The Peddars Way Ultra is a 48 mile race along the route of a Roman road, starting near Thetford in Suffolk, and finishing on the Norfolk Coast, at Holme-next-the-Sea. Organised by Kevin Marshall it’s a great, low key event with a very friendly atmosphere.
We arrived at the start area (a small car park in the middle of…well, nowhere really) nice and early. In fact, we were so early the birds were still asleep, the only sounds were a couple of banjos in the distance (or was I imagining that?) and the cheery greetings of Kevin, the Race Director. I always like to get to a race with lots of time to spare, meaning nothing has to be rushed, as that’s when silly mistakes can happen, or things be forgotten.
Whilst I waited, warmed up, checked kit again (faffed around basically) there was a light snow flurry, but as this was Suffolk I wasn’t really expecting any more than that. It was bitterly cold though, with a light breeze, so, contrary to my normal practice I actually wore a base layer under my long sleeve top. Everything else was as normal, capris (or are they manpris?), peaked cap and thin gloves. I know I run “hot”, others around me were kitted out in full tights, jackets, thermal hats etc.
At ten to eight Kevin called all 89 starters to the line, gave us the briefing - basically, follow the National Trail acorn markers and have fun - the, with a blast of an air horn we were away…and I was in the lead! I hadn’t planned to start fast, but no-one else seemed to get going, and as the start was narrow and uneven I just kept running. Admittedly it didn’t take long for a few runners to pass, and by a couple of miles in I was where I wanted to be, running around 9-12th place. As is usual with any long race there’s always a period near the start when people stop to change clothes, have a pee etc (yes, ultrarunners are like bears…), so the actual position was relatively fluid, but it was near the front as planned.
Into the first aid station just after 13 miles and Liz was waiting for me. I hadn’t eaten anything on that section as I was running well, and still felt full from constant grazing between getting up and starting. I made sure to grab an energy bar, quick swap of my depleted water bottles for full ones and I was on my way again, walking for a couple of hundred yards as I ate.
The next section was very similar, leap-frogging the same few runners, exchanging a few words etc. At the “flooded field” the stream had thankfully stayed inside its banks. Last year it had burst through them, flooding the field completely and meaning I had to wade through icy waist deep water with no idea if it was going to get any deeper. This year it was slightly muddy, so one less thing to worry about. Into Castle Acre, the second checkpoint at 27 miles, to be greeted by Liz, plus my parents and sister, which was a nice boost - as was being told I was in tenth place. I reached that point in 4 hours, exactly on pace for my target of 7.5 hours, and in the top 10 (my other target). Another quick bite of energy bar, bottle swap and I was on my way again. Sadly, running fast meant missing out on the homemade hot soup, plus teas and coffees laid on by The Ostrich pub as the checkpoint was in their yard.
Starting section 3 I knew I was beginning to slow slightly but it didn’t worry me. The way I race is to start strongly, knowing that after 4 hours my legs and feet will hurt no matter what the pace - so, to me, it makes more sense to get as far as possible in that first 4 hours (with the proviso that I know I still have X miles to go, so I’m not running flat out). I got to 30 miles still ahead of my target time and began to think of even faster finish times…
About 5 minutes later that all changed!
The wind, which had been a light breeze from our left turned, and strengthened…then strengthened some more… By mile 31 we were running into a very strong, direct headwind. This brought in a weather front straight from the North Sea. It started as rain, with a little bit of sleet. At first it wasn’t too bad, I didn’t even stop to put my waterproof on - I wasn’t getting that wet, plus I hate running in extra layers, especially ones that are never as breathable as my skin. After another 15 minutes though I was getting very wet, and very, very cold as the rain turned to sleet and snow. I stopped to put my top on, and then kept plugging along, although it was a lot harder to move at the pace I had been. I was beginning to get very cold, and was counting down the distance to the next checkpoint as I knew I had a spare clothes in the car with Liz (I was carrying a spare base layer in a drysac as per race rules, but I wanted to save it as a “just in case” measure).
Thankfully I’d miscalculated, as I believed the checkpoint was at 37 miles, but was it actually 34.5, and as I dropped down a hill into it Liz was there, with the engine running and the heating on. I quickly changed my long sleeve top, my gloves and my hat, and drank a coffee while sheltering in the car, attempting to warm up. In hindsight I made a mistake here - I should have taken a few extra minutes, changed my cold, wet base layer too, put on my overtrousers, and got my best gloves out of my pack. This would have meant I was heading out on the final section warm and dry, rather than still chilled and wet. Oh well, the point of mistakes is to learn, and I have! Anyway, I set off on the last leg, just a simple half marathon to do, still on target time, only dropped a couple of places…
The last leg was the hardest run I’ve ever done - not just the hardest race, but the hardest run full stop. By now the snow and sleet were approaching blizzard conditions. After only about a mile I was struggling, and stopped to put on my overtrousers. Trying to do this in the conditions was not easy, and resulted in me cramping up (something I’m prone to, and still haven’t found a solution for) and getting very cold, to the point of shivering. Unfortunately changing my thin peaked cap for a thermal beanie meant the ice and snow was being blown into my eyes, causing them to close (painfully) for a few seconds - and thus making running very difficult. The problem was that walking wasn’t producing enough heat to keep me warm! It was in those 7 or so miles that I was at my lowest, both physically and mentally. I was really struggling with the cold, with not being able to see properly. A few people passed me at this point and I didn’t care, a sign that mentally I wasn’t in the race anymore. It became a slog, one foot in front of the other, left, right…repeat, as I ground out one mile after another. At one point I looked down, my whole front was covered in ice where the sleet was sticking to my pack. If I’d had any feeling left in my fingers I would have tried to take a photo, as it was I just trudged on.
At about 41 miles I was passed by another runner, who pointed out it was only about 10km to go. That coincided with me recognising where I was (I used to train on the last few miles of the trail when I lived locally), and also with a (very) brief lull in the storm. I took the opportunity to gulp down a gel, an energy bar and a packet of Honey Stinger chews and talked myself into getting going again. From then on I made sure not another person passed me. The weather was still rough, but my mindset had changed again and I wasn’t going to be beaten. I pushed as hard as I could for the last few miles, backing off whenever the cramp twinged again, but still running as much as I could. I even passed another competitor, chasing him down through the village of Ringstead, then continuing to run hard so he couldn’t stay with me.
The final sting in the tail was the new finish - we had to run past the turning to the village hall, the finish line, warmth, food and our medal…to get to the end of the path on the beach itself, rip a page from a book to prove we’d been there, then retrace our steps, followed by a final half mile of road…
I finally finished in 8 hours 22 minutes, for 13th place. Whilst I’m disappointed to have missed my targets I’m actually (mostly) satisfied. I was running at the pace I wanted, in the position I wanted - I just didn’t handle the extreme weather as well as some of the other runners. Conversely, both the leader and the third place runner diverted off course around mile 40 as they (separately) sought shelter and help from nearby houses. They were both suffering from hypothermia and were lucky to receive the assistance they needed before things became too serious.
So, lessons learnt regarding dealing with bad weather. As my coach, Stuart Mills, pointed out - nothing will be that bad again, so next time I’m suffering in a race I can tell myself “it’s not as bad as Peddars Way” and use that as motivation to get going again.
Huge thanks to Kevin and his team for another great race, and special thanks to Liz for being my superb crew again.
Now, after a week of rest…on with the training again!