White Rose Ultra Race Recap
White Rose Ultra 2015 was my second solo ‘ultra distance’ event. Having placed third female at TrailBlaster12 on Summer Solstice this year, running 59 miles in just under 12 hours, it hadn’t seemed a big deal in July to register for the mid-distance race from the 30, 60 or 100 mile White Rose options. For various reasons, however, in the weeks leading up to the 1st of November, I began to doubt that my fitness was where I’d like it to be to comfortably meet those miles. Knowing also that I was the only one of five friends who was planning to go out for a second 30 mile lap, (thus also waiving the offer of a lift back to a warm bed for the night), and that I had to spend the rest of the next week packing to move house and start a new job, I had pretty much already decided it would be wise to drop back to the 30 mile run. Come the excitement of race day morning, however, and the welcome boost of some unseasonably beautiful weather over the stunning Yorkshire countryside, I had started to have third-thoughts about distance… Maybe I could do the 60 miles after all! On one hand, I might be described as ‘untrained’, but on the other, I may discover myself to be simply ‘well rested’. As it turned out, I did indeed decide to stop after one 30 mile lap, though this was eventually for completely different reasons to those I had anticipated.
The race HQ was in what appeared to be some converted barn or warehouse buildings down a series of rambling country lanes. It’s lucky I knew a few other people running and had been offered a lift as I’m really not sure how I would have got there by public transport. The registration was straightforward and seemed well organised. The ‘secure storage’ however, was really just an office (which had apparently doubled as a bedroom for some of the 100-mile runners who set off at midnight) and I was happy to trust it but I’m not convinced it was really all that ‘secure’. Having found a quiet looking corner to dump my stuff and have a final faff about, I was ready to go. I started to queue for one of the two ‘women only’ portaloos but was short on time so decided I’d just use a bush when the time came and headed on up to the start. I think there was some kind of briefing but I didn’t hear any of it; one minute we were strolling up a path and the next minute the people in front had started running! We set off on time however, bang on 8 am.
The main difference I expected between White Rose Ultra and my experience at TrailBlaster12 was not the miles per se but the method of encountering them. The focus of TrailBlaster12 was the time period; 8 am to 8 pm and as many 5km laps of a country park in Burnley as you fancied in those hours. With White Rose, I’d have to commit to more than time on my feet; I actually had to cover a set distance. As such, I’d also have to carry all I needed. Though it was advertised that there would be aid stations every 5 miles, I’d still have to carry all the minimum kit; the waterproofs, space blanket, whistle, torch etc. After a bad experience last year of trying to run with a backpack designed for hiking and ending up with blisters on the back of my neck, I had treated myself to a rather snazzy Salomon running bag (with a built-in hydration bladder and a whistle!). I’d started getting used to running with this in the summer though so I felt fairly confident about that. Once I’d packed it for the day, however, I almost removed the water bladder and trusted to the aid stations as it seemed too heavy, but by the time I’d put it on my back and adjusted it properly, it was actually barely noticeable. It transpired that there was no kit check so perhaps I could have got away without carrying so much but it was probably wise to comply!
The fuel stops were roughly every 5 miles as promised and pretty well stocked with various sweet and savoury snacks as well as water. With the unpredictably warm weather (I understand it went up to 22 degrees in some parts of the UK and I could well believe it was at least 20 in Marsden!) the water was very much needed. Unfortunately, the stop just after 21 miles had run out when I arrived, so I was ultimately very glad I hadn’t trusted to them and had my own supply. At the top of an incredibly scenic but relatively steep path, in surprisingly strong sunlight, there were more than a few parched looking runners who were waiting anxiously for a fresh supply to arrive by van. Thankfully, I was able to snatch a handful of crisps to replace some sweated salts and just get on with it!
The other critical difference between the natures of the short or long distance lapped course was the navigation. Once you’ve gone round a 3-mile loop a couple of times, especially one that’s very well marshalled, you’re not really going to get lost. If, however, you do you’re never going to be more than a couple of km from the race HQ. Not so with a course, that’s ten times the distance. I had studied the route map to a degree but being unfamiliar with the area I found it difficult to translate an abstract map into an objective landscape, especially when halfway up a hill in the middle of nowhere. We’d been promised a well-signposted course, and, to be fair, a lot of effort must have gone into providing consistent arrows and markers over such a distance. There were one or two marshals about too and, fortuitously, some very helpful spectators who put me right a couple of times when I’d either had too much faith in the confused runners ahead of me or was about to go a bit wrong for myself. If I were to give some signposting feedback to the organisers, I’d suggest a bit more consistency in the signage (the arrows varied in colour and size which left me wondering from time to time if that was a current marker I was about to follow or simply one left from a previous event) and, if possible making them a little bigger. I found I quite often only spotted them after I’d already guessed the way based on something like the number of muddy footprints going round a corner! Whilst I accept a degree of complacency on my part in having gone ‘I’ll just follow the signs, it’ll be fine’, without having done more to plan for navigating the course, I clearly wasn’t the only one. One friend accidentally added two miles to her route having got lost and there were a lot of other people who were very vociferous at race HQ about getting lost too.
