Race Date: Sunday 18th September 2022 (63km/40 miles)
It was with some trepidation that I stood in the church that acted as race HQ for the Warwickshire Bear Ultra race briefing. Everyone else in the room looked so much faster than me and I was worried about not meeting the cut-offs or being last. My husband, John, had planned to run the race too but a persistent injury had put a stop to that so he was volunteering instead. I told him my fears but he reassured me that I would be fine; I had put the miles in and trained hard for it over the previous 12 weeks, and I had nothing to worry about.
We all walked from the church to the start line as a group and there was a feeling of nervousness in the air. After a few words of encouragement from the Race Director, the bell rang and we were off! My aim was to not get caught up in the pace of the crowd, run my own race, and stick to a comfortable pace – I was aiming for around 10 – 10:30 min/mile pace. My plan was to run as much of the 63km (c.40 miles) as I could, walk anything that resembled a hill, and adopt a run-walk strategy at the end if I needed to.
The route starts in Rugby and goes along the Great Central Way. The first 2 miles take you along the cycle path towards Draycote Water where we ran alongside the reservoir briefly, escaping it to head towards Thurlaston for the first checkpoint at the village hall. As I entered the checkpoint, one of the volunteers welcomed me with “welcome first lady!” which completely took me by surprise! I had assumed that I would be somewhere mid-pack, not first lady, and this news was now an added pressure! However as I was at the aid station, another woman nipped in and out before me, putting me into second place. I set on my way again, and within a mile or so I caught her up, and then at the next aid station at Birdingbury, the same thing happened again – she was in and out before me, but then I caught her up quite soon.
We played a bit of cat and mouse until I overtook her not long after we joined the Grand Union Canal at Stockton Locks. Going down past the 8 locks, we stayed on the canal on the way to Leamington Spa, and I passed the Two Boats Inn skipping aid station 3 at mile 15 as I was fully stocked with fuel and drink. It was also in the back of my mind that I was in first place again now so didn’t want to lose precious time as I knew she must only be a few minutes behind me, if that. I had never been in this kind of competitive position in a race before so I didn’t really know how to deal with it mentally to be honest, as I’m normally a very middle-pack runner.
I soon caught up with a man and another woman, Karen, and it transpired that she hadn’t called in to the first aid station which is why it had appeared that I was in first place, but in fact I hadn’t been. We all chatted as we ran which really helped as this 7-mile stretch of canal felt like it went on forever! As we approached the halfway point, The Fusilers pub at mile 19, the front-runners started to pass us as they made their way back the way they had come. We kept expecting to see the first woman come past us as Karen assured me that there was definitely a group of two or three fast women in front of us, which took the pressure off me. However, as we got closer to the halfway point and more men passed us with no sign of any women, we joked that maybe it was us in first and second place after all. And as we reached the Fusiliers….we realised that we were indeed in first and second place. The pressure was back on!
We didn’t linger at the aid station for too long and Karen and I headed back the way we came, back along the canal, past Draycote Water, and back onto the Great Central Way, visiting the same checkpoints back to the church. We stayed together for the whole return journey back to Rugby; we started by taking it in turns to lead, but after a while I set the pace for both of us. I offered for us to cross the finish line together, hand in hand, but Karen graciously said that as I had been in front for most of the run that I should take first place. We finished in a time of 7hrs 39 mins, and only 1 second between us. We both received a beautiful wooden plaque for our first and second place finishes, and a well-deserved medal and beer! Not bad for someone who thought that they would finish last!
The event was run by Big Bear Events and I couldn’t recommend them more. They mostly run 6-hour lapped events, mainly in Warwickshire, with another couple of ultra events, the Cannock 50 and Salcey 50. All the aid stations were well-stocked (the rosemary potatoes were a revelation), and all the volunteers were so friendly and helpful.
A social media post the night before the event stated that there would be 76 starters, with a ratio of 52 men to 24 women, but on the day, there were only 54 starters, with only 10 women toeing the line. This seems to be a pattern at these longer events, that there are much fewer women on the start line, and I’m not sure if some of it comes down to many women lacking belief in their abilities, but if so I would say GIVE IT A GO! You never know what you will achieve, and I find these events are much more relaxed than say a road marathon where you might be aiming for a particular finish time. It would be great to see more women at the start of these longer races.
I was the lone Strider in the race, finishing 1st female and 23rd overall out of 52 finishers. The race was won by Jonathan Taylor of Rugby & Northampton Athletic Club in a time of 5hrs 17 mins.