Saturday 12 June 2021

Norfolk: Sunset Half Ultra race recap

I signed up for this race back in the heady optimistic days of October 2020, when races had started up again and we all hoped we'd seen the last of Covid.  Sadly it was not to be, and a slew of cancellations followed, but this race hung in there.  The organisers clearly put a lot of effort into making it Covid-safe, including a set of competitor notes that ran to FORTY EIGHT PAGES.  I've more patience than most people when it comes to this stuff and even I thought it was excessive... I reckon Giles must be an air traffic controller, or a bomb disposal expert, or a member of MI5 in his day job.  Such was his attention to detail!

I'd originally signed up for the marathon, but decided as the race approached that the ultra would be more fun, so I changed my entry to the 35 miler.

Ben and I decided to make a weekend of it, as a weekend by the seaside in Norfolk is a holiday (for most people).  We drove up on Friday and mooched around farm shops and had a lovely dinner.  The race didn't start until 1:30pm on Saturday because the idea is to race the sunset. In fact, it had a rolling start, but I figured the earlier I started, the earlier I'd finish, so we got there in plenty of time.  It was a gorgeous sunny day and we stopped for fish and chips in Wells on the way - always a good start!

Here I am at the start line in Blakeney:

A tracker was attached to my vest and runners were set off at 1 minute intervals.  There was no particular order, you just milled around looking keen until it was your turn.  As I waited to cross the line, I chatted with the organisers.  I expressed a fervent hope that there would not be any sand.  One of them said to me, "just try not to think about it", which weren't quite the words of reassurance I was looking for!
The race is meant to be coastal, but because of the tides, there was not much visible sea for huge chunks of the race.  It starts out very flat and winds through grassy marshland.  In places, the nettles and thistles were up to my thighs - initially I tried to avoid them but soon realised it was impossible.  It was much too warm to switch into leggings but my bare legs were getting a nasty rash.  I decided to deal with this by not looking at them for the remainder of the race.
After a kilometre or two, I caught up with the runner ahead of me.  His name was Martin and he knew the area, having done the half in the opposite direction before, and we chatted for a while.  I lost him a few times but always met up again after I'd accidentally gone the wrong way a few times and added on extra distance.  At Stiffkey, I ran past a car park where I'd arranged to meet Ben but there was no sign of him.  Hmm.  Oh well! I figured he would find me eventually via the tracker.

After not too long I arrived at Wells-next-the-Sea  There were suddenly a lot of people compared to being by myself in the countryside and I dodged through them.  
Just after the town was the checkpoint, which also doubled as the marathon start, so there were loads of people milling around and marshals shouting instructions.  It was a bit chaotic and Martin wasn't hanging around so I didn't either.  We headed off into the trees which provided the first bit of shade of the whole race and a bit of a change of scenery:
Shortly afterwards, it all started to get a bit sand dune-y.  Martin told me he was going to walk, and I said I would too (it's always wise in longer races to conserve energy for later when you might really need it).  Energy-sapping sand is never fun to run on so I was very happy to walk.
Almost as soon as we started walking, Ben appeared out of nowhere.  He'd only just made it in time to catch me!  He'd brought me a can of Coke which was amazing.  We walked together for a while over the dunes and he told me about his adventures.  He'd got chatting to the boyfriend of the girl who'd set off before me, and they'd gone to get a coffee and talk about cycling, as you do, and he thought he had loads of time but then realised too late that he didn't. I was doing fine though - I think I'd done about a half marathon by this point and I felt good except I wasn't eating enough.  It's always tricky when it's very warm - I just don't feel like eating, but I know I have to.

After Ben left and I caught up with Martin again, I promised myself I'd stop for an ice cream if I saw one because I could actually face that, and lo and behold at the next town there was one!  A man in the queue kindly let me go in front of him (he asked me loads of questions about the race - I don't think he could quite get his head around why anyone would do that)!  In any case, I got my ice cream and it was great:

