And just like that it was all over (well after 13.5 hours on our feet). Three years of preparing, training, running trails and getting familiar with the routes for a race that I was determined to run. What started as a six month training programme ended up being almost three years thanks to Covid. After two postponements, a cancellation and a virtual attempt at the 50 mile version, this weekend I finally got to run Butcombe Trail Ultra Marathon 56 as a race. It seems only fitting that I dedicate a blog to the experience. At this point, I must apologise for the length of it but there’s a lot of miles to cover!
I wanted to put pen to paper sooner but a combination of having a complete brain fog combined with life as a single mum means this is the first opportunity I’ve had to sit back, take it all in and digest everything. It’s now Thursday, the race was on Saturday. I attempted to sit and write something yesterday but I couldn’t focus for more than five minutes. This is all thanks to the effects of putting my body through 58 miles (2 miles overrun) and 8,000 feet of elevation. No wonder then that I feel absolutely exhausted.
The event itself was amazing, brilliant, fantastic, awesome… yes, it seems strange that those adjectives can be used to describe putting your body through that gruelling distance but I am telling the absolute truth when I say that I loved it. I was nervous in the build up to it. Of course I was. I didn’t know if I had it in me. I had all the usual taper anxiety added to having Covid a few weeks before and having a couple of weeks of not being able to train. Anyhow, me, along with Jason and Laura, who I was running with, ended up on the start line at 7am on Saturday, ready to go and absolutely determined to complete this challenging trail ultra marathon.
Imagine that first mile, full of adrenaline, everyone charging down the hill getting carried away and then hitting that first climb before you had even completed that first mile. Despite a hard climb, I smiled to myself as the first mile beeped on my Garmin. 1 down, 55 to go but every mile was closer to completing the goal. As it transpired, we were going to run a little over 58 rather than the 56 trail ultra marathon we had entered but I had no idea of that at the time (just as well really).
For those of you that might be considering having a crack at it, it’s probably best to summarise it in legs. That is, after all, how I broke it down on the day to make it seem less of a mammoth task.
Leg 1 – The Swan Rowberrow to Compton Martin
After an excitable start with everyone charging out of the gate, we chugged along well for the first 9 miles, all chatty and smiley and arriving 10/15 minutes before anticipated at our first checkpoint. The Butcombe Trail basically goes from pub to pub around the Mendip Hills so all but one of the checkpoints was a pub! Great for our spectators – not so great for us 😉
Feeling so good, and arriving ahead of schedule is always a worry. You feel you may have tanked it too much and will pay for it later. Anyway, it felt amazing to get to that first checkpoint with smiley marshals and an impressive array of food to choose from. We had covered a fair bit of elevation at that point already but everything felt good. The beauty of it was that the next leg was only 4 miles away (counting down each checkpoint really did turn out to be the best thing psychologically, especially for a vertically challenging trail ultra marathon).
Leg 2 – Compton Martin to Hinton Blewitt
There’s more climb in this short leg – a couple of steep climbs to be fair. Even so, we felt good, we were full of enthusiasm and we were still banging out the miles. Checkpoint 2 didn’t disappoint either with a great selection of fruit, sandwiches, snacks and drinks alongside smiley and encouraging marshals who, incidentally many of who are trail ultra marathon runners themselves. Flat coke and fresh water, a wee and on again.
Leg 3 – Hinton Blewitt to Priddy
By the time we got to checkpoint 3, at Priddy, we would be on mile 22. At this point we were the furthest point away from home and it’s always the leg that worries me the most. I am not entirely sure whether it’s the fact that it’s more remote, more unfamiliar or that it is when your legs start to notice that they are working hard. At 16 miles I did feel a bit of panic – just a short burst of anxiety as I realised there was still 40 miles to go. This was short lived and was soon over as we ploughed on to Priddy.
Unfortunately, at this point we lost Jason. We have been training together for 3 years for this race but he had suffered from injury and hadn’t trained as well as he had hoped. Even so, he decided to start the race and play it by ear. At 22 miles, enough was enough for him and we said goodbye. This was really bitter sweet for me and I was really sad to say goodbye to him. He promised me he would be at the finish line – I had to finish it for both of us now!!!!
