For someone who has always trained for fast and flat, PB times and the love of tarmac, this report is truly something I never thought I’d write. The blame/credit for this lies squarely at the feet of my amazing other half, Catherine Smith, and 2 super tough female Striders, Kerry and Anna.
I had heard about crazy ultra running and been totally amazed for years about what people achieved, but none of it ever really seemed real or understandable. When someone said they just ran a 40, 60; 100-mile ultra it just did not compute to a roadrunner. I had no comparators. I know what 5k hard felt like and I had experienced the massive wall at 20 miles on a marathon. I had no idea what ultras would involve.
What’s a good time for 50 miles? 100 miles? Everyone always told me you can’t do both. You run long, your speed will suffer. Say goodbye to racing the distances I love. Those were the thoughts running through my head when someone mentioned ultrarunning. My perspective now has certainly changed.
In June 2017 Leeds held their first Endure24 race and our very own Anna Seeley and Kerry Barnett both took part. Catherine and I decided to help them set up, giving us our first glimpse of the ultra world. Soon after we both signed up for the 2018 Endure24 Leeds event.
So what is Endure24?
You have 24 hours to cover the greatest distance you can, run, walk, crawl or just endure till you can’t give any more. The race starts at midday Saturday and ends 24 hours later. It’s a tough mixed terrain 5 Mile lap, chip timed and supported. You can stop/start whenever you like until the cut-off and eat, sleep, change clothes, and shower. Your battle is against yourself, the ticking clock and your desire to achieve the impossible.
My build-up to this was unconventional, to say the least; I am not an experienced distance runner in any way shape or form. My main goals were London marathon and Windermere marathon, so it was well into May until I even seriously considered Endure24 a goal/target to train for.
I’d run two 50k events as a test, earlier in the year, to see how I’d react. The first, 50k was way too fast and I’d suffered. The second was just over 4 hours and I absolutely loved it. I even managed a cool down 5k lap with Catherine after. Those 34 miles remained my distance PB right up to the day of Endure24.
I’d always wondered if I could run 100 miles in a week; my normal weekly distance is about 30. This is very low for a marathon runner. I have always focused on quality rather than pure miles in my training. This works well with my lifestyle commitments and I strongly believe it’s why I’ve been injury free for a couple of years now, But Endure24 required more.
To up my mileage, I decided to run to Blaydon start line, and finish the race with Catherine for my first ever 100 Mile week. It worked out perfectly. 20-miles from my doorstep to Newcastle, then a fun Blaydon race experience. 100 Mile week done and followed up with a 90+ week. I felt good. 2 weeks to go and time to relax, race hard and of course taper.
In the weeks before Endure24, I ran a low 17 min 5k at the first Cotsford fields parkrun and set the course record, placed 2nd at a very hilly Gibside marathon in 3:25 and I also placed 2nd at Keswick half marathon, a tough race on a boiling hot day, but what I was most pleased about was 3rd place at Lambton 10k with a 2 min course PB of 35:48. I’d proved to myself I could still run fast while training for an ultra, but the ultimate test was about to come, Endure24 was now one week away.
I’d picked up some tips and advice by accident and chance. Chris Callan gave me a Torq apple crumble running gel as payment for a post-Blaydon drink. Catherine decided to order a box of them after I raved so highly about it after a training run. This turned into a total godsend.
Another happy accident was winning New Balance vouchers at Keswick half marathon; I bought their 1080 shoes with them. These proved to be perfect for Endure24, with wide toes, comfortable, light and lots of padding. Perfect for churning out the miles and protecting my feet. The 3rd important part was discovering Mountain Fuel, energy system. This was after talking to an impressive collection of ultra runners at the Northeast Marathon Club’s Gibside marathon and 24-hour event.
So my training started late, a distance PB of 55k, one 100 Mile week and, surprisingly, I felt extremely confident. I felt in great shape. Maybe not sub-16 for 5k, but definitely in good form. I could train long and still felt fresh, fuelling was good and I knew I had an amazing support team around me for the event.
The Friday came, car loaded and off we set for Leeds with camping gear, all our food and most of our running gear.
The camping area is the same place as Leeds festival; Endure24 is described as the Glastonbury of running for a good reason. We pitched our 3 tents together near the start area and settled in. The race HQ is something special, a massive catering area, beer tents, pizza cooking, ice cream van, mobile coffee van, music DJ, massive banners, and flags flying. A total festival feeling and everyone in such high spirits. I must admit I felt a bit out of my depth, with semi-professional ultra runners strutting about, all the gear, total pros but everyone was great and we soon saw people we knew. It’s a small world the running one, and I love that fact when the nerves kick in.
Our goals? Catherine 50, Kerry and Anna to beat last years distance, and for me 50+ with a perfect day achievement of 100 miles. We also wanted to fundraise for Great North Air Ambulance, a great charity, close to our hearts. Anyone who has seen me race will know I’m a competitive sod, I love to race hard and a target or goal really does motivate me. Everyone who achieves 100 miles gets a special t-shirt, so that was my goal. Me being me, I also looked up the course record, 120 miles… just ridiculous.
