I'm now within a week of my first unofficial 'training' ultra and in the meantime I've become 'oh, you're him' to the other runners that I'm coming across. I think at this point, 'him' is a bit of a figure of gentle mickey-taking and disbelief rather than anything too esteemed just yet, but it's still a bit unnerving to go to a race and be greeted with 'are you the guy who's running to Bristol?' every five minutes.
While the run to Bristol in August is quietly getting closer with every day, the race next Sunday is looking like a far more immediate challenge - as I think I've mentioned before, the race itself is only a very undulating 17 miles, so I'm going to run the 26.2 miles to the start line. The run to the race is going to, coincidentally, follow the same route as my first marathon-length run back in December, so I'll be interested to see whether running over it again is a good or bad thing; whether I feel better treading familiar ground, or just disheartened at the repetition. Finding this out will also help me decide how much of August's route I'm going to run - or not - in advance.
With next week's race plans in mind, this weekend's race was more of a warm up - but what a warm up! The 17th Arlington Court Canter is a cross-country 10km route around a beautiful valley not too far from where I live - it's only the second cross-country race I've done and I was definitely looking forward to it going in. This anticipation was in the face of receiving the same trepidatious response from every runner I mentioned the race to - everyone at least held some respect for what was going to be a difficult course.
As always with quicker races, I have to remind myself that short distances aren't the strength I'm aiming for right now - just being able to get around in a respectable time and feeling good afterwards is supposed to be top of my race plan. Having said that, it's always difficult to not get swept up in the competitive spirit :)
As I'm becoming more confident in my ability to keep a smooth, steady pace uphill now, I was pleased to see this working on the first part of the Arlington course - and luckily the inevitable competitiveness found an outlet here. I found I could keep a comfortable workrate up past a few other runners who seemed to be (if I can be totally judgemental for a moment) trying to gallop up too much ground with every step at a much slower cadence.
The second part of the course was a very long, rooty, steep descent into the valley and I think this (and a similar stony section around three-quarters of the way through) were the only two sections where I gave up places. This was almost definitely down to my ankle strength and resulting unsure-footedness on the looser, more 'dangerous' territory (I'll admit to shamefully adding a little caution-bordering-on-fear to this on these sections) - although I'm happy to say that when I talk about ankle-weakness, I'm aware that this is 'compared to what I'd like', not 'compared to everyone else'; I was still able to keep a objectively fairly good speed up, despite the terrain.
The rest of the course back out of the valley had very little flat ground to it, with lots of great field ascents (where I again made up a few places), until I eventually made it to the final stretch, where I happened to pull alongside a friend of mine, Mike. Having spotted each other, we both pulled up the gears and I was amazed to find I had a full-on sprint within me, letting me eventually pull a little clear... Unfortunately I'd completely misjudged the distance to the finish line - by about 200m - meaning I was really starting to hurt by the time I got there, by which time Mike pulled back to an even finish. I have to admit, finding this last burst of energy and excitement made me feel very proud - if I've ever lived up to 'finish on empty' before, it was for this race! I finished 41st out of 138, which I was happy with - at the moment I tend to finish in the top 20-30% of the field, with my position improving as the distance goes up.
Forget the position or adrenalin-filled finish, though - the most satisfying part of the day for me was that around five minutes after the finish, I was good to go again! I felt absolutely fine in my legs (my right ankle aches a little today where I think I had one odd landing) and from the waist up, I was feeling good too. This is what I'm looking for in my running - I don't yet get much from the idea of winning races like this, or from beating personal bests, and I definitely don't want to be one of these people who's out for two or three days after any race complaining of soreness and stiffness and saying it's ok as if it's a natural part of the process. I want to be able to run wherever I do as if it isn't a special event in my life, more as if it's just part of who I am.
Hey, it's been a while since I threw some philosophy into one of these posts :)
I'll let you know how the 43-miler next weekend goes.