It was early, too early. The sun was barely rising as I pulled into the car parking at race HQ, but whilst the nerves were there, I knew it was going to be a good day. Switching off the happy tunes coming from KCRW, I grabbed my bags and headed off in search of the registration desk and kit check.
This was to be my second attempt at the Green Man Ultra race, a 44 mile course that navigates it’s way anti-clockwise around the outskirts of Bristol, UK. The previous year at this event was my very first (and very painful) experience of ultra running, I’d fortunately learnt a lot, but maybe not enough, in between.
After a moment of panic, I finally found my name on the entry list which was next to the number 247. And being my slightly superstitious self, I like to be able to either have, or be able to make the number 13 out of the digits on my race bib number. Over the years I’d become quite the mathematician trying to get to the magic number 13, but today wasn’t going to need too much brain power and just some simple addition, 2+4+7 = 13!
So, happy with my number I dumped my kit and counted down the remaining couple of hours until the 8am start, making small talk to the growing group of athletes in the registration hall, all waiting for the pre race safety talk.
During the safety brief it became obvious that it was a large number of the fields first Ultra race, and whilst I was pleased for them that they were off on a new adventure today (this is a great race to do as a first timer), I was pretty glad that I’d had a few more ultras under my belt coming into this run. With the somewhat amusing safety brief over, well done guys for this, it was outside and round to the start line for a quick photo before the off. My Garmin was refusing to locate any satellites, so for the first mile I played with buttons and waved it around like an idiot trying to make it work, before eventually giving up and sticking back in my bag. Fortunately I’d found myself near the front of the pack, and we were still tightly grouped. I was hoping that the people in front of me were heading in the right direction and I decided to leave the Garmin alone to try and locate itself from the comfort of my bag, and headed on out at a fairly brisk, but comfortable pace.
At this point the Garmin wouldn’t normally have bothered me, as I usually do these races with a buddy of mine, and run with a Garmin each – so we always have a back up. But today he was resting up in hospital after some blood tests, and I was going it alone without a crew and just the kit and nutrition I could carry.
After spending some time running with the 9 hour ‘time lord’, I realised he was running too fast for his target finish time, but not fast enough but my 8 hour hopeful finish time. We parted ways, and I wondered if I’d regret leaving his great knowledge of the course and navigation skills behind.
The morning was overcast and fairly low in temperature, and made running easy. As per usual with these great scenic adventures, I didn’t even notice the great view across Bristol and beyond, instead preferring to focus on the immediate terrain below my feet. Which with everything considered, was in pretty good shape for some swift miles.
In no time at all we were at the first check point, a little down on my target time of an hour for the first 6 miles, but we had done what was probably the biggest single climb of the course. Knowing that the next check point was only another hour away there was no need to refill with water and after checking in my number and passing over the electronic timing bar I was quickly on my way along the course under the overcast sky.
Unfortunately the overcast sky did stay around for long, and broke to reveal the hottest day of the year so far. Well, at least it wasn’t raining and windy, as it had been the Saturday before, which would have made the day an even harder test, and probably blown any chance of running a half decent time.
It seemed to take forever to get to the second checkpoint but realistically it was pretty much run at the same pace as the first 6 mile section. Rather pleasingly, my new gaiter and shoe combination were holding out well, with no serious rubbing implications to worry about so far.
The third section of the race is one that I find mentally the hardest. The course switches to a mixture of road and fields, along with the fact that by now we are coming up to hitting the wall and about half way around the course. Mentally I find this is tough, as you’re the furthest away from the start as you could be without any crew, or this year anybody to run with. Luckily, I’d left the second check point with a couple of others that had been ahead of me, but taken slightly longer to sort out some kit issues. With the boost of running off of each other, and trying to keep each other on track, we made it through the midday sun and clear blue sky, and to the third checkpoint. We even managed to avoid being hit with golf balls as we crossed through a large section of golf course, although I think that was more luck than judgement.
I believe this third checkpoint is actually in the car park of a Chinese restaurant, but still to this day I’ve never noticed it, and this year I had other nutrition things on my mind. The weight of my race pack hadn’t become significantly lighter even though I was over half way through the race, and checking through what was left in there, I realised I hadn’t been taking on enough nutrition due to a slightly upset stomach. There seemed little point in carrying the extra gels and bars around the next 20 miles, so opted to ditch them in hope that someone might benefit from them behind me, or use them as a side to their sweet and sour chicken later that evening.
Leaving the checkpoint the course went uphill, and it was the first time that I’d wanted to properly walk. We ploughed on, swapping chit chat, although the gaps in between conversation were getting somewhat bigger now, as every bit of energy was being used to keep moving. Whilst I find the previous section of the course the most challenging, this section I find the bleakest. The fact we cross the motorway twice (not frogger style, but fortunately over a bridge) and have views over Avonmouth industrial docks doesn’t lend itself to a picturesque jog through the countryside.
With a little bit of a diversion to build in due to the fact that the local rights of way people didn’t want 300 runners turning up a particularly delicate part of the course, and a largely on-road route to contend with, we were happy to see the relocated forth and final checkpoint. Although the final few hundred meters to the checkpoint proved as hard to navigate and run as the whole of the previous section, as we encountered a very very busy park, another sports event and a first birthday party (with balloons and drunk adults) to get through and over before we finally made it to our checkpoint station. I was happy to refill my water bottles and grab a cup of tea.
Every check point so far had been a quick afair, in over the timing plate and off as quickly as possible. A little bit of me started to relax with cup of tea in hand and knowing that we only had 8 miles to go, but prompted by my fellow athlete I ditched the tea, grabbed a handful of gummy sweets and plodded off up the grassy slope, only to get lost pretty much straight away going into the wooded section.
Last year I got lost in exactly the same place, but after a bit of scrambling through the undergrowth we were back on track and on the home straight. Fortunately by now my Garmin was working properly and I was counting down the miles, whilst trying not to get lost. When we got to 5 miles out my energy levels picked up, maybe because of the sweets, maybe because I knew we were almost home and had less than an hour running left. Things felt good and we tried to pick the pace back up and cut down on the walking sections.
The good weather continued to add to navigation issues, as we had to dance around on pedestrians through narrow street parts of the course, but finally on reaching the Clifton Suspension Bridge, we knew we were almost home. Looking at my watch, for the first time I believed it might actually be possible to duck under the 8 hour marked, but the final ‘hills’ (used in it’s loosest term) had other ideas.
Leading up to the entry to Ashton Court Estate, my fellow runner pushed on leaving me to stroll up what I’d hoped to be the final long slope. On entry to the slope I was met with the sight of orange arrows spray painted on the floor, the course was marked for the final section which I had hoped was all down hill – didn’t they say that at the briefing?
After another stroll and finally cresting the top of what was to be the final hill, the course headed off down a fairly decent slope, and with one eye on the watch I tried to keep a fairly decent pace going. Unfortunately with the 8 hour mark looming, I realised I wasn’t going to make a 7 hour something run, but then out of know where the finished appeared. A quick look at the watch I pushed on, but knowing at heart unless I was to put in a Usain Bolt type performance now it wasn’t going to be.
So with 8hrs 0 minutes and 26 seconds on the clock I crossed the finish line. It was a great feeling to have completed the course 3 hours faster than I had done on my previous attempt, and an even better feeling to have completed it solo. Whilst running 27 seconds faster would have made the day epic, I felt extremely pleased with the time, and with my position of 14 (2nd in age group) out of 300 entrants.
Whilst I have no race plans at the moment, I’m already looking forward to running next years Green Man Ultra.