Ultra X 125 England Race Report

Photo credit: Benedict Tufnell

With excitement, I boarded on the train from London to Edale to take part in Ultra X 125 England. I adore ultraraces and being out in big sky landscapes. My last race was the Ecotrail Al Ula 84km race in Saudi Arabia on 8 February 2020. I was raving to go again!

As government guidelines on races and social distancing rules kept changing, I was delighted that the race went ahead. Big kudos to Ultra X for pulling the race off. I can’t imagine the number of hurdles jumped by the team.

After changing trains in Manchester and getting on a smaller local train I arrived in the beautiful small town of Edale in the Peak District. At the station, I was met by the very friendly uncle of one of Ultra X’s founders and his wife for transfer to Rowter Farm Campsite, where race participants were staying.

It was my first Ultra X experience. Ultra X is a relatively new race organiser of multi-day running events worldwide. The organisation has impressively established an international race circuit introducing a world championship in multi-stage racing. Founders Sam and Jaime manage a very sleek operation and are innovative. The campsite was covered in Ultra X branding, blue tents, staff with visors, face masks and Ultra X vests to stand out. The support marshals were young and enthusiastic. Social distancing measures were put in place and the layout of the campsite worked well. Each participant was directed to an earmarked campsite. There was a lovely view from the campsite although it proved to be a very windy location with winds so strong it was difficult to sleep at night. Ultra X races are self-supported but there was cold and hot water available, portable toilets and medical staff on site. 

The briefing was sent online. Individual start times were emailed to participants to minimize contact. A good idea but as the campsite had no mobile reception, most participants still had to visit the organisers to enquire about their start time. Ultra X England was rated by organisers as 3/5 in terms of technical trails and there was 4,349m of altitude to climb. To me, this sounded like a very manageable race. 

The weather forecast for the weekend was excellent- sunny and 18C. Being surrounded by hills the evenings were overcast and the mornings were foggy. Nighttime temperature was 8C so good camping equipment was needed. I had double sleeping bags (RAB and Yeti), two sleeping matts (Thermarest and Nordisk) and Buffalo gloves, Montane hat and a Yeti down jacket to keep warm. I was very comfortable bar waking up from the wind.

The race was 75km Day 1 followed by 50km Day 2. It was grey at the start line Day 1 but runners were eager to get going. Great atmosphere despite the individual start times. Temperature checks were performed before the start. The race started with a transport distance to get you to the first hill. We had been warned it was blowing 45 knots per hour i.e. 83km/h in the mountains. This was true. The first part of the race contained climbing, mist, very wet sections and a headwind so strong it lifted you. I was literally carried away by the wind and set down in a bush of thistles. I enjoyed being out, doing the climbs and moving forward. After the early morning hours, the sun came out. It was truly lovely with amazing landscape. You descended from the mountains and ran along the water reservoir with old hydropower facilities. This was the flattest, quickest and least technical part of the race where you also passed the halfway point. Checkpoints were well staffed and offered water and hand sanitizer.

During the race, I ran partly with Pau Capell with number 48. I learnt that this runner was using Pau’s no-show race number. It is probably the only time in my life I had the chance to run side by side with Pau Capell!

Many from the public were also out enjoying the day on the Peak District trails. I had two occasions where I went off the course slightly due to lack of markings. My GPX file was also off the marked course. I had the race organisers’ instructions ringing in my ear: “if in doubt between GPX and flag markings always follow the flags”. At one point, I saw some a group of children with a bouquet of red flags which meant these were missing from the course. 

After the lake, the climbing started again. The terrain was undulating with some more technical parts. The trails were very technical at times and barely runnable with tired legs.

All good until the last checkpoint. It was 4.30 pm, I had done 68km and was feeling strong. So good in fact I didn’t refill my water bottle at last checkpoint. What could go wrong with 8km to go?

