GRIM REAPER ULTRA 40: 13/07/12

Today I shall be running my first ever Ultra race...

It’s a chilly, grey, damp Friday 13th morning for the aptly named 'Grim Reaper Ultra Marathon' at Grimsthorphe Castle Estate in Lincolnshire.  You can still smell the wet grass from the rain of last night in the air as 150 runners make their last minute preps for the ultra distances ahead. 

Today we will endeavour to complete either the 40/70/100 mile distances around the castle estate on a combo of asphalt, grass, limestone and trail terrain in 10 mile laps, checking in at the aid crew tents on each lap. I've entered the 40 mile Ultra distance.

08:15: Race briefing is held by Keith Gray (Race Director).  After last minute registration, toilet runs and attaching our numbers we head slowly up the estate path to the start a 15 – 20 minute walking distance from the main castle gates. Here I spot the Ultra family that I have only recently joined.  Considering this is my first Ultra distance race after the Worthing Three Forts (a 27.2 mile trail race in May) and a 35 mile training run a few weeks prior, I start to feel at home and more relaxed than the pre-race nerves a marathon race can create.

08:40: We slowly walk towards the south gate entrance along the drive way to the race start.  My crew today is my partner Sunday, who is recording the morning’s happenings enroute.  On reaching the 9bar branded flags at the Grim Reaper start I notice the colourful array of competitors in all shapes and sizes.  I spot the young college boy who seems to be wearing a lot of wind/rain weather gear so assume he must be a walker.  

I also see a 40-something year old man wearing the Vibram Five Finger shoes that I am a big fan of in shorter distances.  I strike up a conversation about how he finds them and discover he has never run a marathon and has only ever trained up to 32 mile distance in his VFF,S.  That distance is not far off my training except I have at this stage run five marathons with only one being on trail.

I spot a very colourful character in – at a guess - her 50s wearing pink and blue clothing having a good old giggle and a joke with other competitors. About 5 minutes left to race start now and three Army chaps stroll up with their huge patrol backpacks, which look very heavy!  I think that these must be walkers. I then spot a familiar face from last year’s video, the 100 mile winner looking very much the same in person, strong, muscular and trained.

08:58: Time for a quick group photo from Keith and a last minute brief on where the course will change for the different distances.  We are told not to worry as the markers will have already been moved the time the first person has lapped.  I eat a last minute 9bar given out from team 9bar support and enjoy the much needed fuel as it is now over two hours since I ate breakfast.

The gun fires and we are off! Last minute wave to my partner who is still filming on social cam and we trot, run, walk off from the start. Within minutes up the drive way I'm surprised at how quickly some runners tear off up to the castle grounds. I purposely slow my pace not to keep up with them and check I'm not going any faster than an 8:30min/mile pace.

I'm aware that my long training runs have varied to 4.5 to 5.15 hours reaching 35 miles as my furthest distance so worry a little that my pace is too fast and that I can comfortably sustain the whole distance with confidence of finishing injury free and strong.  

I start to take in the scenic sights of the castle approaching and the groomed grounds around me.  There is a wet feel in the air and I'm already preparing for the worst downpour to happen any moment during this event.  I feel warm enough but maybe still a bit on the chilly side as it is only reaching 16C max today with heavy cloud, a 70% chance of rain and light winds.  I know I shouldn't really overheat much as the sun is unlikely to shine through.  It's hard to believe that it is July already!

I keep up with a few guys that have started off quickly, but I am careful not to be grouped with them.   I like to get comfortable with my own pace and rarely have raced alongside anyone at my pace.  I also have a lot more miles to cover than the usual 26.2 mile distance so concentrate on my own pace and take in the very scenic landscape.

I'm grateful to see a rather flat landscape ahead and just a few, very small, undulating areas around the lake and woodlands.  I've already packed in plenty of hills weekly up the South Downs in the last 6 months as they are right on my doorstep at home in Brighton, East Sussex.  I have little worry about the course to come thanks to the South Downs training runs and just enjoy my run and getting into my zone.

