Having never been a fan of running, people find it odd when I tell them I occasionally dabble in ultra-marathons or adventure ultras. The look of confusion is something I have come to enjoy. So for a person who hates running why on earth do I do them?
Firstly, I run a minimal amount during the event, maybe the first 20 miles. I walk up the hills and mountains, and I tear down the declines. The scenery in most of the locations is divine, and it is a lovely way to see parts of the UK I would not usually travel to. Finally, the feeling of finishing and the pain of not being able to walk after secretly makes you feel awesome.
I have had a Rat Race season pass for the past two years as something to challenge myself instead of OCR, an upgrade in difficulty if you like and something a bit different to keep me interested in exercise. For anyone thinking about progressing from 15k races to marathons without wanting the boredom of road running this is the race series for you. Each race is a different location across the UK of varying distance. From 10k obstacle races in London to 70-mile ultramarathons in the North, there is something for everyone.
However, like all good things my season pass was coming to an end. The Ultra of Aaron was the final race on my list, and it looked to be a good one. Beautiful trails in a stunning part of the UK that I had never been to. Like always Mum and I decided to make a mini break out of it and got planning. Everything researched and booked up I hadn’t given the race much thought other than if I could do The Wall (another Rat Race ultra) this would be easy, it was over two days and the same distance after all. Oh, how wrong I was.
We arrived in Glasgow a day earlier, did some shopping, ate lots of food and caught ample Pokemon; I was in full holiday mode. The next day was registration day. I rocked up to the registration point in knee-high, heeled boots, and clothes that resembled a Chelsea housewife rather than an ultra runner. Of course, everyone else was aptly dressed to make me stand out further, “whoops” I thought to myself “really should have got changed they aren’t going to think I know what I am doing and will stop me from running”. With funny looks following me across the room as if to say “what the hell, is she lost?” I arrived at the kit check. The man looked me up and down with a worried expression. “Oooo first timer are we?” he asked having a look through my bag. “No, I have done a few ultras now…I find knee-high boots are the best way to tackle them” Looking over the desk he looked a little shocked and tipped my entire kit out onto the desk, checking every single item as if Stevie Wonder had packed my kit for the two days. After a more than rigorous than necessary check and mentally vowing never to turn up to a kit check in normal clothes again I was allowed to collect my number chip and fill my face with all the food at the local pub.
The day concluded in what can only be described as a coma of relaxation rather than primed and mentally prepared, not quite the frame of mind you should be in for impending doom the next day.
The alarm blared, I jumped up and out of bed eager for the day ahead, more so to see Aaron than run an ultra Marathon for 7 hours. Standing at the start line I bumped into a fellow Maidstone Harrier, Michael, who was a welcome face, he, however, is a rather serious runner and I was not expecting to see him for the two days. The start gun went, and everyone dashed off. I am not exaggerating with the word dashed. People were taking off as if it was a 10k Spartan race. I panicked and tried to keep up with everyone, resulting in me blowing out of my behind by mile 2. As the pack thinned out and the serious ultra runners sped off, I began to find my stride and enjoy the views around me.
We came across a steep climb up a footpath over “Giants Gravestones”, immediately slowing everyone to a walk. I sped hiked up the footpath and overtook a few people “this is going to be fine” I thought to myself “nothing to worry about”.
Descending to the Coastline, we meandered towards pretty coastal villages and fishing towns. Bounding down the hillside, I was a very happy bunny. The views were beautiful, the sun was shining and I was leaping down a fun trail path. Life doesn’t get much better than that!
The coastline run was set to be 10 miles of flat road running, or so I thought. I mentally set in for a long, boring run reaching the bottom of the hillside. However, we were taken onto a rocky beach, laden in seaweed and rock pools. This made for interesting running. Many people in front were sliding over or twisting their ankles on the rocks; we must have resembled a herd of Bambis on ice to passersby. Footing was treacherous but hugely enjoyable and made an otherwise dull, flat run hugely entertaining, and it flew by. The ankles and soles of my feet were a bit battered after mind.
Back up into the hills after the coastline stretch which saw some technical trails and steep inclines into a densely wooded area with a gorgeous loch on top. The mist was clearing, and the sun was coming through to show the expanse of the glorious scenery and the high treetops surrounding the loch clearing. The top of the hills were adorned in spongy moss underfoot which was a delight to my battered feet from the beach. Too busy looking around me I had not noticed, however, that the ground became increasingly spongy.
