I’ve had my eye on this race for well over a year, shortly after my fascination with running stupid distances began. The event is run twice a year, Winter and Summer, and each comes in 30 and 45 mile flavours. I had initially signed up to run the 30 mile winter version in March this year, the culmination of a 6 month training block which started with my return to running from a three month injury break. COVID had other ideas, the Winter event was cancelled and I opted to upgrade to the full 45 mile Summer event. The timing is good, a proper ultra to prepare for my first attempt at a 100 miler in October, just 7 weeks later.
The Summer Green Man Ultra is a clockwise loop around Bristol, following the Community Forest Path. I dithered about how best to manage the logistics, deciding in the end to just drive there and back on race day. After the traditional shitty night’s sleep pre-race, I left the house at 5:30am and pegged it down the M4 to the start just west of Bristol. I was in plenty of time for race admin, collecting my race number, visiting the lavs, chatting to a few folks, last minute adjustments to kit.
The start was at 8am sharp. My intention was to practice pacing for the 100 miler, run/walking in 8 minute/2 minute intervals right from the start. That plan didn’t make it past the start line. I felt pretty lively, throwing all caution to the wind. My logic, such as it was, being that the terrain was kinder in the first half, and while my legs were fresh I might as well bank some time against my sub-9 hour goal. I told myself I would reign it in at the first aid station at 10k. Then 20k. Then 30k. Hmmm.
The course is not marked, with runners theoretically relying on a detailed description of the route, a printed version of which is part of the mandatory kit. In practice, like me, most people had the route loaded into their watch or phone, taking some (but not all) of the challenge out of it. I ran along with a local chap for the first 50k of it, he was a font of course knowledge, so there were only 2 or 3 occasions during the race where I temporarily misplaced the route in the latter stages, but never for long so the errors were not costly.
Talking of costly, let’s get back to my punchy start to the race. In the first 25km, 14 of my km splits started with a 5. Bearing in mind I was shooting for something in the high 6s, even 7s, I was going quite a bit quicker than intended. In my defence, the route was often on tarmac path or very good trail, or even roads, so the going was good and whilst there were hills they mostly felt pretty runnable. My average km splits for the first third of the race were 6:06, the sort of pace at which I might run a regular weekend long run. I was dimly aware of a little voice in my head saying “you will pay for this later, you muppet”, but he was easy to ignore.
In my pace plan I had allowed 5 minutes at each of the 4 aid stations. With my faster than planned start, I began to imagine that 9 hours wasn’t aggressive enough as a goal. At this rate, I thought, is sub 8 feasible? Can I cheat some time back by not spending the allotted 5 minutes at each aid station? I whipped through the first checkpoint at 10km, spending no more than 30 seconds grabbing some malt loaf and some water. Game on!
The weather forecast for the day was pretty benign, a gentle breeze and some sunny spells. It was fairly cool to start with, overcast even, but by late morning the sun was burning through the cloud. It still wasn’t hot, as such, but warm enough to generate some extra thirst. I smugly congratulated myself on bringing my 2L bladder. The extra weight in my race pack was not welcome, but I contentedly supped to my thirst. Quite a lot, it later transpired.
The second checkpoint was just shy of 30k in. I didn’t fancy any of the sarnies on offer, opting for a couple of jaffa cakes. Topping off the bladder is a bit of a chore but I got it done, spending maybe two minutes faffing about, so still in aid station credit vs the plan.
For the next 10km I was a good boy. I adhered strictly to my run-walk strategy. The course was pretty flat here, only 90ish metres of climb in total for that 10km spell, most of that in one hill at about 37km. I had brought some sandwiches with me, some jam and some ham & cheese, just in case the aid stations didn’t appeal. I found them really hard to eat, they seemed to expand in my mouth and not want to go down. In hindsight I suspect this was more a symptom of hydration issues than my bread choice (plastic white sliced loaf, naturally).
I sailed through the marathon mark (or what we ultra runners refer to as “just”, or “only”, a marathon), still feeling pretty good, with maybe some early signs of fatigue in my legs. I continued to make reasonable progress, the section between the 40k mark and CP3 at 48k was also fairly benign, mostly downhill or runnable ups. There was a decent gap of 20km between CP2 and CP3, a fact that I was aware of in the food stakes, but didn’t give much thought to otherwise. I had a full supply of water from CP2 so I was sorted. A 2L bladder would normally see me through several hours of running, but I don’t often run in the middle of the day in warm sunshine. I got to CP3 in good order, grabbed some ginger bread, but made a stupid error. Without actually checking to see, having topped up at CP2 (20k ago…) I decided I must still have loads of water on board so didn’t get more. Idiot.
