The Royal Parks Ultra: Part 2

Matt Griffiths
Monday, 15 October, 2012


We shuffled along with the crowds and entered the race area in Hyde Park, instantly spotting the Ultra tent. In the tent we recognised Women’s Running, Operation Ultra girl Liz Goodchild. She was blending in well with the other Ultra runners. There was a different atmosphere in here, compared to the frantic chaos outside. The Ultra runners looked assured, and relaxed – nibbling snacks, adjusting packs and chatting. After some chit chat and photos I dived into the torrent of runners outside and ‘swam’ upstream through the throng until I found the end of the toilet queue. It did cross my mind that I might spend several hours there but the queue was faster than expected. Soon it was time to head towards the start area. As we approached the course there was still a mass of ‘half’ runners crossing the start line at a walking pace. Some of the marshalls eyed us suspiciously and it was soon apparent that several didn’t even know where the Ultra start was! I’m convinced that most weren’t even aware that a small band of crazy runners were about to run the length of London. We eventually found our start pen and the friendly chatter continued. Most of the crowd of supporters had dispersed but we were still receiving quizzical looks from some of them. Then came the start. I wished Liz the best of luck and commenced my journey. My immediate reaction was just how relaxed it all was. We shuffled forwards and accelerated to... a jog. There was no pushing and shoving, no mass stampede and so I took my camera out. I kept one eye on my pace and the other on the iconic view around me. Hyde Park Corner slipped by, then Buckingham Palace. By the time I’d reached Westminster Bridge I had taken over 30 photos of my surroundings and several cheesy videos of myself running. royal-parks-ultra By this stage I was starting to weave in and out of the slower half marathon runners. There were sporadic cheers of ‘go Ultra’ from the crowd but, dotted around, we mostly slipped through - quietly unnoticed. Back on the north bank and approaching Blackfriars Bridge was a large yellow sign indicating half marathon runners to turn around and Ultra’s to continue. It felt like a detour warning sign – urging us to continue blindly towards the edge of a cliff! A ‘half’ runner behind me said ‘’what is an Ultra?’’ I veered off to the right and ran up the bridge incline. More pictures and my mood was exhilaration. Under sunny blue skies I cruised along, surrounded by a world famous skyline. My mile splits had been bleeping encouraging numbers at me – I was on pace! I caught up with Jody, a Men’s Running Magazine Contributing Editor, and we began chatting. As the South Bank crowds thickened we weaved our way around bemused tourists. The runners had thinned out but I caught sight of the occasional Ultra rucksack ahead, bobbing up and down in the sea of people. My GPS pace was telling me to move faster so I bid farewell to Jody, an experienced Ultra, and sped up. I was hoping I wouldn’t regret this and for a moment had an image of myself in a heap, broken and defeated, with Jody saying ‘’Told you so’’ as he sprinted by. I brushed these thoughts aside and trusted my pace and training. As the Ultra runners (about 250 of us) thinned out, I caught occasional glimpses of other racers until it felt like I was running alone. The first hour approached and I took on some food. I had a choice of several starters and main courses but there would be no wine with this meal. I washed it down with electrolyte from the liquid bladder in my Salomon pack. A change of direction or turn was marked by cheerful marshalls in blue shirts and yellow signs with black arrows showing the way. There were aid stations and checkpoints along the route. I gratefully took water to hydrate, dutifully put my wrappers in bins and used the toilet facilities. No ducking behind a tree on a busy Sunday afternoon in London! No bogs or steep hills in this race but there were dogs, bikes and walkers to negotiate - and kids on scooters and boards. Occasionally a band of cheering supporters urged me on. They were probably waiting for their own runners but gave away their encouragement freely to all of us. As the route slipped into the suburbs I put my camera away and tried to focus. (No pun intended!). Approaching Hammersmith Bridge I saw my other half. I wasn’t expecting support until Richmond so this was a real morale booster at 23k! royal-parks-ultraThe cheesy grin in my picture says it all. I ran a constant check on my bodily systems – pace..check, hydration..check, fuel..check, ego...in check! My first dark moment came at about 25k. A sudden cramp shot through my left quad, and my leg remained rigid and unbending as I skipped to a halt. My heart sank and negative thoughts started to appear in my head. As I stretched the cramp out and starting running again I worked through my options. I altered my gait and flicked my legs up behind me, gulped some electrolyte and threw some salty pretzels down my neck. Within 5 minutes I was back on pace and the cramp was just a bad memory. My first ego test came at about 30k. A couple of Ultras cruised by with a nod and a wave. They were chatting and looked relaxed. I glanced at my pace but chasing them would put me into sub 7:30 pace. I restrained myself and another 2 individual runners passed by me over the next few kilometres. I felt a bit deflated but I still felt good and it was more important to run my own race. From here it was familiar territory. I had trained along this route many times so psychologically this felt like I was homeward bound. As I approached Richmond, the crowds thickened and the slalom started again. I caught sight of an ultra runner ahead and I was closing on him. He may have been one of the individuals who had passed me earlier. As I went by I asked him how he was and he looked and felt exhausted. Suddenly my senses were bombarded! There was cheering, cow bells, clapping and people everywhere. Even the diners outside the pubs joined in with smiles and shouts of encouragement. I recognised my mum, sister, niece (holding a cowbell) and girlfriend - shouting and cheering and they had managed to whip the Sunday crowd around them into a frenzy! I gave another grin for the camera and I felt relaxed and fast. The uplifting of my spirit powered me along the Richmond waterfront. royal-parks-ultra As the path veered away from the river I passed another Ultra, obviously cramping up. Perhaps number 2 of the previous ‘over takers’ was now behind me. I entered Richmond Park and the first wave of doubt hit me. I suddenly felt fatigued and a thought entered my head ‘’can I keep this up?’’
 

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