Coming home from my first ultra, I’m still overwhelmed by all the experiences and impressions from the last weekend. It’s not so easy but I want to share this feeling with everyone: runners as well as friends who wonder why I would run such a long distance.
Why did I sign up for this race in southwestern England?
I browsed through the ITRA (International trail running association) race calendar and looked for any race that seems doable and would still give me 3 qualifying points for the UTMB (Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc), which is my long term goal. I liked that the maximum time for the race was very generous, so that I could focus on my own experience and not on the cutoff times.
The longest I had run before was 37 kilometers. So a 50 km trail race in a very hilly landscape was quite a challenge. I was not sure if I would make it. Would I hurt myself? Would I feel sick? Should I set any specific goals?
I decided that finishing was enough of a goal for my first ultra. There will be many more races where I get the chance to improve my times and push myself harder.
When I told friends about the race, the first reaction was usually something like “What??? 50 kilometers?!”
50 km sounds long. It’s more than a usual day of hiking. More than most of us have ever done in a day. That’s kind of scary because it’s a step into the unknown. And it doesn’t get better adding the fact that it’s difficult terrain. Up and down, stairs, steep cliffs, narrow trails.
Is it doable?
I like to think about what 11 times world surfing champion Kelly Slater once said: It’s all about where your mind’s at.
Two years ago I was in northern Norway with my husband and a friend. We were hiking between huts and saw people participating in a race. It was foggy, rainy, maybe 5 degrees and the terrain was rocky and muddy. One of us asked what kind of race it was: A 50 km trail run. We were all just speechless and later on joked about these crazy people. It almost seemed like they existed in another universe. Who would be so insanely strong and well trained to make their way through these mountains, in this weather? I could NEVER do that.
Or could I?
The answer is yes. First of all you need to train, of course. You need to have experience with running, hiking, navigation, carrying everything you need in your backpack and nutrition.
The second part is wanting to achieve this goal and not being scared. The year after seeing these strange runners in Tromsö, I participated in the race – even if only half the distance. Now I have completed my first 50 k and I can honestly say that I’m not physically stronger or in better shape than in 2016. I just changed my mindset.
I stayed in a cozy AirBnB in the small town of Exmouth. My friendly host even provided breakfast but the bus shuttle to the start left at 0545, so that I decided to eat, once I was there. By the coach park I met my friends, who stayed in another accommodation. The bus trip was quite long – a first hint on the distance that we would have to cover.
The starting area was by a football club. I ate some breakfast and stood several times in the line for the bathroom before my stomach calmed down.
Kilometers 0 – 10:
We started to run through the village of Lyme Regis, along the beach and soon into the forest. The whole race would always follow the South West Coast Path. The so called Undercliff stretches 8 km between Lyme Regis and Seaton. The landscape is a result of landslides and is a rare and unusual habitat for plants and birds. It feels like a proper jungle. It’s a national nature reserve and it’s forbidden to leave the trail due to the dangerous and unstable terrain.
Kilometers 10 – 20:
After what seemed an endless time in this dense forest, with countless stairs and steep inclines, I could finally see the village Seaton. The first aid station was right next to the golf course. I just filled up my water bottles and carried on. On these kilometers I still felt quite competitive and didn’t want anyone to overtake me.
Looking back, I realize that it doesn’t count to shave off some 20 seconds on the first kilometers. What matters is conserving enough energy to still feel competitive and full of drive after several hours.
Kilometers 20 – 30:
This was the point were I really started to feel weary and exhausted. The trail repeatedly climbed up the steep cliffs, until reaching around 150 m over sea level. From there it went down again, to the next beach or river crossing, and back up again. My legs still felt alright but I started to feel nauseated on the climbs that made my heart rate rise to the max. I had to sit down on the steepest parts and try to get some air.
Then I understood that I need to eat and drink more. Even if I felt sick in my stomach, I had to get some calories. I asked some hikers who had a picnic for a bit of water, since I had already emptied all 3 bottles. Then I had an energy gel, which has a taste and texture that almost makes me gag. But I know the sugar will help. Soon I felt way better and made my way into Sidmouth, where the biggest aid station was located.
Kilometers 30 – 40:
The aid station was located inside the sailing club and I decided to take a longer break. The volunteers were so friendly and helpful that I was almost embarrassed – just sitting there and doing nothing. I got 4 mugs of minestrone soup, refilled my bottles with different drinks and stretched on the floor. I also changed my shirt and my socks. After 30 minutes I felt fresh and well hydrated, which was certainly not the case before.
The trail led me through Sidmouth, a town very popular among tourists. But it was just English people, I couldn’t hear any other languages. This really is a shame, cause the landscape is so beautiful and mediterranean!
From here the landscape got easier and it was easier to eat something while walking. I had some corn chips and a spicy salami, so much better than sweet gels or energy bars. Along the way I overtook quite a lot of runners that did the 100 kilometer or 100 mile distance and we had a little chat. Most of them were really exhausted and in pain. Compared to that I had really nothing to complain about. My legs felt stiff and my feet were tired, but other than that I was just fine.
Kilometers 40 – 50:
Now the time really started to race and it was already 4 p.m. I felt a bit bad about having taken so much time in the aid station but also tried to remember that this wasn’t some kind of super serious competition but a new experience for me. Better to come to the finish line feeling fresh and happy, than risking an injury and suffering the whole run.
I mixed running with hiking and got some more water and slices of watermelon at the last aid station, which was a mobile home on a parking in Budleigh Salterton.
The terrain got easier, the closer I came to Exmouth. No more narrow tracks and steep climbs. The hiking trail was full of people taking a walk on this sunny Saturday afternoon and I passed a golf course, a huge camping and the compass called Geoneedle.
I could feel the town coming closer and soon I was running on the asphalt of the esplanade, with loads of beachgoers cheering for me during the last kilometers.
Right when I felt that I didn’t want to go any further, I saw the flags that marked the finish line. Again a lot of people cheering and a great welcome with a beautiful medal and a handshake from the race organization.
I sat down in the grass and just enjoyed that I had done it. No matter how much time the 50 km took me – no one could take this achievement from me! This is the feeling that makes you addicted to racing.
There is so much more that I could write about all the people I got to know and their stories. About the landscape, the villages and the people. But as a conclusion it’s probably enough to say that I really want to come back to the Jurassic Coast in 2019!