Eden Valley Ultra Trail

Published in Running / Featured - 10 mins to read

Today was the Eden Valley Ultra Trail and I actually almost didn’t do it. After having tried to think of everything variable I could control, making sure everything was in its place last night, there were of course variables that I couldn’t control. I arrived at the station with plenty of time to spare, got on the train and was on my merry way… until it stopped, and we were told we all had to get off at the next station (which the train wasn’t even meant to stop at), as there’d been a fatality at East Croydon. I got off at the platform and fortunately bumped into some other runners - Greg, Sandy, Roxy and Danny - without which I can’t imagine I would’ve ended up running the race. They coordinated getting a taxi, and we were due to get there only 15 minutes after the race start, so all was well, we could still get timing wristbands and try to catch some people up.

Naturally, the taxi ended up taking us to the complete wrong place, the wrong county even. We only realised once it was too late that we were in fact in Surrey (as it happens, very near Reigate, where I raced in July) and it would take us another 45 minutes to get to Hever in Kent. Someone phoned the race directory, Chris, who was amazing. More people should be like Chris. He said we could start from checkpoint 1 so we’d be with the other runners, and we could do 40km. Initially I was thinking about just going back home once I got out of the taxi, as if I didn’t get an official result I wouldn’t get the UTMB points I’m after, and perhaps it would be better to save my legs for another race. But then I remembered that the whole point of doing all of this is to get out of London, to be out in nature, explore the countryside and enjoy some quality time on the trails - it would’ve been stupid to forget all that just for some silly points, so I was back in.

We got there, and this is when Chris really began to shine. Not only had he been so accommodating to allow us to start from checkpoint 1 and still get to experience the race (including bringing us timing bands and taking our bags back to the start/finish for us), he said that if we made up the missing 10k initial leg somewhere on the course, and made the cut-off at 16:30, he’d sort it so we’d still have an official time and appear on the results. So, the ultra was back on. I planned to do the 40k, then keep going an extra 5km before turning around to make my way back to the finish line again in order to not only collect my coveted points, but to also complete an ultramarathon distance for the first time. I knew that psychologically it’d be really difficult, both temporarily forgoing the beer and pizza at the finish line to go and run another 10km solo, but I fancy myself as being mentally strong, and knew I had the next 4-5 hours in order to prepare for it. Plus, I had woken up today fully intending to run 50km, so that’s what I was going to do.

Over an hour after we’d planned on starting to run, we set off from the first checkpoint. Being cooped up in a taxi for over an hour is not the best preparation for one’s legs, and mine didn’t feel particularly good at all to start with - hardly ideal. I ran the first 10km with Greg, who turned out to be a criminal barrister, he was pretty fun to chat to and it was interesting to hear how covid had affected his job and the court system. We also ran with Danny for most of it, but it wasn’t long before he dropped us, especially as we learned he is a 2:51 marathoner; a borderline professional. Greg was only planning on doing the 40km so I let him drop me too and made my way to the first aid station at 16km (26km for everyone else) which I then proceeded to faff around for way too long at, clearly I need a strategy for them for next time. I was completely out of water when I got in, which was a little concerning, and was too tempted by the sugar-covered sweets on offer to stick to my original, “nothing new on race day” nutrition plan. I knew I had to take it one aid station at a time, so I headed out again, doing my best to only focus on getting to the 30km mark where they’d be more friendly faces, flat coke and jelly babies.

That section actually went pretty well, I felt a lot better than I had at the start, ran with some new folks for a few kms and managed to find a good rhythm on slightly more solid terrain. During the day I ran on road, gravel, grass (running through fields sucks), forest paths and ploughed fields, which also suck. There was a single track along a corn field where my only option was to run through nettles, brambles and thistles, and I itched like a madman for the remainder of the race. Overall I felt good, I was moving well, and even stopped to think about how crazy it was that at 25km and after 3 hours, I was only considering the race to really be beginning and that I had just about warmed up. The next incredibly fortuitous thing that happened was that I saw Danny again; running torwards me, the wrong way for the course. He told me that he was doing his extra 10km now and of course, that was an infinitely better plan that my original one. I could also do the extra 10km now, before getting to the last aid station, and then know I had to get back to the race base before the cutoff like everybody else, and perhaps there’d even still be some runners out to help motivate me.