As I attempted to make up time on the hilltop paths my feet sank into the moss-covered floor. It would appear we were running on a bog. This part of the run would be best described as the scene from Jurassic Park where people are being picked off in the long grass by Velociraptors and just disappear from the site. People would start to jog out in front, after a few strides they became more confident and then would crash to the floor with their leg engulfed by earth up to their mid-thighs. I could not help but find this hilarious and did not even try to hide myself laughing at people. Of course the same happened to me a few times but not quite as drastic as other runners around me at that point. I cackled to myself every time I collapsed to the ground, got up, shook the mud off like a Labrador returning from a swim and continued. Still lightly chuckling to myself after each fall I was aware of the odd looks I was getting as I was a single runner laughing to myself. To all those people, no I am not a psycho that jogs around giggling for no reason, I just do not see the point in shouting and stamping the ground as a few people did.
As I leapt from leg eating moss patch to leg eating moss patch, I was very aware of the opening in the woods ahead and seemingly steep downhill clearing. As much as I was enjoying the unpredictable ground on the hilltop, I was eager to start being able to run properly and make up some time. Approaching the clearing the ground firmed up, and I could see a rather dishy looking marshal ahead. Que “let’s have a show off”. Stretching out the stride, trying to look fresh and happy, I bounded up to him, asking how far we had left. Unfortunately for me, there was a sneaky change in the ground again, to what can only be described as a mudslide. My feet went underneath me, and I face planted at the attractive marshal’s feet, face first. “Urm you ok?” he asked, “the ground doesn’t get better for another mile, so be careful”. Peeling my now crimson face from the depths of the boggy earth I nodded in silence and slumped off in a more demure state.
Wind taken firmly out of my sails I continued my decent in a more controlled manner. Jogging through further beautiful trails, over quaint rustic stone bridges and through small local towns with people cheering us all on I was still firmly enjoying myself.
However, old injuries were beginning to niggle away at me. Hip flexors and the left plantar fascia began to shout at me. I ate far too many skittles and some paracetamol and continued in a hyperactive state knowing I was going to suffer when the drugs wore off.
Coming off from the final food stop I befriended two young men my age who offered company and conversation for the final, rather steep, hill climb. We trudged, and trudged some more and then yes, more trudging. Calves screaming at me and my hip flexor about to give up I turned around for a break to see how far we had climbed and was met by stunning views over the coast of Aaron. With the anticipation of an even better view spurring me on I overtook the boys and was rewarded by a long winding descent on hard ground for my efforts. I took off, granted at a snail’s pace jog, down the track drinking in the sun sinking in the sky, casting auburn hues over the forests and coastline. It is times like this that I dabble in ultras, you are truly humbled by the beauty and scale of nature. It dwarfs you down so you feel like the most insignificant thing in the world and you reach some sort of inner realisation that you are not all that in this world. Any worries melt away, and you find a peacefulness which shouldn’t be possible when you are tired, sweaty, red-faced, and hungry enough to eat a horse and all its family.
Anyway, I digress. After a 5 mile jog of tracks and trails, a top-up of skittles that any five-year-old child would be proud of and glugging all my remaining water to wash down pharmacies worth of paracetamol, I found a new lease of life. Gone were the snail legs and I tore off down the last trail run. I knew roughly where I was on the course, around 4 miles out, and it felt good to have cooked food and cider in my immediate future. I ran and ran and ran, finally reaching a familiar face, Michael the Harrier. Not wanting to stop I shouted hello and carried on desperate to eat all the food in Aaron and stop running on my left plantar fascia.
I could hear the finish line music. Tearing around the corner, I ran as fast as a snail on an unhealthy amount of Skittles to the finish. A hop, skip and jump over the line, and I was done for day one. Happy? Yes. Deflated there was another day to go, and I did not get a medal? Also yes.
My support team of Mum carted me off for a good feeding and a decent nights sleep as I enthusiastically told her about my day. Day two would not quite be the same.
Up at the crack of dawn, I was less enthusiastic on day two. Slightly aching and legs heavy from the day before I knew deep down this would be a hard and long day. Arriving at the start line the mist was clearing from the sky to unveil the mountains we would be climbing that day, and they were a little bit bigger than I had anticipated. Trying not to think about this I looked around for familiar faces from the day before; there were not many. A lot of people had dropped out and opted to stay in their beds that morning, feeling slightly proud of myself for having turned up at all I lined up on the start with a small confidence boost that I was badass enough to even attempt day two rather than hide under the bed covers.