Leg 4 – Priddy to Rodney Stoke
Laura and I ploughed on to Rodney Stoke over the top of the Mendip Plateau and down into Rodney Stoke. This is one of my favourite parts of the course. I alway say that if you can get down into Rodney Stoke feeling good, its a good sign. We arrived at checkpoint 4 at exactly 26.2 miles. I then added on a bit of mileage walking to a campsite loo and walking around eating as we took 5 minutes. Now, the next leg is a real b***tard. Everyone that’s run the 56 will agree. It’s evil as a leg on it’s own let alone after a marathon. You see this is where a lot of the elevation occurs and the part that is added on to make the 50 miler, a 56 miler. This next leg is where you learn a lot about yourself…
Leg 5a – Rodney Stoke to the Swan
I probably should not have hyped up how bad it was to Laura before we started this leg but it did stand her in good stead for what was to come. There are 8.8 miles between the checkpoints and for 6 miles of that you are climbing – A LOT! 530ft in mile 27, 128 ft in mile 28, then down 600ft and back another 485ft in mile 30. In fact, between mile 27 and 32 we dealt with about 1500ft of climb. It’s tough terrain with a technical descent down into Cheddar and a set of evil steps (140 to be precise) onto the top of the Gorge. I have never been quite so pleased to see the sign for Piney Sleight as this meant climbing was over (for now). I was also looking forward to seeing friends back at the Swan in a couple of miles.
I did think that the next 3 miles would be easier however there was a strong, cold headwind on the top and it took my breath away after all that climbing. At that point I had to stop and walk the flat stretch of road ahead. This was the only point in the race that I thought “I am not going to do this”. Luckily, it was short lived and we turned out of the wind and started running again all the way to the Swan.
This to me was my “half way point” of our 56 mile trail ultra marathon, even though we’d covered 36 miles. It’s probably because my car was there and I was able to change my shoes and socks. The ground was hard and my trail shoes were starting to get a bit uncomfortable. My feet needed more cushioning so I switched to my road shoes. Not only was my car there but also some of my nearest and dearest friends all screaming as we arrived, waiting with goodies, all so excited to see us. It really was the biggest lift to see such familiar faces and I got a bit emosh. This was the first time that I knew we were going to complete it. Something was going to have to go really wrong now to stop us.
Leg 5b – The Swan, Rowberrow to The Lamb, Axbridge
Whilst it’s only 3 miles to the next checkpoint, there is yet more climb and a rather steep descent which is a bit of a quad smasher. It certainly was the first sign of any type of pain but only on the descent, so it was all good. Again, the friends from before, plus some more, were waiting at the pub – yep, they all got to have a jolly pub crawl while we ran. The photo below shows us skipping into Axbridge. We were still full of it even at 39 miles. The next leg is a toughie though, but once we had nailed that we would have ten miles to go of our Butcombe Trail Ultra Marathon adventure.
Leg 6 – The Lamb, Axbridge to The Queens Arms, Bleadon
Leg 6 involves yet more climbing as we ascended Kingswood, over Cross Plain, up Wavering Down and round Crook Peak. At this point, we caught up with 2 of the 50 milers who we happened to know and chatted with them a bit before ploughing on. We nailed this part of the course and surprised ourselves at how quickly we were running after 40 something miles. One last unrelenting gradual climb of a mile and a half up Loxton Hill before we could descend to checkpoint 6. Once again, more food and more friends gave us that boost we needed to carry on. ONLY TEN MILES TO GO!
Leg 7 – The Queens Arms, Bleadon to Winscombe
If you’re reading this waiting for the dramatic meltdowns or “kill me now” quotes then sorry to disappoint. It really didn’t happen. We had ten miles to go and the only question was, would we do it in 13.5 hours as we wanted or not? We were on track for it but we had been screwed a bit by the fact that we had managed to run 2 miles more than we should have at this point. I am still trying to understand where those extra miles came from. My best guess is that over 56 miles, you will add on extra at some point. Walking around at checkpoints, detouring to a toilet and going back to my car must have all contributed to a little bit of overrun.
