Anyway, I was very excited when I arrived, and was able to chat to lots of other runners. Some were old hands who gave me some good advice, and had some great stories about their race experiences. Others were, like me, running this as their first race, and were as excited as I was.
It was a very different experience than any other races I had been involved with. The start, as seen in the photo, was much more subtle for one thing! About 120 people gathered together ready for the start, clutching their route maps, and waiting for the off. I spotted Andy Mouncey, the ultrarunner that I saw speak at the London Running Show earlier in the year and whose talk helped me make the leap towards long distance running. Before I could say hello however, the shout went up to go (no gun necessary) and we were off!
The starting pace was surprisingly fast. I decided to keep with the front pack as closely as possible, and was aiming for a pace of about 8 mins a mile over the whole race. However, for the first couple of miles we were probably going faster than 7 mins a mile. Eventually I levelled out and got into a groove at my target pace.
The route was a combination of quiet back country roads and bridle paths, some of which were very tricky to spot. It was also a little hillier than I am used to - Cambridge isn't exactly the most undulating of regions... I had a copy of the map with me, and can safely say that navigation is my weakpoint. Luckily, I was able to stay in sight of people for much of the race and was able to stay on track. I had loaded the map into Google Earth on my iPhone, but decided to have a crack at real navigation since it is a skill that I will need in the future.
Whilst I chatted to a couple of runners along the route, I spent the majority of the time on my own, listening to The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo on my iPod (it certainly kept my mind focused...). All in all, things felt good throughout. My strategy was to avoid all but one of the checkpoints, although due to it being very hot I also stopped briefly at the final checkpoint to grab a quick drink before the final 6 mile push. My time was looking good, and I hit the checkpoint at mile 29 after about 4 and a half hours - 1:15 behind the leader and only half an hour behind Andy!
After a quick drink, I set off for the final 5 miles. I could smell the finish now, and was starting to look forward to a celebratory KFC on the way home. I was breaking away from the runners that were behind me, but wasn't sure how close the nearest runner was. And unfortunately, that left me to navigate by myself. I was over 3 miles off course before I realised my mistake. It was unfortunate that the route I had mistakenly taken (a mistaken right turn) fit annoyingly well with the route I thought I was on. The main path I was on looked identical to the path I should have been on (which I had run the opposite way on earlier in the day), there was a small path off opposite a woods and parallel to a line of trees, the path went past a small cottage as indicated on the map, ... By the time I realised my mistake, I was miles off course with no idea where I was. Reengineering the route was not so smooth either, and quite a bit of back tracking and compass checking was involved. In the end, the simplest option was to head back to the checkpoint and try again. Yay.
I got some funny looks when I met a group of runners just past the checkpoint. "Trust me. It's not that way...". So off I went for a second crack. Interestingly I met back up with Steve, a runner from Huntingdon who I had bumped into at TriSportsPlus the previous day and talked at length with. He was running this distance for the first time ever, in preparation for a local long distance run he was taking partin. He and a couple of others had also had a slight geographical embarrassment, although not quite as much of a cock up if my own magnitude!
When I got back to the point of stupidity, I couldn't quite work out how I made the mistake the first time. It was pretty clear from the map where to go... Unfortunately, by this stage I had been out of water for a while, and was starting to get thirsty. I couldn't see anybody ahead, so decided to wait for the people behind me to grab a mouthful to get me to the end. Luckily they were very nice, and saved me from dehydrating a few miles from the finish!
By this point, my hopes of a good finishing place were gone, and I wasn't feeling particularly happy! However, a few jelly beans gave me enough energy to push for a final sprint for the last few hundred yards.
It was a great feeling finishing, and everybody was very supportive to the finishers. There was a real sense that everybody organising the event was a runner who loved the sport. It was great chatting to people afterwards, and everybody was incredibly pleased by their achievements. Whilst I was annoyed by my mistake, I was still pleased at having completed my first official race. I finished lower down the rankings than I had hoped (69th), but I had run an extra 7 miles in the end and gotten horribly lost. What is it with me and running extra distance in races?! I have plenty to work on for the next race now (how to read a map for one...), and know that I can keep up that pace even over a hilly course.
Hopefully I will do better on my next race, which should be the 106 mile South Downs Way ultra in 3 weeks - I am just waiting to hear from the race director to see if I am allowed to enter. At least that course is signposted... I can't wait to see what my 100 mile time is! Onwards and upwards!