I arrived at the next aid station - the last one for most people - and after stocking up asked how long they were going to be open for, before turning round, announcing that I’d be back in a little over an hour and heading off back the way I came. I didn’t particularly think about it too much, because I knew that’s when the doubts would kick in, and fortunately I still felt fairly good physically at this point, even putting in some decent splits as I retraced the last 5km worth of my steps. A lot of runners still going in the right direction seemed slightly confused, but it felt really good to be able to give them all some words of encouragement as they passed - I think if I told everyone they were doing a great job and to keep it up, I could also tell myself that I was doing a great job and manage to keep it up. At 34km in, with only another 1km to go before turning round again, I saw Danny, which gave me another huge boost. Annoyingly I had to go back through the cornfield again… and then turn around, and go back through it again… but whatever, the skin on my legs was already in terrible shape.

The 5km return to the aid station I’d previously been at still didn’t feel too bad, although things were definitely starting to hurt. At least I knew what to expect as I ticked off the distance on my watch. Everyone was once again super lovely, and I got there at the same time as my only clubmate who was running the race (I must confess - it felt good to beat her by an hour. She is a phenomenal runner so I guess she was just out for a jog today, but still). All that was left was 10, hopefully straightforward, kilometres, and then I could curl up in the foetal position in a field and reflect on what I’d done. At this point, things are obviously starting to get tough, my glutes and hamstrings are very tight, my stomach doesn’t feel great, my joints are also starting to suffer as a fair bit of the surfaces have been quite hard. Up until this point I had been running pretty much all the flats, downhills and shallow uphills, but that stops after the marathon mark, particularly as there’s an upsetting headwind at this point too. I alternate walking a couple of hundred metres with trying to run 500 of them until about 45km in, where I once again see Danny.

It turns out Danny is an angel. He picks me up and we start running together, but as I am now entering uncharted territory, I am starting to struggle, so I tell him I’ll see him at the finish, to which he tells me not to be silly, he’ll stick with me, and to just let him know when I want to walk. I only met this man on a station platform at Norwood Junction this morning, and already he’s doing something incredibly kind for me, with no interest in his own finishing time or thought of competition. He definitely inspired me today. The last 5km feel like they take forever, I push myself to run more than I otherwise would because Danny is there, but we still do plenty of walking. Fortunately Danny could talk for England so that’s a nice distraction from the pain I am in. Things actually only get really bad in the last mile, when I decide I’m not going to walk at all and just keep pushing to the finish, not realising that there’s still some elevation gain and the surface isn’t great either.

But eventually, we hear the music coming from the finish line, we round the corner to enter a new field, and there it is, in its resplendent blue glory. People are cheering, the sun is shining, and the end is within reach. We cross under the inflatable arch and get our medals, and discover that Sandy and Roxy are still there, so we grab our bags and head over to join them. I change my shoes and desperately try to rehydrate and stretch and then give in to just lying down. The four of us ask for directions to the station and begin walking, having just about left enough time to get the next train to London, of which there is only one per hour, however we are struggling with navigation and it turns out GPS in Kent doesn’t really work (something something Brexit). And then, another truly miraculous thing happens; one of the other race organisers picks us up in his car and gives us all a lift to the station, having set off specifically to find us. Another angel. We get to the station in plenty of time for the train (which we 100% would’ve mised on foot), and all is well.

When I thought about the feeling of completing an ultra, I always thought the big takeaway would be the sense of achievement I had, that I had accomplished something. But after today, that’s not what I have at all - sure I ran the furthest I’ve run so far, but so what. I’m sure it’s not the furthest I’ll ever run. But for so many complete strangers to be so kind to me - Chris, Greg, Danny, Roxy, Sandy and our chauffeur who’s name I unfortunately didn’t catch - was such an amazing feeling. Any of my usual sense of cynicism has been banished, at least temporarily, as there are clearly wonderful people who want to help just for the sake of helping, and are willing to give up their time and energy for people they’ve never met. I was so touched by everything they did, and I really hope that feeling sticks with me for longer than the feeling of accomplishment does.

See other posts in the Marathons series