An Absolute Beginner's First Ultra-Marathon

My husband did something mad. Something that you wouldn't catch me doing in a million years. Probably best he tells you about here goes!


It’s a Saturday in May, 9.45am. I’m 3 miles into a 31 mile run, but have already had to slow to a walk on a very steep trail through the woods. My calf muscles are burning, my pulse is racing, and I’m seriously questioning my life choices. A couple of people run past me as I text my wife about the mountain I’m struggling up.

I only started running 2 years ago - initially to keep up with my children as they grow up. My first "run" back then was a 2k junior parkrun with a 4 year old. Then with the encouragement of my running club and large dose of Covid-lockdown-induced cabin fever, I'd progressed from 5k to 10k to half-marathon to the virtual London Marathon last year. And now this.

XNRG had been recommended to me by a few of the running club who’ve been doing ultras for years, and XNRG themselves really push a “first timers / run-walkers / just walkers” inclusivity at their events. That’s equally true after each event - the final finishers get at least as big a fanfare on XNRG’s social media channels as the winners.

So I signed up for the “Devil’s Lite” - a 50km out and back route along a stretch of the South Downs Way. I'd done a decent amount of training since the start of the year - several 20+ mile runs, back to back half marathons and the Goggins 4x4x48 challenge, so was reasonably fit. I’d sorted my clothing and footwear (Adidas Terrex Agravic Flow plus Rockay Accelerate socks, for those interested) and somehow packed most of the contents of a Sainsbury’s Local into my hydration vest. I’d watched the online race briefing, and rocked up at the start line full of anticipation rather than the agitation and adrenaline I feel waiting around for a 10k to begin. I went to the toilet, picked up my timing chip and went to the toilet again (can't be too careful). Then it was Go time.

Back to my mountain, which mericfully levelled off before too long (at a dizzying 200m), and I was delighted at the chance to run along the relatively flat Ridgeway! I was joined by Mike - a stranger who, having caught me up, then stuck with me through most of the remainder of the race. We ran at similar speeds, we talked similar nonsense, and most importantly had the same approach to hills - walk up, run down. Easy system to remember.

The aid station appeared quickly at ¼ distance. It was well stocked - bananas, malt loaf, Haribo, cereal bars, and plenty of water. The previous day spent packing and re-packing food into every available space in my hydration pack had been wasted - there was more than enough at the aid stations, and several of the more experienced runners were carrying little but water.

A couple of people had sustained injuries on the first leg, and were being looked after by the marshalls. Fortunately Mike and I were injury-free, and after grabbing some bits of banana and refilling bottles, we were off again.

At this point it started getting hot. We’re talking low 20’s rather than surface of the sun, but it was one of the first hot days of the year and was definitely unwelcome. I had a hat, a buff and suncream so was prepared to some extent, but having not run much in temperatures over 10-12 degrees since last summer it was taking some getting used to.

Between the aid station and the turnaround point, we started seeing runners heading back past us. All very friendly, even those pushing for age or gender category wins. The marshalls and other competitors really made the event for me. I know not everyone is a fan of ‘staggered starts’ because it's difficult to know how you're doing and who you're racing, but as someone aiming only to finish I loved it - passing people (and people passing you) throughout the day, every one with at least a couple of words of encouragement. Even those not involved in the event were keen to chat and find out why there were so many people wearing race numbers.

Turnaround was reached with little incident, other than that it was at the foot of another 100m descent. Seriously, people - couldn’t you have just set up in the car park at the top instead?! Bit of variety on offer here - Coke, juice, oranges, different types of food. We had a more leisurely 20 minute stop here to eat and re-stock again, then made use of the facilities and headed back the way we’d just come.

I’d expected the first half to be relatively easy, and it was - I run 15-16 miles on a Sunday most weeks, so it was basically a training run to that point. Beyond that definitely wasn’t.

