How to Build Ultra Marathon Confidence (CTS Dover Ultra 2016)

Simon Scotting running CTS Dover Ultra 2016

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Coastal Trail Series (CTS) Dover Ultra Marathon 2016: this was my second ultra marathon race. Last month I ran my first ultra marathon in Dorset, also on the coast.

Last month in Dorset was tough. I knew it would be tough, but it was tougher than I expected. I could not believe the hills, the windy weather, and most unbelievable was the distance: 53km! I did not think I could run that far. Now I do.

This time I was feeling more confident as I arrived at the registration and found my race pack. I had been through this before. This time we were racing along the Dover coast. It was early January, so the sun was only just rising by 8am. Today was cold. It had been rainy a lot, and last night had been below freezing. I pulled on my rain jacket and an extra headband to stay warm as I watched the ferries arriving from France. My friend Christopher found me, it was great to see him again. We met at the CTS Dorset Ultra last month and we were looking forward to getting the CTS Dover Ultra started.

Start time is electric. So much emotion and energy ready to spring loose. Last time I let the atmosphere overwhelm me and I sprinted off the starting line to keep up with the other ego runners. That was a mistake. This time I took it easy, and let people pass me. I figured they would burn themselves out later in the race while I kept going. The first 30 minutes is really just a warm-up. I let my legs find a comfortable pace as my body temperature.

CTS Dover Ultra was mostly on trails, but there was some paved sections in the town to run through.

As the sun continued rising, I warmed-up and stripped off the rain jacket and headband. I was finding my rhythm.

The course included an extended run across a pebbly beach. This terrain is exhausting to run on. The pebbles steal your momentum and require constant focus to balance on the irregular surface. It was a relief to get back on the paved sections and have a snack.

Most of the course was along the coast, but some parts involved a inland detour.

At the first aid station, I grabbed some sugary snacks. This was a mistake. Sugar tastes great when you’re running, even more amazing than usual. Sugar is easy for the body to break-down into energy for the run, but it’s difficult to get off the sugar after you get started. You need to keep putting more sugar into the engine. Next time I would wait until the last quarter to reward myself with sugar.

I was finding my flow. By this point the race had spread out as runners found their pace, so I didn’t see many people on the course.

Most of the CTS Dover Ultra followed the coastal trail. Great views, but the sun was blinding in the low horizon.

My body heat was steaming up my sunglasses in the cold air. I had to take them off so I could see. Now I was squinting into the sun.

Last night was below freezing. This caused all the puddles to freeze. When the sun was out and the ice was melting. This meant there was plenty of icy, mud patches to slip on.

Slipping and falling during a race is physically painful. When you lose balance, It causes a brief panic and you tense all your muscles. Then you bounce off the ground. Then you feel sad. Your confidence takes a knock as you pick yourself up and start running again.

This course was nowhere near as hilly as the previous event in Dorset. I managed to run most of the uphill sections, and I loved the downhill parts. I’m heavy, so I let my weight work for me. Don’t fight gravity, just let yourself go. There’s a sense of panic as you are running faster than your legs can carry you, but it takes more energy to slow down. I try to lengthen my strides by letting my legs fly back. Eventually, every downhill section returns to flat and you resume your normal pace. Nothing is permanent, everything comes to an end.

I refilled my water reservoir at the next aid station. This is the main thing I have in my little running backpack. I added some concentrated electrolytes to the water to avoid cramping:

  • Sodium
  • Magnesium
  • Potassium
  • Calcium
  • Chloride

It was difficult to get the water reservoir back in the pack. Actually, it was a real pain, and cost me a few precious minutes. I needed to find a smoother procedure for the next time.

Reaching the halfway mark in an ultra marathon is always a low point. Despite the massive distance already covered, you realise you are only halfway and need to repeat the same distance just covered. It’s a mental dip where your confidence gets checked. This can be smoothed over by some great scenery, but unfortunately this part of the CTS Dover Ultra was just long straight run along a paved path. Not helpful.

Breaking an ultra-marathon down into sections is crucial to mentally process the distance. Most of the time, the idea of running the entire remaining distance would seem impossible. I had to break the course down into sections between the 5 aid stations, they were roughly 10km apart. Reaching this third aid station really lifted my spirits. And I had more sugar.

I fell a few more times during the race. It was rough. My joints and muscles were already sore from the running, each fall hurt more than the last. Sadly, my camera was not on during most of these slips and trips. Slippery mud is not fun. Eventually I was laughing at myself. Keeping a sense of humour during an ultra-marathon is important to not get derailed by problems and mistakes.

I reached the finish for the CTS Dover Marathon, but my run wasn’t over yet. It was very tempting to finish my race along with the marathon runner, but the CTS Dover Ultra had an extra loop. I pushed on.

This part of the race is physically hard. Legs are aching, body is sore, arms are tired, stomach wants real food, but mentally it was becoming easier. I had overcome the halfway dip, laughed my way over the slippery mud and I was so close to finishing what would be my longest run ever. My motivation to press on was unstoppable. I kept passing other runners, this fuelled my ego to finish strong.

Finally I could sense the end was near.

Almost there.

Almost there.

Almost there. Why were there so many gates? I really wanted to finish.

Finally I could see the finish and after one last slip across the finish line, my race was over! It felt strange to stop running, but the race really was over. CTS Dover Ultra was my longest run ever: 34.6 miles , my time was 6:58:06. My result was 22nd place out of 65 runners, only 47 managed to finish.

My mistakes included taking too much time at the aid stations to refill my water and slipping on the icy mud. When in doubt, walk through icy mud patches, it’s not worth the slip and fall.

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