The Calderdale Way Ultra and Race To The Stones race report (or a road runner’s very belated thoughts on trying ultra’s…) by James Rose
In October 2017, when thinking about my running plans for the following year, I decided to have a pop at a type of running I’d not tried before; ultra’s. To see if I could. Because other people I know could. Because I haven’t done one before and I’ve tried almost every other type of running. Because I keep getting injured every summer so I thought I could stop speed work after a spring marathon but still do races if they were too long to be fast, and not get injured. Because Simon Bennett once did very well in Dig Deep’s 60 miler, and when I asked him how he trained, he replied, “How do you train for something like that?!”. Great, I thought, you don’t even have to train for them. I figured I’d do a normal marathon block, then just amble around the peaks and trails a bit. How hard could it be?
So, if you’re a marathon runner thinking of trying an ultra, or fancy doing either of the races above, this might be of interest. Or not (disclaimer: I’m primarily a road runner, but I’ve done a reasonable bit of fell/trail/XC including some longer races).
I duly marathon trained (Manchester in April) and then I had 3 longer races scheduled. The first, a 30 miler (Dukeries in May) didn’t go so well, in that I DNF’d with a calf injury after 3 miles. Which gave me an hour and a half to hobble back to the car thinking about how I had a 50 miler in 3 weeks and I’d messed up ultra’s (and not getting injured) at the first puny attempt. Although in retrospect, I wouldn’t schedule it like that again, racing 30 miles (it’s flat, on good trails and I was aiming at not too far off marathon pace) is probably too big an effort to recover from properly when you’re trying to train for your first proper ultra. Obviously. Unless you’re Nick Burns.
I didn’t run for 3 weeks, bar a 3 mile calf test I thought I may have sort of passed but subsequently realised I’d comprehensively failed, a week before. I decided the best strategy was to rest completely (thus I couldn’t fail another one) then turn up anyway and have a go. Which was obviously stupid, but the trouble is you sometimes get away with stupid stuff. Which might be why I’m so very rarely injured.
I chose the Calderale Way Ultra (50.5 mile – the .5 bit is in the name, it’s on the T-shirt, you might think that who cares about half a mile when you’ve done 50 of them but the answer would be everyone who’s done the race) because the date fit, it was one of the cheaper ones, it said it was fully waymarked (I really, really didn’t want to be faffing about with maps or phones) and I could do it as a day trip. Only when I worked back from a 6am start, I had to get up a 2:30 am, and at registration they gave us an ominously detailed map and turn by turn description. Everyone had fancy watches with the route loaded or big handheld GPS things I’d never seen before. And either a lot more or a lot less kit than me. And I was carrying the full FRA kit as required, the race info had been very specific about how everyone would be inspected. No-one was.
It’s a small (100 or so), local event organised very well by John Lloyd at Cannonball events. Start and finish is at the same pub in Tormorden. The route is basically a lap of Halifax. Which is a lot prettier than it sounds. I’d never been to the area before and it was lovely. Although very lumpy, Strava said I took in over 8500 feet of elevation, and most of that felt near vertical, up and down.
The route was signposted. Although often in multiple different directions due to local variations. Sometimes chalk arrows overrode the signposts. Lots of people were following watches etc, and lots were going wrong. Early on I got chatting to a big bunch of experienced guys from a local club (Calder Valley Fell Runners) who use the route as part of an annual relay and had run most of the legs. So I decided I would stick with them, even if it meant going faster or slower, there were so many featureless fields/turns/stiles/villages/towns/backgardens that if it hadn’t been for them I’d have had a much worse day, and done about 100.5 miles.
The plan was to take it very easy, under no circumstances do any racing, walk the uphill’s and shuffle the rest. But it turns out that what almost everyone else does too. I didn’t get injured. I did feel pretty much done in after about 15 miles, mainly because it was a very hot and humid day, hilly over tough terrain, and that alone took about 3 hours, which is the longest I ever run for normally. But you keep going obviously, and I had to stay with this group or I’d be pretty lost. And I did, as it gradually splintered until only two of us were left to shuffle, a guy called Luke and I, alone for hours, sweating and bleeding, me it turns out from a burst blister on my foot which I ignored, and him from his inner thigh, which he also ignored despite having vaseline in his bag and blood streaming down his leg. At one point we ran through the middle of a drunken 1940’s carnival complete with Nazi stormtroopers (presumably in fancy dress). A little girl asked her RAF officer Dad, “Why are they running?”. Good question, I thought. No idea.
