Race Report: Stour Valley Path 100KM Ultra

This was my first foray into ultra-running and it is fair to say that pre-race nerves the evening before the big day had kicked in and I had the feeling of being a condemned man! My Fiancée, Stazi, who has supported me doing this run and all of the training, had baked my race treats and prepared my final evening meal. I had decided on something light so that I would be able to get a good night’s sleep without the uncomfortable feeling of being bloated.

As this was my first formal run at this distance I wasn’t sure what to expect at the checkpoints food or energy gel wise. I therefore stuck to my tried and tested training regime of home baked peanut butter flapjack, banana bread, wine gums, jelly beans, jelly babies and HIGH5 ISO Gels. Stazi and I had agreed that I would be self-sufficient for the first 30 miles when she would be at checkpoint 3, Long Melford, and I could replenish my stocks. I was going to eat as much real food in the first half of the race before moving onto gels and so spent some time wrapping chunks of cake in cling film and breaking down bags of sweets into small zip lock bags to ensure that I could take on-board the right amount of carbs when required. This was all squeezed into the accessible side pockets of my running vest (Ultimate Direction Scott Jurek 2.0).

All of my kit was packed, checked and double checked to ensure that I had not forgotten anything and all mandatory items were included. I had also packed a shopping crate with additional t-shirts, shorts, trainers and other goodies that I could possibly need so that my support team of Stazi, Dad and son Joe could hand me. It might have been overkill but I wasn’t leaving anything to chance.

Time for bed…22.00hrs…alarm set for 04.00hrs so that I could have a decent breakfast before the start at 07.00hrs.

Saturday 16th August 2014…RACE DAY! Yep, woke up before the alarm went off at 03.30hrs feeling refreshed and good. Had my breakfast of toasted bagel with peanut butter and jam, yoghurt, banana and fruit juice.

I got “Body Glided” up and dressed ready…the start could not come around fast enough now. I was feeling nervous; but, excited at the prospect of covering 100KM’s. I had a few “what if questions” going around in my head; however, this didn’t last for long. I am a positive and motivated person and tend not to dwell on the negatives. As this was my first ultra-marathon I had made a conscious effort, prior to the race, to create some positive pressure on myself by telling people and running this for charity in aid of Help for Heroes (http://www.bmycharity.com/PeterWalton). I had great support from family, friends and colleagues and at this point had raised £1500.

We live in Suffolk about an hour from Newmarket where the SVP100 starts and so left home about 05.15hrs to get there in plenty of time to get registered, kit checked and pre-race briefing.

We arrived in Newmarket without any issue and parked up outside the White Hart Hotel…it was very quiet and nobody was about…STRANGE! Thankfully another runner was walking past on his way to registration and informed us that we needed to be at the White Lion that was another 500yds further up the High Street. WHOOPS! Thankfully the only time I got lost on the day 🙂

When we arrived it was quite obvious we had arrived at the correct place with lots of runners milling around.

The organisation pre-race had been excellent with details being published on the SVP100 Community Facebook site (for both runners and supporters) and email notifications being sent out. This level of organisation continued with registration and kit checks being quick and seamless. I now had my race number “110”. Matthew Hearne, the Race Director, gave the pre-race briefing and informed us that the start was 100yds further up the road on the grass where the SVP100 flags were staked out.

People started walking up to the start and so I thought to myself that this is it! I got a hug and kiss of Stazi, some positive words of encouragement and started heading to the start where Matthew took a selfie including the rest of the runners.

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As I mentioned previously I had great support and people were keen to know my progress during the race and so I had setup GARMIN LiveTrack on my iPhone that published a link to Facebook and my progress could be mapped and stats tracked. This meant that I had a virtual support team throughout the whole race sending me messages of support and encouragement.

I guess at this point it is worth mentioning why I got into this and do my first ultra at the age of 45…Well, it is quite simple. The reason is…Tim Lambert (http://fromsofatoultra.com)! My Fiancée, Stazi, and Tim’s Wife, Solange, have been friends for years and it was not until Easter 2014 that Tim and I actually met when they came to stay with us. He was just recovering from the South Downs Way (SDW50) and we went for a run and discussed ultra-running. He really should get a job at the Army Recruitment Office…numbers would soar!

On the back of our discussion I had a look to see if there was any ultra’s near-by in Suffolk and discovered the SVP100. I messaged Tim to see if we could meet next time he was in the London office to go through training, kit and suitability…..unfortunately he wasn’t available but his response was:

“Awesome – would love to do the SVP but will be on holiday in Portugal…so not that unfortunate. Meet next time I am in London but get yourself signed up to SVP in the meantime!”

….and so I signed up having never even done a marathon distance before.

