Last March I decided I wanted to run a 50 mile race before I hit the big five oh in May of this year. On Monday, in spite of freezing rain, hail, sleet and snow, I somehow managed it and I can’t stop randomly grinning.
As always, have no fear, this won’t be a mile-by-mile race report. I’d fall asleep writing it :-) Speaking of which, one of my ultra-running top tips is “Don’t listen to the audiobook of ‘Why We Sleep’ on miles 30-40 of a 50 miler if you want to avoid getting verrrrry verrrry sleepy.” (The same also applies to the audio book of Niall Ferguson’s ‘The Square and the Tower: Networks and Power, from the Freemasons to Facebook’).
I know 50 miles is way outside of the experience of most people. But trust me when I say that most of you reading this could have done it. A solid level of fitness, a bit of stubborness and experience of lots of time on your feet is really all you need. Remember I’m 60lbs overweight and I finished. I’ll mention the weight thing again shortly.
Training. Or as I like to call it, not training.
Training for L2M50 was a disaster. I ignored every bit of advice in books and immediately went from 22ish miles per week to 37 miles per week in January. Very quickly both achilles were in pain and both knees were complaining. Despite trying everything, the right achilles was still hurting all the way up to race day. I’d end up dong a long run on a Sunday and then taking days off for the achilles to calm down. My tapering consisted of not running at all for the last two weeks, hoping to give it a rest. Stoopid.
My wife had a better time with training and was far more diligent. She spotted MCI back-to-back marathons in Limerick in March which would have been an ideal check of how we’d handle 50 miles. In the end it was cancelled with the snow. Instead we did the EOI Lusk Marathon followed by the MCI Salthill one. All the signs were good (apart from that Salomon Sense Pro Max disaster in Salthill).
How to avoid being head wrecked for 50 miles
Look, my marathon times are a disaster. I’m slowly getting faster but I’m still crazy slow. However that turns out to be a big help when getting your head sorted for a 50 miler. I’m used to spending many (many many) hours on my feet moving slowly and never DNFing marathons.
It’s possibly a placebo, but I get great value from Headspace. There have been many marathons where I’ve channelled Andy’s calm dulcet tones and got myself out of serious negativity.
The other huge help on Monday was actually The Barkley Marathons on the previous weekend. Seeing and reading about the hell everyone went through this year gave me a sense of perspective “It’s only a flat 50 miles Conor. And your collar-bone isn’t broken like Eoin Keith’s was.”
How the hell have I got to 49 years old and never visited Liverpool before? The regenerated docks area is fabulous and everyone was just lovely. The hotel and start line were at Albert Dock and we registered just beside them on Sunday night in the cold.
Whilst queuing for kit-check and photo, I overheard the best advice a nervous ultra virgin could hear - “don’t think of it as a 50 mile race. Think of it as an 8 mile race followed by lots of food. Then a 6 mile race followed by lots of food. And so on”. It really worked. That’s exactly how I broke the day down and it kept me sane throughout.
Torrential Scouse rain
This caused me more stress in the week coming up to the race than anything else. Initially heavy snow was predicted. Then lots and lots of rain. Andddd low-temps going sub-zero with wind chill. It got to the point where I packed trekking poles and my trail runners, I was that worried. But the worry ended up working to my benefit as I’d packed every possible thing.
We looked out the hotel room window at 4.45am to see very heavy rain. I decided to wear thick gloves, full length running tights and a buff, in addition to a base layer, running top and waterproof jacket. We walked out the door and were hit with bitterly cold wind to go with the stinging rain.
When you were young and your heart was an open book
Little did we know what lay ahead.
Penny Lane is in my knees and in my hips
237 poor souls headed off in the rain, wind and dark along the Mersey at 6am. I was sure we were running faster than my marathon pace which really bothered me. It turned out we weren’t even close to that, it was the conditions, along with two dead legs in my case, that made it feel so hard.
The first 8 miles were in the streets of Liverpool. I spotted Penny Lane at one stage (not really a lane if you ever visit). The rain turned to hail, then sleet and then snow. Stress levels rose. The first checkpoint was where is switched to more country paths etc. From then on it was a mix of paths, suburbia such as Warrington and gritted trails.
I cannae feel ma leg
That’s ma leg ya bumpot (for fans of Billy Connolly).
Whilst we were both really feeling the cold, my wife was suffering a lot worse. She didn’t bring gloves and she was wearing a running skirt. Our pace was mis-matched which caused her to stop and wait for me and then cool down excessively. She wouldn’t take up my offer of my soaking wet heavy gloves and we didn’t have the brilliant inspiration of Charlie Sharpe’s crisp packets. Eventually it all got too much and she DNFed around mile 20. I was heartbroken for her and then had a few miles of self-pity as I’d pictured us finishing together for months.
