a good time on a relatively flat 50.

Lessons Learnt

  • Going out fast and then slowing down a bit was totally fine. I started doing almost 5-minute kilometres and towards the end was mostly running at between 6 and 7 minutes (partly because I started to get tired and partly because the terrain became more difficult). I'm pretty sure that if I'd held back at the beginning and gone out at 6 minutes/km then the only difference in outcome would have been that I'd have finished the race slower! Of course, the staggered start times of this event made my inevitable slowing down almost a pleasure - as I came off the gas near the half-way point I was able to fall in with a group of runners who were good company and who were going at just the right pace; if everybody had started the race at the same time then this wouldn't have happened and I would not have had company to keep me moving, particularly in the 60-70 km zone where I felt at my most sluggish.
  • I could have gone faster! Yes, I had a few kilometres of feeling slightly leaden and allowing myself to be pulled along by companions, but that's always going to happen for some part of a long race. The fact is that, apart from exacerbating some plantar fasciitis that had already been developing over the past few days, the race didn't leave me feeling too bad physically, and the next day I could definitely have run if I'd wanted to (I didn't want to). I now see I could definitely have gone at it considerably harder and faster if I'd had to.
  • I ate less then I thought I would. I'd told myself that I would alternate between a Mule Bar and a gel every 30 minutes, but in the end only ate about 3 bars and 4 gels, plus a handful of jelly babies and the like from aid stations (and that dried date that tried to kill me by the canal). In the end I was still carrying a lot of the food in my race vest and didn't touch the extra food I'd put into a drop bag. Interesting. Perhaps I can carry less weight on my back next time?
  • Following the GPS route on my watch was superb. I had downloaded the track from the event website and spent a couple of hours cleaning it up to make sure that it stuck as closely as possible to the actual paths visible on aerial imagery. I was able to navigate the course almost without problem just by keeping the arrow on the line. There was only one point where I had to backtrack more than a few metres, and even then it was because we were just on the wrong side of a hedge.
  • Calf compression: oh my god! I've only tried calf guards for the first time recently and they're amazing. My calves are usually the first part of my body to feel the strain and yet here we are, 50 miles of running and they feel totally fine. Even the next day as I write this, they feel perfect. They should be compulsory. I might never take them off again. 

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