I have a 15,000-word dissertation due in a week, so I thought, yeah, now is a good time to run my first ultra marathon. I’ll admit that I put a little too much Personal Best Pressure on myself heading into Boston, and after the race I found myself searching for a new endurance challenge and something that would bring me back down to running for the sake of running. So I signed up for the Run the Blades 50km, which takes place at Whitelee Windfarm, just twenty minutes outside of Glasgow. My mindset going into this race was just to finish- nothing fancy, no competitive time goals, no pressure, and absolutely nothing to compare it to.
With work and uni, even I thought I was a bit crazy for adding the uncharted waters of ultra marathon training to the list of things to do. However, the Saturday Long Run became the most relaxing part of the week. For this race, I trained my long runs for time, rather than mileage or pace, adding 30 minutes each week until I hit 4.5 hours, then tapering down to Race Day. Many of the long runs felt effortless and provided a moment of pure bliss amongst the frustration of unmet word counts, unanswered text messages, and ignored emails. The pacing was incredibly consistent as well, with mile after mile falling within tiny seconds of each other. It felt like I was running for the sake of running again. It felt composed. It felt strong.
The race took place entirely within the Largest Onshore Windfarm in the UK, with 215 wind turbines towering 140 meters directly above the trails. It was unlike anything I had ever experienced- dozens of wind turbines, as far as the eye can see, and in every direction. Running to the tune of their whooshing, I ran 31 consecutive and absolutely undulating miles without ever slowing to a walk (okay that’s a generalization, I walked at each of the four checkpoints as I refilled my water bottle and had a little snacky snack- but in between each checkpoint, somehow, I did not walk).
Attempting a race this long is a bit daunting. But like any race, I broke it down into sections. As there were four checkpoints, I thought the easiest way was to break it down into five parts. Basically, I went on five different runs, and tried not to think about anything other than the section I was in:
- Start to Checkpoint 1 (6.5 miles)- This section basically ran itself, the miles were undulating and the heavy rains of the previous few days created a water feature, an expansive puddle, calf-deep with beautifully cold water. I thought it was a little too early in the race to have wet shoes and socks, but wow, it was refreshing. The pack of 179 starters spread out pretty quickly within these miles. Throughout the entire race, there was usually another runner within eyesight, but the actual running was done very much independently.
- Checkpoint 1 to Checkpoint 2 (7.4 miles, 13.9 miles overall)- I started fueling regularly during this section and was feeling pretty strong. There was a massive hill that I managed to crush just before the checkpoint. Other than that, I don’t remember much about it.
- Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 (7.9 miles, 21.8 miles overall)- This was the longest section, and the one where I mentally wavered for a hot minute. I kind of expected that going into it. The sun snuck its way out through the clouds for most of this one, making it feel a bit warm. Runners were few and far between here, which didn’t help either. What got me through this one was the wind turbines. I was absolutely mesmerized by them. Borderline embarrassing.
- Checkpoint 3 to Checkpoint 4 (6.2 miles, 28.0 miles overall)- With the longest section out of the way, I knew I had just two sections to go, totaling less than a John Furey 10-miler. My Garmin rang in the 26th mile as I was in the process of beasting up a steady hill and passing another runner as he walked up the incline. I said “Ooh! 26 miles!” as I ran past him. He turned and informed me that I was “making this look too easy.” Honestly, I was in complete disbelief myself! Don’t get me wrong, every bit of my body hurt at that point, but somehow I continued to find myself putting one foot in front of the other, arms propelling each step, and all with a smile on my face. There were also some steep down hills here. My knees did not care for that one bit, and the rocks were a bit loose and slippy. Onwards anyways.
- Checkpoint 4 to Finish (3 miles, 31.0 miles overall)- My Garmin died shortly after leaving the fourth checkpoint. I literally outran technology. Luckily I knew there were less than three miles to the Finish Line and I was running under 10:30s, so the math was pretty easy. Just a Park Run to go. I just had to hold on through “That Hill,” which was no joke! I was absolutely alone at that point and it was grueling. I managed the hill without slowing to a walk and fought my way up a couple more minor hills to the finish where I was greeted with a post-race burrito and a huge surprise. As it turns out I was the eighth lady to cross the finish line that day and the first in my category. Unbelievable news to top off an unbelievable day!
The biggest kudos of the day goes to my friend Mhairi for her incredible performance as a one-woman Support Crew. She cycled the course and met me at each of the four checkpoints, eager to keep me well-fueled, offer analysis on the course, weather, pace, etc., and take fantastic photos and videos of the day. I could not have attempted this race without her, and recommend that everyone have a hype person with them for this type of challenge.
And now, if you’ll indulge me in a sappy moment, I’d like to share a reflection on the past few years of running. Five years ago I ran my first marathon in 5:08:02- which sizes up to an average pace of 11:45 per mile over 26.2 miles. Since then, I’ve cut an hour off that time, but this past weekend, I completed my first 50km race in 5:28:41- which evens out to an average pace of 10:35 per mile over 31 miles. I am utterly astounded by this progress and am actually shedding tears as I write this. I never could have imagined tacking on an extra five miles beyond the marathon distance with just a twenty minute difference. And this is concrete proof that hard work and perseverance really do matter- the sub-freezing long runs, the squats, the ever-painful yoga sessions, the scrubbing portion of Tired Tootsie Tubby Time, it all matters. For someone who, in recent history, couldn’t run a mile without feeling like the world was caving in on her, this race helped me to put it all in perspective. I have learned and progressed through every single mile. I could tell you it’s a metaphor for life, but if you’re a frequent flyer on this little blog, I’m sure you already know that.
Thank You Notes:
- Thank you to Mhairi– See above, plus also thank you for completely immersing yourself in the activities and rituals of Race Weekend- everything from pre-race fueling to… post-race fueling, and… mid-race fueling. Such a hardship, I know. And thank you for carpool karaoke, Mamma Mia 2 screenings, casually cycling 50km through an undulating windfarm, taking glamour shots and horizontal videos, and carrying all the stuff. Every bit of it is appreciated.
- Thank you to all of the volunteers at Run the Blades– The checkpoints were beautifully orchestrated and full of cheer and positivity. Each checkpoint was a welcomed sight on the long trail through the windfarm.
- Thank you to my 7-year old laptop for an ultimate showing of endurance– Currently in the minor edits and formatting phase our third dissertation and fourth major academic project. A true champ.