My first ultra-marathon… it’s race day!

The alarm has just gone off. It’s 5am on Saturday August 11th. It’s Ultra Day and I’m off to complete the North Downs Way 50-mile trail race, organised by Centurion Running and held across Surrey and Kent.

Unlike every other runner I spoke to later that day, I think I was the only person who had slept well, having gone to bed promptly at 9.30pm the previous evening and falling asleep instantly.

When I heard that alarm I desperately wanted to pull those covers back around me and drift back into my world of slumber, but I had a race to run and not just any race, my first ultra.

I got up, stretched, showered and then began force-feeding and hydrating myself as much as possible.

We jumped in the car and headed for Farnham.

Even though the forecast was for a hot sunny day, the air felt fresh, just hinting that the season was about the change, and there was a layer of sparkly due on the grass.

It was going to be a good day!

The next bit was a blur, almost as if I was still asleep. I think the realism that this event, which had been constantly on my mind for weeks, actually months, was finally here was almost too much to take in.

I was actually here, with a number pinned to my chest. I am on the starting line for a 50mile ultra marathon. I vaguely remember just smiling, thinking to myself “you’re here, enjoy today, you’ve worked hard for it.”

Bang – the gun was off and about 100 or more of us set off, straight into the sun, blinded by the (still) low orange glow. Start the watch and let it tick.

Long day, simple strides, easy pace. I watched others as they too settled into their natural pace, and then, something that only long distance running can do, the silent bonds began to form with a small circle of other runners.

It’s weird how that happens. You don’t even bother sharing any words of greeting, yet somehow you fall into stride with some runners and not others.

Long day, simple strides, easy pace – that phrase keeps going through my mind, like an echo from Chris McDougall and his runs with Cabio Blanco.

3 hours! You’re kidding me – we’ve been running for three hours?

It was the first time I’d even looked at my watch. There were about 5 of us, just running. Sharing the odd story, watching out for rabbit holes, explaining our motivations for entering the race, but in the main, just running. Not thinking, just running.

I was approaching Ranmore Common, which is almost half way and realised I was 15, actually 20 minutes early to meet my family. They were still driving to meet me. We’d made such good time. I was feeling fresh.

What to do? Stay with my running partners with whom I’d established a steady rhythm, or meet the wife and kids. No-brainer… (Yes, I did actually ditch the running partners!).

I fed and hydrated, whilst being informed that my kids had decided to play with friends rather than see me (yeah, because I do this everyday right?). Then I kicked off again to reach Box Hill about 20mins behind the others, thinking, “no problem, I can make up this time and finish the whole course with them.”

Then I began to climb Box Hill….

Don’t get me wrong, I’ve trained here, I’ve even raced here before. I know this hill pretty well. Yet, I realised that I’ve never climbed it having already run a marathon.

It battered me plain and simple. It absolutely wiped me. I’m trying to think of other ways to describe this, but I think you get the picture.

The next 8 miles continued in that vein. By the time I reached the top of Reigate Hill (after another beast of a climb), I felt genuinely beaten.

Those 8 miles took me about 2 ½ hours.

I have to admit that I did actually contemplate stopping at that aid station, with the thought of ‘what’s the point?’ running through mind. It was just for a split second, but it was a definite thought. Then, of course, I got myself out of my little bubble, refuelled and set off again.

I tried to run but my head and legs weren’t having any of yet – they still wanted me to stop. So I walked, but I made sure that I never stopped. Then gradually both began to come back to live, or the resistance at least became less (I’m not sure which), but either way I found I could run again.

It was that period that I found to be the biggest hurdle on the day, the biggest mental challenge. I also found it particularly pleasing to come out the other side. I’d heard of other runners’ talk about this, yet to experience it myself was a very important lesson within my ultra-marathon journey.

The other lesson that I learnt was related to fuelling the body.

I did a reasonable job on the day; no dehydration issues at all, but I didn’t take on enough food and as a result my energy levels suffered. I’ve already created a strategy for my next race and I’m looking forward to seeing the impact of this.

The rest of the race passed without incident. Myself and a couple of others ground out the miles, running and walking all the way, swearing when we saw a big hill or (even worse) a style that we had to climb over!

There were several moments throughout the day when I realised how vulnerable you can be out there. One guy lost his footing on a path and totally disappeared through a hedge of thorns and nettles. He re-appeared sporting a range of gashes, nettle stings and a tender ankle. Another managed to put his foot down a rabbit hole which nearly broke his ankle, whilst someone else actually did break their shoulder, through losing their footing and going over awkwardly. My point is that you have to be on guard the entire time, being as aware and as conscious of your immediate surroundings as possible. If you break your ankle out on those trails, you are a long way from help.

As I edged closer and closer to that 50-mile mark I began to give myself the luxury of reflecting on the last 12hours and countless miles. I was going to finish this thing now, no doubt, so the question I put to myself was the following…

Will I achieve the objectives I’d initially set myself?

Firstly, my key objective was that I didn’t want to just finish the race, crawling over the line feeling beaten. I wanted to know if I was strong enough to still be running (albeit in shorter bursts) after 12+ hours and 45+ miles.

The other was to see if my body could handle this distance. I’ve suffered with a few injuries in recent years (notably the knee issue I had in the London Marathon that I spoke about in part one of this article), and I was desperate to see if my body could take this level of beating, without breaking down.

Moments later, as if the timing of those inward questions could not have been planned any better, myself and my two other running companions jogged our way into the hidden village of Knockholt Pound in Kent. The finish line was in front of me, my body was tired but still intact and we were still running – ‘yes’ I said to myself, you did meet those objectives.

It was dusk, but there were still an array of cheers and big smiles to greet us. We linked arms and all crossed the line at the same time. Then we looked at each other, held out our hands and finally introduced ourselves. “You didn’t even know each other’s names?” I heard someone mention in a completely astounded voice.

I looked round and saw my family. I made my way over and gave them all a big hug…“I did it.”

Who am I?

And, just so you know who I am…. I’m Kevin Matthews, Producer of the Maximise Potential Podcast, and from time to time I try and put my own perspective on situations I’ve faced over the years and share the lessons that I’ve learnt.

If you’re a fan of TWITTER, please come and connect with me and share your thoughts and experiences @maximisemylife!

If you missed part one of this article, please go here: anyone can be an ultra-runner, including me!

About the Author

Hi, I'm Tom Burkinshaw, I co-produce the Maximise Your Potential Podcast and Website and my goal is to help as many people as possible be successful in life, careers and business, by offering free coaching and mentoring through a series of unique interviews from inspiring people who all display exceptional self-belief, mental toughness and desire to achieve. Thank you for taking the time to visit Maximise Your Potential!