After months of speculating, the time finally arrived to put up or shut up this last Sunday at the Dukeries Ultra. Effectively, my return to racing after the best part of two years on the sidelines. ROs Roger & Marie put on a cracking event comprising two simultaneous races; a 32.6mile/52km route taking in some beautiful trails through ducal estates and the forests of Sherwood and Clumber and known as the “30”, and the “40”, an equally entertaining but extended 41 mile/66km variation. I’d opted for the 32 miler.
The plan was to just try and run a solid race. No fireworks, no theatrics, just get round in one piece. After such a long injury break and with so many upcoming racing plans in the balance there was quite a lot riding on this outing, and I was very nervous as to how it would all play out. Nicola had done a sterling job keeping me calm and getting me prepared all week. This was the first time I’d ever have a support crew backing me up through the race too, my wife and my parents, so it was a new experience for all of us.
We arrived at Walesby in the SMHQ Mobile Unit, registered and waited for the start. Once the race briefing had taken place we assembled in the car park of the sports club and prepared for the off. I suddenly felt quite calm and accepting of the challenge lying ahead. Nerves turned to anticipation. Fear turned to excitement. Let’s do this.
We set off at a fairly mellow pace, which only helped to further soothe the pre-race nerves. I was content to sit with the front pack and just get a couple of miles under the belt to see how I felt. We gradually moved off the wide bridleway and onto a sweet forested singletrack at a very calm 7:30 min/mile pace, the pack dissipated and I ended up running out at the front with one other. We set about putting in a shift for the first section and upped the ante a little. The trails rolled by fairly swiftly, I felt totally comfortable, and with a bit of effort we quickly put a fair gap between the two of us and third place.
CP1 Hazel Gap – 6.7 miles
It makes a massive difference to have a crew at a checkpoint! I ran in feeling good, maybe thirty seconds up on my fellow runner. I changed my bottle, shoved down some beet mix and a salt cap and left CP1 without delay. Even that early on in the race it was a fantastic boost to see Nicola and my folks. From a personal point of view I was chuffed for them to be able to see me at the front. It made me happy to think they’d get to see that at least once.
I took the time to enjoy my surroundings. Embraced by beautiful ancient forests and running some glorious singletrack, things seemed like they couldn’t get much better. A beautiful day, beautiful trails, my family on hand.
I was actually enjoying myself.
There’s not a whole lot more to report for this section other than I was leading the race and feeling good, but not really shaking off the other guy who maintained a consistent twenty or thirty second deficit for most of the way. It became apparent as we headed towards the halfway point that I was going to have to make a decisive move if I actually was to attempt to run this thing with a view to winning it.
CP2 Cresswell Crags – 15.4 miles
The crew were again on top form at CP2, another smooth transition through to the next section. Same as CP1 but I also grabbed one of Nicola’s Beetroot Ginger Chocolate Brownies which tasted awesome. Nic suggested I ease off and tuck in behind second place (I had since learned his name was Nick) and let him do the hard work for a bit. There was after all, quite a long way still to go.
I’d earmarked the next ten mile section before the race as probably the the toughest, so I duly tucked in behind Nick for a while. After maybe four miles that lead started to yo-yo back and forth as I tried to force the issue a little without going too mad. Apply a gentle bit of pressure. Force him to work for it. Lime Tree Avenue through Clumber was, as expected, a bit of a slog, but by the time I reached Hardwick Village I’d finally established a clear and decent lead of maybe a minute and a half. I checked the watch, realised I was only maybe a mile away from CP3 and my crew, so nine miles had passed in the blink of an eye and had felt relatively easy, and it occurred to me that all I had to do was keep it rolling and I could win the race. Something that I’d considered entirely unthinkable only twenty four hours before. I felt comfortable, I felt in control. A smooth and speedy transition through CP3 and I would be on my way. It was about to go very wrong.
CP3 A614 Crossing – 25.7 miles
Heading in to the checkpoint, I fell, rolled a few times, and sat dazed for a moment. Get up. Get going. In my haste to then get through the checkpoint quickly I took route advice from somebody I shouldn’t have and I hared off out of CP3 South East and kept going instead of turning back on myself and heading East. In the meantime Nick had arrived at CP3 in the ensuing chaos, realised I’d gone the wrong way and battered off in the correct direction. He had the lead and he was making the most of it whilst I ran off to who knows where.
Cue Nicola, who, once it had become apparent what had just taken place and torn between jumping in the van to chase me up the road or go hell for leather on foot, threw my empty bottles and attachments at my parents, hitched up her jeans and shot out of the layby UP THE BUSY CARRIAGEWAY yelling for me to stop. Not the path at the side that I had followed, the actual A614.
