Last weekend I took part in the AdventureHub Norfolk Ultra 100km race along the Norfolk Coastal Path from Kelling Heath Holiday Park, out towards Wells-Next-The-Sea (grammar is apparently not their strong suit up in Norfolk) and Brancester, then back again. I had originally planned on leaving October free from races to make sure that I was fresh for the Piece of String Fun Run in November after UTMB and my recent mountain marathon training weekend, but I had pencilled in the Norfolk race as a possibility in case I inevitably decided I wanted to get a run in and could convince Jen to let me disappear off for the day. The Norfolk coast is pretty close to where I live near Cambridge, and so I woke at 4am on Saturday morning and drove to the start at Kelling Heath.
The organisers had prepared a number of route cards and maps, as well as a very in depth power point presentation showing the most difficult sections of the run. Together with the route loaded onto my Garmin (and the fact that it's a pretty simple case of keeping the sea on your right on the way out, and on your left on the way back), I was comfortable that navigation wasn't going to be an issue. It was very cold at the start of the race, and I was itching to get moving. The countdown came and we were off! I was planning on running "to feeling" as much as possible today so I set off at a comfortable pace and quickly found myself in a small front pack of runners including Mark Collinson (winner of last year's South Downs Way 100). Of course Mark (and indeed all of the other runners in front of me) were actually running the marathon and not the ultra. I may possibly have set off a teensy bit quickly... But things felt comfortable so I wasn't too worried.
The terrain is pretty easy along this route, and in fact is very similar to the sort of terrain I am used to running on around Cambridgeshire: grassy banks along the waterways, fields, single track trails, all very very flat! The only terrain that was likely to throw up an issue were the two beach sections that we would have to negotiate on each leg of the course - one consisting of a 2 mile ridge of shingles at the top of the beach towards the first checkpoint, and another consisting of a 3 mile section of sandy dunes. Despite the forecast, the weather was pretty perfect, so we approached the first beach section to run the top of the shingle ridge under beautiful blue skies. I kept things steady over this section, trying not to waste too much energy running through the loose pebbles. Keeping a low foot fall, and landing relatively flat-footed seemed to be the optimum approach to this section and worked quite well for me. As we approached the car park at the end of the beach, it quickly became apparent that the first checkpoint was nowhere to be seen. Bugger. I had only brought a small bottle with me to avoid having to carry too much, but luckily had been drinking to thirst and so had plenty left to last me to checkpoint 2 at 13.1 miles (the turnaround for the marathon runners).
The second section ran towards a small village with a windmill visible in the distance. Having checked the powerpoint presentation in advance, I felt quite comfortable with the directions and never really bothered using my Garmin at all, but I noticed here that a couple of people had taken a slightly wrong turn and were in the process of heading back on the wrong side of the river. Doh! As we approached the second checkpoint, I was in a good position and was only a few minutes behind the marathon leader, with a group of three runners ahead of me in the ultra.
The next section headed off into marsh land. I made the mistake of following the signs for the coastal path here which took a slower winding route through, rather than following the vehicle track which cut straight through. Despite this, as the route opened out onto the marsh, I could see the three runners not too far ahead. The route went through another couple of villages until we finally reached Wells-Next-The-Sea where (after fighting the compulsion to correct the signs) we would make our way onto the beach for the sandy section. I had been very quick through all of the checkpoints, stopping only briefly to fill up my bottle. I wasn't really eating, relying instead on GU gels to get me to the end. As I hit the sand, I saw the three runners up ahead making their way through the dunes down towards the sea. I made the decision to follow the beach further up towards the wooded area, which in hindsight was a mistake as this followed many more contours that could have been avoided by simply following the line of the sea. The conditions underfoot were also not very good for running, with a combination of scrubland and deep soft sand making this section quite hard going. Oh well, I knew what to do on the route back again.
When I made it off of the beach, the other runners were nowhere to be seen. I concentrated on running my own race and pushed through some more little villages on my way towards the turnaround point. About a mile from the turnaround point, I came across the ultra leader on his return leg, putting him about 15-20 minutes ahead of me. I had taken a bit of a beating on the beach apparently. The second place runner was around 10 minutes behind him, so I still had some catching up to do. As I came into the checkpoint, I met the third runner who had unfortunately decided to pull out at that stage, leaving me in third.
I took a little time to have a bit of food, and then set off for the return leg. This leg was much the same, with the added difficulty of having to pass the other runners coming in the other direction. This was not always as simple as you might think - am I the only person whose default mode is to run on the left and overtake on the right like with a car? I was feeling in a good mood, running on a lovely course with the sun shining, and made sure to say hi to all of the other runners on the way. It's always nice to get a smile back again!
Generally the return leg was very similar, if a bit slower. I had run the first section in about 4.5 hours but my pace had dropped slightly, particularly on the beach sections on the way back which both felt much longer on the return leg! That's the problem when you try and convince yourself you know how far it is until you hit the next section - you're inevitably wrong! As we came to the marathon turnaround point again I was out of GU brew (I had been systematically diluting the bottle that I started with, drinking half between checkpoints then refilling). I asked for a bit of Coke topped up with water, and got a funny look from the volunteer. Nobody said running ultras did anything for your taste I guess!
The last section through the shingle beach seemed to drag on, and I constantly thought that I had reached the end (when I in fact still had ages to go). By this point I had put all thoughts of pushing for second place out of my mind, but was determined to keep hold of third. As soon as I came off the beach, I pushed into a higher gear for the final push for the last few miles.
As I approached the road crossing, I headed through the gap in the hedge and followed the arrow telling me to go straight ahead. After running for a while I came to a downhill section that I didn't remember from the out route, but I knew that the return route was slightly different, so followed the route down. Eventually, the route became incredibly steep, very tight, and covered in brambles. Okay, this didn't seem right. I checked my Garmin for the first time in a while and saw that I wanted to be across the other side of a valley through an impassable forest of trees. What the hell was going on? Knowing that the worst thing to do in this situation is to keep going forward, I retraced my steps (back up a surprisingly steep slope for Norfolk) right the way back to the road where I bumped into the guy behind me who had inevitably caught me up in the 15 minutes I had wasted going the wrong way. I was not pleased. I took out the map and we tried to work out what had gone wrong. We managed to make our way back towards the rail crossing that we had passed through where we found the race organiser putting up some arrows. Apparently some cretins had moved some of the arrows, sending us off in the wrong direction. Grr! Well now I knew the right way and suddenly had a lot of extra energy to burn. I set off for the last half mile as fast as I could, coming through the line in third place in 9:57:26, about half an hour slower than I had hoped.
The race was won by David Ross in 9:13:11 (1 second quicker than Ed Catmur's winning time from last year which I was initially aiming for), and second place was Nick Van Mead in 9:40:18. Both guys looked incredibly strong when I saw them. Maybe if I had run the beach sections better and hadn't lost time at the end I could have been in with a shot, but not today! Overall I was happy with my running and had a fantastic day out. The organisation was spot on except for the missing first checkpoint (apparently we were too fast for them!) and the moved arrows (but there's not much they can do about that unfortunately), and the weather couldn't have been any better. Plus I finished off my day with one of the best steaks that I have ever eaten, then drove home a happy man. Noms!