Another fabulous day by the River Sort
Keith Passingham’s Stort 30 (UK Middle Distance Trail Championship) review
Having thoroughly enjoyed running the Stort 30 in 2015, I naturally entered the 2016 race as soon as entries were open.
Fast forward to a few months ago, I was approached by Lianne who asked if I thought she would be able to complete the 30 miler. Having seen how her running had become stronger and knowing she had completed a Half successfully, I replied that if she was prepared to put in the training, she would complete it, despite never having run a marathon. Lianne indicated she would stick to the plan so I said I would keep her company at Stort.
A few weeks later Andie was doubting her ability to complete the 30 miles, totally against all the evidence given her strong run at the Brighton Marathon. She asked if I minded if she tagged along with Lianne and me. A band of three – more chatter, banter and, of course, mutual support.
Towards the end of the final 20 miler training run, Debra also said she would like to join us too. This must be due to a fear of the unknown as she then proceeded to complete a 22+ mile run.
I have to add at this point that I had been inspired by Nicki, Maggie and Sean running two marathons in consecutive weeks and signed up to run the Chelmsford Marathon 7 days before Stort. The closer the dates came, the more foolhardy the experiment of running back-to-back marathon and ultramarathon seemed – but what a challenge!
So to 30th October – Stort 30 race day. Pleasingly, I had recovered well from Chelmsford, so looked forward to the run with less trepidation. The Beeb forecast was right, I noted, as I opened the curtains at silly o’clock (thank heavens the clocks went back an hour). I had laid out my kit, food and water the previous night, so set about my breakfast of porridge, an orange and toast. I was picked up by Lucy and James and we were off, passing the Halfords convoy en route. Arriving at the race HQ, we were greeted by the early arrivals amongst the orange army of runners and supporters. I noted Andie was still really nervous but Lianne and Debra were quite laid back. Maggie said she was going to try to stay with us for as long as she could (Really? She’d stay with us easily – I’d have to hold her back!). So we were to be a merry band of five.
Having registered and collected my number, I went to attach it to my shorts, grease up and get ready for the run, stopping to have chats with several people I knew. I was then collared and taken to the official Flyers pre-race photo (I’ve missed a few of those!).
We listened to Lindley’s briefing and then prepared for the off – some nervous, others very calm. With loads of “good lucks” from the superb Support Crew, we took our place near the back of the pack. Suddenly noticing we’d actually started, our little group set off for the two laps around the cricket pitch, soaking up both the cheers from Flyers supporters and the dew on the grass. Before we knew it we were running downhill towards the path that would be our friend for the next 28+ miles. Lianne noticed the “All Uphill From Here” sign at the bottom of the hill (for our return) which caused groans from the rest of us.
Having picked up the path next to the river, we quickly got into our rhythm, being overtaken by a few runners but not worrying about that at all. The aim (my aim anyway!) was to reach the turnaround point in about three hours, 30 minutes within the cut-off limit. This meant a pace in the 11.30- 12.00 per mile region. Our merry band nominated me to take the lead and set the pace, which all found comfortable.
The first part of the path was on grass and meandered but we passed two female runners and a male runner, who we would see frequently over the remaining miles. We spotted the locks whilst running, which conveniently were numbered, starting at #1! This was a handy way of forgetting the overall mileage. We admired the changing scenery, hailed anglers and walkers with merry hellos, and had great conversations. I believe it was during this part that we decided we were the “A Team” and spent a mile or two discussing who would be which character – guess who was Howling Mad Murdoch (and it wasn’t me!). Coming up to the six mile mark, we started to look out for the first checkpoint (I like the term feed station personally).
We actually heard the first checkpoint before seeing it. The Flyers Support Crew were waiting for us, decked out in orange, and massive cheers greeted us as we approached – wow, what a lift that gave us.
High fives and embraces took place with food being offered and taken. I grabbed some cake, jaffa cakes, coke (fizzy) and grapes from the well-stocked table and was then ready to continue. Andie was buoyed by seeing Gary and Lacey and was growing in confidence. We said our goodbyes and headed off on the next part of our journey. We quickly got into our rhythm again, with Maggie having to be held back a couple of times when leading.