To be fair to Tim (and I guess many of his friends and acquaintances would suggest I shouldn’t be) he has been very supportive helping with my training plan and strategy.

My strategy for this race was quite simple:

  1. Start slow – walk the first 5 minutes or so to clear the field and not get caught up in the moment and not go off to fast;
  2. Run the first half on real food and then use gels during the second;
  3. Walk up the hills and then run down them; and
  4. My goal is to finish within the cut-offs.

It was now 07.00hrs and Matthew got us started.

Start to Checkpoint 1 (Great Thurlow) – 12 Miles – (Unofficial: 12 miles)

The first part was a short section along the A1304. We ran under a road sign that was showing “London 62 Miles”. It was an ironic coincidence that we were going to be running the Stour Valley Path (SVP) for 62 miles in the other direction.

After about 1 mile we turned onto Devils Ditch. This was a narrow path that left little opportunity for overtaking and with steep drops down either side. From what I have read this is classed as “technical trail running”. There were areas of wet rock that was slippery and made ascending and descending precarious even with trail shoes on (The North Face Ultra Guides). Also, the path had tree roots protruding above the surface “natures man traps”  awaiting their next unfortunate victim. I saw a few runners come a cropper on both obstacles. Luckily nobody seemed to injure themselves. I managed to negotiate both OK; but, I am sure that from behind when going through the roots it looked like I was doing hop-scotch. The snake of runners continued for approximately 2 miles before the route opened out and people were able to overtake and progress at a faster pace.

During this section I realised the first point of my race strategy had gone completely out of the window. I had been caught up in the moment and didn’t walk the start and then due to the single track section I couldn’t drop back without affecting other people; however, I felt comfortable and covered the distance to CP1 quicker than I did in training.

There was good spectator support on the approach to the checkpoint that was fully stocked with both savoury and sweet goodies, as well as electrolytes, coke, water and HIGH5 gels. All of the volunteers were excellent and so attentive making sure that everyone was ok, water bottles topped and you could be on your way again as quickly as you wanted. This was a similar theme throughout the day at all checkpoints.

I only stayed a couple of minutes but discovered that I was struggling to take on real food including sweets. It was making me feel nauseous when I tried. Race strategy point 2 now discarded. I went onto HIGH5 ISO gels. After trying and discarding so many other brands in training I find the ISO gels really palatable as they are mixed with fruit juice and work for me.

Checkpoint 2 (Clare) – 11 Miles – (Unofficial: 12 miles)

Nutrition and hydration under control I felt quite happy and the miles went by reasonably quickly. I completed this section in the same time that I expected to complete the first 12 miles so was making good progress.

I have to compliment the SVP team on the route markings. As well as the official SVP route signs, yellow arrows had been sprayed onto the ground indicating direction and red/white marker tape had also been placed in strategic positions indicating the route. This almost made the mandatory map redundant.

On coming into Clare I was slightly disorientated by the GPS distance I was getting as the CP was supposed to be 11 miles; however, I had gone over this. Fortunately a runner, Justin Lee Jones, who knew this section of the route banished my doubts and explained it was about a mile further on and we ran in together.

Once again I tried to get some solid food down me but had the same result. I stayed a bit longer at this checkpoint replenished my water and then continued to CP3 where I knew Stazi, Dad and Joe would be waiting for me.

Checkpoint 3 (Long Melford) – 10 Miles – (Unofficial: 10 miles)

The route was quite undulating and I stuck with race strategy point 3 🙂

This proved to be my worst period. At about 28-29 miles I developed a nagging pain in my left hip and developed a run/shuffle gait that I kept going to the end. It actually hurt less but on top of that at about 31 miles I also hit my own personal “wall”. Everything just seemed to be that much harder, steeper, longer or slower. I had practiced this in training and knew I could run further and so remained positive knowing that once I get through the other side I would be ok and would laugh at this moment.

Speaking to Tim the week before he had a written key words on his arm in permanent ink to remind himself during the difficult periods why he was doing the NDW100. He suggested I might want to do something similar. I didn’t go as far as writing on my arm; however, it would be something that I would consider for longer more difficult runs but I did have them written on paper to remind myself. As I stated at the beginning I was running this not only for myself but to raise funds for Help for Heroes and one of the main things that I reminded myself of was that this charity supports members of our armed forces that have greater physical disabilities to overcome than the “wall” and a mere pain in the hip…time to get over myself and get on with it!

As I approached Long Melford I was looking forward to reaching this checkpoint and said as such to a runner that had just caught me up…he didn’t let me down gently but told me that we still had a good mile and half to go…I had forgotten about the extra mile earlier! Nothing for it but to continue and I wasn’t going to be seen walking down Long Melford High Street…

Despite my problems at this point the run into Long Melford was lovely as the path ra through Kentwell Hall and grounds, past the spectacular medieval church, Melford Hall and then Long Melford High Street.