I think the two things that saved me were the gloves and the fact that I’m obese. I know it sounds nuts but fat people stay warmer in the cold than thin people. As this article says (semi-jokingly), the best thing to be in the cold is fat and fit. Bingo!
They’re not puddles, they’re lakes
I generally enjoy running off-road in manky conditions but that’s always in trail shoes and usually for not more than 13 miles. The relentless rain wasn’t just hard on me, it destroyed the paths we were running on.
My semi-slick Hoka Clifton’s had landed me flat on my back a few weeks previously on some wet grass so I was ridiculously careful trying to tip-toe around every bit of flooding. But it was exhausting and made it impossible to keep a running pace. Eventually around mile 40 I said fuck it and ploughed straight through the water from then on. My feet were like blocks of ice.
Conor invents a new treatment for achilles tendinopathy
As I said, I’ve had right achilles pain since January. Guess what I haven’t had since last Monday? Achilles pain! So if you too have tendinopathy, then I highly recommend doing 50 miles in freezing rain with your feet soaked through and your achilles submerged for many miles.
Spuds and instant coffee never tasted so good
As the miles built up, the food at the checkpoints just got better and better. I stuffed whole baby potatoes, crisps, sausage rolls, pretzels and sweets into my gob. But the highlights were the coffee, tea and hot chocolate at three different stops. I think they may have kept me just warm enough to keep going.
I’m just going to stand in a field for 14 hours
I don’t know how the volunteers did it. I’ll forever be in awe of them and in their debt for getting me around. The food, the smiles, the words of encouragement, the assistance to people who were struggling, it was all amazing. Thank you thank you thank you. And to everyone (including the husband of another runner) who took care of my wife and got her to Didsbury, we will never forget your kindness.
Oooh a nukular power station
As anyone who follows me on Strava knows, my training runs are less about running and more about a photo tour of local forests and hills. I took the sum total of 2 photos during the race. One of a nice bridge (no idea where) and another of what I thought was a nuclear power station. I had many classic Simpsons scenes in my head. I was gutted to discover afterwards that it was a boring coal-fired one.
Looks like I’m gonna do this thing
Getting to 25 miles had me in great mood. I was half way. But getting to 28 had me at a real low point. Oh my god there’s 22 miles left. Everything hurt. In fact, so many things hurt that it kinda helped. I couldn’t focus on the pain in my ITB, when I also had pains in both feet, my lower back, my wrist (WTF?), my other knee, my calves, my quads and my core.
But when I got to mile 37, I knew, barring a catastrophe, that I was going to finish. I “only” had a half marathon left to do. The final CP was at mile 44. I stuffed my face again, refilled the water bottles, added the Tailwind and staggered off into the dusk.
Where’s the bleedin’ ferry across the Mersey when I need it?
The markings all day had been great as long as you kept your wits about you. I had to shout to only two people that I saw going astray. But with 4 miles to go, my brain was fudge. I mindlessly followed some people in front of me and after maybe half a mile we realised we had gone wrong. I’d followed them and they’d followed someone else, who had disappeared.
I had the Viewranger app on my phone along with the route pre-loaded. A quick check proved that we were on the wrong side of the Mersey. The only way to fix it was to re-trace our steps. Arghghghghghghghghghgh. Would you believe I actually packed a compass? Again I had L2M50 confused with the Barkley Marathons. I found the turn we’d missed and started walking as fast as I could along the river in a complete mudfest of a track.
Sorry mate, I’m not from around here
The trail on the river seemed endless. I kept checking Viewranger to confirm I hadn’t overshot as there were no course markings along there. Finally I saw the footbridge into Didsbury. I marched up to the junction and saw a course marking. But I couldn’t figure out whether to go left or right as I missed the blindingly obvious arrow on the same pole. I tried asking two people going into a pub for directions but I nearly broke down in front of them. They had no idea where the club was. This turned out to be a stroke of luck as the finish line was at the rugby club not the football club.
I would walk 500 miles and I feel like I have
What followed was the longest mile of my life. Longer than my first marathon where both calves seized solid. Longer than Brighton 2017 where the heat got to me and I started singing out loud as I ran. Longer than my first 10k where I thought I was going to die. Yeah that long.
Oh wait, here’s the sports club. Nooooooo, it’s the golf club. Ah here we are. Nooooooo, it’s the cricket club. Finally, the road is coming to an end. I must be here. What? Another bridge? FFS are you effing kidding me (last one shouted out loud).
And then……is that……Catherine?????? OMFG, it is, I’m here. Surely they’ll take pity on me now and not force me to do a loop of the pitch.