A couple of miles into the return journey I started to feel sick. Not “stop running immediately” sick, but “are you sure you want to jiggle your stomach around quite so much” sick. We kept going, although the route seemed to have a lot more uphills than downhills by this stage. We started seeing other competitors struggling and made sure they were ok - a man lying down in a layby to cool down, and someone else waiting by the side of a quiet road for his taxi having tweaked his knee. Lots of the other runners had evidently checked on them too - a couple of women were updating the marshalls when we rolled into the final aid station at ¾ distance.

It was at this point that I’d had enough. About 23 miles in, and if someone had offered me the chance to move permanently into the aid station I’d likely have taken it. Sure, I’d have missed my wife and kids a bit, but they could have come to visit sometimes - I’d have shared the bananas and Haribo with them.

Setting off from that final aid station felt like a big deal. It was part “what am I doing”, and part “I’m definitely going to finish this race, no matter how long it takes”.

We had a drop down into a river valley, again mostly running, but the climb back up exhausted me completely. I'd been eating and drinking enough, my feet were blister-free but I couldn’t run any more. I was talking a lot less, despite Mike’s best efforts to stop me from focusing on my imminent painful death. I felt very sick, and very hot, and my fingers had swelled up, which was a new experience! I was far from the only one - a lot of the ‘run-walkers’ had become full time walkers by that stage. I encouraged Mike to head off on his own, and after some cajoling he did.

Eventually, after walking for virtually all of the last 5 miles, I came down off the Ridgeway for the final time. I even managed a bit of a jog once the finish line was close! Crossed the line, stopped my watch (important stuff first) and collected my medal, and was flattered to see Mike had hung around to applaud me home.

I felt a strange mix of emotions when finishing - pride at having done so, relief at being able to lie down, and disappointment at doing the last few miles so slowly when I knew I could have run it faster.

So what did I learn from the event? Possibly most importantly, Dr Google thinks that my difficulties were due to sweating out more salt than I was replacing with food and electrolytes, so I will definitely address that next time.

I learnt that I was carrying far too much food and that the aid stations at XNRG events are more than adequate. 

I learnt that my shoe and sock combo was perfect, and have had to fight the urge to buy dozens of identical pairs of both since finishing. 

Having spent much of the last 15 months locked down with only my immediate family for company, I was reminded that most people are awesome. The other competitors, marshalls and even most normal, non-running people are friendly, encouraging, and supportive.

I learnt that my wife's insistence that I check into a nearby Premier Inn rather than drive all the way home afterwards was the right thing to do, and I spent that evening napping, eating junkfood, rehydrating, and drinking horrible warm Guinness that had been sitting in the boot of my car all day.

And I learnt that, having spent far too much of the last decade wallowing in a me-shaped indentation on the sofa, I can finish an ultra-marathon! 

A lot of friends, family and colleagues have congratulated me since finishing the race. Their reaction is generally that I've done something remarkable, but it's only remarkable because not many people try to do it. More people could do it, and I’d love to think that I’d inspired one of them (or a complete stranger reading a blog) to do similar.

As I neared the end of the race, one of my overwhelming feelings was that of regret at having already paid for entry into my second ultra, just a few weeks later. At that stage I couldn't imagine anything worse, but now I can’t wait. I’ve set myself a time to beat - the 7hr 11mins that it took me to complete the Devil’s Lite. I've done a lot more running in the heat during the past couple of weeks. I’ll be using salt tablets to hopefully combat the nausea, awfulness and sausage fingers, and I’m hoping to feel nothing but pride, tiredness and a huge sense of achievement afterwards.

My initial sense of disappointment has subsided, by the way, a couple of weeks on. It was a great experience and an absolutely beautiful route. My Devil's Lite medal, while not being particularly shiny or heavy or exciting, hasn't yet been hung up with the various others I've earned over the past couple of years. It's on my desk instead, and I still find myself absent-mindedly admiring it during tedious phone calls.

Strava link is here, for anyone that made it this far and somehow still wants more detail on my race!

Special thanks to Mike, who was definitely a real person and not a figment of my imagination brought on by exhaustion or heatstroke, for making the easy bits fun and the tough bits pass much quicker.

XNRG – I’ll see you at the Chiltern Challenge in July! Anyone joining me?