I’d read about sock/shoe changes, rest periods, meal stops etc on ultra’s, but saw none of it here. We barely paused for longer than a minute at the aid stations and my bag never left my back. In fact, I had far too much food with me, again I’d read about these being eating competitions with a bit of running, but quite why I thought I needed loads of flapjacks and sweets when it was all there at aid stations I don’t know. I ate theirs, carried mine all the way, then took it home untouched. In terms of nutrition, all I ate was flapjack, gels and banana’s. I tried a sandwich but couldn’t get it down. I did drink loads of water, some with high5 tabs. Flat coke seemed to be a thing, but I have no idea why as it was horrible and too acidic to run on.
The other thing I learnt is that once you feel terrible (15 miles in) you probably won’t feel much better. But neither will you feel worse. I was surprised how much we walked. And also how much we didn’t. I was surprised how slow my watch said we were going. And also how fast it felt. I was surprised how hard it felt. And also how easy it was. It was daft really, I love a 20 miler but its done in a few hours and here we were 30 odd miles in with 20 to go and 6 hours down (6 hours!), and everything hurts, and you can barely run. But the thing about ultra’s, it seems that all you only have to do is barely run, to just keep going, and seeing as the only other options are stopping or walking, neither of which are at all attractive, it’s not even that hard to do that.
Strange things happened at 35 miles or so. I’d finally been dropped by Luke, and a hill was so steep I was struggling to walk. So I ran up it, and thereafter I didn’t walk or stop for anything. I started to speed up, caught Luke up, dragged him with me, promising he was going to finish in front of me, together we caught and went past more people, and suddenly I was definitely racing rather than just finishing. It felt great. Only trouble was the downhills had completely trashed my quads, and there was a lot of tortuous long steep downs where I lost time (in painful agony) and places, only to gain them again (in enjoyable agony) on the ups. We finished. I was surprised how bad I felt. And also how good. It was really tough. Only, actually, it wasn’t, not really. I probably didn’t race it properly. The top ten finished between 9.5 and 10.5 hours, except for the winner who did sub 8. He clearly did it properly!
So, if I wasn’t injured, how do you train for something like this? I read a bit about it, then just decided to try and do no speedwork but run at least 5 km every day, and do some long runs. Streak fell some way short of Ron Hill’s 51 years (two weeks) and I really didn’t like it, too tiring, it stopped being fun. So instead I just stuck in a few 50 mile weeks, almost all easy, a few long efforts in the peaks and then a 24 hrs where I ran 45 miles over 3 runs. It was lot less structured and a lot less fun than marathon training if I’m honest. Turns out I prefer a plan, reps, hard threshold runs and running laps of stuff, more than scenic easy traily stuff. Sorry!
Race to the Stones in mid July is the biggest ultra in the country, over 2500 do the various options (50km, 100km over 2 days, or 100km non stop), and it attracts a strong field. Stopping sounds harder than keeping going so I was doing it non stop. It follows the Ridgeway, a point to point long distance trail in Oxfordshire. It definitely has a big event atmosphere, and a price tag to match. The organisation, aid stations (every 10K) and, more importantly for me, the route marking were all fantastic though. It was impossible to go wrong. They even had signs out on potential wrong turns saying not this way. There was no mandatory kit and I didn’t carry a map. Or much else if I’m honest. Sorry fell runners.
I was in the third wave, and unlike the last one, was aiming to race it. So how to pace it? No idea. I decided after a certain point it’s counterproductive to run too slowly, so I just kept it easy and figured I’d walk some harder bits. Only it’s a very runnable course with not too much elevation (about 2500 ft in total) and so I gradually worked my way through the hundreds ahead of me, thinking I was probably going too fast. It was a scorching day (do you remember the legendary summer of 2018?), 30 ◦C and full sunshine. The first 20 miles flew by. I probably faffed about a bit too much at aid stations, and tried to eat and drink plently. Then drink some more.
The whole route is pleasantly scenic with big open paths and lots of green countryside. To see any of the sights advertised, such as the white horse drawn on a hill thing, you have to leave the route a bit though so obviously I saw none of that stuff. I chatted to lots of people, including a Doctor from Sheffield in fancy dress called Baz, who told me he’d done over 150 marathons and ultras and I was to see numerous times, including a few months later in A&E at the Northern General. But that’s another story.
