I remembered the Dukeries race from last year, it had been my first race, my first ultra, and my first disappointment. I had done everything wrong; over trained for several months, under prepared, started with an injury and finished with a worse injury, which stopped me from running for weeks afterwards. Despite this, I did enjoy the 2016 event; beautiful course, friendly runners, excellent organisation by RD Ronnie Staton, and superb helpers and marshalls. I was to blame for the mess I made of my actual run.
But this year was very different. I was fit and rested rather than exhausted, well prepared and injury free. The Dukeries course is beautiful, based largely on a thirty mile loop that includes Sherwood Forest, Welbeck Estate and Clumber Park. From last autumn, I trained on the loop most weeks ( it forms a good part of the Robin Hood 100 course), and so I was very familiar with it. This was a real help, knowing where the harder stretches are, the exact location of Aid Stations and the likely effects of any wind or wild weather.
At the start area, there was a great atmosphere, as canicross runners and their dogs chatted and barked at each other, whilst other runners took advantage of the last few minutes to make adjustments and changes. Up the narrow lane we went, most runners in conversation, friends and helpers cheering and clapping. A friendly, relaxed start to a very enjoyable day.
The ground was nicely dry, so no mud or puddles or swamps to negotiate. My new road shoes (Karrimor, £20) had seen a few miles of road and trail, and looked as though they may survive this run and perhaps one or two more. In contrast, my Salomon XA Pro 3D Trail shoes (a lot more than £20), had recently expired after just a few short weeks of training in the forest. Uppers on both shoes torn and falling apart. Milletts customer services people were excellent, more than I can say about the shoes. I am still searching for affordable shoes that actually work and last more than three or four weeks. I’m not impressed by the pseudo techno babble descriptions of the shoes’ design and theoretical performance potential, will they actually do the job and last more than a handful of runs?
We were soon safely across the main road and into the forest. I did not know the course last year, and I remembered this first mile or two in the trees seeming to be slightly up hill and going on and on forever. This year I felt fine, keeping up with other runners without much effort, rather than sliding backwards in a breathless heap. This was my happy story for the first few miles. Aid Station 1 was reached at six miles, and we received a welcome fit for heroes. I have read many blogs where the writer regretted spending too much time at aid stations, so I was cheerful, grateful and polite, but took a drink and a nibble and got back to the job quickly. Merely knowing which way to exit the station made a difference, it affects how much control you seem to have over your race, how much confidence you dare have.
I was delighted to see the Major Oak (mile 10), having missed it last year, blinded as I was in a fog of pain. I remember the sorry looking, battered old tree from my childhood in the sixties. We would climb on and into the tree as we roamed the unspoilt forest, free of signs telling people what they cannot do, and where they cannot go. There were no constructed paths, hardly any fences, just worn grass and soil tracks that you needed to know in order to find your way.
Many visitors stayed quite close to the ice cream van and the AA box at Ollerton Corner, the place where my Dad was based in the early sixties, during his time as an AA patrol man. There was a miniature railway there, which would run on the occasional Sunday summer afternoon, to the delight of its passengers young and old.
Sixty years or more before those times, the late 1800s /early 1900s, my paternal Grandma was skipping through the forest with her brothers and sisters each day on their two mile journey to school in Edwinstowe. Her father was a woodsman, and they lived deep in the forest. When I run the trails in the late evenings, I sometimes catch a glimpse through the mist of them playing and running amongst the trees, on their way home from school. I hear their chatter amidst the sounds of the forest, and feel the warmth of their contentment with their long gone world.
After the ten mile loop through Sherwood, we return to the first Aid Station for quick drinks and a second dip into the biccies at mile sixteen, and a bonus “Well done” sticker (this was wonderful), then head towards Welbeck and Cresswell Crags. There are two or three miles of minor roads before the Crags and Aid Station 3, where I always run on the rough grass of the roadside. It is strewn with car debris, litter and rabbit holes. I find it hard work, but my idea is along the lines of “train hard,race easy”. After dozens of runs along the bumpy roadside, the smooth road felt very easy, and what was always a difficult section of the course was suddenly a delight. Spirits uplifted, I tackled the rise after High Holbeck (“rise” demoted from”hill” after my experiences in the Dales), without too much difficulty, and dropped down into the Crags and Aid Station 3 (23 miles). Another wonderful welcome, and then on towards Clumber.
The three mile stretch before Clumber is, I think, the fastest on the entire course. Largely on beautifully cushioned ground, the trail is straight and flat, and sheltered by the trees. My fastest and second fastest miles were recorded along this section on Saturday. But this is where I made a mistake. I felt good, was going well, and so I continued my push to the finish from here. But there were still thirteen miles to go, and inevitably, I eventually began to fade.
The final Aid Station was at 34 miles, another wonderful reception, and just six miles left, but I was struggling. I was trying to concentrate on good form, steady, continuous, consistent pace. I kept going, but it was difficult. I met up with Greg with two or three miles to go. We were both tired, and helped each other by chatting and encouraging, and we crossed the line together, both happy.
Happy to see the finish line.
My pre-race plan was to run steadily for thirty to thirty five miles, and then to use what energy I had left to cover the last few miles as quickly as possible. I did not want to go steady all the way, it would have been pointless entering the race. But equally, with a hundred mile race on the horizon, I did need to finish this forty mile run with some confidence. I went home quite happy, but slightly frustrated that I had increased speed too early, after being well controlled for so many miles before this point. Lesson learned, hopefully.
The day after the race, I received the results by email. Last year, (2016) my time was 8:44:01 (78th place, 92 starters). This year, I managed 6:49:08 (30th place, 111 starters).