The Chiltern Challenge 50k - Conor's First Ultra Marathon

I had one aim - finish. And that's exactly what I did. A wonderful run on a lovely route.

I made this comment on Twitter last week:

It was partially driven by the silly overuse of “inspirational” but also by the fact that I was inspired to run 50km last weekend by all of the amazing Ultrarunners in the US and Europe and the stories they tell via YouTube, Vimeo, Blogs, Twitter, Instagram, magazines and books.

The attraction of Ultras for me is both the off-road nature of them, with often breathtaking views, and the idea of pushing myself further. Whilst I’ll continue to work on my weight and improve my awful slow road marathon times, I also want to just go further for longer.

Back to the inspirational thing again. At the MCI Ballina marathon in March, a woman got her award for 50 marathons. She had wanted to do 50 before 50. Her 25th had only been in the previous September! That got me thinking and I decided I wanted to do 50 before 50 too, but in my case, 50 miles. I have 10 months left to do it.

So what do you do before 50 miles? Why 50k natürlich.

Doing a 50k in Ireland turns out not to be easy. Most of the IMRA stuff is either very short or is hardcore open mountain which I just don’t have the skills for yet. So I looked to the UK and discovered they have a lot of doable ones.

The one that really caught my eye was the Chiltern Challenge. They call it an ideal first Ultra and it had the added benefit of being near London. We came up with a cunning plan to spend a few days in Center Parcs in Woburn Forest with the kids and I’d disappear on the Saturday to do the race.

I didn’t really do any specific training for it apart from doing more forest stuff. It’s damned hard to do “single track” style trail running over any sort of distance here without resorting to mind-numbing loops. So those short runs plus 3 road marathons and 2 halves from Jan-July would have to suffice.

I had most of my kit sorted well ahead of time. Cheap Kalenji Hydration pack, cheap Leki poles, Altra Lone Peak 3.0 runners, usual marathon top etc. I got the right OS Map from the UK and drew out the entire course on it. Hmm, some very close contour lines in places.

Map

Then I started reading the race reviews more closely and they all mentioned the stifling heat last year.

And the panic set in.

The one thing that destroys me in races is heat, presumably due to my weight. I’ve had dog slow times in Cork twice and Berlin due to it. OK, I got a PB in blazing hot Brighton but was seriously head-fucked afterwards.

So I ordered 2x larger Salomon soft flasks in addition to the water bladder. I watched the temperature predictions like a hawk for two weeks. The closer the day got, the higher it went. 26C was the highest I saw mentioned. I stocked up on electrolytes for the bottles and had all my GUs ready too.

I read more reviews and sub-4-hr marathoners were talking about taking 8hrs. Even more panic. Could I end up running in the dark?

Then I started worrying about the pain in my right foot that had been there for a few weeks. The Lone Peaks don’t have huge cushion. So I panic bought a pair of Hoka One One Cliftons despite being worried about their narrowness and size. Three off-road runs convinced me that they were a great choice. As long as it didn’t rain too much.

The trip to Center Parcs was hassle-free but I was more tense than I’ve ever been before a run. I decided to read Cory Reese’s book that night, Nowhere Near First: Ultramarathon Adventures From The Back Of The Pack as recommended by Sarah Lavender Smith in her book, The Trail Runner’s Companion (review coming shortly). I am so glad I did. After the initial shock of what he had to deal with as a kid, this is a truly uplifting, funny and, dare I say it again, inspirational, book. I went to bed feeling a lot better about the run and actually slept ok.

The usual insanity of a Google Maps back-road route got me to Princes Risborough school with tons of time to spare. There were a lot more people than I was expecting. We were the non-elite 9am group. The walkers started at 8am and the elites would hunt us down like prey starting at 10am. Weather predictions still varied wildly but so far it was dull and drizzly so I was a very happy camper.

The RD gave a great pep talk and really settled my nerves. His show-of-hands proved that there were a lot of first-timers with me, which also helped.

Start line

And with zero fanfare, off we went.

I kept the poles strapped to the hydration pack for later but actually never used them. There was probably only two places where they would have been very useful.

The 70+ yo woman passed me pretty quickly. I’m not bitter :-) She was fast!

People started walking very early which was frustrating as it hadn’t got hilly yet and it was almost single-track. But then we quickly got to an extremely steep piece with wooden steps and had a queue at the top to get through the stile.