The start of the race was a few hundred metres across the sandy beaches of Aaron. A delightful way to get your sore legs feeling even worse, run through ankle deep sand. Determined not to walk so soon on in the race I jogged on, lacking much enthusiasm and overheating like a monk in a brothel. Eventually, I had to give in and stop to take my waterproofs off. People flew past me, and the confidence at the start line vanished. I was not feeling this run yet the stubborn part of me dragged me towards the base of Goat Fell at a gentle and well-paced jog.
Around 3 miles in civilisation began to disappear and the forest we were navigating through thinned out to the most glorious valley. We stepped out from the tree line into an elongated bowl of ridges and mountains. Steep climbs surrounded us on the narrow winding trail path, teasing us with what was to come. Progressing through the valley the climbs around us became grander and steeper, casting shadows across our path to Goat Fell. Rather enjoying the scenery and the undulating trail run I had forgotten about having to climb the mountain in front, twice.
After a few more miles jogging the valley path, I was rudely reminded of the mountain climbs. The once tame, earthy trail turned into a remarkably steep climb on rocks. Looking upwards on hitting the incline I could see little specs halfway up the mountain, little specs that resembled the front-runners, little specs that vanished into the clouds. “Come on legs, let’s get moving!” I thought to myself. After what seemed like forever of trudging up the hill I stopped for a water break and a view gander.
This did not disappoint, however, turning around to see how far was left was rather depressing, and my heart sank. I like mountain climbing, actually, no I love climbing mountains. The sense of achievement, the views, the fresh air. However, on tired legs from running 7 hours the day before I was not overly loving the climb up Goat Fell. People around me were also struggling, and one woman, in particular, looked ready to cry when she stopped and looked up. “It will be ok” I said, ushering her on “we only have to climb this twice today, easy peasy”…with that, she started to cry. Deciding that my motivational speaking was leaving a lot to be desired, I left the sobbing women with her boyfriend and continued to climb.
Up and up we went reaching the base of a new set of steps, steeper than the first batch and very very narrow. The wind had picked up with the altitude gain and people were clinging onto the rocks whilst climbing to stop being blown away. Deciding people were a little bit pathetic and the wind was not that bad I ploughed on, catching up with the two boys from the end of day 1. They were also finding the wind humorous as peoples jackets billowed behind them and threatened to take them flying off back to the start line. The three of us reached the top of the final set of steps before the saddle of Goat Fell and all breathed a sigh of relief that we had reached the pass of the mountain. “Yay! do we get a downhill now!?” I shouted enthused over the wind. “Urm no, I do not think so” exclaimed one of the boys pointing to another climb further up into the clouds past the saddle of the mountain. “Think we might be going up a lot further” True to his word I followed his finger highlighting the little specs in the distance disappearing higher up and into more clouds. I wanted to turn around and tell the crying women to stop and go home.
The saddle of Goat Fell was spectacular, the mountain sloped away on both sides and one false move you would be tumbling over boulders to your death. I tried a bit of fell running at this point as it was the only bit of foreseeable flat for a while. Jumping from boulder to boulder the ground was not really runnable but allowed for a bit of making up time. The boys joined in, and the three of us resorted to power walking again upon reaching the base of the next steep climb.
The wind picked up, the ground beneath became frozen and covered in snow in areas, and you could not hear people talking from the gusts blowing across your face. Up into the clouds vision became a little difficult and I resorted to hoping the girl in front knew where she was going. Walking was a little bit of a struggle now, too long spent on one leg when walking resulted in being blown over. “Of course it would not be an Ultra Marathon if it was easy,” I thought to myself struggling to walk forward and eyeing up the steep gorge either side of me “, but this is a little bit dangerous”.
When walking in fog/clouds and not being able to see how far you have to go it can seem like you are walking forever, and this was no exception. However, eventually, the ground began to level out. I jumped in the air in elation “DOWNHILL” I screamed over the gusts of wind and took off as Bolt would do in the starting blocks at the Olympic 100m finals. Alas, this was short-lived, I hit a sheet of ice and went flying into the snow “ok controlled downhill running Emmelia, let’s not get carried away” I thought sheepishly.
Being a little more cautious and shore footed I jogged off down the mountainside. As the snow disappeared and the clouds dissipated, I began to pick up speed, catching up many of the men and women in front of me who were cautiously walking down the sheer paths of the mountainside. After a few hundred meters of steps and pathways, the mountainside opened up into a vast expanse of bouncy moss underfoot with no direction to where we should be running. In true over zealous character
I took off straight down the side of the mountain letting the decline of the land dictate my speed, which ended up being quite quick. Overtaking people left, right and centre I was loving life. I bumped into Michael the Harrier and continued to run downhill, eating up the ground.
