‘Twas the night before Saltmarsh
My journey to Essex was a little fraught the night before the Saltmarsh 75, my 90 litre duffel bag weighed the same as a small hippopotamus and I was carrying half a dozen Krispy Kreme doughnuts in the other hand, on my back was an untested two man pop up tent and worse I’d eaten a hearty curry lunch and strangely pre-race a curried dinner. All of this should have been a warning sign but I was in a jovial if tired mood when I rocked up to see the awesome Ian awaiting me at the train station. Ian is the kind of runner you aspire to be – committed but fun and fast as lightning in a pair of sandals!
We said goodnight early enough to get a good nights sleep but I struggled as my calves and ITB had been playing up since my fall at the CCC. I struggled to sleep and it wasn’t until nearly 2am that I finally drifted off. However, it felt like good quality sleep and when I woke up about 5.30am I felt fresh, had a delicious coffee made by my delightful host and chatted with both Ian and his young daughter – herself a runner and I suspect soon to overtake her fathers place as the family ‘speedgoat’.
A Fiesta for the eyes
Ian said we were being picked up by the brilliant and funny Simon, Claire and the beautiful hound (who I think was called Annie – apologies Ian’s delightful hound is Annie, Simon and Claire’s is Luna). So four people, three race vests, two tents, one dog and multiple bags fitted cosily inside the Ford Fiesta. A work of genius on the part of Simon and Claire who were not 100% aware that they were transporting me, the interloper.
The journey wasn’t long but it was significant enough for me to realise I was in the company of brilliant people and I couldn’t have been happier as we rocked up to the Marsh Farm and joined the queue to collect our numbers.
Bring forth the Saltmarsh
We ambled around for a bit and found a place for our kit before we labelled it up. The queue we joined to collect our numbers wasn’t long and it was moving swiftly we chatted to lots of other runners – some previous Saltmarshers, others like me more inexperienced. However, it was clear that the Saltmarsh attracted the friendlier end of the running and walking community. Chat was easy, experiences shared and mirth ensued – time slipped by far too easily but we soon had our numbers from the well oiled administrative side of the event. I followed this up with a coffee and delicious bacon baguette from the outrageously delicious cafe and still with time to spare I meandered up to the toilets for the start of my race problems.
A final warning – if you can’t handle bodily fluids (not literally) please leave now.
Plop followed by flood, holy fuck my insides had died and I had no idea what had caused it. Double Wasabi perhaps? Hmmm. I concluded my gallop of the trots and got the rear end ready for racing but I could feel that hot stinging in the old rusty bullet hole and that was going to hurt on the way round. Regardless I rejoined the gaggle of runners and we continued to make merry – heading to the start line for race briefing and with a few short words we were off and in the hunt for the walkers.
As usual I’m not going to give you a mile by mile account of the race as I doubt you want to hear it but it’s important (if you want to run this race) to understand what you’re signing up for. As I ambled out of the farm and onto the path that would eventually lead to the Essex coastline I suddenly felt a little like a Heathcliffe or Mr Rochester, I was surrounded by marshland, eerie silence, mud and mist. You could barely see a few hundred metres as the mist rolled around you and other runners on the course resembled ghosts or perhaps a ‘Potteresque’ Patronus. The dry weather made for a clarity of these conditions and it felt properly beautiful. Stood here you could really fall in love with Essex. I was running reasonably and overtaking most of the mid pack runners, taking a leap out of the ‘Traviss’ book of running – hit it hard first half and ease off at the end and grind it out. I knew that the mist would clear and temperatures would rise as the day wore on so it was better I commit to a faster start and try and get through as much as I could before trouble started.
Checkpoint 1 came and went in a bit of a blur and just a miles in and I was feeling rather jolly. I collected my next instructions, had some water and trundled on, the next section was longer – 8 miles and yet the weather was holding its nice ‘dry gloominess’ and conditions were ideal for running (and photography).