It was this, in fact, which finally swung my decision not to go back out on the course having completed the first 30-mile loop in a little over 6 and a half hours. I had started off enjoying the run very much and loved pretty much every step, even the fateful ones in the muddy, boggy bits where I finally accepted wet socks. This lasted up until around about mile 22. This was shortly after the aid station that was out of water and I had found the course running off the trail and along the side of one of those windy countries. A road where drivers seem particularly inclined to take an opportunity to kick back and enjoy a bit of speed. I felt physically good by the way, I’d got a little breathless coming up off the path but once I’d got my back to the sun I was fine. My legs felt springy. My feet felt surprisingly good. My brain, however, started pointing out that the shadows were getting longer. It politely commented that whilst right now I was simply a bit hot and sweaty, as soon as the sun had drifted below the hills in approximately 3 and half hours, I was still going to be damp and getting colder. It reminded me of the three or four times a kind stranger had nudged me back onto the right course and questioned how many of those there would still be about in say, 4 or 5 hours. I started to imagine myself in 6 or seven hours’ time, running down this same road. With cars coming up fast behind me. In the pitch black. If it suggested, I got this far without having already got thoroughly lost. I wasn’t listening to any music but I didn’t need to be because my brain decided Mussorgsky’s A Night on the Bare Mountain would be an entirely appropriate soundtrack. It was the day after Hallowe’en after all. I started to think about being cold, lost in the dark, out of food and water, finally finding my way back to race HQ long after any form of public transport had finished for a Sunday night. Maybe, I wondered, I could find a similarly paced runner going out for lap two at the same time as me who was a bit more confident with the navigation and wouldn’t mind a run-buddy. Though I’d have already done the course once, it wasn’t exactly straightforward and would be a whole different challenge in the dark. Daylight, or lack thereof, had been far from my mind in the long summer days when I had signed up for the race and ironically, the only thing I’d thought about the November date was that it might be a bit cold. I do have some experience of running in the dark having completed a 10km trail lap for my team at TR24 this year. I did quite enjoy it but I hadn’t felt at any risk of getting lost and still, there were one or two times where I found the moving shadows cast by the head torch quite disorientating. Sometimes experience can make us more confident to do something but I think in this case it rather went the other way.
I started to not enjoy the run for the worry of all these things buzzing about in my head. At about mile 24, a few of us were just commenting on the pleasures of a downhill stretch (famous last words!) when we spotted the bad news that was a pack of irritated looking racers coming back at us. “Wrong way!” they shouted. “Turn around!” When I got back to the top of the path and back on to the right route, I was delighted to spot one of my mates just up ahead. I caught up with her gratefully. She’d already questioned my sanity in considering to carry on alone in the dark and was no less cautious when I mentioned my growing concerns. This was pretty much the point at which I mentally conceded that I would stop early and I realised I had made the right decision when I found I was starting to enjoy the run again. With only 10km of the first (only!) loop left, it was all suddenly over very fast and did all start to seem like a lot of fuss about nothing. It wasn’t without a sense of frustration that I called it a day when we got back at race HQ.
To his credit, the friendly organiser to whom I related my decision was keen to prevent me from dropping back to the 30 and was apparently quite surprised too. “I’ve had runners doing the 100 miles out there in the dark since midnight and they aren’t getting lost!” he encouraged me. Well, that was great, I told him but they must have been a lot more experienced and confident than me! He came and found me a couple of minutes later suggesting, as I had briefly considered myself, that he might be able to find someone to run with me but I’d already made my decision and was halfway through a big bowl of piping hot mushy peas, allowing myself the pleasant anticipation of a warm shower at my friend’s house. “But I don’t want you to quit; you look like you could run it!” he pressed. Yes. I could have run it. But November the 1st 2015 turned out to be a day for a 30-mile run, not a 60-mile run. I’ve said several times to friends recently, especially to those for who the 30-mile option of the White Rose Ultra was their first experience of any distance over a marathon, if you can run 26 miles, you can run 60. After a certain distance, it’s not about physical fitness anymore, it’s all in the brain. I’ll be the first to hold my hands up; I was pleasantly surprised to discover that my physical fitness could indeed have done the distance but on the day it was my mind that was found wanting. I simply didn’t have the mental strength to take myself back out there into a cold, dark unknown and I don’t actually consider this to be ‘quitting’. Though it might seem a counterintuitive statement, sometimes it’s easier to battle on physically and subject oneself to all kinds of challenges and abuse than it is to accept a certain amount of weakness and recognise the point at which it’s a good idea for you, on that day, to stop. There’s a lesson learned. There are plenty more hours in which I will run many more miles and anyway, as my mate said “I’m actually only going to run 30 miles today” is ‘still a pretty badass statement’.