My First “Ultra” Run

Ibsley Bridge

If the definition of an Ultrarun is more than 26.2 miles, then yesterday I did my first!  It was a training run from my home to my mum’s house, a total distance of 26.8 miles with at least 80% off-road, and considering my recent running totals (I only did 39 miles running in the whole of July), I’m very pleased with the distance and how it went.

I’ll talk a bit about the run itself, then look at a few conclusions I’ve come to (feel free to jump down if you don’t want all the waffle).

The Run

I was running from Broadstone (in Dorset) to Fordingbridge (in Hampshire), via Ringwood (on the Dorset/Hampshire border).  The course follows two major walking routes – the Castleman Trailway which runs to Ringwood through Broadstone, and the Avon Valley Way which runs from Christchurch to Salisbury, passing through Ringwood and Fordingbridge.  The majority of the routes are off-road, at least in the sense that they’re not on a road that cars usually drive down, although the first 15 miles or so wouldn’t be considered a “trail” run as it was man-made stone paths on the trackbed of an old railway.

The Castleman Trailway at Broadstone
The Castleman Trailway at Broadstone

I ran with my Camelbak (an Octane XCT 3-Litre pack) filled with about 2 litres of water when I left, and filled up the rest of the storage with a couple of phones, my wallet, some cereal bars, a bit of money, some electrolyte tablets, sunglasses and a roll of zinc oxide tape as a token first-aid kit.  I took the bare minimum with me as there just isn’t room in that particular Camelbak for anything else, and that’s something I’ll need to change in future.

I’ve been reading quite a bit about strategies for 24-hours races recently (as that is my intended target in June 2014), and I was intrigued by the run/walk ratio idea.  The way I wanted to do this was as follows:  you pick a run-to-walk ratio – e.g. 5 minutes running then 1 minutes walking – and do that right from the start of the run.  25/5 and 5/1 seem popular ratios, but there was an opinion on some forums that I’d read that 25/5 requires a great deal of fitness as you get into the latter stages of 24 hours of running.  I was more grabbed by the 5/1, and although this was only a “short” run in comparison to the 24 hours I’ll be doing next year, the point of these training runs is to try stuff out.  It’s important to do things you’re not so comfortable with on a training run so you can figure out what works and what doesn’t for whatever event you’re aiming for.

I generally run with music, so I found an app called Impetus for my Android phone.  It’s an interval timer which allows me to set up some beep at the 5 minute/1 minute interval I wanted and play through the headphones while I was listening to music.  I think I could have set my Garmin up to do it, but I wanted that as independent distance measuring/route indication and I thought it would be better to keep the two separate.

I got up at 0530, had a bowl of museli and yogurt, 500ml of water and a cup of coffee and left at 0630.  It wasn’t long before I got my first beep to stop and walk.  You’re not supposed to just wander along during the walking bits, but more keep the effort up with good fast strides.  This means you don’t drop too much pace (I was hoping to be around 15min/mile for the walking bits), but you use different muscles so spreading the strain around and giving the running-specific muscles a bit of a rest.

Canford Bridge Long Exposure B&W
Canford Bridge – around 3 miles into my run

By about 4 miles in, I was running through fields around the edge of the River Stour from Wimborne to Ferndown and feeling a bit tired.  Not exhausted at all, but just feeling a few aches and pains and enjoying the walking minutes a lot more than I felt I should be at this point.  This made me a bit nervous because I still had (I thought) 18 miles to go.  But another thing I’ve learnt over the years of running is that you have up and down times, and even when you think you can’t go on you can do so much more.  (Read Scott Jurek’s book Eat & Run if you want a few epic examples of this).  Indeed at 7-8 miles I was trotting along a bit of disused railway in Stapehill enjoying the running so much I never wanted it to end!

From Stapehill, I ran over the A31 and on to the Ferndown Golf Club, then on to West Moors.  After a short spell on the road, I rejoined the old railway line and ran on through Ashley Heath towards Ringwood.  I’d run and cycled this route a few times before, but once I got to the end of the trailway I got a bit lost and had to double back a few times to find the Avon Valley path.  Eventually I did and got into Ringwood town centre and popped into Waitrose.

You can only eat energy gels while running, right?  Wrong!  I bought a Peppered Cornish Pasty and got a double espresso from Nero 🙂  I also bought a bottle of water and topped my Camelbak up to the 2L line again.  After about 10 minutes of faffing about, I got running again with the espresso in hand, sipping away while running.

I dumped the empty coffee cup in a bin and rejoined the Avon Valley way, starting northwards towards Fordingbridge.  I’d not run any of this route before, and over the weekend before I programmed the route into my Garmin.  This was an absolute lifesaver – when you pop out of the end of a path and are faced with a T junction and no indication of where to go, the little line on my watch showed me which direction to go in.  It worked almost flawlessly (there were a few problems due to the route being slightly wrong on the maps that I used to program the watch, but in reality very few problems).

Pony Express, Moyles Court Start Day 2
XNRG Pony Express 2011, Moyles Court Start Day 2

The route from Ringwood to Ibsley is almost entirely off road, down woody paths, over small bridges and up fern covered hills.  It was beautiful, and despite having run 15 or so miles by this point I was feeling tired but thoroughly enjoying it.  I passed outside Moyles Court school where the XNRG Pony Express 2-day ends day 1 and starts day 2, and it brought back fond memories of tracking my sister around when she did it in 2011 – I even ran the first part of the Day 2 route (see the photo above).

