Accidental Ultra Marathon Fail (CTS Exmoor Ultra* 2016)

Did I run the CTS Exmoor Ultra Plus or the CTS Exmoor Ultra*?

Another month, another ultra marathon.

(Click here to watch the video)

This time I was traveling to… wait, where was I traveling to?

Ah yes, Exmoor National Park. I had to look it up on a map, here it is.

To get there, I needed a fast train from London Paddington out to the West Country. At Exeter, I transferred to the Tarka branch line.

It was more like a bus modified to run on rails, the conductor asked people to shout out when they needed to get off. If no one needed to get on or off, the train didn’t stop at the station.

The scenery was beautiful as we approached the end of the line. The train emptied out at Barnstaple, the closest train station to Exmoor National Park. A taxi took me the final distance to the pub I was staying at the night before. My pre-race strategy of having an early dinner and then 9-10 hours of sleep worked well in Sussex, so I did it again in Exmoor.

The next morning I felt good and my legs were fresh. My friend and fellow runner, Brian Williams, gave me a ride to the start.

The Coastal Trail Series events usually have 4 race distances: a 10k, Half Marathon, Marathon, and Ultra Marathon. I usually did the Ultra Marathon distance, which consisted of running the Marathon loop, then the 10k loop.

The CTS Exmoor event offered a 5th race distance called the Ultra Marathon Plus. Of course I had to sign up for this one.

The Ultra Marathon Plus course consisted of 3 loops: a full marathon loop, then the half marathon loop, and finally the 10k loop.

The total distance was about 72km or 45 miles. If I finished, it would be my longest run ever.

I found my friend Christopher Hill before the start. We were both running the Ultra Plus distance today.

It was the first week of April, but still chilly in Exmoor.

The course slammed downhill from the beginning, this was different than the hill climbs usually at the start of these races. I let myself go with the gravity. Running downhill was fun, but the further down we went, the more I dreaded the inevitable climb back up.

Exmoor National Park is stunning, and it’s the least visited national park in Britain.

Christopher was catching up to me, it was good to have some rivalry on the race.

A few weeks ago I had pushed myself hard at the CTS Sussex Ultra, but I still felt like I had some unused energy left.

This time I wanted to push myself closer to the edge.

Maybe it was my ego trying to keep up with Christopher’s athleticism, but I was letting my heart rate get too high. Higher heart rates meant my body would have to rely more on stored glucose for energy instead of metabolising my fat reserves.

Running on glucose was fine for a while, but the human body can only stores about 2,000 calories of glucose.

I usually burn more than 1,000 calories per hour running, and even more calories on hilly trails.

I was expecting to run for 9 or 10 hours, so I would burn more than 10,000 calories on the Ultra Plus course.

There was no way I could finish this race on glucose alone.

I could eat sugar and carbohydrates for a quick glucose boost, like what was available at the aid stations, but I needed to keep my heart rate lower to metabolise fat.

Exmoor was an extremely hilly course, and letting my heart rate go too high, too long, and for too often was a very bad decision.

I was kinda feeling the pain, but my pain tolerance is high and long distance running encourages the body to produce endorphins which feel good.

Glucose depletion doesn’t just affect the body, it also affects the mind.

The brain makes up 2% of the body’s mass, but consumes 25% of our calories.

Lack of glucose leads to bad decisions. During an ultra marathon, bad decisions reduce your confidence.

You don’t realise you’re making bad decisions, because you don’t realise your brain is glucose deficient.

There’s no glucose monitor connected to my GPS watch. It’s like a temporary senile mental state.

Wow! Look at the pretty views. Wait… where was I? Oh yeah, being senile.

There were a few clues I should have picked up, but of course my brain was struggling to get enough glucose.

Most obviously, I made some wrong turns on the course and not just once. This happened a few times, but each time I was lucky enough to notice (or another runner noticed and shouted at me).

I was already eating sugary snacks because I felt like I needed a boost.

This was not a good idea so early in the race. Then I hit a wall. My legs locked-up and I couldn’t move.

The pain was agonising, like knives in both my inner thighs. I tried to meditate on the pain and breath into it.

Running made the uncontrollable cramps come back, so I had to walk.

I was worried about not being able to finish.

I reached the end of the marathon loop and found my drop bag in the tent. Should I drop out? Should I keep going?

I switched some gear in my running pack, but I had serious self-doubts about being able to complete the half-marathon loop of the course.

I had a few swigs of Coca-cola to see if that would help. The magic mix of refined sugar and caffeine brightened my mood and I felt amazing again.

The half-marathon loop followed some of the marathon loop I did before, but the markers clearly indicated where the shorter loop separated… Or were they?

I was feeling really good. My confidence had bounced back. And the sun was finally out!

I took it easy and walked the hill which caused the cramping on the last loop. No cramping this time, but it was close.

Coming round this part again, I was amazed how I almost let negative thoughts overwhelm me.

I had almost dropped out! Despite my positivity, I realised my distance was too short to almost be done with the half-marathon loop.

As I paused to stretch-out more cramps near the end of this loop, I realised I was still missing 10km. What happened?

When I saw the finish, I figured out what happened.

I must have missed a turn on the half-marathon loop and actually completed the 10km loop instead.

My race receipt confirmed this.

The wrong turn caused me to reach a checkpoint out of order, so even if I headed back out on the course to do the half marathon loop I would still have the same result:


My result was a DNF: Did Not Finish. However, since I had completed the marathon and 10km loop, technically I had finished the Ultra course. I finished the CTS Exmoor Ultra*

If I had been entered in the Ultra race category, I would have finished 14th! However, because I was entered in the Ultra Plus race category I DNF’d.

How dumb was that? I let my heart rate go too high, burned too much glucose too soon, which caused impaired cognitive abilities to emanate in missing course marking and finally (show race receipt) resulted in a big, fat DNF.

I overcame the physical cramping and negative thoughts, but bad decisions about pace meant I had failed.

I accidentally ran an ultra marathon of 53km but on the wrong course.

The next day, I had a long train ride back to London. I ruminated on this frustrating result, which was ultimately a hard lesson about why pacing is important.

I tried to stay positive because I did run such a long distance in such a beautiful place.

Failure comes in different forms, but we learn more from mistakes than we do from success.

I guess my mental abilities were still impaired from yesterday, because I forgot to give back my room key. Oops.