Last Saturday was a big day for me – I ran further than 26.2 miles for the first time, so am no longer an ultra virgin! I did this at the Calderdale Way Ultra. It took me a while to decide which ultra to enter as my first. I eventually settled on Calderdale because it’s not too far away from home and, at 28.5 miles, the short version is billed as ‘a great introduction for runners looking to make the step-up into running and competing in ultra-marathons’. Spot on! I knew the course would be very hilly, so after completing the Manchester marathon in April I tried to do a bit more hill work. We aren’t exactly over blessed with hills in York, but I did some hill rep sessions at Holgate Windmill and also took part in the Ravenscar Coastal Half Marathon about a month ago to get in some practice. Probably not enough to prepare me properly for the inclines of Calderdale, but the best I could do under the circumstances! As the day approached I realised that the thing that was worrying me most was not so much the distance or the profile of the course, but navigation and the possibility of getting lost. Still, nothing ventured… I like to get out of my comfort zone now and again!
You can view the route map here.
The long version of this event (50.5 miles) is a circular route starting and finishing in Todmorden, beginning at 6am. For the short version you sign on at Todmorden, then decamp to the village of Shelf, which is about halfway along the course, to set off at 12:15pm and finish back in Todmorden. A bus service from Todmorden to Shelf is provided for those who need it. Around 30 of us lined up at the start. I thought there would be more – I don’t really know why! I believe there were about 48 entrants in the long version, but by this point they were almost all in front of we ‘short’ runners. Weather conditions were dry, but there was a really strong wind blowing. A friend who lives in Shelf came to see me off and warned that there would be quite a wind chill on the tops of the hills. After a short race briefing we were away bang on time. Aware of my rookie status, I started at the back, not wanting to get in the way of other runners, who mostly looked like hardcore trail folk! After a mile or so I settled into a group of half a dozen or so people all running at around the same pace. It was nice to have some company.
The first section of the course is a good warm up, with some downhill and gentle undulations; but after a while there are some BIG hills! It’s certainly not an event for the faint-hearted. The first checkpoint is at around eight miles, and it was well stocked with sweet and savoury snacks, Coke and water. I filled my bottle, ate some flapjack and took a couple of Jaffa Cakes for the road. I saw a guy who’d been leading our little group using a map setting off fairly quickly, so I decided to leave too and stick with him for as long as I could to minimise my chances of getting lost! Of course I had a map with me, but to read it I would have had to get out my reading glasses too, which I can’t run in, so this just seemed like an easier option. This lovely man, who I later discovered was called Paul Feasey, was an Absolutely Top Bloke who assured me he didn’t mind me tagging along with him and actually quite liked navigating as it gave him something to think about along the way. Last week I read somewhere that your aim for your first ultra should just be to enjoy it, and I must say if I hadn’t found Paul on Saturday my race wouldn’t have been half as enjoyable as it was. With only 30 folk in the field we were very spread out, and it could have been a very lonely day – but perhaps that’s just part of ultra running?
After some long climbing and welcome descending we arrived at the second checkpoint at just over 14 miles. I must admit I was feeling a bit tired already by this point. We’d had a cross wind to start with, but now it was hitting us full on, and it was hard work to move against it! Obviously we’d done some walking on the steep bits, but at times even that was tough. Moving in a predominantly westerly direction, the wind would be against us all the way to the finish. However, it’s amazing what a difference a couple of minutes’ rest with some Jaffa Cakes and flat Coke can do to revive you! It was brilliant to have Paul for company, chatting on the hard bits where we had to walk and trotting along in silence where the terrain and wind allowed. Paul had done around 30 ultras, so it was great to benefit from his experience and interesting to note that he considered this one quite hard. Just after halfway it started to rain, and continued to do so on and off until the finish. I was really glad of my jacket; as my friend had warmed, it was indeed quite chilly up on the moors in the wind and rain.
I actually felt a bit better as time went on. After the third checkpoint at 21 miles the finish seemed quite close, even though we weren’t actually moving that quickly due to the energy-sapping wind! My fastest mile split time for the day was 9:30 and the slowest was over 18 minutes, which tells a tale in itself! The course plays a cruel trick near the end, taking you into Todmorden and then out again, up and down a massive hill that’s a bit like a fell run – harsh on tired legs! But at least you know you’re nearly there at this point. I thought I’d finish in about six hours, but in the end it was 6:39. I’m sure we’d have cracked six hours without that wind though! Boy, was I pleased to be back. However, I did enjoy it, which was the aim and – as a bonus – I wasn’t last! In the end I was 20th out of 25 finishers, less than an hour behind the winning lady and the only V50 woman to finish – I’m happy with that for this particular event! As another bonus, I got a t-shirt that is actually girl-sized, rather than just a men’s small.
So, was the Calderdale Way a good introduction to ultra running? I’d say it was more a baptism of fire! If you’re considering it then make sure you a) do lots of hill training and b) are good with a map. There are parts of the route that aren’t particularly well marked, especially through towns, and you will need to orientate yourself – unless, like me, you’re lucky enough to be with a Paul, but you can’t really rely on that. I am so thankful to Paul for all his help and encouragement, and would have loved to buy him a pint at the end, but he had to drive home. Would I do Calderdale again? I’m not sure, as there are so many other events to try and my old legs can only take so much. I actually quite fancy trying another ultra that’s a bit longer but maybe not quite so hilly, perhaps in September. Am I glad I did the Calderdale Way Ultra? Definitely! Even though my quads are still hurting so much I’m considering moving into a bungalow…