During this stage, a sudden cry went up “Maggie, I’ve not noticed before but you’ve got lovely legs” – please note I was at the front at this point. Much discussion took place about lovely legs. The count on the locks was steadily increasing and I kept the pace at the required level. We tried a few songs but only a couple managed to get beyond the first line. The Turtle Song got an airing especially for my run buddy Karen.
We again overtook our two ladies and gentlemen who had gone past us whilst we were at the checkpoint.
We saw loads of canal boats, both moored and chugging along the river. One of these had a rotary washing line full of clothes drying off. Andie announced that it was a cute washing line and then worried about what would happen if their underwear went into the water! Having seen a boat with a small wind turbine, I asked Maggie if she’d seen it. She couldn’t believe she’d missed it and I’d seen it (an “in-joke” for those who have been to Brugge).
Before we knew it, we could hear the Flyers Support Crew again and soon spotted them, kitted out in their orange, waiting for us on the bridge over the river. What a great sight. The Crew had grown and some of Lianne’s friends were there too. Lots of hugs again, posing for some photos, restocking water and food (more cake and fig rolls this time!). Then it was time to head off towards the turnaround point. We were still on course for reaching it well within the 3.5 hour cut-off and all were feeling good (due to the training put in). Goodbyes and good lucks were said and we were off again.
We came across the sculptured stone with the poem which is replicated on the medal, and the official photographer was nearby. We therefore asked him if he’d take a photo of us by the stone, which he obligingly did.
Not far into this stage, the first runner came flying towards us – he was motoring. We’d done a little over 10, when he’d done almost 20, awesome or what! Then another appeared, and another, then a Benfleet runner, with soon a steady stream going past us. We said well done to them all and virtually all gave us encouragement too – I love ultra-races, so different to road races. The first lady runner passed, with the second a little while later. Lianne then announces “they’ve run their boobs off”, much to everyone’s amusement. Being the only male there, I had to ask her to explain, which she did in true Lianne style.
We overtook for the third time the two ladies and gentlemen, who had again gone past us at the checkpoint.
We were doing fine and after competing with a car along a short stretch of road, saw a small band of Support Crew a couple of miles out from the turnaround point. Beno’s “about a mile away” was not quite accurate! We continued, seeing a steady stream of runners coming in the opposite direction.
We successfully navigated the potentially tricky part where the Stort meets the River Lea (I think), going over a couple of small bridges and turning right. At this point, we could hear a steady loud Boom Boom Boom base sound. We discovered it emanated from under a flyover surrounded by woods. There were youngsters with dreadlocks and big boots on the path, not very steady on their feet, but they moved over to let us through. We agreed it was a “rave” and asked Lianne, our youngest member, if she agreed. We then learned it was a “dirty rave” due to the attendees. The things you learn on a run! The rave was competing with the Karts zooming around the Rye House Race Track on the opposite bank.
Finally, we reached the turnaround checkpoint. We’d done it in 3 hours 11 minutes, well within cut-off. Sherry and Collette cheered us in. My old mate Dave, who acted as sweeper for the event was there too. We replenished water, I had more cake, had a couple of photos taken, and then we were off – almost! Andie and Maggie needed a pit-stop, so disappeared into the pub over the road.
Then we were off again, beginning to tick off the sights we had seen on the outward journey. The rave, the two bridges then lock#15. Chatter was beginning to be less frequent as we all started to feel the miles we had covered. Our attempt at songs didn’t get beyond the first line (I must learn some lyrics!). Despite this we managed to keep our pace pretty constant.
We once again overtook our two ladies and gentlemen who had passed us at half way.
Talk moved to our longest runs – Lianne 20, Debra 22, Maggie and Andie 26.2. We intended to celebrate each time we reached one of these milestones. Before too long we heard, and then saw, the Support Crew on the bridge at checkpoint 4.
Again, lots of hugs, photos and congratulations. Beno gave me an update on other runners, including Rich’s back problem returning. I collected a few cakes and grapes to refuel, washed it down with some fizzy coke and was ready to go. We said our goodbyes and headed off again.