It was forecast to be hot, and it was when we started on Saturday but we were prepared. Factor 50, hat on and all our kit ready. The solo runners have an area to store our food/gear just after the start/finish line. We had packed iceboxes, change of clothes and what we thought we needed. The midday start was great. You had a good sleep and breakfast and some runners even arrived in the morning, choosing not to camp. Pairs and teams of up to 8 were also running as well as us solo runners. This confused and annoyed me in equal measures but again turned out fine.
We decided not to walk the route on the Friday. The first lap was supposed to be run/walk easy and learn the route. So, of course, I decided to run the whole thing and stupidly quick. Well into my 3rd lap I remembered it was a 24-hour race and I really needed to slow down.
So what does the 5 Mile lap look like?
You start on a long grassy straight, not flat. Short gravel downhill, twist sections on gravel, uneven woody climb, and awesome dance party station with energy drink. Hula dance cheer station, more up and downs, uneven ground. Long sweeping covered wood section, amazing checkpoint just before 5K with singing support team and the best-behaved children and best marshals ever. The important toilet and gels were in supply at this station too. Then it opens out to more climbs and grass fields, before a long climb at 7k. At the top, you’re welcomed with the sight of the start/finish area in the distance and a cheeky climb to the end. May not sound it, but it’s absolutely perfect for clocking the miles, I ran the good bits and walked the hills. Every section I soon had my markers as to when I’d start running or walking, and it just made it so much easier.
The dreaded relay teams also helped. They whizzed past constantly, so you always had people around you. I was very rarely on my own through the whole event. I had my music and phone all ready to go but never used them once. Another big bonus was catching up with people on the laps; I would stop and take a break with Catherine, Anna and Kerry on the way. This helped to keep me sensible and a check on my mental well-being.
After a few laps, I started to realise I was in the lead. The DJ would shout my name out as I crossed the line and I’d try not to look too embarrassed. People must have been thinking who is this idiot going around so fast, just a matter of time before he blows up, clearly has no idea what he’s doing. This was my thinking at the time, but I kept to the run/walk and concentrated on the 50 Mile, 10 lap goal; soon that was ticked off, then 75!
With night drawing in, the head torches came out. I loved this change; the pure focus on the path ahead, the sheer beauty of the sunset and the night sky with a giant moon, a total privilege to see. During the night temperatures dropped significantly and I went through some seriously rough times for sure. As Catherine achieved her 50 miles target around 3 am, I caught them up. My memory is hazy but I definitely must have looked in a bad way. I hadn’t eaten anything solid for hours and couldn’t keep solid food down. Mountain fuel and apple crumble gels were all that was keeping me going. A few angry eyes from Catherine & instructions from Nurse Barnett and I stormed off to the catering area for some chips and a hot chocolate, a total lifesaver.
I went back out refreshed and still unbeaten, somehow I kept going and the 100 miles neared at 5 am with the sun on the way. A very special feeling crossing the line knowing I’d just run 100 miles, the DJ was still tucked up asleep and it passed in silence but inside I was dancing. Catherine was there to capture the moment, I was fully winter running clothed and looked beat up, it had been a hard night but I’d done it! I’d hit the target, scored the sought after tee shirt and could tell everyone who had sponsored us I’d achieved my ultimate goal!
As the sun came up I changed into shorts and t-shirt, put sun cream on and started to feel human again, I wanted to keep going. Catherine was awesome, supplier of hot food and various treats she pulled from the cool boxes. Rob, Kerry’s partner also helped with a surprise chocolate ice cream and the coldest best cola drink ever when I really needed it.
On my 110 Mile lap, I started to realise I could really win this thing and go for the course record of 125 miles. I was still running ok, everything hurt but I was getting used to that. I worked out that if I ran a decent 115 and 120 lap I would still have 1h30 easy for a victory lap with Catherine. So that was it, head down and ticked off 2 sub hour laps with 120 miles done. Refreshed and ready with Catherine, we started – lap 25 for me and lap 11 for her.
It’s hard to put into words just how special a moment this was. The pain of every hill. The stopping and starting. Everything hurting, but never once did I think of giving up. We thanked everyone on that last lap and the cheers at the end were amazing. Kerry captured the moment perfectly. 125 miles in 23 hours 21 mins, course record and I was not quite broken, even though it was a distance PB of 90 miles!
Catherine achieved a distance PB of 55 miles with more in the bank for sure, Kerry achieved a fabulous 60 miles, distance PB and Anna achieved an amazing 90 miles, distance PB.
A truly special event, exceeding all expectations. Will we all return? Some of us definitely will, it’s back to the short and fast for me, but you never know. I’m happy to report Ultra and speed can survive together.