- What? The Oner
- When? April 8th, 2017
- How far? 82 miles or 132 km
- Where? Jurassic Coast Path, Dorset
- Website: Brutal Events
- Strava activity: Strava
- Finish time: 23:32:59 (35th place )
Having finished the 46 mile (75 km) Brecon Beacons Ultra 2016 in just under 10 hours, I was feeling more confident with the step-up from marathon distance. My first attempt at ultra distances - a self-supported 60km run - still left me with painful memories of bleeding inner thighs and exhaustion for the final 10km. Lessons were learned, mitigations were deployed, and 46 miles through the Brecon Beacons was both successful and pretty fun.
TLDR: Eat more, drink more, use electrolytes and smother yourself in bodyglide.
Pain is quickly forgotten, and it wasn’t long before I dropped a somewhat (very) drunken text to my friend Sam inquiring if he would be interested in running two ultra races in 2017, the ONER being a qualifier for the other. Sam replied with maybe and I forwarded him my completed sign up email as encouragement. A few weeks later he came to his senses (got equally drunk) and signed-up for both runs too.
Fast forward a few months and it was time to put on our running shoes and trek out to my old rock climbing haunting ground, Swanage, and do battle with some slightly less vertical pitches.
After a hectic few weeks of work and an extremely spotty training schedule it dawned on Sam and I that we were perhaps out of our depth with the step-up in distance. It was nearly double the furthest distance we had done before and neither of us had ever run through the night.
After reading a large amount of race reports our concerns were confirmed; this was not going to be as easy as 26 back-to-back Park Runs. Our first attempt to come up with a game plan involved analyzing previous race results, theoretical run performance and elevation change. The result was the below monstrosity that only an accountant could love:
An Accountants Ultramarathon
After thinking outside of the cell we came up with a solution. Split the run into approximately three marathons:
- Bank some time in Marathon one as it is a bit flat
- Waste some time in Marathon 2 due to HQ/Food but catch it up with some nice flats
- Siege the hills and end with our well fought for banked time.
BAM! A 21 hour finish time.
The net result was the below race-plan completed the night before the run:
The Brutal team put together a very well oiled machine, kit-check, pre-race-brief and all that jazz that was as efficient and as painless as could be. A few nervous laughs and the 63 ONER runners and 6 Half-ONER runners crowded into provided mini-vans for the journey from Race-HQ/Half-way to the start. The long-drive ride was intimidating; nearly an hour drive to the start! In our bus it became very apparent that Sam and I were less experienced at 100km+ runs than our fellow passengers - joy.
Perhaps we should just go to the pub
Start to CP4 (0 to 47.8kms)
Race start was pushed back by 15mins due to a delayed mini-van, but before we knew it we were off.
Our strategy revolved around banking a bit of time in the first couple of marathons so we set off at a fair clip. The start was also a downhill section, so why not? As we hit the first proper hill we enjoyed a walk with views, and spirits were high.
First Hill & Beautiful Jurassic Coast
The rest of the first ~10k to CP1 was relatively uneventful and we made good time. After hitting the well-stocked aid station and grabbing some snacks we cracked on to tackle the next ~12kms. All of a sudden we ground to a halt. We had hit West Bay and the path was a tad unclear. Luckily a local runner picked us up and we were soon back on our way. This was an early reminder that navigation was important and keeping a bearing would save time in the future, not to mention this was supposed to be a simple section of the course.
Follow the road and then get back on track
Before and after CP2 there is a mixed pebble and sand section. The temptation is to run it, given the earliness in the race, but this is very challenging and tiring in this terrain. The harder you push the deeper you slide into the sand, so simpler to tread lightly and walk. We hadn’t really practiced running on this surface so found the technique a bit cumbersome. It was at this point that we ran with a few other runners through some hard packed sand and dirt. The other runners slowly pulled away looking super strong. It turned out that we had just been schooled by the eventual female winner, Raquel Alfonso and friends.
We gladly left the beach and started on a long section of gradual rolling hills and flat sections, a welcome respite from the sand. Unfortunately at the same time the sun finally took its toll. After stomping up a grassy hill we hit 2nd gear to make up some time on flats. Almost immediately I felt a searing pain in my right quad muscle and I was stopped dead in my tracks. Walking - let alone running - was impossible. I thought that this was the end of my run, only 30km in. We both stopped and I massaged the muscle for a couple minutes whilst we were passed by a few other runners. I downed a GU gel and decided to slowly walk. The pain slowly diminished but I decided to give it another couple minutes. I stopped again and drank a sip of water. A few minutes later we started again, the pain was manageable and we decided to push on. After a little while the pain faded away and we just had to contend with the sun.