After a good 4 miles in I have passed some winding, narrow, limestone paths, plenty of cows and sheep around the lake and skimmed the edges of woodland areas.  I begin to wonder how the lap will go. I like surprises so didn't study the route beforehand and thought best to concentrate on my training for these longer distances on multi terrain.

09:35: After about 5 miles or so the route cuts into the forest and onto a wet muddy trail uphill to an opening between the trees.  I can only describe it as very long marsh grass conditions and by now it is very wet, up to ankle deep in places! I just pray that I have enough grease on my tootsies to prevent any blistering.  I take note that the muddy trail will become lots more slippery on the next lap, after 100+ feet start to scramble up it.  

I manage to navigate around most of the long grass and puddle water below, but my socks are so wet by now I actually feel like I'm treading water anyway.  I drop my pace back a little to save some energy for the next few laps. Ahead I can see two of the faster runners about 600 metres or so in front and someone in a blue top tearing ahead of them at a very strong pace. Once I reach the end of this grassy marsh land wood, the trail leads onto another field behind a farm house and outhouse and further into another field.  

Eventually after about 6 miles I see a long fence and stiles to climb over onto a private road. I pass a few cute cottages and barns along the way and feel comfortable on the road again after getting such cold wet soggy feet from the grass.  A few more minutes in and I eventually catch up with the two men ahead, once closer I see from there frame they must be no more than 22 years old.  They seem to have dropped their pace now and one has an odd shuffle going on.  I thumbs up and say ‘Well done, looking good!’ as passing the first then the other.  I hear a quick ‘Well done’ from them in reply.  

I look at my Garmin and see I'm doing a steady 7:45-8:00min/mile pace. The road seems to lead on forever and cannot see to the end of the horizon, just lots trees either side. I start to feel a wet spray on my face, which is refreshing at first, but then it starts to get heavier and rain follows. I cover my watch with my sleeve, put my head down and just plod on.

The road eventually narrows, bends left to right, undulating on the way and over a small stream.  Then I see a familiar arrow to turn left into another rocky trail along a field.  This eventually goes into the grass field and feels like hard mud below on my feet. The field follows the edge of woodland and I see the first 9bar white flag in the distance with Keith and his Land Rover standing by. 

As I approach he starts to clap and cheer me on, he has a great smile on his face, which is a nice welcome to see. He tells me I have an impressive pace and am doing well.  He stamps my race card in the first lap box and tells me that next lap I'm on my own and need to stamp myself from now on. I look at my Garmin once I say my thanks and goodbye and see I'm up to about 7.5 miles.

The trail leads through a wooded area then onto a footpath that is surrounded by lots of fields and I can see the Grimsthorphe Castle in the distance, hiding behind the trees. I can see the person in the lead as my stride catches up and soon notice it’s a young girl in her 20's.  Her pace is so strong and she seems like she means business! I don't see any water bottle or camelback on her just her strong legs pounding away! I eventually reach her and tell her well done as passing. I realise I have competition today as her pace is not far off mine. It's still raining and although it's a grey, wet day I can appreciate the nice scenery I'm encountering along the way.

10:22: Reaching just over 9 miles now and the pathway leads through the garden grounds and closer to the castle eventually coming up the pathway from the west side and meeting the main drive way to the castle entrance.  I can hear cheering and clapping from the checking-in tent at the castle gates and spot Team 9bar in their black weather jackets along with some other volunteers and my partner who is filming again.

I take a banana and have more water then help myself to another 9bar and a high5 gel with caffeine in case I need it later. One of the crew takes my time down for lap one and says ‘Well done number 5!!’  I have a quick chat with Liz from Team 9bar and then remind my partner I will need my shake on the next lap and probably another banana too.

10:30: Just as I say my goodbyes I hear clapping and cheering from the tent and look back to see the girl in blue just arriving. I carry on down the familiar path now and pass the few cows and sheep that seem to have stayed in the same position since I last saw them.