As I ran into the Long Melford cricket club I was aware of the cricket match that was on; but, also again the support for the runners. At this point I noticed Joe, my 10 years old son, running towards me, high fiving and then running into the checkpoint with me. Stazi and my Dad were waiting for me as well. This was not going to be a quick changeover…I needed just a moment to catch myself and recharge for the next leg. I stayed about 15 minutes…much longer than I anticipated (talking of recharging…my iPhone was now at 8% battery level and I had to also plug my power pack in to it to get through the rest of the course).

Checkpoint 4 (Lamarsh) – 9 Miles – (Unofficial: 9 miles)

I left Long Melford in new spirits. It certainly helped seeing people I knew there and I had my second wind. Although my hip still hurt I felt as if I was running more freely and happier.

This was a strange section with the first half being flat and quick as the route followed proper tracks, hard and clear. The second half was undulating and across fields. The route went through a bush that had grown over creating a tunnel that I had to stoop to get through…to be honest a Hobbit would have had to stoop to get through! Not something you really want to do after 38 miles of running.

As we went around Sudbury I remember seeing a group of runners,  sat outside at a hotel table, offering support. One of these I found out later was the “Grim Sweeper” – Paul Kerrison. Who honestly is not so grim 😉

Time and miles seem to go past quite quickly, although in fact the timing was similar to previous sections. This time I had remembered the additional mile and added this on to give me an idea of how long I had left before the next checkpoint and in the distance I could see Lamarsh Church. On approaching this I was told the checkpoint was another 300 metres and pointed in the right direction.

Again, people were clapping and I remember over hearing somebody ask a couple if they were supporting somebody running and they answered no. They were on holiday and had stopped for a drink at the pub and since then just sat outside supporting everyone.

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Once again my dedicated support team was there waiting for me and with a 5 minute turn around I was sent on my way.

Checkpoint 5 (Nayland) – 8 Miles – (Unofficial: 9 miles)

On leaving Lamarsh my leg and hip had stiffened up and I started slowly to try and get loosened up. After a while I was able to start running again. This was noticed by another runner that was clearly quicker and more experienced than me who slowed to check that I was ok. I explained my problem to him and he kindly gave me a couple of paracetamol that helped. He also ran with me a short distance to make sure I was good before disappearing into the distance. I never did get his name but a big thank you for your help and support! I guess that is synonymous with ultra running.

I was now also into territory that I knew. I had done several training runs prior to the day using the Stour Valley Marathon (SVM) route that included the next leg from Bures to Stratford St Mary and Stratford St Mary to Dedham. Whilst the next checkpoint distances were shorter I felt that they were harder than what we had covered to this point.

On leaving Lamarsh we headed towards Bures Mill and its weir which is very picturesque and then on to Wormingford.

Bures Mill

Bures Mill

Once clear of the sheep in the field behind Bures Mill the ground starts a steady incline until you reach a short sharp hill at the summit of which is a herd of horned cattle that can be very disconcerting if you didn’t know better and they were just happy to watch you cross their field. One of the course markers here was a cow pat with a yellow route arrow sprayed on it…this kept me laughing for a while as did the sign “Beware of the Bull”. Thankfully he was not in the field; but, it didn’t stop me constantly looking around me just in case.

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The route continued undulating until at Little Horksley we dropped back down the valley to the River Stour and over the river to follow it along to Nayland. It was at this point that I was caught up by a runner called Kate who asked if she could run with me as she had earlier been charged by some cattle. She was not happy being in the same field as them. I didn’t have a problem with this and we carried on into Nayland. This is a lovely village with some houses having gardens right down onto the river.

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I was now getting concerned with cut-off times; however, I met my Dad as I was coming into Nayland and he told me I was OK but I still picked my pace up and looked very strong coming into this checkpoint…so much so that I received great applause…Oh what an illusion 😉

I was quickly refreshed with water and on my way again.

Checkpoint 6 (Stratford St Mary) – 7 Miles – (Unofficial: 8 miles)

I was still concerned about the cut-off times but knew that I had 2 hours to cover 7 miles. I didn’t think this would be a problem with the average speed per mile that I was going; but, I knew from previous training runs this section covered two obstacles that would make slow going and light was starting to fade so I would have to do some of it using my head torch.

The first was not far from checkpoint 5 – Gravel Hill – This is a narrow hill, a little shy of 1 mile in length, with a 15% gradient at its steepest part. Not fun at the 50+ mile point so following race strategy point number 3 again I walked it.

I continued to make steady progress after Gravel Hill. I wasn’t quick but just positively moved forward knowing that the miles to the finish were now going in the right direction…downwards! I managed to gash my arm on barbed wire whilst climbing over a stile. It wasn’t serious but I had to run with my arm elevated for a while to stem the blood and allow it to congeal.

