Dorset Ultra – Paradise Lost

Coming back to Dorset for running an ultramarathon, four years after having done the marathon distance in 2013, did not feel good. Don’t get me wrong, Dorset and the Jurrasic Coast Path, which is a UNESCO World Heritage site, is an absolute stunner. In 2013 I described it with “what paradise must look like” despite being the most difficult route  (and experience) I had ever done. The 2017 revisit was overshadowed by health concerns. Normally I don’t do colds, but 10 days before the event I came down with one that made me stay in bed for a week and when I got up on event day I still felt more like continuing to rest than running 33 miles (54k). It did not help either that I had to get up at 2am, to be ready for running buddy Cathy to pick me up at 3am for the over 3 hours drive down to Dorset. Once arrived I was slightly concerned how cold it felt, the weather forecast promised relatively mild 9 degrees Celcius. My nose was running, my head still a little bit achy, but somehow I managed not to abort the whole thing and avoid having a first DNS (did not start) in my running book. At least I wanted to try, thinking I can always stop and have to deal with a first DNF (did not finish) later.And so it happened that despite not feeling well I stood at 8am at the start line of the CTS Dorset Ultra event, equipped with an extra layer of clothing, first aid kit, whistle, head torch (all mandatory stuff), a pack of tissues (not mandatory) and still wondering what I was getting myself into. The CTS Dorset trail is rated by the organiser with the highest difficulty level 5, for extreme terrain. The Ultra distance, if completed, earns you 3 qualifying points for the infamous UTMB race, which is widely regarded as one of the most difficult foot races in the world, over 100 miles (160k) through Swiss, Italian and French mountains. Here I was with all the gear and a pack of tissues walking up the first hill together with about 250 other ultra runners. The first half of the race went much better than expected. I almost forgot that I was not feeling well. The beauty of the dramatic coastline and the buzz that naturally comes with the start of a race, especially with one like this which offers so much jaw-dropping scenery, helped to lift my spirits. Yet the hills remained daunting. The first few miles had three of them to offer, hills that can only be compared with climbing up a muddy staircase without steps.The big shift happened pretty much half of the race. By then I had lost my pack of tissues (after taking out one that I used), the snot was running down my nose and the reoccurring coughs did not sound encouraging. But I could have dealt with that. What hit me was the very sudden feeling of complete depletion. It was not just about feeling tired. My legs started to destabilise, felt wobbly and having had no experience running with a cold I did not know whether this was normal or concerning. I started to walk even though it was flat and slightly downhill. The legs did not recover. Whenever I tried to resume a light jog I felt there is nothing left to jog on. Even walking was a challenge. Then the unforgiving terrain started to hit back in form of seemingly endless hills and I did not think I would be able to finish. I had almost the same distance again in front of me, was getting colder by the minute and even the downhills started to become more challenging than they should have, due to my increasingly burning quad muscles. At some point, I started walking down the hills backwards, which presented additional challenges but at least it gave my quads a break.It was horrible. I still don’t know what made me carry on. Probably the unclear plan how to exit a scenario like this and the feeling of not wanting to have the first DNF in my running record. This way the second half of the race became the hardest thing I have ever done in my life. The fact that I could carry on at all was due to factors outside my control: the mild weather (9 degrees and no strong winds) and the thin Ronhill windbreaker jacket, which I bought two days before and turned out to be extremely useful. In preparation for this event, I had gone into my usual panic mode, wondering what would happen if I had to run at zero degrees and so had decided to spend ridiculous £140 on this jacket, but now I was glad it did. As a fourth layer, it helped to keep me relatively warm and even the hood was very useful when my head started to cool down. So when I came back to the base station and had to go out for the final 6.5 miles to complete the ultra distance I somehow resisted again to stop and carried on. Not because I wanted to, but just because I felt I am not collapsing, freezing to death or hallucinating. I was now used to dragging myself onwards one step after another, completely ignoring time or distance. So I thought “no DNF in my book, and better get this damn ultra thing done”.A decision I regretted half an hour later when I was sitting next to a downhill path stretching my quad muscles. They finally denied any functions and rather cramped. Once I could stand again I tried to move down somehow. I really should have let myself roll down, I am sure it would have been at least twice as fast. It all seems like a bit of a blur now, but the one positive thing is the beautiful sunset I could witness and I even thought about taking pictures. The last three miles, a flat bit before the last steep downhill, I tried to do a forward movement that resembled something remotely similar to a gentle jog. When I reached the last descent I climbed down feeling more like a survivor of a disaster than a triumphant finisher. I had no clue what time it was when I reached the finish with only a few people standing there. One of them was Cathy who did have a blast doing and finishing her marathon. I tried to be gracious and to be happy for her. When I went to return my chip and get my medal, I was told that did not check-in at all check-points and times are missing. I resisted the urge to kill the messenger and said I am absolutely sure I got readings at all check-points and can prove it with my personal running tracking. I need to email the organiser, I was told, and show them the proof of my results for it to be official. Until this happens I did not officially finish. I was beyond any emotions.

At least I got the medal. When I checked the results today I found that they put me wrongly into the 12 miles longer Ultra Plus race and of course for this race I missed some check-points. The email asking to correct this went out. However, I am not sure if the whole thing was worth it. Yes, I did finish and I do assume I get it sorted with the organiser. But I feel also slightly traumatised. The previous positive memories of “running through paradise” turned into “surviving a disaster”. There is no real sense of achievement, probably because one of my main running goals is enjoyment. Saying this, my other goals are “not to get injured” and “to finish”, in that order, which I think I did achieve. Still, I am not quite sure what to think about this experience and I need to let it go for now. Time will tell I suppose.

Update from 04/1/2107: My results are corrected and I am officially a finisher. Time is 8:25:27 and I came 112th out of 146 (not that it has any significance, I am just surprised to see that there were still quite a few fellow runners behind me).

4 thoughts on “Dorset Ultra – Paradise Lost

  1. It is very good that you managed to finish. Impressive!! A great experience for me. Well done and thanks. 🙂 Until the next time!!

    • Thanks Cathy! Well done you, too. Was good to catch-up! Yeah, let’s do something else while I am still ensured on your car 🙂

  2. Remember how you said a few years ago that I was a hero because I finished my 3rd Frankfurt Marathon despite a 20-30 minute episode lying on the side of the road with cramps? Clearly that one was a joke compared to your story here – so better get some sense of heroism into your mind – well, once you have fully recovered and can look back on the day sitting at home with a nice warm cup of tea… 🙂

    • I do remember very well, Michael 🙂 Still thinking there might be a fine line between heroism and stupidity and still not sure on which side my experience belongs. But I agree: I have to give it time and when I look back it might be clearer. Thank you! At least I don’t think i have done any lasting damage. The cold did not get worse. I still can barely walk down stairs (my quads have not forgiven me yet), but I am sure that will get better soon. Only looking slightly concerned towards Sunday: the calendar says “Malaga Marathon”. Yikes.

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