The rain eases off and the sun tries to break through, it's that half sunshine haze and feels a little warmer.  I enjoy the warmth on my skin for just those brief minutes and as I thought it’s gone just as quickly as it came through!  I enjoy the route and take in the sights that I didn't notice as much on lap one.  As I approach the cut in to the muddy uphill trail I feel how sludgy the mud has become from the runners behind me already and take care to keep my footing steady until I reach the grass.

As I reach the grassy marsh area yet again my feet sink up to my ankles and I curse under my breath a moment until I adjust to the sudden wet cold soggy feeling again, my socks felt like they had just almost dried out some too! After careful hopping and navigating away from the marshy puddles I go past another arrow into the next field and spot some walkers ahead.  I give my encouragement and they say well done to me when passing.

Once I reach the white flag checkpoint I pass another few walkers who are taking a water break. I pass and decide I'm feeling rather hungry all a sudden so have my Sis Gel followed by the 9bar I put into my bum bag at the last check point.  I did think it could be a bit difficult to eat a seed bar on the go, but it was easy enough to chew and swallow with some water.

Once I reach the familiar pathway up to the castle grounds I feel quicker on my feet already and strong.  I hope I can keep this pace going as there aren’t any big hills to battle on these laps.  My energy stores should stay pretty constant throughout (I hope).

11:50: I check my Garmin and notice I'm going a faster 7:00-7:20min/mile pace, which is a bit slower than my steady marathon road pace. I feel good so keep it at this rate until I come around to the driveway up to the lap checking in tent.  I see and hear Team 9bar cheering ‘Number 5, well done Luke!’ I thank them with a beaming smile and look for my partner, but he is nowhere to be seen. I realise that with all that filming the iPhone probably needs charging as his phone goes to voicemail.

Blast! I don't fancy walking back on myself off the course to the car so grab some more 9bars and another gel and just hope for the best for the next 10 miles! I tut some under my breath and check my times have been noted then plod on. I realise after a few minutes into the third lap that us runners can get so focused in the zone we must come across very grumpy when we need fuel. I know how I get when I’m hungry so running must make me ten times worse....

As the path leads up to the wooded area I pass a few more slower runners and they move away for me to pass between them.  One guy shouts ‘Well done mate’ and the other says ‘Show off!’ and laughs.  I wave back with a smile and know he is only playing.  A few moments later I see the three Army guys walking up the path and they stop to clap me as I run past them.  I tell them ‘Good work guys keep it up!’

As I turn into the muddy trail for the third time it feels wetter and boggy already so I know going up around the corner will be tricky to keep from falling.  I use the longer grass in the centre to get a better grip and just as well as some guys up front are slipping and sliding all over the place.  I navigate around them quickly not to get stuck in case one suddenly slips and falls back onto me.

I purposely tread around the marshy grass areas as I don't fancy getting wet up to my ankles this time around!  I soon see a few walkers here and there and pass around them through the field until eventually I come to the rocky trail again.  I'm back on my own again for a mile or so and look at my Garmin to see I'm about 26 miles in now so have another gel (high5 with caffeine).  I figure now will be good for a lift and feel hungry enough to eat some more 9bar.

I eventually pass a few more runners that are looking strong and then come back round to the familiar white flag to stamp my race card for the third time.  The rain has held off for some time now although it still has that damp wet feel in places on the course. I start to think how good I'm feeling in the legs and remember the training runs at this stage. I have that great euphoric feeling every runner experiences when they get a second wind and really into their running pace. My legs feel light with the slight aches I usually get from marathon distances.

13:08: I pass a few more walkers and runners at this point towards the castle grounds and try to think if I remember anyone further up front at the first lap? I’m really not sure if there is anyone else ahead and wonder if it is just me up front. I come up the driveway to the checking-in tent to a loud cheering and Team 9bar clapping for me. 