This next 6 miles was our slowest where we really started to feel it. We were still able to run but we were walking a lot more as well. We had a good stretch from miles 50-52 where we managed to put in a shift – especially on the down hill sections. There is a point at mile 52 where I pass the turning for my house, but with 6 miles to the finish it was an easy decision to carry on. As an added bonus, we unexpectedly found more friends were here to spur us on which was great.
We caught up to another runner at mile 53 – he was trying to catch a finch! I have only just remembered this – it seems a bit strange right? Like it would be the last thing you would do when you were 53 miles in to an ultra. We ran past him and scared the finch off – we really annoyed him. I am laughing now but at the time I was like “sorry mate, got miles to cover here”. We ran with him for a bit – he was still talking to us after Finchgate! He then buggered off and left us. Should have left him to catch the finch – we would have beaten him then. Checkpoint 7 was in touching distance.
Leg 8 – Winscombe to the Finish Line
The sun was setting and it was getting dark. We about one hour away from our deadline. I was convinced we still had it in our legs although it was getting tougher. We were told the finish was 3.9 miles way so we got a march on. There was still some running to come but with a climb ahead we decided to hike. This was the most silent part of the whole day. We had been on our feet for 12.5 hours or more and we were ready to finish. Even a 5k seemed too much now – one foot in front of the other – there was nowhere other to go now than the finish. Tired was an understatement. However, a feeling of achievement was also starting to set in which gave us the surge we needed to finish. We climbed, we hiked, then we descended and we ran, both lost in our own thoughts by now – the laughter and happiness had long subsided – it was sheer grit that was going to get us to the finish line now. We were losing the light with a mile left to go. One last mile – one last stretch then we were done.
Some clever sod thought it would be funny to pop the finish on the top of a hill. We don’t mind admitting to walking until we were in sight of the finish and then putting in a last surge to take us across the line (there’s no way on earth we were walking across the line). A sharp intake of breath (I was convinced I would cry), a little lip wobble and then just sheer relief and disbelief. We had done it. We had completed the 56 mile Butcombe Trail Ultra Marathon. We actually did just about make our goal, give or take a few minutes – the overrun had added a bit on but we finished in 13 hours and 40 minutes. Some beautiful faces were waiting for us at the finish line with a warm welcome (and a beer), including Jason who had left us at mile 22. While it was a great moment, it was tinged with that feeling that he should have been with us after all those months, miles and all weather training.
As well as feeling every emotion possible for the next few hours, my stomach had decided enough was enough and after falling asleep not long after arriving home and showering, it wasn’t long before I was up talking to the toilet – my stomach was like a washing machine. Luckily, I had taken on so much fluid during the race that I didn’t suffer the effects of dehydration though. I barely slept that night and awoke to discover my legs were feeling OKish – this was short-lived as the DOMs arrived later that morning and I could barely walk for two days.
I managed to drag myself out for a recovery walk 2 days later and although my legs seemed to be handling life OK, my feet were (and still are) really bruised. I can’t work out if it’s the fact that they covered 113,000 steps or whether my road shoes were to blame in that last 20 miles. The next few days were a mixture of absolute exhaustion, teariness, grumpiness and the odd moment of “what did I do?” thrown in. It took two days for my appetite to return fully and when it did I certainly made up for the missing calories. My body was craving salad, fruit and healthiness as well as the odd bit of chocolate thrown in too.
A run on Tuesday (3 days after the event) and I was so relieved to discover that there were no niggles or injuries to report. I live to run another day!
I’d like to thank the guys at Town and Country Harriers for a superbly organised event, the marshals were phenomenal, the checkpoints were outstanding – watermelon and flat coke rock. The route is stunning with spectacular views to reward you for your climbs. If you are looking for a great trail ultra marathon then you really should check it out. I would also like to thank Jason for the months/years of training and to Laura for her company on this epic adventure. We are all still friends which is great!
I also have the most amazing friends. In addition to their support on route, every day they have checked up on me to see how I am recovering and I have, of course, told everyone that will listen that I ran 58 miles. This does not include my long suffering children that just roll their eyes and check I’m alive occasionally.
So, as I ease myself back into running, I can’t help but think – what’s next?
Interested in finding out more about training for an ultra marathon? Check out more information over on our trail training section.