We had been watching the weather all week, sending each other screenshots and comparing forecasters; as though the most favourable prediction would also be the most accurate.
“BBC Weather says there’s a 95% chance of rain until midday and winds of 46mph. But the Met Office thinks it’s going to clear up at 10am, and it won’t be that wet. I reckon the Met know better. Right…??”
Ania and I were obsessively scanning weather apps because we had, in a moment of madness, signed up for Endurancelife’s ultra marathon in Dorset (part of their Coastal Trail Series). And when you’re running along the Dorset coastline in December, the forecast tends to matter. Trail runners may be a hardy breed, but most would still agree that gale force winds and sheer drops don’t mix well.
However, thanks to the weather gods, the conditions stayed just the right side of horrendous – meaning that we weren’t in any danger of being blown off a cliff, only of contracting hypothermia. Which the event insurance isn’t liable for, so…
Endurancelife Dorset offers a 10km, a half, a marathon, an ultra (33 miles) and an ultra plus (43 miles). Because we a) fancied the challenge, or b) are masochists, we picked the ultra. (Thankfully we’re not stupid, so entering the 43-miler was never an option.) While it was my first ultramarathon, I at least was coming off the back of Chicago training in October. Ania had decided to make it extra spicy for herself by making this not only her first ultra, but her first marathon, too. (I know, runners have issues.)
The race began in the scenic Lulworth Cove, heading west past the famous Dorset landmark Durdle Door, and along some of the most beautiful coastline in Britain. Unfortunately, as we arrived in the dark and then spent the first half of the race running through a cloud, we didn’t totally appreciate that. Still, what glimpses of the coast we did get as the day cleared were gorgeous; plummeting white cliffs topped with a grassy green frosting, sprinkled with tired runners in various shades of Salomon.
In the marquee at the start line, there seemed to be two approaches to the torrential rain and wind. Either layer up in a totally waterproof, sweat-sealing cocoon, and spend the day flapping like a plastic bag; or let your skin do its own waterproofing and strip down to shorts and a vest, with gloves and a hat to keep the heat in. Either way; 5, 8 or 10 hours later, a hot shower will feel like all the best moments of your life rolled into one.
The silver lining of running in horrible weather is that, as long as you’re fairly well prepared, the anticipation is usually much worse than the doing. Clambering into a car at 6am and skidding our way across road-wide puddles as the water whipped at the windows was actually a more miserable undertaking than donning buffs, pulling up our hoods and emerging from the race tent into horizontal rain. At least then we were getting the thing done.
Of course, getting the thing done took a while. Coming from long distance road running to long distance trails, you have to adjust your thinking quite dramatically. Don’t lose heart when you look at your watch and you’re plodding uphill at 16 minutes per kilometre. In fact, as my friend and seasoned ultra runner Maggie advises, it’s best if you don’t look at your watch at all unless you’re jogging along on a nice flat. Trying to compare trail times to road times is at best pointless and at worst utterly demoralising. Just remember that a RunThrough 10km doesn’t usually come with a couple of 100m hills thrown into the middle.
After 7 hours and 40 minutes, 56 kilometres and nearly 2,000 metres of elevation gain, Ania and I did get it done, hobbling in to the final checkpoint about half an hour before the sun started to set. There were some dark moments during that last 10km, I’m not going to lie; moments when you just have to go deep within and remind yourself why exactly you’re doing this (answer: a deep sense of satisfaction, and bragging rights for weeks).
Massive, massive kudos to everyone who ran, at every distance. It wasn’t an easy day, but the camaraderie was as warm as the weather was not, and spirits were (mostly) high. And a special shout out to all the support staff, supporters and volunteers, who were out on the course for hours and hours, consistently cheerful, and without even a medal to show for it.
The big question: would I do it again? Once I can walk downstairs properly and put on jeans without wincing, sure. The Endurancelife series is fantastic; a chance to race through some of the most gorgeous scenery we have, and a proper challenge to be proud of. But I think I’ll leave the ultramarathons to the ultra runners, and stick to races that only last, oh, about 5 hours or so. Much more sensible.