It proved, it wasn’t my day. There were sparse markings as I set off alone. At some point, I had no clue where to go with no flags and no GPX route. I back-traced and eventually found some flags which I followed although at that the point the GPX showed another route. We had been briefed, when in doubt follow the flags. So, I did. The flags continued and I had soon been out for two hours. How could 8km take two hours? It seemed wrong. I had no GPX track but followed the flags. I did so until it was pitch dark and the flags stopped. It was storm winds and I was on the top of the mountains. I was long out of nutrition and water, my clothes were wet of sweat and it was rapidly getting colder. I got my phone out and I had no mobile reception. I had started to descend from the mountains on the Pennine Way and decided it was better to follow this route than to turn around. I kept checking whether I had mobile coverage. At 8 pm, I had mobile reception and I called the organisers on the emergency number provided. I tried three times but no one answered. I attempted the second emergency number provided to the chief medical officer – no answer. When I set out in the morning, I hadn’t even taken note of the name of the campsite where I was headed. It was too cold to stand still so I had to keep moving putting Edale as a destination in Google maps. It was three miles to the nearest road. On the fourth attempt, the race organiser’s emergency number picked up. I was informed about the name of the campsite which was 10 miles away. I started to walk/run with a promise from them to meet me. I kept moving and after 40 minutes I was met by a car. Apparently, with 1 km left of the race, I had taken a wrong turn and started to follow flags for Day 2!

I was shivering with cold and was dehydrated at this stage. I was offered to be dropped at the mark where I had gone wrong to finish Day 1. The Ultra X Head of operations kindly guided me to the spot. The wind was whipping in my face. It was raining, I couldn’t see a single marking, it was dark and I was thirsty. I realised I had mentally checked out already. I went back to the campsite slowly realising this would be my first ever DNF in an ultra.

They say that a race organiser is really put to the test when things go wrong. If you have runners on the mountains, when it is dark, cold and the terrain is difficult you need to monitor their trackers. By comparison, when I was at Marathon des Sables, I had a bad blister and stopped for ten minutes to treat it alone in a remote landscape. Out of nowhere, came support checking if I was ok. Even in the notoriously difficult terrain at Ultra Tour Monte Rosa, runners off course were monitored and searched for. This is the second time in 2020, I have had a bad mountain experience being caught out with too little water and clothes when the weather changes. It is not a positive experience. It reminds me to always have enormous respect for the mountains.

It is difficult to attribute how I could have made such a wrong turn. At the end of a race, the mind is less alert.

Back at camp, I was quickly reminded that doing a multi-race in England is different to hot weather countries. Keeping warm in the tent when you are wet from sweat and getting changed was a challenge. It took me three hours before I felt warm again. I unwisely skipped my evening meal focusing on staying warm. I raced in Inijini toe socks with the feet well covered in GurneyGoo. Despite crossing a bog less than 10km into a race, getting the feet wet and my feet being like raisins when I removed the shoes-  I had no blisters! I ran in a Salomon S/lab kit and used an Ultimate Direction MountainVesta. My shoe choice, the Hoka Torrent gave good grip in the technical sections. 

I think Ultra X England is an excellent preparatory race for someone who wishes to try one of the bigger alpine races. It contained some climbing (less than half the climbing compared to UTMB for instance) and technicality. It was my first time in the Peak District.  I found the wilderness vast and beautiful and I’ll be back. Despite my personal disappointment, it was fantastic to be back at a race again and resuming life as part of the ultra-community. I do appreciate Ultra X’s effort to pull off a race in the current circumstances. A nice feature was that race photos were available to download free of charge.

Feeling safe when running is very personal and essential. When alone in the mountains you can quickly feel small. Regularly monitoring of trackers and answering the emergency phones should be standard.

Before leaving, I had some nice morning banter with fellow runners. Some were getting ready to start Day 2, some, like me, shared war stories why we were unable to run Day 2.  Sharing your experiences and learning how to improve for the next race is what makes you grow as a runner.

Addressing the safety aspects, this race has all the potential to be a brilliant race. Looking forward to my next Ultra X experience! I’m eyeing Mexico next – with 50km over five days I hope to avoid any night running!!!!

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