Blackwater Ultramarathon Race Report
3 April 2019 - By Jason Lilley
On Sunday I ran the Blackwater Ultra Marathon, a new event hosted by Hare and Tortoise Running. This was a trail ultra from Chelmsford to Tollesbury, then back along the same route to the Heybridge Basin – with marathon and half marathon options also on offer.
Having just run the St Peters Way Ultra at the end of February, I wasn’t really looking for another event and stumbled upon the ad for the race quite by accident. It was advertised as 40 miles of completely flat trails, being run entirely alongside the river Chelmer and the Blackwater coast.
I was in two minds as to what to do. On one hand it wasn’t exactly sensible to run another ultra so soon after my first, particularly as I’d suffered with injury during my training. On the other hand, it was the most local ultra I was ever likely to find, it was flat and familiar and I knew I might struggle to run any of the bigger ones this year. So, with the aches and pains from my last ultra fading, but the buzz of doing it still fresh, I decided to enter.
I hashed together a rough training plan, but as the two races were only four weeks apart it was never going to be ideal. Things started reasonably well, but during a run two weeks before race day I started to notice the familiar burning shin pain that I had suffered with on and off for months. Figuring that I’d rather rest and make sure I was on the starting line, I hit the cross trainer at the gym as often as I could but didn’t run for the remaining two weeks.
As race day drew closer it felt like an age since I had been out for a run and I began to worry about my chances of finishing within the cut off time of 10 hours. My pace during my last ultra was not much quicker than this, and I felt less prepared this time around. In a cruel twist, a week before the race I had an email saying that the distance had increased to 42.5 miles due to circumstances beyond the control of the organisers*. The cut off remained the same. I was a bit worried by this but figured I could argue the toss on the day if I happened to finish outside the cut off.
When race day arrived I made my way to the Blackwater Sailing Club where the ultra finish line was located. I had paid for a shuttle bus to the start line in Chelmsford, which made the logistics very easy. Remembering the half mile hobble back to the car after St Peters Way, I was glad to see that my car was only about 100 yards from the finish line this time.
The shuttle took us to the start line outside the Essex Records Office in Chelmsford and I queued to register. It was fairly busy as people were queuing for all three race distances but the queue moved quickly and within ten minutes or so I was pinning on my race number and trying to keep warm. It was a cloudy and chilly morning, but good conditions for running. My main worry was that it was really windy, and we were heading straight to the coast where we’d be completely exposed.
A short while later we were off, with the ultra starting 30 minutes before the marathon and the half. Although it was sold out it was a small field with just 27 completing the longer distance. I settled in quickly with a group of three or four other runners doing about 11 min/miles. This was a shade faster than I’d intended but I felt good so I stayed with it. I was pleased to realise that my legs felt good and that I couldn’t feel my calf/shin pain.
The first third of the race was beside the River Chelmer. After a few miles I found myself next to a runner in a full Stormtrooper outfit. He had lost his Dad to cancer ten years ago and was running the ultra to raise money for a variety of charities that had helped him. We ran together for five miles or so, but he was attracting a lot of attention and people were regularly stopping him to see what he was doing, so I wished him luck and told him I was going to press on.
The route took us past Papermill lock and out towards Beeleigh Falls with aid stations roughly every five miles. I had gone straight past the first one as I didn’t need anything, but I stopped to top up fluids at the next. It was here that I felt soreness on the instep of my right foot. I stopped and found that I had a blister the size of a 5p coin. Fortunately I had a blister plaster with me so I quickly threw that on and kept going. I had never used one before so I was pessimistic about how effective it would be, but thankfully I would be proved completely wrong; by some miracle it stayed perfectly in place and the blister didn’t bother me for the rest of the race.
By this point, I was being overtaken by quite a few marathon and half marathon runners. This could be awkward at times because some of the paths alongside the river were narrow, but everybody was friendly and we mostly managed to keep out of each others’ ways. The navigation was proving to be very simple, but the organisers had put out signage for the few turns that were needed in order to stay beside the river. My pace had been good so far, and I was starting to hope that I might finish in less than nine hours.
As I came in towards the Blackwater Sailing Club I saw some half marathon finishers wearing medals and eating cake and was mildly dismayed to realise it would be approximately 28 miles before I could do the same thing. Physically, I was still feeling good so I decided to press on rather than stop. I headed away from the Basin on the sea wall and as I approached Osea Island, I got my first taste of the headwind I had been dreading.
I ploughed on with my head down and got to the aid station on the sea wall in Goldhanger. I knew my pace was dropping but my stomach had started to sour slightly and I had found myself having to walk more often to stop myself being sick. I started working out how much I had eaten and drank and couldn’t quite understand why it was happening, so I told myself it would pass and carried on.
The next part of the route was beautiful but awful at the same time. I was familiar with the route, but I hadn’t realised how tough it would be as part of an ultra. It was difficult enough to keep moving against the strong headwind, but the mental aspect of the route itself made things far harder. The coastline meanders in and out, so although you can see something that doesn’t look very far ahead of you, in actual fact, you might have to head inland for half a mile or so, and then back out before you get there. This would be the case with aid stations, the occasional other runner who I thought I was catching, and even the entire village of Tollesbury, which I was heading towards but was actually behind me at one stage.
It seemed like an age before I reached the turn around point and marathon finish line at Tollesbury, where I heard a couple of other ultra runners deciding to call it a day. I still felt queasy but was managing to hobble along, and I figured that the wind would be behind me on the way back to the sailing club, so I grabbed a handful of pretzels and set off again. One nice feature of having to double back along the same route was that now I could see that there were actually some people behind me, so I was able to offer a few words of support as we passed each other.
The next 14 miles were much the same as the last, but this time, with the wind behind me it wasn’t quite as frustrating. It is rare these days to feel truly alone on a run, but once I had passed all the marathon runners going in the opposite direction I didn’t see anybody apart from the crew at the very remote aid stations (and a lot of sheep) for about 10 miles. Unfortunately I was still feeling quite sick, and my quads were starting to stiffen up, so I was taking regular and long walking breaks at this point. This meant my pace had taken a nose dive, but the sun had come out and the view was spectacular, so I consoled myself with the fact that it looked like I was going to finish comfortably within the cut off and tried to enjoy the experience as best I could.
Before very long I was able to start counting down the miles in single figures, which perked me up, and when I reached the last aid station for a fluid top up, I realised I had less than five miles to go. At this point I saw another runner about half a mile behind me, so I jogged away from the aid station looking as strong as I could in the hopes of discouraging them from trying to catch me. It didn’t work and about two miles later I noticed they were still closing on me, so I tried to push as hard as I could for the last stretch. In hindsight, this was still ridiculously slow but it seemed to do the job, and I managed to stay ahead until at last I saw the Blackwater Sailing Club lurking in the distance.
As I approached the sailing club I saw my fan club waiting to cheer me over the line. I finished the 42.5 miles in 9:44:50, which put me in 16th place. There were 6 DNFs.
Adjusted for distance, my time was around a 30 minute improvement over my last ultra, so although it wasn’t as fast as I’d hoped, I was actually quite pleased, given my lack of proper training.
As tough as it was, it was an enjoyable race. I definitely found it harder than St Peters Way, but on a still day it would be a different story. The event itself was well organised, easy to navigate, had a cheerful crew throughout and an awesome medal and goody bag at the end.
Would I do it again? The answer is blowing in the wind.
* I would later find out that the amendment to the route was down to one or two of the venues pulling out (having not realised it was Mother’s Day when the arrangements were first made). I was frustrated when I first heard about this but, all things considered, the organisers did a great job in changing things around at the last minute.