10 October 2017 - By James Blackshaw
This weekend I took part in the Saltmarsh 75 two day ultra marathon, an event that is organised by Maldon District Council and would be celebrating its 5th incarnation. I’d previously taken part in a few ultras, with varying degrees of success, and seeing as this one finished only a mile from my doorstep it had quietly slipped onto my ‘do to’ list.
The organisation, checkpoints, and volunteers at the event were all fantastic. At the start of both days runners could put their own food and drinks into numbered boxes which would be shipped to the appropriate checkpoints for runners to access if they needed. This was not something I’ve seen before on an ultra, but I used it to my benefit, dispatching a 500ml bottle of Coke in to each of the boxes. Coke is a bit of an elixir of ultra running for me, and gives a pleasant break from the taste of electrolytes and water. Point to point races such as these (as opposed to a looped course) can often be a logistical nightmare for the participants, as it means leaving a car at one end of the course and trying to get back to it afterwards using either a cab or a favour from a friend, but MDC have this sorted; they have a group of volunteers available to drive you back to your car whenever you finish.
The race begins at Marsh Farm in South Woodham Ferrers and travels east, following the bank of the River Crouch for just under six miles until the first checkpoint in North Fambridge. The spirits were high amongst the runners during this first section, and we were all happily chatting to each other and also to the walkers that had started an hour before. I’m not sure if calling “nearly there!” to every walker I passed was annoying or not, but most of them seemed to take it in light heart. I was definitely going too fast at this point – averaging around 9 minutes per mile – and this pace would fall steadily as the race progressed, but at the time it felt easy and with very little resistance. After North Fambridge it’s an 8.7 mile section to Burnham On Crouch, and there was a fair tailwind blowing east along the Crouch helping us on our way. At the checkpoints you were scanned in by means of an electronic tag on your wrist, for reasons of timing and safety. Before the race I’d looked back at the few previous ultras I’d done, and noticed that I’d often spend a long time in checkpoints, and that it had affected my overall pace, so I was conscious of being as efficient in the checkpoints as possible on this race. My plan was to scan and go!
The next section from Burnham to Bradwell was known as the ‘long section’. It was just over thirteen miles on what is possibly the most barren & desolate landscape in the south east of England, and we were warned that, with no shelter available, if there was bad weather coming in from the channel then this section could break a runner. What we weren’t warned about was the mass swarms of flying ants that would be constantly hitting our left hand side, due to that easterly wind that had carried us so buoyantly along the River Crouch. The only respite on this section was about halfway through, in the form of a water stop which was organised by the Dengie 100 runners. Due to the nature of the of the coastline I could see the water stop from about five miles away, and thus I spent about an hour watching as this little gazebo in the distance gradually got bigger and bigger. Upon arriving at the water station, I observed that the Dengie volunteers were also completely covered in flies, but it didn’t seem to dampen their spirits, and soon I was off with both of my water bottles topped up. This section finally ended at the Othona religious community in Bradwell-On-Sea, a Christian retreat that was set-up around St Peter’s Chapel. The chapel was built in 660AD, and is the 19th oldest building in the country. Due to my love of old buildings, I even allowed myself to stop for a quick selfie with the chapel in the background.
Leaving Othona we turned west onto the Blackwater, and the wind that had pushed me along the Crouch and covered me in flies along the Channel was now coming right at me, getting right up in my grills. Fortunately the checkpoints would now come thick and fast, every 4 miles or so, which meant I could top up on fluids and Haribos to keep the energy levels up. I was approaching the 30 mile mark, and though I had predicted this would be the point where I’d need to start throwing the odd walk break in, I was surprised to find that I could still run, albeit slowly and very deliberately. I think this was due to the fact I was using a substance called Tailwind, which was a powdered nutrition that combined carbohydrates, electrolytes, and caffeine to mix into your water. I’d used Tailwind in training to ensure there were no stomachy side effects, but this was the first time I’d used it in an actual race, and I must say I’m very pleased with the results. At this point I was greeted with the wonderful sight of Bradwell Power Station. Comprising of two enormous white structures, the now defunct power station made for a huge monolith on the coastline, and, unbeknown to me at the time, for the remaining 45 miles of the race I would be unable to survey the landscape without Bradwell Power station creeping into the panorama like your weird uncle in wedding photos. I got lost coming out of the second from last checkpoint along with another runner (who would later go on to be the female winner) and we had to force our way through heavy marshland to try and get back on track, nearly succumbing to waist height ditch wading, before spotting some other runners who had found the correct route. I put this down mainly to being unable to properly follow the written race instruction due to tiredness; at 30 miles in I was finding it difficult to concentrate. Once back on the course, the other runner skittled off at a pace that I couldn’t keep up with. I was still running, and though my earlier pace had now slipped to just over 10 minute miles, I still felt fairly comfortable, and scuttled over the day 1 finish line in Steeple feeling much better than expected.