I cleared Stoke by Nayland. At this point I decided  to get my head torch out as the light had faded especially when going through wooded areas. Now the environment had completely changed with visibility down to the arc of artificial light.

The second obstacle that I mentioned was now approaching…It’s not difficult…just bloody annoying and you may laugh and think what on earth is he going on about! Its a track that has been used by farm vehicles. These have created deep trenches where the wheels go and a high centre; however, the centre is so uneven that it is difficult to balance and run on. The ideal place is in the wheel trenches either side that are quite wide and big enough for my big feet but the brambles and nettles are overgrown and stretch across making sure that they will whack you…even more now using a torch and not seeing them quick enough.

I found something during this section that irritates the shit out of me…someone who continually runs on ahead and then drops back again. Please…if you are going to go…Go! Such a small thing…I know that I was tired but I found it so irritating that I started to dwell on it and lose focus. In the end I started walking to let the other runner get well ahead of me.

It was now pitch black running through sugar beet fields (which incidentally hurt your toes when you kick them) and stubble. Glow lights had been hung out indicating the route. I knew that I would shortly be coming up to the next checkpoint and in the distance I could see a light flashing white and red indicating where I needed to be. I was greeted by an “unofficial marshal” who was helping guide runners in and let them know where the next checkpoint was. I still had about 500 metres to go and as I turned of the trail onto the main road that led up to the final checkpoint I was met by a nice lady, Viv, who ran up with me checking that I was OK and alright to continue for the final section.

As I approached the checkpoint I could see Stazi, Joe and Dad waiting for me again. This time Joe was holding up a banner that he and Stazi had made throughout the day.

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This brought a tear to my eye’s and still does as it hit home that I was now on the homeward straight and what I had achieved that day…So after a quick cup of coke and with a deep manly voice I told everyone that I was off.

Finish (Cattawade, Brantham) – 5 Miles – (Unofficial: 5.5 miles)

This next section was across cattle fields and running alongside the river on unmarked footpaths. On beautiful sunny days this is lovely and relaxing with children playing and people rowing boats on the river. At night with a head torch a completely different prospect.

Stazi was concerned about me doing this bit by myself, especially with the river being so close (not that I have suicidal tendencies), and asked if I wanted her to do this bit with me. I felt good and told her I would be OK; however, as I went further up the road she had caught me up and asked again. I agreed as this was as much for her peace of mind as mine. I had to remind her that she had the car keys and so she ran back to the checkpoint so that Dad and Joe weren’t left stranded.

This turned out to be quite uneventful although it was difficult picking up the footpath as it was basically just a grass field with trodden down grass showing the path. I did see in the distance a light that was just moving from left to right. As we approached it turned out to be another runner that wasn’t quite sure which way to go as the path split off. I checked the OS map and route indicator on my iPhone and identified the correct path to take and away we went again.

Half way across the next field I saw a head torch bouncing along in the darkness behind us…This turned out to be the sweeper, Paul, who I had seen earlier in Sudbury drinking a Latte and giving encouragement. We were the last runners in and everyone else had been accounted for apart from one who was local and it was felt that he had gone home (it turns out he had got to the final checkpoint in the pub car park after getting lost, hence the sweeper not finding him, and discovered that it had packed up and so decided to go in for a drink).

We entered Brantham and although we were the last runners the marshals were still in place directing us to the finish at the leisure centre. It was such a great feeling running between the SVP100 flags and the generous praise of those that still remained both supporting and organising. I can now refer to myself as an ULTRA RUNNER and have the t-shirt and medal to prove it. There was a discrepancy between the published and actual recorded distance…thankfully a positive distance of nearly 65 miles as opposed to 62 miles and so didn’t feel cheated 😉  I guess for this reason the organisers decided not to enforce the cut-off so harshly.

Just Finished with my Medal :))

Just Finished with my Medal :))

I still felt mentally and physically quite strong and if required could have done a few more miles; however, after a shower and 40 minute journey home it was a different story and I struggled to get out of the car as my legs and hip had seized up.

In all I had a great day and enjoyed it considerably. The organisation and support from Matthew and the teams of volunteers was excellent. The course was marked out well and the scenery stunning. I would recommend doing the SVP100 as it is both challenging in parts and also offers an opportunity to set a quick time.

A special big thank you to Stazi, Joe and Dad for their support on the day; but, also to Stazi for her support through the 14 weeks of training x

Thank you to Tim Lambert for pointing me in the direction of ultra running and being there to discuss things when needed. I guess there was really no doubt that I was going to enjoy it as I had signed up for the TP100 prior to the event 😉