Towards the base of the declining ground, everything went wet, boggy and difficult to run in. However, not one to be put off by this I continued at a silly pace and just tried to run through knee-deep mud and bogs, which works when the mud is a little bit dried up. Desperate to overtake a couple in front of me that were taking their time navigating each pool of mud and bog I came off the trodden ground path that had been cut away by the front-runners in a bid to overtake. Having gained a few lengths in front of the couple, I picked up the pace only to be met with my face in a puddle of thick, sticky mud. A little bit took aback the couple raced up to me laughing and out of courtesy asked if I was ok. I highly suspect they were probably thinking “cocky idiot there was a reason we were going slow!”
Knocked down a couple of pegs I dragged myself off the floor patted down some of the mud dripping off me and jogged on at a more leisurely pace past the couple. Beginning to feel a little downhearted that I could see no sign of a town in front for a food pit stop I slowed down and began to flag. A man caught up with me “Finally!” he exclaimed “you are like a bloody mountain goat! You have been my target to catch up with since you overtook me at the top of the mountain. That is some pace you have there girl!” Beaming and lifted by this remark I ran a little bit faster towards pit stop number 1. The pit stop was a short-lived affair as the cutoffs on day two were a lot more drastic than day one. No leisurely picnics for me today!
The next stretch is where everything went very wrong. I dislike road running; I also dislike flat running. Both are dull. So I was a bit peeved to see the road ahead is flat and tarmac. In a bid to keep myself entertained I played the ‘let’s run to this next point and then have a walk’ game, something that helps me break up boring runs. The scenery was still divine. The mountains behind me towering over the coast in front of me. Small villages sprinkled between the two, stone castles hidden away in the nooks of the hills and stags laying in fields it was nothing short of beautiful as the sun cascaded through the clouds on Goats Fell.
On reaching the coastal pathway I jogged for a bit and was met with a searing pain in my right hip flexor and in the bottom of my left foot. “uh oh, here we go” I worried.
I attempted to jog on, no luck I was in a fair amount of pain so decided to walk on at a decent power walk pace to cover as much ground as possible still. Michael the Harrier caught up with me, and I made it my mission to keep up with him. This lasted for a few miles and having someone to hunt down took my mind off the pain. However, eventually his speed was too much, and I tailed off. People I had steamed past on the climb and descent of Goat Fell overtook me asking if I was ok. Grinning to try and hide my anger that I had seen their faces again after such a tremendous sprint down the hill I replied: “yes I am OK, thank you just having a break” through gritted teeth. Running karma at its best it would appear!
The coastline section of the day was not as simple as everyone first thought. What was anticipated to be a flat run on a coastline path turned out to be a scramble over boulders and eroding land with the sea lapping at your feet? Not quite the easy recovery many had hoped for. Granted there were sections of grassland every now and again for you to pick up the pace if so desired for 300m but you would soon be stopped by another hill of rubble to clamber over. Thus, the anticipated recovery power walk was not as much of a recovery as desired. A young man with walking sticks caught up me, yes that is how bad it had become, and asked if I was ok (turns out he was a doctor). Long story short, we got chatting. My walking pace was pretty much his jogging pace, so I had a friend for the coastline section to chat to without having to cause myself much more pain and while making good ground. He made sure I walked on at a decent pace to get to the cut-offs in time, provided conversation and we both made it to the second food stop in plenty of time where I accepted all drugs from all humans in a bid to put my foot and flexor to sleep a bit.
Not wanting to slow down I grabbed some food and continued to plug on as the rain was beginning to descend. If there was one thing, I did not want it was to be stuck up the mountain in that wind again with the addition of rain. The course plunged us waist-deep through ice-cold water rivers before setting us off through the valleys back towards the mountain of Goat Fell. The rain got heavier, I walked quicker with less pain and food in my belly and eventually began to adopt a 7-1, run to walk approach. This saw that the valley to the base of this area of Goat Fell was covered in a decent amount of time.
However, on reaching the base of Goat Fell the rain began to pour, and I looked up seeing to my horror how steep this section of the race was.
There were no steps; there were no paths the race markers took us up shale and looming boulders, this was going to take a while. As the rain continued to team down I tried to do up my waterproof jacket and failed, I tried again and slipped on one of the shale patches of the mountain. This was enough to set me off in a burst of tears. “I CAN’T GET MY JACKET DONE UP! I’M GOING TO GET WET!” I cried out. Now normally I do not care if I get wet, but I think tiredness was beginning to get to me slightly. I looked up sobbing at the none path ahead, and a marshal popped her head around a boulder. “Come on keep going you are nearly at the fun bit” She shouted down to me, I had become the women from the first climb who was crying, I felt slightly ashamed and marched on.