Note to self: get a running hat
At this point we slowed the pace a little as we were both suffering a little bit from the sun and the earlier pace. We decided to stick religiously to our planned pace, which was give-or-take on target. A few people overtook us at this point but we stuck to our game plan, we also had a sprightly conversation with Victoria Miller before she pulled away to finish as second female.
We uneventfully pushed through CP3 and looked forward to finishing the first marathon. There was a good amount of shade and a slight breeze which aided our running and we caught up with a few runners at the marathon pit stop. The course medic warned the group about the dangers of not consuming enough salt and too much water. A few moments later we pushed on to cross the land bridge between Weymouth and Portland, and hit CP4.
Side note: before the run Sam and I had discussed aid station strategy. I am very pro the briefest of stops and avoid the temptation to linger. Sam preferred a slightly more measured approach. With 11 aid stations, 3min stops equate to over half an hour. In the end we came to some middle ground which worked well. We were also careful not to forgo water in this heat.
CP4 to CP6 (47.8 to 57.2km)
After a light bite of pasta and some flapjacks we hit the trail to do the island loop. The race stewards indicated we could get around in daylight/dusk and as it was a lot cooler we decided to see what we could do. Not 10 minutes out of HQ Sam dropped a bombshell. He would most likely drop out at CP6, he’d been feeling sick for the past 10-15km and he didn’t think he’d be able to finish. I just told him to see how he felt and make up his mind when we get back to CP6 (Note from Sam: what Ian actually said was “Hahahah no expletive way are you dropping out”, end of discussion). After another 10 minutes Sam dropped off to visit Mother Nature, I pressed on and he caught up with me a few minutes later. He mentioned he had a little vomit and felt a bit better - too much sugar and other junk. From that point forward Sam switched to water, he wasn’t used to running with electrolytes. We hit CP5, grabbed a cheese and pickle sandwich (delicious) and he started to feel better.
Now that we had got over that little challenge we decided to crank the pace up a bit. We really hit our stride and caught up with one of the runners we raced with before the end of the first marathon, Jeff. We decided to run together for a little bit and Jeff was telling us this was his second ONER attempt having been timed out at CP8 last year. Midnight would also mark his birthday! As we ran past a few crags I had climbed in the past I mentioned the routes I did, we were really hitting our stride and making fantastic progress. We had slipped 15 minutes behind our original check point target, but we were catching up rapidly.
As we admired the high cliffs on our left we began to look for the sharp left turn that cuts back past the old prison and back into town. At this point I will mention we were using a mobile phone with the ONER GPX path loaded up. A mixture of GPS and the path allowed us to pretty much stay on track, but we also had the oner maps and a compass for emergencies. We hit the location of the turn, according to the GPS, but no turn was in sight. We ran on for a bit, thinking the GPS might be inaccurate, but no obvious turn materialised. We must have missed the left turning, but where was it? All we had seen for the last km or so was high cliffs. We started making our way back to the left turn and we collected 3 other lost runners. Though using GPS and the GPX file to navigate we hadn’t bothered downloading the actual terrain or satellite maps. In a moment of clarity (we were about 8 hours into this thing), I flipped the phone to satellite mode. Everything became clear. The path we had been running along had been wrong for over a km, the correct path was atop the cliffs! The line from the GPX file was not fine enough as to distinguish the 15m difference in paths which effectively ran side-by-side. Two of the other runners made an attempt to scale the bush and find a direct path up the cliff but this didn’t feel right. Tracing back a km or so, right next to the crags I had climbed, was the proper route up to the top. A snap decision was made - we would run the km or so back. I was very annoyed with myself for this massive diversion and waste of energy. We were now having to wear head torches and some of our enthusiasm had been dashed. The rest of this leg back to HQ was uneventful, we made one other error - not stopping at a chippy to pick up a burger or pizza - but we got back to HQ well within cut-off.
Over 40 minutes and an extra 2.2km had been run. Things were going to get tight. The only good news was Sam was feeling good. A quick pit stop, some soup, a change of shoes, 20mins or so and we were back on the road!
CP6 to CP7 (57.2 to 77km)
The next section was a pretty long 18km. I feel like this section is designed for a few reasons:
- Allow runners to bank some time before the hills. It’s pretty flat
- Weed out those who would not make the night (it was already dark when we left CP6)
- Get through the city as quickly as possible
It was interesting to see some native English wildlife, the clubs and bars were busy but other than not super interesting. So far we had been using our running watch to do a total aggregate time and distance for the run and then work out our progress on each check point relative to the start of that check point. This started to break down for two reasons. The first is that the distances were all amuck with minor detours here and there and as such the course distance and the run distance were not quite the same. Secondly we were getting tired and calculating distances and average speeds became too much effort. This came to a head as CP7 took forever to arrive. From this point on we reset the watch between check points, allowing us to easily monitor our pace against our plan and the distances too.
