On Sunday morning I took the short trip from Kent to Essex to take part in what I had heard was a stunning little ultra marathon – the St. Peter’s Way from Challenge Running.
Having started the year with Country to Capital and adding in a lovely 10 mile heavy trail at Vigo I felt that this ultra was well within my capability and in fact I was aiming to run something around the 8hr mark for St. Peter’s Way. Training had been going okay for a little while but a series of misadventures stretching back through to early February meant the training had tailed off in favour or trying to get to the start line.
Therefore I loaded my kit in the car on Sunday and set off, two bags – one, my Aquapac wet and dry bag with a ton of warm clothing and the other my Ultimate Directions vest with enough running kit to sink a small battleship. The advice had been that a base layer would be needed and also some waterproof trousers, this though had the affect of making my vest heavier and bigger than I would have liked. However, the benefit of the UD pack is that it stays small and it felt as comfortable as ever when I did the test fitting in Ongar.
As I arrived at the car park where everything was being co-ordinated I noticed all the runners wandering around, many of them congregating up near the check in and bag drop. I joined the queue and had my kit checked (for the first time ever in an ultra), grabbed my number and then headed back to the car to wait for the start and also to cough my guts up – fearing that if anyone saw me hacking up a weeks worth of phlegm they would politely refuse me entry to the race.
Having previously run the White Cliffs 50 and Thames Gateway 100 with the now defunct Saxon Shore Ultra Trails I noted how outrageously well organised the St. Peter’s Way Ultra was in comparison. Lindley had provided excellent pre-race communication and on the day he made for an excellent orator of what was expected from the runners and what they could expect. We were then dismissed and had a few minutes to chat with the other runners or mentally prepare for the upcoming 45 miles. At this point despite my chest infection I felt pretty okay about the race and that really enthusiastic race environment was driving me forward. My OH looked on, probably in horror, hoping that I was going to do the sensible thing and withdraw but she knew me better than that.
The race then simply started with a few cheery ‘good lucks’ and a few laughs about the impending mud fest we faced. In retrospect the start could be considered a bit of anti climax as I ended up walking the first 100metres but this simply gave us time to compare notes about previous races and introduce ourselves to other runners that we might later rely on for support and encouragement.
As we turned into the first field my beloved Hoka One One took the first of their muddy soakings and you could tell this course was likely to drain all the energy from your legs. Myself and the other runners stumbled through the first few steps until we got into our stride, watching the super ultra royalty at the front of the course moving faster and further than most of us could dream of.
We had been warned that the course didn’t have any super challenging hills in it but that it would be constantly undulating, this proved very much to be the case. And despite not really being able to get an adequate grip anywhere I was making steady but slowish progress. Thankfully I could also feel the warmth of the day on my face and it looked like we might get perfect running weather – just as we had for Country to Capital.
The course turned out to be surprisingly well labelled and the written instructions in combination with my Suunto Ambit 2 powered map I was sure would see me home and this was where you realised that Challenge Running really did know what they were doing, Nicki, one of the runners I would travel with later in the race said of Lindley that, ‘he knows what ultra runners want, because he is one himself’. This very much came across in the care with which he (and his team?) had prepared every final detail.
As I ambled across the route, over taking a few, being over taken by a few, I met (at a bit of junction) a sprightly young runner named Mike, I say young he was a few years older than I but you would never have known it. It was about mile 3 and we discovered that we had a few things in common and, as you do, got chatting about life, loves and the art of running and our common ground and the differences between us made for enjoyable conversation over the next few miles. I learnt of his racing battle with his wife and he discovered about the stupidity of my seven ultra marathon challenge, we discussed food – Mike favouring Soreen and me favouring Kinder chocolate. I explained to Mike that my chest infection was making my journey tough and that at no point should I hold him up but despite my increasing anxiety and shortness of breath we reached CP1 in good spirits.
We rolled up past the Viper pub to be welcomed by a decent troop of supporters and my OH who was supposed to have gone home. I was grateful to see her and we had big hugs and kisses as well as chowing down on all the goodies at the stop. Yummy. Challenge Running had an excellent range of food and drink – both savoury and sweet and at one point I had both jelly beans and chicken nuggets in my mouth at the same time.
Mike and I left CP1 and headed off to CP2, the course remained challenging but not impossible and our navigation was good, therefore we were able to make decent time and even some of the hills proved insignificant as we thrust ourselves forward – looking back only to make sure the other was okay. We made other running friends as we went about our business and without too much fuss (and other light sprint to the checkpoint) we made it to CP2. Mike was still looking excellent but I knew I was already in trouble and so after some friendly banter and a piece of delicious raspberry and white chocolate cake we both headed out again. We trundled up the road and back onto the trail but I knew that I needed to slow down and so rather than hold Mike back I just let him slip away – hoping that I’d catch him at the end so we could keep in contact post race.
As we crossed a main road over a bridge I made light work of this, grateful for the change of pace but then slowed to allow Mike past and then watched as he ploughed onwards. I then trudged up the next field and down and around – following my GPS and for the first time, just as I lost my running partner, I lost my way. I had come out of the field and the group in front of me had gone. I couldn’t see them.
Looking to the instructions and my GPS for support provided little help and when looking most vulnerable a gentleman with a dog called to me and advised that I was a few miles out of the way and that other runners had been slicing through the field a little way back but that I could get back to the St Peter’s Way with a left and right turn and I shouldn’t add too much to my route. I was grateful to him and as was the chap behind me who had also made the same mistake as I. However, within a few minutes we found ourselves on the back end of a housing estate, caked in mud and proving something of a shock to most of the locals who were out washing their cars and brushing their driveways. The Tarmac made for easier going for about a quarter mile but I knew that we would soon be back on the trail and there it was, a right turn back on to the main path to Bradwell on Sea.