The second 20 miles was a bit gruelling. The heat meant it was really hard to hydrate enough, yet I felt so full of water anyway, sloshing away. This is disconcerting to someone who doesn’t drink anything in races unless it’s a full marathon. I got really queasy, and was a bit ill at half way. Perhaps I ate too much. The field thinned out, especially after half way, all I could do was keep going, try to hunt down the next person, and try not to soil myself.
Strange things happened at 40 miles or so. Perhaps this 2/3 point is where you break the back of a race like this, perhaps once you’re 20 or so miles out the finish suddenly seems pretty close. Relatively. So attainable you almost begin to hope it doesn’t end too soon, as actually this is pretty great, glorious even. Or maybe I had heatstroke and was delirious. I gave up eating and drinking as the end was so ‘near’, and immediately felt better. I started to speed up. I gave up stopping at aid stations. I gave up any walking. For the first time all day it felt like I was actually running. And smiling. I’m absolutely sure I looked a completely comical mess, hobbling and grimacing, but as I’d given up all but a grunted ‘hi’ to anyone I passed no-one could point that out.
Someone had told me earlier in the day that sub 12 hours was a decent benchmark for 100km. So being a road runner I was obviously doing the maths and defending the average pace required on the watch (every stop added at least 10s to the average min/mile, it was very stressful!). The last 6 miles or so were my quickest of the race by some margin, and suddenly sub 11 seemed possible. At this point ultra’s seemed to me to be the way forward. As I ‘flew’ (relative term) over the last few hills in the evening sunshine, alone and happy, it just seemed a glorious place to be. Must have been the heatstroke again.
The last bit involves an out and back so you can do a lap of the stone circle that gives the race it’s name. Other than looking like it’s in some bloke’s back garden it’s very impressive, and I got that happy rush again. Cue a sprint (well, marathon pace) to the line. This felt genuinely life affirming, and I’m not the type to have moments like that, or admit to them if I do.
Food was laid on, showers were provided, bags were transferred, mini bus back to the start prearranged, it was all very civilised. I sat, ate pizza, drank tea, clapped and cheered, then caught an earlier bus ( for nearly two hours, how did I run this far!?) back. And promptly fell out the bus with acute leg failure.
So, am I hooked? Well, no. It was great, and I’m glad I did it. I’d really recommend Race to the Stones, it’s a brilliant event worth paying and travelling for. But. These races are just such a different thing. It doesn’t really feel that much like a running event. For me the race is really just the icing, it’s the training that’s my cake. And a marathon block is just so much more exciting. Perhaps it’s just a difference in my relative experience/aims but I honestly think a flat road marathon, run as hard as you can, is so much harder. And more rewarding. And more fun. In a marathon, if your pace slips by even a few seconds per mile, then it’s game over. In an ultra, if you’re having a bad patch you can stop and have an actual picnic. And besides, it sounds ridiculous as the distances that are bandied around reading/discussing these events (40 miles, 60 miles, 100 miles or more) that it doesn’t seem that far, but well, 100 km is a really long way, and 10 hours is very long time to run (I know it’s not, I know people go all day and then through the night etc, but that’s just bonkers). And besides, for 2-3 days afterwards, I was just completely wiped out, it was all I could to drag myself to work then straight to bed at 5pm, absolutely creamcracker knackered.
And this all comes with a health warning. Despite no evidence, recovering my running legs easily, (within the week, much quicker than a marathon) and a gap of 5 weeks, I blame this low period for possibly getting the virus that may have caused a bit of myopericarditus (heart inflammation) that rather dramatically stopped me in my tracks and is the reason I’m writing overlong reports about running instead of actually doing it. Hopefully, I’ll soon be running (road) races and writing no reports again.
I think I was the only Strider in both races. The Calderdale Way 50.5 was won by Kevin Hoult of Calderdale Valley Fell Runners in 7:57 (98 mins ahead of 2nd!), and Sarah Cook (unattached) in 10:42. I finished in 9th in 10:15. Race to the Stones (clubs not listed) was won by Geoffrey Cheshire in 8:36 (46 mins ahead of 2nd!) and Alyssa Clark in 9:35. I ran 10:47 and placed 13th.
A post on the Race to the Stones result is available on the Striders website here, and for LDS purposes, James’ position at the Calderdale Ultra is given below