Cars were roaring past at the other side of a delicate tree line separating singletrack from hectic tarmac. And then, over the din of the cars, the merest hint of a shout coming from somewhere behind me. I couldn’t make out the words, but I remember realising that it had that lovely and familiar Glasweigan lilt to it and I stopped dead in my tracks. Nicola. Of course, all I got was a lovely, comforting hint of her voice, the rest was lost against a backdrop of exhausts and acceleration. She was actually screaming her lungs out, effing and jeffing at me to turn around. I turned and met her coming the other way. There was swearing. There was shouting. There was a definite ‘Move your ass Monkeyboy’ moment. I checked the map. I swivelled the map around. I checked it again. I faffed about. It was, quite honestly, a bit of a disaster. But now heading in the right direction thanks to Nicola, I’d added a full half mile to the day’s running, and ended up something like (we estimate) three or four minutes behind Nick, who had disappeared into the forest.
I was furious.
I resolved to keep the panic under wraps, use the anger productively and keep the pace steady. If I had pulled away from him prior to CP3 I might be able to reel him in just the same after it. I was three, maybe four minutes behind, feeling a bit tired now, mentally knocked by the detour and the miles were running out. In just seven of them I’d be back at Walesby at the finish line. I wasn’t prepared to let that be a disappointing moment for me or my family. I was perfectly happy to finish in second place, but only if I’d done everything I could to make it a fighting second place.
So I ran. I upped the pace to something like 6:10s or 6:15s and I decided to keep running harder until I caught him. Surprisingly it didn’t really hurt that much so I had more in the tank than I realised, and I fixated on locking my sights onto Nick’s yellow shirt somewhere up ahead. After a while he came into view, a flash of yellow darting between trees. I kept pushing, and after maybe three miles on from the checkpoint I drew level at a sharp left turn, passed him, held steady for a while and then pushed on to close the thing off. I crossed a bridge, got into some woodland and took off. I thought of my family, repeated a few mantras, tried to ignore the tiring legs. Woodland gave way to fields, flashing past farms and down a gentle descent. Fields gave way to farm track, and farm track finally gave way to tarmac. Walesby. The finish line was close.
It was an amazing moment to round the final corner and see Nicola and my parents waiting for me. They hadn’t thought I’d catch Nick after CP3, let alone get in front of him, so when I appeared in first place they quite literally went mental. That, above all else, is my best memory of the day. Hearing mum and Nic screaming as I ploughed down the final bit of tarmac, hung a left and crossed the finish line at the sports centre. They ran it in with me. It was a brilliant feeling.
A win in my first race back. It really couldn’t have gone any better. I had run very conservatively but also very consistently, meaning that apart from the mistake at CP3 I had run every single step of the 33.15 miles, and I know that I could knock a good bit of time off overall too with some more training, confidence, and once I’ve re-sharpened my race “smarts”.
My legs felt fine, and after a quick massage we watched the other runners come in, exchanged war stories, dissected the day’s events and enjoyed the wee presentation ceremony. I can’t lie, it was nice to be a part of it.
This is by no means the biggest race in the world. I’ve not just cracked round and won UTMB. My winning time wasn’t even particularly quick. But it carries considerable meaning and great importance to me on my path to getting back on track, overcoming a few demons, putting injury woes behind me and enjoying racing again. So for now, I’m reserving the right to feel fairly pleased with the day’s events 😉
Thanks – this race represented a huge leap forward for me and there a fair few people I need to acknowledge…
Anybody on Twitter that took the time to post a kind or supportive comment after the race. Every single one was very much appreciated 🙂
My brother in law Paul for his continual support, supplies, and in-race nouse ;-). Also Mama & Papa G for their love from North of the wall 🙂 Love you guys X
My family; My brother Tom for his pre-race messages that really gave me a huge boost and he probably doesn’t even realise. He’s a total rock for me my wee bro. My amazing parents who jumped straight in to this crewing malarkey and were totally brilliant. Thank you for everything you did on Sunday, I was so chuffed to have you there X
Most of all, my wife Nicola. Who supports and loves me unconditionally, and has given me the platform to get back into this and have a right good go at it. She was awesome all week in getting me ready, from customising my kit to making homemade gels, from putting wee stickers on my handheld bottles to doing all she can to get me to believe in myself more, and, well, she’s awesome every day actually. I am a VERY lucky man. Team Swizzlemonkey! We did it Nic!! X
To the organisers, marshalls, other runners and everybody involved in putting these two races on each May. They really are great routes and excellently organised. Info here at www.dukeriesevents.co.uk .
To the guys from Tideswell RC that were crewing for their runner (Ben?). You popped up all over the place on the route where least expected, were incredibly supportive and gave me a great boost and you probably don’t even realise 🙂 I really appreciated the kind words afterwards too.