Cue Chariots of Fire music. Or maybe Peppa Pig
I slowly stagger around the mudbath of a pitch. Smiling from ear to ear. But then I turn the first corner and who do I spy coming on to the pitch? The 3 people from earlier. Jogging. I’m not a physically competitive person (clearly) but sometimes, when I’m approaching that finish line, something in my brain kicks in.
Fukkit, time to drop the hammer Conor. I start running. In my mind I’m Usain Bolt. In reality I’m a fat old dude sliding around in mud at 0.00005 MPH. Can I get to the finish line without landing on my face? Maybe. The cheering starts. I hang on. One last jump to land on the rubber mat. I did it.
2 hrs and 2 minutes over the cutoff for a loop of Barkleys :-) I know it’s a ridiculous time to do 50 flat miles. I don’t care. I had one job to do on Monday - finish. I did that job. I’m a very very happy man.
My Garmin died around mile 46. I’m pretty sure I did something more like 52 miles. And despite all the pains and my inability to run any faster than I walked at the end, I think I could have done another 5-10 miles if I’d really had to.
The post-race low
It’s a week later. I did 2.5 miles on the treadmill today and I’m mostly ok. Tight hip, slight ITB glitches but otherwise fine.
We’re both in that horrible post-race “depression” where you’ve thought about little else for months and now there’s nothing. It’s worse for Catherine as she missed out on finishing.
Whilst of course we’ll do the 25K Great Railway Run and The Surf Turf and Tar Half, plus a couple of marathons in the next month or two, we need something longer. If you know of any 50k to 50 mile non-technical non-bog non-crazy-vert Ultras coming up soonish in Ireland/UK/Europe, let me know. I’ll be trawling the usual sites.
Usual plan. Lose a ton of weight. Get a lot faster. Over every distance.
Based on Monday, I think I have a 100k in me right now but of course I don’t have anything like 100 miles in me yet. I want to look at doing a European mountain ultra.
If you’re thinking about doing an Ultra, have a look at all the events that the GB Ultras team organises. They really do an amazing job and their communities on the dreaded Facebook are extremely friendly and welcoming to ultra virgins. Go on, give it a go.
Oh course, a week later and I’m already planning my next big run :-)
Update 1 - April 10th 2018 - Gear
I’m sure everyone is dying to know what gear the 6th slowest runner in #L2M50 used :-) Well I’m going to tell you anyway. Starting from my toes: X-Socks trail socks, Hoka One One Clifton 3 running shoes, Ron Hill running tights, Runderwear briefs, Lidl long-sleeve compression top, Berlin Marathon finisher top, Ron Hill Infinity Torrent jacket, Buff, Rab Latok cap with flaps, Salomon Adv 5 Skin hydration vest and softflasks, Helly Hansen spare base layer (unused, stupidly), Tailwind nutrition, Rowntrees sour pastilles, 4 megatons of GU & Torq gels (unused), 2XU heavy cycling gloves (useless), Jaybird X3 Bluetooth headphones, Samsung Galaxy S8+ (waterproof), Eotw generic phone armband (pretty useless), Garmin Fenix 3 watch (disappointed it didn’t last).
Update 2 - April 11th 2018 - Why
I read two things about Ultra running recently that really annoyed me. I should have avoided them and I’m not going to link to them. The first was the comments section in Adharanand Finn’s article on the rise of ultrarunning. The second was a Let’s Run thread on the same topic. In both, the level of spite and vituperation towards people who do ultra distances was gob-smacking. You’d swear we were murderers based on the bizarre anger expressed.
I read an interview with Spine Race winner Carol Morgan (which I can’t currently find) where she just described it as her hobby. And that’s it. No different to gardening, knitting, watching other people kick a ball, cycling or home-brewing.
Is running long distances purely a middle-class thing? Not based on the very wide selection of people I’ve met. Is it for nut-jobs only? I’ve yet to meet anyone I’d describe as weird at running events, compared say to the behaviour of some ball-sports fanatics at any match. Should we all be using the time we spend running helping lepers in Africa instead? Yes maybe you should Mr Commenter.
It’s just a hobby. I’m sure there are assholes who act like doing 50 miles makes them a master of the universe. Again I’ve never met anyone like that at any running event. In fact, the winner of #L2M50, who did it in less than half the time I did, comes across as an incredibly kind, funny and low-key person. Who happens to be good at running and clearly works hard at it.
So there is no specific “why” to doing 50 miles or more really. 26.2 is a completely arbitrary distance. As it 10K or 100K.
I’ve re-discovered the outdoors via running. It helps with clearing the head. It hopefully keeps me out of an early grave, if I can sort out this weight. It lets me visit cool places and leave no trace. Recently it’s the main way I manage to carve out time to listen to podcasts and audiobooks. It disconnects me from the constant noise of the internet. And it’s interesting to see what longer and longer distances do to the mind and body.
Oh yeah, a lot of the time, it’s good fun. Like any hobby.