True to the marshal’s word I reached her, and there was a fun section. A section where the none path went straight up, and you had to rock climb with the aid of a rope. Something to break it all up a bit. Unfortunately, the old legs were not best impressed with this addition, and the massive step-ups in the rock made for cramp city and hip flexor hell. After some whining and heaving my shattered corpse up the vertical incline I had reached the top of the second mountain climb. Due to the weather being so vile we were shown an alternative route to the originally planned route along the top of the mountains which took us straight down off the top and into another valley. Having a quick Skittles break, I admired the broken people around me. Two men behind looked pale and ill. A girl sat a few feet away from me was crying as she was scared of heights and a bearded man was stood next to me helping himself to my Skittles. “This is one way to spend a Sunday eh!” He chuckled. At this point I decided he was right, we were lucky to be able to do this, to have come as far as we had and I shouldn’t be taking it for granted and whinging about a few aches and niggles.
So with that bearded man, scared of heights girl and myself took off down the other side of Goat Fell for the last 10 miles to the finish line. This was going swimmingly, the drugs meant I could keep up with their run down the mountain and I was in a good mood as we only had 10 miles left, which does not seem long when you have run as far as we had by then. On the decent levelling out to flat the girl shouted “5 miles left!”, I was elated and we picked up the speed. It got to the point where we were turning corners and out in front of us laid another 2 miles or so as far as the eye could see. I was clocking up the miles in my head that we supposedly had left and something was not adding up. I was getting tired again from out sporadic sprints of excitement with the distance countdown and decided to slow down as there was no sign of the valley ending any time soon.
They continued to take off, and I got my phone out to see exactly how far we did have left. 9 miles to the finish line village. 9 miles! We had easily run 4 miles down the mountain and along the valley already. Cursing myself, I slowed myself to a jog and continued at my own pace. The problem now was I was burnt out and lacking energy. The drugs were wearing off, and eventually, my body slowed to a meandering walk.
After finally exiting the valley a lovely man called Kevin caught up with me, and we got chatting about why we were doing the Ultra Tour of Aaron etc. he walked the last 5 miles or so with me back along the beaches and through the villages spurring me on to ignore the pain and that I could sort that out at the end with a good few pints. I was broken, and if I had not had him talking to me for those last few miles, I am not sure I would have finished.
On leaving the beach, we entered the finish line village back where we started and jogged in the last few hundred meters. Certainly a less enthusiastic finish than day one for me with limited smiling and no jumping. I thanked Kevin for being a top bloke, took my medal and downed a few bottles of water. “EMMEEEEEEEEEEE!”, of course, my Mum was running towards me having waited at the finish line for hours. “Well done my sweet you are amazing” she beamed “let’s get you to a nice hotel and a decent meal in you”. The best part of any run, a hug from someone you love, a decent meal and sleep.
Coming back from Aaron on the ferry that night I thought to myself why had I found this so difficult? Yes, I have struggled before and found things hard but rarely do I burst into tears and rarely do I refuse point blank to run anymore on the flat. Firstly the last time I had climbed a mountain was Ben Nevis In September. Secondly, the last time I had run an ultra was in June and thirdly the last time I had run two ultras in two days was, well never. Biting off more than you can chew I think was the lesson here. Yes, you may have run an ultra before, you may have climbed a few mountains in your life, but unless you do these things all the time you are not going to be fit enough nor used to what a race like this presents you. It will be a different level to anything you have done before. This was evident in the second day when tiredness got to me, and when my body began to cave with injuries, I was just not used to this level, intensity and type of exercise, so I struggled.
It was an event I enjoyed for the most part and looking back I am so glad I did it. As always Rat Races are well organised, great food stops, friendly staff and the route was challenging and beautiful. It was an event that humbled, inspired and challenged most of the field, well worth a shot if you want to take on something different.
- Do not get cocky running downhill you will face plant in a bog or puddle (will I ever learn) – Running karma is a very real thing
- Injury niggles should not be ignored Injuries mean you stop, not carry on I put myself out of action for ten days because of this.
- Make friends on these runs if you are a solo runner, you never know when you might need a kick up the bum.
- Do not try to do an event that is the next level without putting in the specific training; you may be able to muscle through like I did but chances are you will not enjoy it as much as you could have done.