At this point I was chasing down the walkers and wishing them well it was a bright jovial atmosphere that greeted me. At around 14 miles in and about 2hrs 15 on the clock I was feeling pretty confident. Checkpoint 2 was a much more fulsome affair and here I had lots of juice, the first of the malt loaves I’d eat and grabbed lots of fruit pastilles. I really liked the nice touch of five or six fruit pastilles bagged for you to take – this was quality attention to detail. I thanked the volunteers, waved towards the well wishing crowd and drifted slowly out of the checkpoint – stopping only to take a photograph for a couple of my fellow competitors.
The third section would be the hardest – a 13 mile slog against what feels like an unending path – seeing competitors miles in the distance but never able to catch them and a camber that would effectively end Saltmarsh as a competitive event for me and turn it into a lovely long chat! It was here that I met Louise, Jo (from TP100), Rob, Gill and Sam (from Twilight Ultra and Dengies 100) and with each one I had a series of significant moments as we passed by each other on multiple occasions – willing each other on.
It was here that Rob started to suffer and on his first ultra he was having a bad time, it was around here that I ran with him for a bit, listened to him and offered some advice about how to get through this. The good news was he was actually a really good runner and with a renewed sense of belief and his family supporting him he pushed on and he pushed on hard.
I caught up to Louise at this point and we headed with all forward motion to St. Peter’s Church. This would be the last point that I knew roughly were I was and I sneaked through the wood and race up to the checkpoint where Claire was waiting with a camera pointed in my direction
‘Ian?’ I asked
‘Well ahead’ she replied unsurprisingly
‘Between 2 and 3, hopefully here soon’
Claire was an awesome surprise and it was lovely to see a fresh face you recognised. It provided the bit of a lift I needed. I stayed a little too long in the checkpoint but I was keen to be powered by cake and replace all the energy I was shitting out during my regular stops on route.
I once again caught up to Rob and his brother – who was walking this section with him. We had introductions and a bit of a laugh and then I waved them goodbye – but the Saltmarsh never allows you to get that far ahead! My problem was that my hamstring, glutes and ITB were all firing and I had some decisions to make. I could walk the last 10 or so of day 1 and save myself or I could run until the burning became too intense…
Slowly, slowly, catchy runners
‘Raise your knees UltraBoy’
‘Sod off mind’ I replied
One, two, three, increase my stride, go faster – I was running – slowly – but I was running. I was catching people. BOOM. This was a big mental lift and with each runner I caught I felt better and better and the euphoria from this was off-setting the destruction of my legs under the weight of their long standing injuries. I started passing through checkpoints too and with renewed energy I finally reached checkpoint 5 and there was Louise and Rob with his young (we’ll say 7 year old) pacer. Genius idea. CP5 and my problem bottom brought itself to bear on the toilet block available to us and I was incredibly grateful for a comfy shitter I’ll be honest and after my (what I believed was a) complete evacuation the three of us departed with OUR pacer.
The final push of day one
Despite everyone feeling pretty broken we continued to run most of the final section and we’re delighted to see the little entrance tunnel with its fairy lights – the whole thing was lovely. A few hundred metres from the finish I bade Louise farewell answer into my customary ‘sprint’ finish and crossing the line with a large dirty growl and a welcome from some of my fellow competitors and their crews. Louise followed swiftly behind me just as Rob had finished swiftly in front of me and it was lovely to enter the warmth of the hall to find both of them in good spirits, as everyone was. I utilised the hall for grabbing some delicious tea and toast and soon headed over to the pub to collect my tent and other kit – I wanted a hot shower, clean clothes and to go to the pub.
I’d purchased a pop-up tent rather sensibly for the event and with the all energy I could muster I unfurled her in the field. As promised by Decathlon it was spacious, quick to erect and properly waterproof. A shower followed shortly after and more chitty chat with runners I hadn’t yet come across and everything bounced along just brilliantly. I was warm, clean and hungry – off to the pub? Not quite.
