Last summer I ran the inaugural Serpent Trail half marathon. I didn’t have the best of days but I did enjoy the route. When I was looking for a serious challenge to mark a serious milestone birthday I decided to enter the Serpent Trail 50k. It would be my first venture into the world of ultras and the furthest I had ever run. In fact I had not gone beyond 20miles since my accidental first marathon.
T shirt and bling from 2017 Half Marathon.
Having run the HM I already knew the second half of the 50k. My recce plans didn’t quite work out but I managed to run about half of the first 25k. Sadly the sections I had not been able to run proved to be the places I found toughest. I really do like to know where I am which is why I like lap races so much!
Apart from not being able to do a full recce I had prepared really well I had trusted kit, tried and tested nutrition, I’d followed the TrainAsOne plan pretty accurately and my longest run, 20 miles at Saturn Running’s first event had gone well.
I arrived at Petersfield Rugby club just after 8am feeling a mixture of confident and terrified. Registration was quick, there were real loos with no queue and once I’d faffed around a bit it was time to hop on the buses which would ferry us to Petworth where our race would start.
Race registration in the glorious sunshine (photo from Freedom Racing/ No Limits Photography). I am even in this photo…just by the pink flag!
We got off the buses onto a grass verge, activated our timing chips and had a very brief briefing (all the relevant info had been emailed so there was no need for more) then we were off straight up a steep hill…cue walking!
To be honest, as it had been 24 degrees at 8am and the temperature was expected to get to 30+ I had decided to take things very steadily- my only real goal was to finish, however long it might take. My plan was to walk all uphill sections, run downhills that were shady and run/walk flat sections.
The first section was the longest un-recced bit…about 15k to the first check point. Much of it was shady wooded tracks which were pleasant but full of trip hazards, some fallen trees to jump over or limbo under (of course I didn’t limbo, I lack the necessary flexibility). I found this section mentally quite hard, simply because, having not had a recce, I had no real idea of where I was. All I could do was tick off the kms, knowing that the checkpoint was at 15k.
By the time I reached CP1 I was tired, a bit grumpy and my hands were badly swollen, due I think to not enough salt, in spite of drinking a litre of Tailwind and eating some peanut butter and Bovril sandwiches en route. However there was a loo, there were chairs, shade, watermelon, crisps, Coke and many other goodies. I used the loo, drank some Coke, ate some watermelon and crisps, refilled my soft flasks with Tailwind which I had in my pack in small bottles ready mixed with 100mls of water- so much easier than trying to get the powder into soft flasks (thank you whoever it was on Twitter who shared that idea) and off I went.
With my hands back (temporarily) to normal size and fuelled by the combination of sugar and caffeine I felt much better. I also knew that the hilliest section was over and I would soon be on part of the route I knew.
Burton Park…a perfect running surface!
This section was particularly lovely but very soon I reached the hottest bit of the trail…no idea what the time or temperature was but the sun was blazing down and reflecting back up from the chalky track. Luckily I knew that very soon I’d be passing a shop which sold ice cream! – the benefit of doing a recce! I inhaled a Solero and was soon in a wooded section which was thankfully considerably cooler.
I had been told it was 8k from CP1 to CP2 and I knew from the map and my recce exactly where the checkpoint would be so this was a very happy bit of running. Occasionally one of the 100k runners would pass me and we’d have a brief chat but most of the time I was happily chuntering along doing a mix of brisk walk/slow jog. Then, about 200m before the checkpoint I made the mistake of looking at the time I’d been running…. I reached the check point, found a chair and sat and sobbed for a couple of minutes…. I’d been “running” for 5 hours and wasn’t even quite at halfway!
After having a few strong words with myself, a wee, some more food and the magic combination of cola, crisps and watermelon I decided that, as I was not injured but only tired, I would get to the next check point, another 8k, and then, if I was injured I could pull out. I knew the next 3-4k and they passed quite easily, then I was onto a section I did not know. I made the rookie error of following someone else at a key junction and we missed the trail…only a small error but retracing even a few hundred metres is a bit soul-destroying.
Time for some distraction. I had some emergency podcasts so I had virtual company from “Fortunately” with Jane Garvey and Fi Glover who proved to be excellent companions. Of course I could have had one of the many running podcasts but I didn’t really want to be thinking about running at all! Despite the entertainment I was pretty miserable on this section, worried about getting lost, feeling tired and lonely and, although I knew where the check point was it seemed to take forever to get there.
At last I arrived CP3, found a chair and slumped…too tired to even think about what I needed. There were paramedics there and I guess I must have looked pretty rough as they seemed quite concerned. I can’t remember exactly what I said but do know that t was something like “There’s nothing wrong, I’m just tired, no reason to pull out.”Then I apologised for sounding rude! More cola, more crisps, watermelon and pineapple. Then, as a very battered 100k runner arrived with his brother my tiredness was put into perspective. He had fallen and hit his head at about 15k and frankly, looked dreadful. His brother gave him a drink and he promptly vomited… I left the checkpoint while the paramedics were dealing with him.