Included in the price of the race is a camping spot at the local pub, which about the half the runners seemed to be doing, but as I was relatively close to home, I plumped for a hot bath and the home comforts that only your own house can provide. And by home comforts, I mean pizza, and lots of it.
Day 2 began where Day 1 left off (funnily enough), and the first section involved some of the oddest sections of sea wall I’ve seen. The coastline was so winding that at some points you’d pass within 200m of another runner, but would not reach the point that they’d been at for another half a mile or so. My legs seemed to still be working, the slight niggle I’d felt overnight in my right Achilles was nowhere to be seen, and any minor aches were only to be expected after completing nearly 40 miles the day before, so I was feeling positive as I got to the first checkpoint in Mayland. I scanned and went.
Both the terrain and the coastline flattened out fairly nicely on the second section, and I was feeling good. The legs were working, the nutrition was working, and just before I came in to the second CP at Maldon I had overtaken the runner that came third last year. “Wow,” I thought “I’m doing quite well!”. In reality of course, I wasn’t doing anywhere near as well as I thought; I was simply going too quickly, and that runner I had overtaken was far more experienced, and was pacing his race correctly. Nonetheless, the Maldon CP was fantastic, my favourite checkpoint of the lot. It was great to see some friendly WRC faces, and Bob Gear was there topping my bottles up. I felt like a proper ultra runner! One of the only unnerving parts of the race was that at certain parts you’d be plodding along and feeling good about your performance, when another runner would literally sprint past you (with a Saltmarsh race number on their back), and you’d think WTF?! After a moment you’d remember that the event also included relay teams, and so the runner that just whizzed past you was completely fresh. I don’t mind admitting that I am chuffed with the fact that I was still ahead of some of the relay teams up to Maldon CP.
The next section was by far the most complex in terms of navigation, and I actually had to read and re-read the course instructions for most of the section, as opposed to just stuffing them in my pocket and hoping that “keep the water on my right” would get me through. Soon though, I was at Heybridge Basin, and this would be home territory for me. Since moving to the area just under a year ago I had done plenty of training from this point onwards, so I was very aware of what the rest of the course looked like, and how long I had to go. I’m still not sure if this a good thing or a bad thing!
Checkpoint 9 was stationed at Osea View leisure park, and I reached this CP in a fairly negative frame of mind. I’d done 16 miles today, 39 yesterday, surely that’s enough? I can stop now, right? With still over twenty miles to go, the enormity of the event had got to me a little bit, and with the legs starting to feel more and more tired, I’d started to do calculations in my head about how long this would take me if I had to walk the rest. My befuddled brain told me it would be about 7 hours. Bad times. I jogged the 2 miles to the next checkpoint at Goldhanger Sailing club, and grabbed my bottle of coke from the checkpoint bucket, scanned and carried on. As I opened the coke it fizzed all over my hands. I was tired, my legs hurt, and my hands were covered in brown sticky coke. I was not in a good way. From Osea to Tollesbury was the long section of day 2, and it was also the section I knew the best, but my experience of the course had no bearing, as runner after runner overtook me.
I eventually wound my way around to CP 11, which was at the Lofts Tea Room in Tollesbury. I refilled my water, refilled my tailwind, and took my last bottle of coke. I had 8.5 miles to go, but I was done. A friend had offered to cheer me in at the finish, and I sent him a message to say I was leaving the last CP, but I couldn’t be sure whether it would take an hour and a half or two hours. There was a couple of miles of easy trail, at which point I was still running, and then we were on to Old Hall Marshes. I’d ran around Old Hall plenty of times before, as it was close to home, and, with fresh legs, it was quite a good trail workout. However, with 70 miles in my legs, the wheels came off. It was another one of those sections where you could observe for miles how far you had to go, and I could see all the runners both behind and in front of me. My pace around this section slowed to around 12 and 13 minute miles, which, technically speaking, is barely running at all, and I was uttering all manner of expletives. However, after what seemed like an eternity, I found myself within sprinting distance of the finish line.
So that’s what I did, I sprinted. Or at least, it felt like sprinting at the time. After you’ve been running 13 minute miles for an hour, running 10 minute miles definitely feels liked sprinting! I crossed the line in 13 hours, 41 minutes, and 14 seconds, finishing in 11th place (if you don’t included the relay teams). Despite all my negative attitude in the last 10 miles of the day 2, both my finish time and position were far beyond what I thought was possible. I was well chuffed.
If you are considering an ultra race, the Saltmarsh 75 comes highly recommended. They offer day 1 and day 2 options if you don’t feel ready for the full distance, and both the organisation and camaraderie are both second to none. I’ll be back next year.