I felt another urgency and this time it was more serious, I doubled over in pain and ran at full pelt to the loo – both cubicles were locked – shit. I ran to the pub, into the gents – cubicle in use – I dipped into the ladies, cubicles all in use. I waved hello to Ian, Simon and Colin – got some drinks in, made a food order and all the time clenching my arse together tighter than an ill fitting pair of Skins compression tights! I handed over the drinks and apologised as I darted away to await a free space in the toilet block. Thankfully upon arrival I was able to take a seat, though not before checking the supply of loo roll, and I relieved myself of almost all my excess body weight. I felt ill in so many ways but I also felt so much better and soon returned to the delightful pub and delicious meat lasagne dinner I had ordered.
I left my companions to the rugby and went to get some rest but sleep was tough to come by, not for any lack of comfort, but the day had played on my mind. The heat had gotten to me in the afternoon, blisters on the end of my toes had caused me trouble after mile 20, my hamstring and ITB were in absolute agony despite my stretching and there was tomorrow to come. I did think about pulling out of the second day.
What saved me? As these dark thoughts swirled around my noggin I heard the voices of Ian, Damian, Simon and Colin – I heard the banter and it made me feel like I’d be letting real people down if I didn’t at least have a crack at it and with that I fell asleep.
1.38am, 3.45am then 5.06am
I woke up regularly – partly because of injury pain and partly because I was thinking about the next day of racing. At 5.06am I gave up and decided to wake up – I visited the little boys room again and tried to eat a few bits to keep me going until breakfast in the pub. I decided I’d get kit ready and dismantle the camping equipment amd chuck it in the back of the van and then joined my companions for a hearty meal of jam on toast and coco pops. I wasn’t nearly as jolly today but I’d stretched and massaged my way to being race ready and I promised myself I’d stop if I thought I was going to injure myself.
And so we all registered for day 2 – 60 people had decided not to return for day 2 apparently, which was understandable given that it had been much tougher than I think anyone had imagined. I once again ran into some of the excellent runners and walkers I had spent so much of the previous day chatting with. Paul and Rob I saw first followed by Gill and Sam – we all ambled to the start and when the runners started I darted forward and gave section 1 some serious welly but that was pretty much the only time in the whole second day I had any energy in me.
By 5 miles in runners were overtaking me and I slowly meandered my way towards the back of the running pack, then I stopped – I needed to examine my shin which had been burning for a little while and was more sore than it should have been. I looked down and the size of my shin was about twice what it should have been but the pain was running through my ankle and I couldn’t tell which was the cause of the issue. I could see a runner I recognised ahead of me and headed out hoping that I could catch them as they weren’t moving very quickly. After about an hour I managed to catch Gill and we chatted for a while and walked together discussing our various ills and we agreed that at least for a while we would walk/run our way through a few miles.
Gill was awesome and we spent several miles just laughing and joking about day one, learning a bit about each others lives and what we might do if we ever finished the bloody course. Given that we would be lucky to finish we both decided that we would simply enjoy the experience and we made merry with the various volunteers and people out on the course. It wasn’t that we weren’t taking it seriously but you have to know your limitations, Gill had a foot that was bleeding through her shoe and both my legs had what felt like quite serious issues. Despite this we made reasonable time through the various checkpoints and stayed together for the entire time – we even managed to pick up another member for the team – Karen, formerly of Northern Ireland and now of Essex.
As we crossed the final couple of hundred metres I turned to my two companions and asked, ‘ would you like to cross the line hand in hand’ – the answer was a resounding ‘yes’ and as the final couple of hundred metres approached we gathered some pace and starting running, each of of us in absolute agony, injured, tired, destroyed but finished. The Saltmarsh was over.
