On Sunday, I took part in my first ultra of the year. The London 50km Ultra from Streatham Common to Wembley Stadium, following the Capital Ring path is now the largest ultra in the UK calendar, and the third of a series in the year organised by Rory Coleman, Guinness World Record Holder and the veteran of nearly 700 marathons.
Most of the 250 competitors ran as part of their final training programme for the Marathon des Sables, in April, and were laden with all the kit they would be taking to Morocco, including a week’s worth of food and relief for snake venom. For many this was the end of another 120 mile week and they had thought nothing of taking off for a couple of hours the day before just to stretch the legs. I was here as much to check how fit I was with two months left until I run the Double London Marathon. It was also a chance to see a part of London that, in 10 years, I had never visited.
From Streatham Common we followed a route that took us through Wandsworth Common, past early morning church goers, and crowds of footballers comparing notes on the night before. Parades of young mothers were lined up for their aerobics class, and by the time we got to Richmond Park the over 60s were out in force with their ski poles marching two by two in the mist. I could not help thinking that this is some of what Iain Sinclair must have seen when he took to the M25 London Orbital and cut a slice through London’s perimeter.
As for the running, the first 20km went without a hitch, although I managed to trip over on the pavement and almost choked on the pastry crumbs of a sausage roll. From 20-30km as we crossed the river at Richmond and headed north through Syon Park, and most surprisingly of all – up hill. The seedier, forgotten London emerged, the one of canal paths and underpasses, disused warehouses and acidic smoke. I have lived in London most of my life and yet it is only by accident that I come across this underbelly of London, and then only passing through it at speed, head bowed slightly against the weather.
By the time we got to Harrow on the Hill and the final checkpoint there were just over 4 hours on the clock. I was slowing, but not terribly, and yet the familiar monologue was playing in my head that the checkpoint was not where it should have been, that we had run for longer than they told us. I was not the only one to feel this way. As I took a moment on the bench, runners around me were making their excuses. They had got lost (difficult, but not impossible), it was slippery (it was), they just weren’t as fit as they thought they were (touché).
By the time I got to the finish line at the curiously mis-named ‘Quality Hotel’, I had started to snarl slightly at not being able to get my legs moving quickly enough, and crossed the line, 94th, in 5:16:36. I was soaked, covered in mud and ready to go home.
I slept badly that night as my legs agitated under the duvet. And it didn’t help when the boy woke at 4am and I had to hobble to his cot to pick him up. But, it was such a thrill to be back racing again, to feel again that sense of adventure – cast out into the wild and completely free.
I was out again yesterday – just six miles – and it is good to know that all the moving parts are in working order. The rest of them are off to Grantham next weekend for a double-header. I would love to be there too, but they are on a different schedule and I have other priorities now, like changing nappies. Still, 4am at Big Ben, and a chance to see another side of London’s dark underbelly beckons.