I made a few mistakes around Iblsey, ended up with half a mile on a road, then having to double back and these sort of things can dampen the spirits somewhat.  I uttered some choice words on a few occasions and I’m glad there wasn’t anyone around!  I eventually found the right path and ran past some reservoirs which form part of a nature reserve.  It was stunning – the sun had come from behind the clouds, the birds were fleeting over the water and the landscape was beautiful.  I felt truly privileged to be able to witness this landscape for a few moments.  How quickly things can change: 5 minutes later I was getting angry in a field with no waypoint markings , then fighting my way through a path overgrown with stinging nettles to eventually almost fall out into a road by the Old Beams Inn at Ibsley.

Ibsley Bridge
Ibsley Bridge

Crossing over the old bridge at Ibsley takes you to the right side of the river Avon , and in theory just a few short miles North to Fordingbridge.  But by this time my legs were really starting to ache – mainly my quads, so any rough ground or downhill sections were a bit of a problem.  And whilst there wasn’t much downhill, there was certainly lots of rough ground.  Most of the last miles was over sun-baked fields covered with just enough grass to tug at your shoes with every step.  Couple that with the lack of waypoint markers and some confusion with the route on my watch, and I had a few depressing moments.  Having said that, I kept reminding myself that this is nothing compared to how I was going to feel in the dark at 0400, 16 hours into a 24 hour endurance run!  Surprisingly, that did lift my spirits, and I got on with the last few miles.

It seemed like it was never going to come, but eventually I arrived in Fordingbridge and then ran-walked the final mile or so to my mum’s house.  All in, the distance was 26.81 miles, and it took me 5 hours 16 minutes.


There are a few things worth mentioning about this run as I tried several things out that I don’t normally do.

Run/Walk Ratio Running

As I mentioned above, I started this run with a 5 minutes running/1 minute walking ratio right from the beginning.  Here’s a shot of the speed chart from my Garmin for the section between Broadstone and Ringwood – you can clearly see the faster and longer runnign sections with the slower walking sections every 5 minutes:

Timing – Broadstone to Ringwood

For me, this worked really well.  I have a habit of starting off too fast on long runs and fading a lot by about 10 miles, then really bombing by 17 or so miles.  With the run/walk strategy, I found I was still running fairly fast for the running parts at 13-15 miles, and enjoying the short amount of fast-walk recovery in between.  I was having trouble by about 22 miles and spent a fair chunk of that walking over pretty bumpy ground, but up to this point I think the run/walk splits helped a lot.  I genuinely believe that I would have been significantly slower had I run right from the beginning, and there’s a fair chance I would have given up shortly after 20 miles.

Garmin route

Using the online Garmin Connect website, I programmed the approximate route between Ringwood and Fordingbridge into my Forerunner 310XT before I left (this was a section I’d never run or cycled before, and was mainly off road).  This was an absolute lifesaver!  I would have got completely lost had it not been for that little line on my watch, showing me the next few hundred feet of the route.  There were still a few times where I was in the middle of a big field with no idea where the style was (at one point I had to clamber over a barbed wire covered fence and through a few feet of brambles to get to the road, but that’s all part of the fun, right?!), but overall it was really useful and I’ll be doing that again for any unknown routes.  It was pretty quick to use the Garmin Connect website to set up the route too, taking me about 5 minutes to click a set of sensible points on the map, then download to the watch.

Salomon Speedcross 3

I have quite a few pairs of shoes.  I’ve got everything from Vibram FiveFingers through to my usual Brooks Adrenaline GTS shoes that are my “everyday” running shoes.  But a month or so ago I bought some Salomon Speedcross 3 shoes.  Up until this run, I’d only run about 10-15 miles in them, but they were comfortable over that time so I decided to wear them.  They didn’t disappoint – they’re light, solid and have an excellent lacing system so at no point did they feel too tight or loose or require any adjustment over the 27 miles.  The lugs raise you up a little higher than I’d like when on the road (I feel slightly unstable and at risk of going over on an ankle, but I’ve got weak ankles anyway from injuries so that’s a personal point), and in between the lugs the bottom is very soft so running on gravelly trails you do notice a few spikes into the bottom of your feet – nothing serious, just a little uncomfortable if you keep hitting the same spots on your soles.

Running with the Radio

I usually run with a music playlist on my phone (generally uplifting stuff from the likes of Foo Fighters, Eminem, Qemists, Mansun, Supersci etc), or for slower runs I’ll do 10 miles or so with an audiobook (I’m currently working my way through the original Ian Fleming James Bond books).  But today I thought I’d try the radio.  I stuck on Radio 1 – the station for the crazy young people… and thoroughly enjoyed it!  Apart from a single One Direction track, I think I liked pretty much every track they played, and on a few occasions Scott Mills even had me laughing out loud while running.  It was nice to have something unpredicatable, and it certainly passed the time.

That is until I lost signal somewhere half way up a hill on the edge of the New Forest, and couldn’t get it working again, so on went the playlist.  Still, once again, the radio is something I’ll use for future runs.

Camelbak Too Small

The final thing to comment on is my Camelbak.  I love the bag itself – it’s very comfortable and 3 litres of water is a huge amount to be able to carry.  But that’s about all you can carry.  With 2 small waist pockets and one small back pocket, you can’t really fit anything “useful” in the bag.  Most off-road ultra events require you to carry a basic minimum set of equipment (compass, maps, torch, first aid stuff etc), and I just wouldn’t be able to fit that into the Camelback I’ve got at the moment.  I’m investigating alternatives – I want something with enough capacity for a few things like a lightweight jacket, maps, a small camera, sunglasses case, headtorch etc, and have some way of carrying water too.  Salomon do some interesting looking packs, and the vests from Nathan and Ultimate Direction get great feedback.  Over the next month or two I’ll get something different that’s a bit more suited to my longer term plans.

Well, I hope that wasn’t too long!  I thoroughly enjoyed the run, am very pleased with the distance, and am really looking forward to the next months of training runs to get ready for Endure 24 next June.


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