CP7 to CP9 (77 to 98.2km)
It’s 30 minutes past midnight and little do we know it, but the race is just about to begin. The following two checkpoints melded into a long arduous siege against mother nature. The rolling hills were too steep to run up and were too dangerous and steep to attempt to run down. This meant picking our way carefully up and down each unrelenting hill. As soon as we hit a flat we would hit the gas and start jogging, but as soon as you got going you hit another steep section. Highlights of this section included:
- Stopping at Durdle Door, turning our lights off and enjoying the epic view provided by the moon
- Hitting a long windy downhill and racing two other runners for ages
It was whilst racing the other two runners that we made a minor error and ran about 100m in the wrong direction. Running back and seeing them far-off in the distance (400m now) was quite disheartening. Due to tiredness of both parties Sam lost a little faith in my route finding skills so I made an extra effort to not error on the next up-and-down section. We were only a couple of km from the next aid station and not feeling too terrible. Whilst concentrating on the map I managed to put my left leg into a hole and twisted my ankle, ouch! Sam asked if I was okay, I replied; “I’m fine, this hill is not going to walk itself”. I worried that I wouldn’t be able to keep the pace up to meet the various CP cut-offs. As we neared the checkpoint I decided to keep this to myself and just see what happens.
As we pulled up to the check-point, we saw two other runners.
CP9 to CP10 (98.2 to 107.9kms)
The first thing that happened when we pulled up to the checkpoint was that my left ankle clicked back in position. Pain instantly gone, absolute relief.
The second thing was that we had a quick chat with the other two runners we had been leapfrogging for the last 2 checkpoints. The first was sitting on a chair at the checkpoint and looked like he wasn’t having a great time. The checkpoint stewards were giving him a little pep talk, though we didn’t catch the exchange. After chatting with the second runner about our little misadventure and him mentioning that he had run the course before, we decided to join up and run together. We were assured that the final two checkpoints and finish were flatter. In retrospect, less hilly may have been the right term, it was by no means flat.
The four of us set off on a mission to finish this thing. We hadn’t come this far to not finish. The second runner, who introduced himself as Rory, warned us that there was a painful steep staircase straight off the bat. The first runner, Dave, kept mum and had his poles at the ready. We started up the stairs, each runner battling his own demons to make the climb. Dave was battling and his legs did not want to ascend the hills. After we reached the top of the staircase we looked back and Dave was no longer in view. Rory shouted down the hill but we heard no reply. We decided to press on. Sadly our expectation was that Dave’s race was over, the cut-off times were now quite tight and would require a massive mental commitment to finish. We all hoped that we would see him at the finish, but acknowledged this was highly unlikely.
We had never met Rory before but he regaled us with his previous ONER attempt where a mistimed snooze cost him the finish, a reminder of how keeping up a good consistent time was imperative. The three of us worked like a machine pushing through the check-point. Rory had a slightly different running style to Sam and I but we made it work for 90% of the CP, he pulled away towards the end as we couldn’t quite keep up, but met him again at CP10 for a bite to eat.
The ONER always has something up it’s sleeve and is quite relentless with giving and then taking away. For example, we had got used to each check-point being about 12kms, after Rory pulled away we checked our time sheet and discovered this checkpoint to only be 9.6km long! We were only 500m away, the lighthouse! A few minutes later, after turning a corner, we found that between us and the end was a massive descent and then a painful staircase. A minute’s silence and we begrudgingly made our way down-and-up.
CP10 to Finish (107.9 to 131.9km)
As we pulled away from the second to last check-point we started making a few calculations about getting to the end. After our detour earlier in the race, and the hills being a touch tougher than expected, our 21 hour time was blown. We had some confidence in finishing, but wanted a good buffer for the last check-point. We felt like we had pulled some time back from CP9 → CP10 but still needed a bit more time.
What followed was some of the most intense mental control where we pushed harder than ever before to crush this 11.1km section. We managed to catch-up and overtake around 10 runners and really upped the ante to make sure we would finish. The net result was hitting CP11 with over a 2.5 hour buffer to do 12.6km. After running for 21 hours non-stop, this seemed like enough to bring this home.
The last part of the run was a mix of strolling, running, and avoiding naked men on the beach. Given we had given ourselves around a 50% chance of finishing we were pretty chuffed. Running the bridge with everyone clapping and being handed the ONER medal a large relief swept over me.
Yay, medals! No, I am not that short :)