One of them jokes that there's no shake for me and it's been drunk already! I laugh out loud and spot my partner shaking the fuel at the ready and greeting me with a very sorry face! I'm so pleased to be drinking the recovery protein shake.  I say little else except 'banana' for the time being! Once I feel the refilling process working I smile and hear how my partner was so upset he missed me at the second lap and felt pretty bad about it.  I forgave him way back running that last lap.  I was just grateful to see him now and to be laughing about it.

Liz told me how quick my last lap was and that I'm looking really strong, doing so well.  I ask how many are in front and she replies 'Erm, only you!' I am quite surprised, but also pleased that my training has come to some use.  I was thinking in the back my head that if this last lap goes okay I could win the Grim Reaper 40!!!!  I say my goodbyes and realise I've been filmed the whole time I was in the tent. 30 miles covered and off I go for the final lap!

As I head down the familiar pathway for the fourth and last time I have a slight fatigue feel to my body, but I stick with my pace and just keep my head down taking one step at a time.  I'm pretty accustomed to the discomfort of running for hours, I actually enjoy the feeling now as with training my body has adapted and started to recover quicker over the last three months or so.

I pass more runners and walkers who must be on their second or third laps by now.  I see further up the path the colourful lady who now has her pink jacket wrapped around the waist and is doing what I can only describe as a shuffling power walk. She has one of the crew beside her on his bike giving encouragement and checking she is well.  As I pass she is beaming and laughing which is good to see. I figured like me she is actually enjoying the discomfort in her legs. Endurance is a funny thing in how it can affect the human body! Clearly most of us use this feeling to our advantage!

I head up the muddy trail for the last time, which is really sloppy and boggy now.  I slow to a jog and take care where I place my feet to get a good tread grip. I pass through the marshy grass fields and remember almost exactly where I took my steps last time with no problem and find my feet get less wet this time around.

I pass more walkers and slower runners along the long private road past the farm houses and cottages. I see the 100 mile winner from last year with his pacers and figure by their pace that they are all doing the same distance this year.

I reach the field to stamp my race card for the last time, which feels good.  I try my best to up the pace but my legs seem locked into auto pilot at a steady 8:00 min/mile on this lap.  Looking at my Garmin I'm just over 5 hours in and have only a few more miles left to the finish.  I come up the winding pathway and trails to see the castle peeping through the trees and have a sudden feeling of accomplishment that I've almost done it…I've finished my first Ultra race and it looks like a good time too!

I try to hold my cool as I still have a little way left and just focus and keep to it passing others on the way.  One guy says 'Please say this is your third lap!' I tell him ‘No, sorry I'm almost done here, last one!’ I try not to show my excitement too much as I realise it can't be good knowing you have another lap or worse, seven left to go....

I quick step around the bottom of the gardens to the driveway up to the castle for the last time and already hear ‘Come on number 5, go Luke!'  I hear the jokers from Team 9bar say ‘Well done, half way Luke nearly there!’ I laugh aloud and roll my eyes. 'I'm done!' I say as I pass through the two flags leading to the checking-in tent to a big applause.

14:39: I hear those magical words 'the winner, you came first place!’ I've only ever won first once before at the Sports Relief ‘Run the Runway’ at London Gatwick through work, so to actually come first in my first Ultra distance is an amazing feeling! The door has been opened and I think I have found my niche in endurance running.

Keith and Team 9bar congratulate me and present me with my finisher's certificate saying I completed in 5 hours 39 minutes.  They pass me some goodies and then a big winner's trophy.  Photos and an interview follow.
I was so ecstatic and buzzing from the whole experience and actually coming in first I didn't even feel like I had run 40 miles!

I would like to thank the Race Director Keith Gray and Team 9bar for making my first epic Ultra race such an enjoyable and unforgettable experience!

I would also like to thank all my family and friends for their support in all my running adventures and lastly my partner 'Sunday' for being my crew, support and taking time out to be there for me on that not-so-summery weekend in Lincolnshire.
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