CP2 – CP3 was probably the hardest section, it was badly cut up, it had a few hills, it was covered (in places) in horse shit and it offered some amazing opportunities to fall over and get covered in every kind of slime imaginable. It was starting to take no prisoners. The first 20 miles had been the warm up, the next 20 it seemed where going to give us a bit of a roasting and with conditions worsening and a strong wind growing, it looked this ultra would prove worthy of the 2UTMB points that it came with.
I slogged my way up the final section, cursing my burning chest and beating it like Tarzan in an effort to move the phlegm but nothing was working and when finally I came across the Tarmac road into the village and home of CP3 I gave my now usual sprint to the line. I also committed my usual acts of pseudo flirting with the volunteers and ate as much as I could manage, but with a worsening condition in my chest and throat this wasn’t as much as it should have been.
I had sent an SMS to my OH explaining the severity of my chest infection and that I was struggling for breath and at this point she suggested I stop- something I had been considering for a little while and when I saw that the next section was nearly 10 miles I almost handed my number in, but then I remembered that no matter how bad I was physically my mental strength was good and so after a few laughs at CP3 I pushed on.
The next 10 miles were much easier than the previous 10 and included lots of lovely photographic moments across the shipyards and in small Essex villages – the kind that Essex doesn’t get enough credit for. Truth to tell I was starting to simply enjoy the process of being a bit of tourist in Essex and allowing history and beauty to seep over me.
It was about 3.45pm when I finally stopped, briefly, and threw on my waterproof, even though it wasn’t raining the day had taken several turns for the worse and I wanted I make sure that I was warm enough to complete the distance. This precaution proved to be the right choice and in a new found warmth I also found new energy and was able to battle through my own fatigue. I dipped onto the road that would leap to CP4 and slowly made quite scary progress against the flow of the traffic. With my renewed vigour I pushed into the checkpoint, gave in my number and was grateful for both the stop and the chat with the marshall’s – even the topic of Mike Jones came up, the man who had run Saxon Shore Ultra Trails and it was very nice to be remembered, maybe that’s why I love the ultra community – people remember you! I digress…
I now knew that with only 8 miles to go I wasn’t going to give up. If I gave up now I would be transported to the finish and there I would be witness to all the other runners in their finery and me, without a medal – this would not happen. About 3 miles into the final section, mainly speed walking I came across the very lovely Nicki (mentioned earlier) and between us I hope that we managed to keep each other going at a pace that meant we would make the 6.30pm bus back to the start. Nicki was 100% focused on making the distance and I found her tenacity infectious to the point that our speed walking was not a million miles from 5miles per hour. The dark was now setting in around us and we finally reached Bradwell-on-Sea and memories poured into my head of crawling through the mud last year at Xtreme Beach but today it wasn’t the mud that was in my face it was the battering winds from the sea. We ploughed on through the wind – sometimes behind us, sometimes at the side of us and I could feel my energy ebbing away and with less than a mile to go. I called out to Nicky and told her I needed to back off a bit and she should push on as she going amazingly well.
And then it happened, probably less than 250 metres to go – I felt the full force of blood pumping in me and I started running and then as we crossed the final stretch of blackness I could feel my feet sprinting. 150metres to go, I went the wrong way round the finish line – I hurled out my apologies to Nicky who had gotten me to this point and then I flew forward in relatively full flight sprint, taking my congratulations and medal from Lindley himself.
I was done, in so many ways.
After the crossing of the line I was able to collect my beautiful Tshirt, my drop bag, food and also catch up with Mike who had finished about 45 minutes ahead of me. It was a wonderful location to finish an ultra at and despite my haze I was in amazement at how wonderful an experience this was.
So to sum up.
The route? Bloody tough, but hugely rewarding, very scenic and an exploration of some of the best bits of Essex. The way is pretty well marked and it was harder to get lost than I thought, add in that the lovely people of Essex provided much needed support and in some cases – directions.
The Volunteers and Marshals? A race is only as good as the people who line the route and in this race the volunteers and marshals were amazing. They were fun, helpful, dedicated and interacted with us. I’m sure people came through grumpy and tired and deflated or happy or whatever and you know that these guys were the ones who made it possible for them to keep going. I have nothing but praise for every single one of you
The Food? The food was a nice mix of sweet and savoury, everything that a runner could possibly want and the chicken nuggets were a delight! Jelly beans, gummy bears, the various cakes, lots of drink types and never a shortage.
The Finish Line? I’ve had some great finish lines over the last three years, running next to the Liver Building, crossing the Tyne at Gateshead and this one was right up there. Not only have I never been so happy to see a finish line but there was something eerily beautiful about the church lit only by head torches and a few lamps – it was truly beautiful.
The Bling? Brilliant, I love the bling – see picture, it was bold, red and the same as the symbol I had been following all day long. I wore it for the whole of the rest of Sunday night and this morning I looked at again and relived those final moments as it went around my neck.
Finally Do this race, do it next year and the year after and every other year, this is an amazing race, with amazing organisation and a team that really know what they are doing. I’ll attempt to race 7 ultras this year and I’m not sure I’ll run a more brilliant one than this. I know one thing though and that is I’d like to go back and run it without the chest infection as my one disappointment was my time.
Next for me is the March Virtual Run and then South Downs Way 50. Can’t wait.