After that, there was a path through a cornfield that reminds me of the money shot from Race To The Stones - although actually I think this was nicer (!)
There followed a very long, very flat, very boring section through longish grass with the sun beating down on me which I thought was never going to end.  I caught up with the guy in front and chatted to him for a while (about how our adult daughters reluctantly had to accept that their parents were pretty cool for running ultras), but I couldn't keep up with him for long and had to let him go. 
Around here was the second checkpoint, I stopped for a short break and to refill my bottles and eat a satsuma.  At the end of this bit was Brancaster Sailing Club, where I was meeting Ben again.  This time he was going to run with me for a bit, which I'd been looking forward to.  I'd planned it to be this section because I always start getting a bit fed up around the 28km mark - I'm starting to get tired but it still feels like a long way to go - and today was no exception.  Almost immediately after we started running there was a kilometer or so of boardwalk.  Somewhere along here, I slowed down to overtake an older couple.  I apologised and said, "I'm afraid there's quite a few more runners coming," as I passed them.  The lady turned to her husband and said, "How very inconvenient".  Haha!  Excuse us for wanting to use the trails too!
The boardwalk opened out into a farmyard where we met these wonderful ladies.  I  had been moaning to Ben about how I wanted a banana and then these two angels magically appeared with a box of bananas and a box of wondefully cooling melon - literally the best thing ever.  They also had a water bottle spray  to help cool me down.  I stopped to thank them properly and it transpired the woman in the foreground was meant to be running today but had a stress fracture and had to withdraw..  How utterly lovely of them both to come and support the race anyway.  Ben said that by the time he went past there on his way back, they had already disappeared.  Like a dream...
Just after this, the path turned off down what seemed a very unlikely path through deep undergrowth.  Luckily there was someone there pointing us in the right direction or I definitely would've missed the turning.   If I hadn't got stung earlier, I was definitely going to get stung now!  Nevertheless we pushed through until we came out onto a quiet road that meandered gently uphill - the only summit of the entire race.   Ben stayed with me until we reached the top, before turning back and retracing his steps back to the car.  I checked out his Strava later and he was significantly faster on the way back!
After Ben had turned back, the trail was suddenly quite spectacular.  Still not much in the way of sea, but plenty of marshland and ? seawater rivers.  It was still really hot so I was very glad I'd put on plenty of suncream.
This section was pretty quiet in terms of other path users - I guess it was quite far from any car parks? so I put my headphones on for the first time in the race.  I had an urge to listen to Paperback Writer which I did, singing along, and that led on to my Summer Road Trip playlist.  Singing and dancing ensued as I skipped along the trails, feeling that everything was right with the world.
Around here a walker called out to me: "what are you doing?" I stopped and explained it was a race, when I said where it started and finished she was incredulous.  She said, "Some of the people running along here have looked bloody awful but you look fine," in a slightly accusatory fashion, which amused me.  I explained I do this a lot, for fun.  She looked at me like I was batshit insane.  It was funny!
I ran round a corner and came across this glorious beach, so gorgeous and empty that I had to stop and take a proper photo.  It looked like Barbados (almost)...
A rare view of the sea - this lasted for about 1 minute before disappearing behind a sand dune...
The loud engine noise above alerted me to the presence of these paragliders - looks awesome fun, I'd love to learn how to do it.  Especially on the Norfolk coast on a day like today.  Must have been absolutely epic
After this, the path gave way to loose, dry sand, reminiscent of the dreaded Suffolk.  After my conversation at the start, I was sort of expecting this.  It wasn't fun.  I was forced to walk and my trainers slowly filled with dry, gritty particles.  There was a long sandy section between beach huts where the path wasn't very clear which was particularly grim.

I caught up with a guy who was really struggling, he'd run out of water and couldn't eat because his mouth was too dry.  Both my bottles were half full and I knew I was only about 5k from the checkpoint so I let him drink one of them and gave him some jelly tots.  He perked up a bit before I skipped off towards the sunset.  I'm pretty sure he finished.

Eventually I arrived at Hunstanton, and like Wells before it, was slightly taken aback to suddenly be surrounded by tourists.  The prom was busy, with a funfair.  Ben rang and was nearby so we hastily arranged to meet and he took this pic of me looking pretty badass.  I was beyond marathon distance by this point, feeling fine and easily on track to beat the sunset.
Ben and I had visited Heacham Beach yesterday so by the time I got there, I knew I didn't have far to go to the end.  It was pretty quiet around here.  In the distance I could see another ultra runner so I tried to catch him up.
After a while I caught up with him, his name was Nicola and he was having a hell of a day.  He explained that he had got very very lost and ended up on the mud flats, knee deep in water and having to scramble out - I would have been terrifed.  Look at all the mud on him!  He'd got lost a few times and done a lot of extra miles, he said he was ruined.   He didn't have a map.  I explained I'd been using my watch to find the way and he said he'd stick with me so he didn't get lost again. 
He was good company and we chatted about races as we headed inland once more before the finish. This last bit was really beautiful - the sun was just starting to go down and there were hundreds and hundreds of birds.  I kept stopping to take pictures because it was stunning.  There was one tricky turning near the end where Nicola would probably have got lost again because it wasn't at all obvious - though in fairness, the race organisers did make it very clear that this was a self-navigating race and provided a good GPX file.
Finally we could see the sea again.  It was 8:45pm by this time and the sunset was at 9:22pm and we were only about a kilometre away.  Nicola offered to let me run ahead and finish on my own but I said no - I've missed the social side of races and it's always nicer to share that moment of glory.  I've finished races with others many times - East Sussex,  Worcestershire, Northamptonshire, Shropshire, Rutland.  It's part of the joy if you ask me.
Here's the official pics from the race photographer as we approached the finish line:
This is the poster picture I reckon!
I absolutely love this one too.  The light, the way everyone is clapping, I can just see Ben in this picture, and even though I can't see it, I know he was smiling at me as I crossed the finish line.  It was a good moment.

After the race, I collected my cutesy wooden medal and buff and a much-needed bowl of soup and bread which they kindly provided to competitors.  
The bar was open so Ben got me a pint and had also brought me an ice lolly which I absolutely devoured.  We sat with Nicola, who I later realised was wearing a Hardmoors 110 finisher t-shirt and therefore is a much better runner than me, despite his efforts to hide it today!
I inspected the state of my legs - I couldn't be bothered to move to take a better pic than this - but you can definitely see the after effects of running through long grass and stinging nettles!

As we sat there, the sun did actually set, and suddenly I got very cold and shivery.  I had a jumper but was only wearing shorts.  Somebody reported I was shivering and the organisers whisked me indoors and got me a blanket - it was very sweet of them.  Ten minutes later I was feeling better and we headed off home.
Finally a request - if you are reading this and enjoy my reports, I am currently fundraising as part of Jog On June for Liverpool University Hospital Charity.  The link is on my Donate page (here) and I only need to raise another £40 to hit my target.  Any donations, however small, would be very much appreciated.  Thank you very much indeed to everyone who already has x
Addendum: a few days later when the results came out, it turns out I was 3rd female in a time of 7 hours, 17 minutes.  Not bad!

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