XNRG Tring Ultra
Today was the XNRG Tring Ultra, a 50km through the picturesque Chilterns, only a short train journey away from London. It was a tough day, but I learned a lot.
Firstly, the excuses, as it’s always important to get those out of the way first. I’d not given this race anywhere near the respect it deserved, and did very little mental preparation - not only for what to do when things got difficult, but I hadn’t even studied the route or the elevation profile, which was a mistake. Secondly, I’ve been super stressed for the past two weeks and sick for the last one, including having stomach issues, which isn’t exactly great given that endurance events are going to mess with your stomach anyway. I couldn’t even finish my breakfast in the morning as it wouldn’t have stayed down. Finally, the obvious excuse is that I already did another 50k just two weeks ago, so I knew that it was very unlikely I was going to be 100% recovered in time for this one, but I figured I probably had enough margin for error for this to be fine.
Things did not start phenomenally. At only 5km, my glutes were already sore, and it was obvious they hadn’t had enough time to be back to their best since the last race. I set off at a decent pace, as I had a target time of below six hours in mind (or at the very least quicker than my time in Eden Valley) and wanted to bank as much time as possible on the flat before I got to the big hills - not that I could remember where they were exactly because I hadn’t checked, but I knew there was one at 10km. Once I got to the base of that hill my stomach already wasn’t right, and I knew there was no way I’d be able to take any gels, so that meant my battle-tested race nutrition strategy was already out the window. Fortunately the aid stations had plenty of Haribo which I find palatable even when I’m in the worst physical condition, and I had some energy block sweet things that had also served me in the past. The first checkpoint was about halfway up the first hill, and by that point I was already in “just get to the next checkpoint mode”, not ideal for such an early stage in the race.
I made it up the hill, grateful to have an excuse to walk, and hoped that I was now warmed up enough that my legs might start behaving themselves a little more, and I might be able to actually enjoy the stretch to the next checkpoint. It was actually quite a bit better and I found something that approximated a rhythm, and started to run with two new friends, Colin and Stu from around 17km. Both worked in pharmaceutical R&D, one for AstraZeneca and one for GSK, so the conversation was sufficiently interesting to take my mind off the pain of the task at hand. They were also going at a decent clip, I knew it was slightly too fast but thought it was worth it to be pulled along by them and not have to do it all on my own. We made it to the next aid station, just shy of halfway at 24km, and my body was not in anywhere near the shape it had been at that stage two weeks prior. I left with them and persevered until about the 28km point when I told them to drop me, as I was having to walk even on the pancake-flat banks of a canal. By 30km I thought I was in real trouble, my glutes and hamstrings felt totally shot and I knew the remainder of the race was going to be very painful.
There were a lot of emotional lows in this race, and at this point, I still didn’t have any doubt about finishing, but I had a lot of doubts about myself. Why was I doing to myself? Why had I tried to do something as stupid as virtually back-to-back ultras, when they were my first two? Before this year I’d never run longer than 25km, and other than that had only run the half marathon distance 3 times, why do I always have to push myself so hard, at the expense of my mental (and potentially now physical) health? The fact that I had aspirations to longer and harder races seemed truly insane, and I thought that maybe I should just stick to parkrun once a week and leave it at that. Fortunately it’s not as if these kinds of thoughts are anything other than the norm for me, so I kept putting one foot in front of the other, knowing I’d feel differently above everything once the race was done.
At this point, I was still on for quite a good time, as I had indeed banked a healthy amount of it in the first half of the race. The problem was that I couldn’t even jog 500m without stopping and walking, and things were only getting worse. At some point, maybe around 35km, I realised all I was thinking about was how much pain my legs were in, and if I let myself think that for the final 15km, it was going to be a grim experience. I tried to be mindful, focus on my breathing, and take in the beautiful scenery, and to some extent it worked. Around the 38km mark, I had a stern talk with myself to try and let go of my sub 6 goal; it was a completely unnecessary and unreasonable goal to have, I ought to just finish and collect my UTMB points, and if I hadn’t have pushed so hard in the pursuit of it then I wouldn’t be struggling so much now. My average pace was dropping with every kilometre I ticked off, and it was now only looking possible if I really pushed myself.
And then came the next big hill, which seemed to go on, and on, and on, up to a ridge with unbelievably stunning views. I couldn’t do anything but smile as I looked around me, and finally experienced a high to balance out all the lows I’d been feeling. This was why I was doing this, to revel in nature’s beauty, not for some stupid points or some stupid time, or even to prove some stupid point to myself. I got to the final checkpoint at 43km feeling broken, having given up on my target time as I would now have to run the remainder of the race at a quicker pace than I was currently averaging, meaning my banked time was completely gone. I ate more Haribo and smiled to myself that it was almost over.
And then something magical happened. I’m pretty good on downhills; even when my legs are fried, I guess it’s always my posterior chain that goes, which you don’t use so much when you’re losing height, so even if I am walking the flats, I overtake plenty of people as I fly downhill and probably fry my thankfully youthful knees. There was a long downhill section, as we came down off the ridge and headed back into the valley in which the finish line was situated. Once I got to the bottom of the hill, once again jogging next to a canal, I expected my legs to go back to feeling like lead again, and to have to stop every few hundred metres to walk and huff and puff once again. But that never happened, my legs suddenly felt like they had life in them again. I’d made up some time on the big downhill, and if I could close out the last 5km in less than 35 minutes, I’d come in under 6 hours. In the end, somehow, I did it in less than 30, including having to zigzag across the field to the finish line in order to get the distance on my watch up to 50km, before feeling both my calves start cramping in the last 50 metres… but I did it. Total elapsed time 5:55:46, a PB by over 10 minutes.
The two races were very different. I found the course today infinitely prettier, with canals and rolling hills and forests, which was nice as to be honest I was quite underwhelmed with the views on offer in Eden Valley. This one felt a lot tougher on my legs, and a lot tougher psychologically as a result - I spent a lot of this race lost wrapped up in negative emotions. Which is kind of the point really; I said I had wanted a good suffer, and Eden Valley hadn’t provided it to me, but today did. I feel better for it. Being comfortable is boring, feeling disconnected with what’s going on inside or who you really are is lazy and not the way that I want to live, and pushing myself really hard seems to be the best way to get a grip on my own character. With that being said, I still feel like doing these races was exemplary of pushing myself too hard in a much less healthy, macro sense, and I need to learn the lesson not to do that again. I am glad to have done them, and I am proud of what I have achieved, but they have been hanging over me for months, and the stress of having to prepare for them has meant I haven’t been able to focus on other, more important things. I’m obviously not going to stop running, and I’m not going to stop pushing myself in tough races (I am still very much planning on entering the OCC ballot now I have the requisite points), but I am going to take a long break from not only doing them, but signing up for them. I need to spend my time and energy on my mental health, on putting myself and my own needs and emotions first, and that was crystal clear while to me while out on the trails today. I know myself well enough to know that I’m unlikely to stick to this, but I am hoping that I won’t have a target race before the Edinburgh Marathon in May.
Overall, I think today was a hugely positive experience, even though most of it felt overwhelmingly negative. And now I am off to an all-you-can eat Brazilian rodízio place where I will eat my weight in cow.