Downslink Ultra – 38 miles…

Well, I hope you have a cup of tea handy because this could be a bit of a read….

Yesterday I ran my first ever Ultra. For the non-running people that might have stumbled across this an Ultra is any distance longer than a marathon but usually includes races of 50k and longer. Some races are measured in kilometres and some are measure in miles. I really don’t know why, but that is just how it is !

The Downslink Ultra is 38 miles starting from St Marthas Hill near Guildford and finishing in Shoreham.

The full gory details can be seen here:

I have always deep down wanted to run an Ultra and after doing trail marathons and a fair bit of running over the last few years it seemed the next logical step. Because I’ve never run one before I thought I ought to train properly for it (38 miles is a long way !!) So, after much reading online and putting in to the mix how I know my body recovers and also my coaching knowledge I came up with a 20 week plan.

Once my weekly long runs reached 20 miles I would alternate between a “hard” week and an “easy” week….. The hard weeks had me running nearly 50 miles a week and the easy weeks were about 30-35…. This did give me a bit longer to recover after each very long run (anything over 20 miles is a very long run !!) and my longest runs were 26 miles each (I did two in total). I also allowed time for a proper taper. I didn’t worry too much if I had to miss the odd shorter run or reschedule a long run to a week day rather than a weekend but I did make sure that I completed the long runs in the plan and most of the others. Sometimes life just gets in the way and you have to realise that you are human, most probably with a job and family as well ! In addition to this I had another race to fit in to the schedule and I adapted it to look forward to my next event in January so some of my mid week runs were 8 miles rather than 10 but they were run carrying a 35lb backpack….

I also used my long runs to test out all clothing I was likely to wear on the day and food / drink combinations.

Lessons I learned in training:

  1. Running bras – make sure you check you have all the seams flat. It may be fine for the first 10 miles but a slight crease WILL chafe in the long run.
  2. Baby Food – Best avoided – not an experience I would like to repeat.
  3. Stop and remove the smallest bit of grit in your shoe ASAP – it may be fine for a couple of miles but will cause problems.
  4. Carry your own First Aid kit with things YOU are likely to need – For me this include zinc oxide tape (amazing for taping up feet) and antihistamine tablets and cream to deal with insect bites and stings (some really do affect me)
  5. Running out of water isn’t pleasant when it’s hot
  6. Running with a backpack and no t-shirt causes chaffing – The first 9 miles were fine… but after that it was not pretty.
  7. Stop and deal with anything that is sore as soon as you notice it. It won’t get better on its own

The biggest issue for me is that I find it very difficult to eat anything when I’m running; I just end up feeling really sick and then struggle even with water. This isn’t a problem of shorter runs but over this distance you NEED to eat something. On yesterdays race I used 4,414 calories. Your body stores approx 2,000 calories in glycogen, about half of this is easily accessible in your liver and the rest is stored in your muscles (including the ones you don’t use as much for running) so it doesn’t take a mathematical genius to realise that unless you take some extra calories on board and train your body to use it’s fat reserves as a fuel source you are going to run out of juice at some point. This is normally know as “hitting the wall” and for quite a few people this happens at about mile 20…..

The one thing that I have found I can eat in small quantities is, wait for it, Pork Pies !! I have found that by cutting the mini Pork Pies in to 4 they make quite easy to eat running fuel. The only problem is that on a warm day you have a food hygiene issue if you start eating pork pie that has been kept at body temperature for a few hours and the last thing you need is an upset stomach while you are running ! (Try googling “The poopiness of a long distance runner” to see what I mean…) So, Pork Pies are fine but need to be eaten within a couple of hours of starting…

So, what did I eat yesterday ??

I started with 2 mini pork pies and I started eating within 30 mins of the race starting. At one of the aid stations I had a treat size mars bar and then I had about 12 chocolate minstrels over the rest of the race. However I did drink coke at each aid station ( a couple of plastic cups full at each) and I also drank 500ml of Lucozade sport and about 2l of water over the course of the race. That was it. I honestly found I couldn’t stomach much solid food and it was the drinks that helped (the coke was the full sugar with caffeine variety). Although even adding that lot up it is no-where near 4,414 calories (closer to 950 calories) so it looks like I actually used some of my fat reserves 🙂


Another tricky decision as always, is what to wear. It was quite chilly at the start but the forecast for the day was quite good. A mix of cloud to start clearing to sunshine with a high of 15 C and light winds. I didn’t want to carry too much with me so after much indecision I ended up with the following :

Brooks Chaser 5″ Running Shorts (Really comfy, wide waist band and no draw string)
Brooks Rebound Racer Sports Bra (Very good support, velcro adjustable straps)
Fandance Race Technical T-shirt (just for bragging rights 😉 )
Hilly Merino Wool trail Socks
Inov-8 Roclite 280 trail running shoes (the best ones for me so far !)

Inov-8 Race Elite 10l backpack containing water, first aid kit, spare socks, lucozade, tissues, phone, food, iPod shuffle

Race Strategy

It is important to have a race strategy and it is important to stick to it. After tapering you will always feel wonderful and the temptation is to set out too fast and this will catch up with you in the later stages of the race. And whilst it is lovely to run with other people you do need to run at YOUR pace and not try and keep up with the person just that bit quicker than you.

For me my strategy yesterday was to run the first half at a “comfortable” pace, walking when I needed to eat and stopping at the aid stations. After that I had a run walk plan and this is where the iPod comes in. As I get tired I lose the ability to calculate much in my head and tend to forget things quite easily so I listen to music (at a volume I can still chat to people) and the plan was to run for three tracks and then walk for a track. This made sure that I got a reasonable walk break and using the muscle in your legs in a slightly different way certainly helps. When things started to get tough I would run for two tracks and walk for one track…. and if things got really bad I would walk/run alternate tracks (luckily I didn’t get to this stage !)

Lots of my friends had suggested music for me and I had put it all in to a playlist. This included everything from Meatloaf “Bat out of Hell” to Sarah McLachlan “Angel” ! Having music that friends had suggested laying was a bit like having that person with you cheering you on.

Yesterday I managed to stick to my strategy and it all worked well for me. I had thought I’d finish the race between 8 & 9 hrs (based on my long run training times) but ended up finishing in 7:40. Could I have done better ? Yesterday, no, I couldn’t. I’m hobbling a bit today and I know the DOMS will kick in with avengence tonight….

The Best Bits

So, what were the best bits ? Apart from a beautiful route and just about perfect weather 🙂

  1. Seeing someone I knew on registration – I wasn’t expecting this but it is always lovely to see someone you know.
  2. The people I met on the way – I have made some new friends and caught up (literally !) with some old ones
  3. Family support – Seeing my husband, daughter and grand-daughter at some of the aid stations made a difference. It makes you suck it up and not show if it hurts 😉
  4. One of the best bits – Seeing Jim from our club who ran with me for a bit coming through Steyning, someone I could honestly say how I felt because I knew he would understand in the way that only someone who has been through the same can.
  5. Finishing – being able to think “I’ve bloody done it !”

Well, hopefully you haven’t got too bored reading this much…. These are a few photos that I took along the way and one of me at the finish..

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