For now though, at the 50k mark, things are going well. In fact, very well. I actually broke my 50k record, shaving about 20 minutes off my previous best from the Big Way Round back in May. The next few km were also fine but then to my surprise and chagrin my water ran out. I’ll be fine, I thought optimistically, as I continued on. And for a while I was OK, but I began to struggle at about 55km, a couple of hills adding to the fun. My legs just didn’t have the same get-up-and-go, and eating became a problem without water to wash it down. I also think I struggled mentally here for a bit. The chap I’d run with earlier on caught up with me, we chatted for a while. He was also running low on water so didn’t have any spare. I mentioned that I did have 500ml of Tailwind mix stashed in the back of my pack, but I couldn’t be bothered to take the pack off to get it. He looked at me like the idiot I so clearly was. Sooooo, you’re out of water, but have actual water in your pack? Twat! If he was thinking that he kept it to himself, instead offering to delve into the rear pockets of my pack to dig it out. I chugged that pretty quickly, feeling a bit better for it but there was still quite a way to go till CP4. This was a slow slow slog, relatively speaking, a really long, stony, steep hill slowing things down even more. It was quite the relief to finally get to CP4, I drank about a litre of water straight down, filled the 2L bladder and grabbed some cola too.
Somewhat refreshed and with about 15km to go, I headed off into the final section, the hilliest of the lot. Oh joy! I was still pretty fucked up from my earlier lack of water. I don’t think I was in dangerous dehydration territory, but was certainly heading in that direction, probably only avoiding it via the emergency Tailwind rations. It takes a while to come back from that, so despite having loads of water now I struggled for pace the next 5 or 6 km, a few steep ups and downs not helping matters. With my notions of breaching 8hrs long ago evaporated like the sweat from my brow, I began to seriously doubt if the sub-9 was still on. There are many great things about running stupid distances, but among them is the fact that even quite serious problems, the type that might be race-ending in a shorter event, can be fixed and overcome and still allow completion in a respectable time. Diligently drinking as I ran, I began to feel better. A lot better. I had 90 minutes to run the remaining 10km and still sneak in under 9 hours. That should be possible, right? Even on tired legs, with hills to climb, walking more than my fair share. I can do that, I thought, sure I can!
Greatly fortified by this I pushed the pace a little bit more, dealt with some hills and slowly reeled in the remaining kilometres, including a very gloopy, muddy downhill section coming down off Dundry hill that was near impossible to walk down never mind run. About half way through this final 10km the route briefly followed a main road, passing a petrol station with a shop. Oi oi, thought I, they’ll have something tasty I can eat! The freezer cabinet was right by the door, the heavenly glow of the Calippo lollies caught my eye. I have heard tell of the magical qualities of an intra-ultra Calippo but never had the joy myself. O to the M to the F to the G! It was fantastic! I was able to jog along holding it, supping from the orangey tube from time to time, greatly enjoying the sweet, cold fabulousness, cursing myself silently for not buying two. Really, I struggle to put into words how much better I felt.
I had been told to watch out for a particular stone feature guarding the entrance to a section of trail. I was reliably informed that from here on it’s about 15 minutes to the finish, and downhill to boot. Calippo-boosted, I hit the gas, coaxing my weary legs into a running action once more. In my exuberance, I clipped a root and almost came a cropper, just about saving myself with a lot of arm flailing and some hopping. Slowing it down a little for staying upright reasons, I soon finished in 8 hours 51 minutes.
I was greeted at the finish line by the RD, who draped an impressively weighty slab of medal around my neck and sent me on my way clutching my race tee shirt. The Top 50 Finisher sounds more impressive than it was, there were only 79 finishers, but still, 21st place isn’t to be sniffed at. I lurked around the finish for a while, eating chocolate and resting up, before remembering I had chocolate milk on ice in the car. That was enough to get me on my feet again, and I made it safely home.
So, some important lessons for me to take from this race into my first 100 miler.
- Don’t be a pace muppet
- Don’t be a water idiot
- One Calippo isn’t enough
I’ll be back in a few weeks with an update on the final few weeks of prep for the big one.