By this time, I had introduced the A Team to the ultra approach to going up inclines – you walk them. Every time we came to a rise (a bridge or lead up to a lock) a cry of “ultra” went up and we started to walk, running again at the summit. The lock numbers were decreasing and although we were progressing well, it was evident that things were beginning to hurt a bit. I started running at the back to ensure all was OK. Bits of banter continued but less frequently than before. We gave an almighty cheer when Lianne reached 20 miles – everything else was new territory for her. This was closely followed by one for Debra, reaching her longest too. I think it was on this section I took a tumble over a tree root.
Guess what – we went past the two ladies and gentlemen again, who’d gone past us at checkpoint 4.
We rounded a corner and spotted Gary and Lacey who cheered us into the final checkpoint. The others had gone back to the finish to see the quicker Flyers in. I went for cake and was offered loads, including a whole pack of jam tarts – “they’ve got to go, or we have to take them back”. I wasn’t greedy, as I only had a couple. We pulled ourselves together and set off on the final stage – mostly on grassy paths. It was getting tough but we soon gave a cheer when going past marathon distance for Andie and Maggie. Andie had a slight “wobble” just after this, which was cured by a Soreen bar but Lianne was feeling sick – too many jelly babies maybe? Debra, however was looking really fresh at the front of the “orange train” (coined by a runner earlier) opening up a small gap.
We went past our two ladies (who wouldn’t give ground to us, so we sprinted past on the very edge of the path by the river!) and gentleman for the final time, as they had gone past us again at the checkpoint.
Lianne was feeling it now (as were we all), so we walked a short distance before resuming the run. She showed great character in doing this. Andie had said she was hurting (we all were!) and also showed great character to keep it going. We started to run/walk as we approached lock#1 again. A couple of cyclist came towards us but they didn’t realise what it took for us to move sideways giving them room to pass us! A further surprise awaited us as we were met by the Porter support crew at lock#1, which gave us a final boost before coming off the path and tackling the hill to the finish.
I’d said we could walk the hill (ultra approach), but persuaded them to continue with the run/walk. The idea was to break into a jog as we approached the race HQ entrance to look our best but we were caught out as there was a huge welcoming group waiting at the entrance, which caught us walking!
What a fantastic feeling it was to be accompanied by the welcoming committee as we approached our lap of honour around the cricket pitch. Young Lacey ran with us on this lap, proudly holding Andie’s hand. After running 30 miles with these fantastic people, there was only one way to finish – hand in hand.
6.49 and inside the cut-off. Well pleased. As the rest of the A Team were swamped by hugs from loved ones and the Support Crew, the realisation came to me that I had achieved my aim of back-to-back marathon and ultramarathon, also feeling good at the end too. Yes! I then went back and congratulated my fantastic running partners properly – what an achievement for them all, their first ultra. Ultra-marathoners all of them.
Sally kindly got a sugary cuppa for me, which was something I had been fantasising about over the last few miles. I was then lined up in the obligatory finish group photo.
I grabbed my kit bag, got a second cuppa and dressed in something warm. Then time to catch up on how others got on. James was 3rd in his age group and proud owner of a second medal – UK Middle Distance Trail Ultra Championships. Rich’s back held out so he could finish. Jo, Alex and Gary also finishing the back-to-back double. Many many more stories.
Then it was goodbyes and the trip home with Lucy and James. What a great day!
Well, what do I think a few days later?
- Recovered really quickly from second consecutive long run – positive
- Still on a high from the run – positive
- Fantastic company on the run – positive
- Getting to know four friends better – positive
- Helping four fellow athletes to their longest ever run – positive
- All four in good condition when finishing – positive
- Being cheered on by the most amazing bunch of supporters ever – positive
- Being a member of the fantastic family known as the Flyers – positive
Not one negative! Will I do it again? Of course – I’m waiting to sign up as soon as entries open. I’ll be happy to take another bunch of newbies along on a tough but enjoyable run. Seeing the joy on their faces as they crossed the line is worth everything. Well done Lianne, Andie, Debra and Maggie. I had a great time and I hope the memories of your first ultra stay fresh for years to come.
Huge thanks to the A Team and to the most amazing Support Crew ever.