Despite all the RD warnings, people went off-course almost immediately. But they were called back in each case. It turned out that my paper map, compass, OS Maps on Android, paper map photos, Open Street Maps, route on my Garmin watch and Offline Google Maps were not just overkill, they were completely unnecessary. Between the signs, painted arrows on the ground and the knotted tape, there was only one spot in the entire 50k where I was unsure where to go because some arsehole had torn down an arrow (we could see the zip-ties).

I’m not going to do a mile by mile account, don’t worry.

Field

The route was everything I had hoped for and nothing I had feared. A couple of steep sections but the rest of it was rolling hills. Most of it was forest.

Forest

But there were also some lovely tracks through fields of wheat (a la Theresa May):

Wheat

Also fields of corn, peas and beans.

Corn

I did exactly as planned and ran the downhills/flats and walked the uphills. I had one aim and that was to finish, no matter how long it took. The downside of this is that I got lazy pretty early. My legs were not having a good day and felt leaden throughout. So any sort of incline had me walking.

As with road marathons, I stuck mostly to myself. For whatever reason, I’m not chatty when I’m running. I’m probably just stuck in my head. I’ll talk to anyone who talks to me but I don’t start many chats on runs. It was the same on Saturday. I tended to end up running near people but rarely with them.

There were 4 check-points, all of which had drinks, food and very very friendly volunteers. Each one gave me a huge boost and I was in no hurry to leave any of them.

Obviously this is not a race with crowds of supporters but there were a couple of places where people gave me a big cheer and it was bloody wonderful.

As the day progressed, I was in top mental form. The best ever in a race. I was loving every minute of it and had no issues apart from a pain that was growing in my left calf and two squished bloody little toes.

Another field

I had long chats in my head about the amazing Public Rights of Way and Freedom to Roam rules in the UK. The areas where I was running has a maze of routes, paths and tracks over private land. The gates and stiles worked well and I saw no rubbish anywhere. Meanwhile in Ireland, we’re still living in some sort of John B Keane play.

There were lots of pre-warnings about briars and nettles so I had also done an emergency purchase of cheap Kalenji leg sleeves in the week before. They worked brilliantly for the nettles apart from the head-height ones.

Nettles

The sleeves also seemed to help a lot with the left calf pain.

There was a stretch of a couple of miles on a road which I hated. Not only was it incredibly steep in places, I also had to deal with cars. This was by far my slowest segment. All of the others were within minutes of each other.

I couldn’t believe it when I got to marathon distance and I was feeling great!

The comedy highlight was me thinking someone was shouting encouragement to me from across a field. Then I realised it was a sheep.

About 5km from the end I caught up with a group of 4 young people and had a bit of a natter. They were n00bs too and some of them were struggling. I walked for a bit with them but when they said they were going to walk all the rest, I decided to move on.

I got to a brilliant steep downhill section and bombed it, which was possibly not the most sensible thing to do near the end but it was fun. Then a run across a big field, a tiny bit more walking and OMG, there’s the school. I ran into the playground, got a big cheer and crossed the finish line feeling like a million dollars.

I bloody did it. And I didn’t hurt too much. And if I had to go further to go, I’d have been ok with that.

Finish Line

I got some pics taken and had a magical cup of tea.

Then into the car and back to Woburn with a smile on my face which would not go away.

I was over the moon to see my brilliant wife and 15yo standing at the entrance to the giant Center Parcs car park. They took the car off me so I could wander over to the holiday home and find the best-damned-tasting curry and beer in years waiting for me.

Medal

In the week since, I’ve been thinking about it a lot. I really did love almost every minute. I am immensely proud of myself despite the extremely slow time. And now I want to do more. Soon. And push myself harder and see what this old body can do.

As for the Chiltern Challenge itself, I have only good things to say about it and the organisers. They are absolutely correct in saying it’s a perfect first Ultra. Anyone who has run a road marathon is more than capable of doing a good time. Apart from the odd tree-root and nettle, it’s not remotely technical.

Go on, give it a go.

Oh, you’re wondering about my time eh?

Check out this for consistency :-)

Race Time

Conor O'Neill

Tech guy who likes running slowly

Bandon, Cork, Ireland http://conoroneill.com