By now I was onto the half marathon course which I knew well from the previous year. I felt much better now and more confident in my ability to finish….it may just have been the unusual quantity of caffeine now in my system. I could rehearse the route in my head, I knew that it was 8k to the next CP and then just 10k to the finish….easy! (I may have been delusional).
I had deliberately not been looking at my watch for anything other than distance for a while but I was fairly sure that, even on low power mode it would be running out of battery sometime before I finished and I was right! Time to switch to Strava for the rest of the race. I had a pocket charger for my phone so I didn’t need to worry about phone battery (something I would be very pleased about later).
Somewhere about half way between CP3 and CP4 I saw a figure waiting at a gate and irrationally was convinced it was my husband! (He was working in Germany so why my brain decided it was him I have no idea). It was a marshal who may have been a little alarmed at this sobbing wreck trotting towards her! We had a brief chat and she shared her watermelon with me and I think I managed to convince her I was sane then off I went again.
CP4 was glorious….all the people at all the checkpoints had been lovely but here they were awesome. Water bottles filled, more cola, watermelon, with salt this time as my hands were still swelling alarmingly between checkpoints. I also managed to wash some of the accumulated dirt and sweat from my face which made me feel better. Then while I drank yet more cola someone held a wet sponge on the back of my neck….such bliss! Just time to text both my husband and my emergency contact friends (who were starting to worry about not having received an “I’ve finished” text) and off on the last 10k.
I thought I was moving quite fast (in the circumstances) on this bit…there was a long country lane section which I thought I was running quite a bit of but the actual timings tell a very different story. The sun seemed to be moving very quickly towards the horizon and although this meant it was getting cooler at last I was a bit worried. When I packed my bag I had shoved my head torch in “just in case” but I had never, ever run at night before….it looked like I was going to have to learn fast.
After the country lanes, as dusk fell I reached the stile section….I am not good on stiles at the best of times and these were big and my legs were not entirely under my control…inelegant…incompetent…just plain awkward! Another 100k runner caught me up as I reach one and I apologised for taking so long to get over….I was comforted by the fact that he found it just as difficult as I did!
This may not look much but the smell of the cut hay in the cool of the evening was (weirdly) one of my favourite bits of the day.
Now time for the head torch…there was a gentle down hill to a water station…another brief sit down so I could stretch my aching back for a moment. Then off the road across some field (and over another couple of stiles) over the bridge, across the common and onto the very last and worst bit.
This field seemed to go on for ages….presumably because I could only see such a little section at a time.
With 2k to go the route goes through a housing estate and then into a nature reserve….the housing estate seemed to go on for miles and the nature reserve for years… I knew I had to cross the river to get back to the rugby club but where was the bridge?!! There may have been some swearing and more tears at this point! Eventually the bridge appeared, much to my relief, then it was just a few more metres before I emerged into the playing field with the finish line in sight at last. I’d love to say that a had a sprint finish…or even that I jogged over the line, however there is photographic evidence that I did neither. My legs were far beyond the point when they would move any faster than a walk/stagger and my body language in the photo shows just how wrecked I was!
Not the most flattering finish line pic! (photo from Freedom Racing/ No Limits Photography)
I think the RD was as relieved to see me as I was to finish…they had been worried about where I was as it was now 3 hours since I’d been logged at CP4! 3 hours for 10k is a huge new Personal Worst for me! As there were still 100k runners behind me (not many!) and because some people were camping on site, there were people waiting at the finish line which was lovely. There is a very special thank you to the lovely man in mermaid leggings who went and fetched me a mug of tea! After the tea and a chat with my husband who had been waiting worriedly in Germany to hear that I had finished and was ok it was time to stagger to the car and sort myself out.
Luckily I had left things well organised in the boot of the car so it was easy to find the Cherry Active and swig that down and make up a rather less palatable Tailwind recovery shake…it probably tastes better when not mixed with water that is tepid from being in a hot car all day. I didn’t need a warm layer to put on and although I managed to get my socks off, I couldn’t get my calf sleeves off at this point. Hoka sandals and Absolute 360 calf sleeves are not a classic sartorial combination but I was past caring!
In the morning had put everything into an Ikea blue bag in the boot of the car….it turned out to be a genius idea. I flung my vest, shoes, socks etc into the bag knowing I would only need one trip from the car to the front door when I got home. At this point my lovely best friend Linda arrived with her husband to retrieve both me and my car. Linda had rung me at 2k to go, at my lowest point when I was about to have a good cry. She had talked me though most of the final 2k and offered to come and fetch me….a 90 minute round trip at 11pm to a place she didn’t know. A truly fabulous friend! The 45 minute drive home nattering away with my bestie was a very good finish to the day adding a bit of normality to the experience!
It’s taken rather longer than I’d hoped to write this blog (and possibly longer than you hoped to read it). Although I recovered physically pretty quickly I found I didn’t want to write about it for a while. I have no distance running goals at the moment but I rather hope, in due course, that 13+hours becomes my personal worst for 50k. Currently it’s my PB…certainly the best I could do on that day in those circumstances. I very much hope to be back next year (on a cooler day) to take at least an hour or two off that time!