The course was flat but slow, the camber in the 13 mile third section on day one destroyed my hamstring and my ITB, but the views in the mist were spectacular and the views in general while not traditionally beautiful I found to be fabulous. Essex is so much more than places like Chelmsford and Basildon, Essex is a really beautiful part of our country and we should all go and explore it a little bit more. The course was also not 75 miles but closer to 77 miles and if like me you went wrong a few times then you would add extra anyway. The course markings were zero but the course directions that were handed to us at each checkpoint were very good, everything was well thought out for the course. I would highly recommend the course as a runner or walker despite it taking a big chunk out of me.
The checkpoints were pretty simple but with a good selection of sweets, very little in the way of savoury which was a disappointment as one thing ultra runners want is some variety in flavour. I loaded up on things like malt loaf but also used my own supplies as suggested by the Saltmarsh organisers. The other thing missing were hot drinks – you could buy them at later checkpoints if you wanted them but this should in my opinion be replaced by hot drinks on general offer at the checkpoints. Special mention should go to the unofficial checkpoint run by the Dengies 100 running club for whom many of us were very, very grateful. The other outstanding checkpoint was the pub at Steeple, not only was it welcoming and warm but it had excellent food options and really great staff both in the evening when we arrived and for breakfast as we left.
Support and Volunteers
The support was brilliant, checkpoint 2 on Day 1 was pretty special, as was the arrival into Maldon on Day 2 and throughout the event there was a general air of pleasantness towards the runners. It was lovely to see the people of Essex getting behind the runners and the volunteers were all brilliant, especially the young red haired lady at about the third checkpoint on Day 2 – who should have had a hat on instead of that very inviting smile! I have nothing negative to say about either the volunteers or the supporters, both were magnificent
On the whole the organisation was excellent, pre-race information, social media mentions – all good, collecting your number was swift and efficient, the locations of checkpoints was sensible and the route was well watched by volunteers in vehicles ensuring our safety. My only gripe was that the communication between the teams wasn’t perhaps as coherent as it could have been and questions couldn’t always be answered with absolute certainty, however, on the whole the checkpoint staff were informative and helpful and this was reflected I think in the efficiency getting us in and out of check. I’m sure the Saltmarsh organisers are constantly on the lookout for improvements and will continue to tweak the organisation as the event grows ever more popular.
I’ve already said I met lots of amazingly friendly runners and walkers but its fair to say that in all the ultra distance events I have taken part in this had the friendliest group of participants. I was taken aback by the huge amount of internal support that the runners gave each other and more over how much the loved ones and crew of runners helped out other runners. I will forever be grateful to Robs sister (possibly in-law) Hannah who gave me updates as to how Rob was faring also checking on me. I was very grateful to everyone I came across but without a shadow of doubt it was Gill that pulled me through the last few miles of the second day and I will always be grateful to her for that
No goody bag as such but there was a beanie hat and also a nice pin bag and a reasonable medal. The added bonus was the hot toast and tea at the end of day one and the baked potato at the end of day 2. So although no T-shirt or other crap actually the team at Saltmarsh invested in things that people might actually want or get use out of.
A great race, incredibly challenging and much underrated if you think flat is easy. There were issues but they were few and far between and relatively minor and I would say that this is a event that everyone can train for and everyone can do. In poor weather conditions I think that this might actually be a pretty horrible experience – think about trying to put tents up when the wind and rain is coming down on you or its blowing a gale coming in from the coast and believe me I did the St Peters Way when this was a reality and its harsh. I enjoyed my experience but think I would have enjoyed it a lot more had it not been a thirty mile march to the end. But if you are looking for something really challenging in the early autumn and without any hills then this is the bad boy for you.
What have I taken from the Saltmarsh 75
Sadly the thing I have taken from doing this event is not to do multi-day events anymore, it was my first one and my instinct was correct – I prefer the single day ultras – they’re easier. Was there a positive to take away from my Saltmarsh experience? Oh yes and it was the people of this event, runners, organisers, supporters and volunteers they were amazing and deserve every plaudit they get.