As is the way of running since 2020 this was a rescheduled event. I’d entered it in 2020 when it was due to take place in October. At the time of booking we were out of lockdowns, and the government were even paying some of your dinner tab to encourage you to go out and frequent restaurants, ignoring that this was slightly at odds with their drive to improve the nation’s health in the wake of a worldwide pandemic. This paradoxical approach is what happens when you elect Mr Bean and his house elf as leaders I guess. At any rate we went into lockdown 3 or 4 (who keeps count?) and it was moved to October 2021. Then London Marathon rescheduled and stole the date so Paul at Big Bear had to re-arrange again for September 2021.
The good news was it avoided the clash so I could run both (my London Marathon 2020 race having moved from April 2020, October 2020, April 2021, and finally October 2021) the bad news was it was 2 weeks before and I was poorly trained. I’d managed to finish Wendover Woods 100 miler in July but since then training had been a little erratic due to work, holiday and a three week stint of flu followed by sinus infection where I mostly stumbled between bed and office, didn’t eat for a week and barely managed to climb the stairs. Were it not for umpteen negative tests I would have sworn I had Covid. I’d managed a 20 mile race at MK Festival of Running two weeks before the Big Bear Ultra but that had done more to remind me how unfit I was than anything else. When you’ve run multiple hundred milers and 100+ marathons then struggling to finish 20 miles is a nice reminder of how far you’ve slipped.
As expected from Big Bear the pre-race communication was excellent and I arrived in Rugby knowing where to park (£2 for the day), how to get to the start, with the GPX route on my watch and directions to the start venue at the church about 800m from the car park. Being a short walk from the station it’s also one of the few events in the UK you can get to by public transport. Registration all went well. The race had mandatory kit list but given it was relatively short ultra (39ish miles) and in Summer on decent routes it wasn’t anything excessive like Lakeland 100. A nice touch was Awesome Coffee van parked up so I could get a pre-race coffee and brownie having forgotten to stop for breakfast on the way (like a pro).
After a pre-race briefing we ambled down to the railway cutting where the race started. The route is an out and back with railway cutting for the first few miles and wide enough for people to get into position and then a mixture of country roads, reservoir and footpaths until you hit the Grand Union Canal for the final out section then turn around and work your way back. It had been dry most of the proceeding few weeks and I stuck with road shoes. There were only a couple of sections where it was muddy and unless in future years it’s a proper washout I would definitely lean towards a road shoe as so much is tarmac or hardpacked/surfaced footpath.
The advantage of an out and back is you learn the route (it’s well marked) and can mentally count it back on the return (couple more miles of canal, then that road bit, then the aid station etc) and you get to see all the other runners whether they’re faster or slower than you and can cheer each other on. In my case I knew I was in shape for around a 4hr marathon and then a sucky half marathon to finish so the out leg was relatively fun and by the time I started to fall apart I was already ¼ of the way home on the return leg.
There’s no real elevation on the route, just a couple of uphills to aid stations and up from the railway cutting so it can be a very fast event if you’re capable. The winner was 4h31 and passed me on his return leg when I was at around 18 miles, with him on closer to 22 miles.
The weather started with a drizzle but not enough to bother with a raincoat (need one in pack as mandatory kit) and by about 11am had changed to a warm Autumn day. The aid stations are plentiful and three are in pubs so have proper toilets if you need them. I reached the turnaround aid station really fancying a beer but sadly the pub didn’t serve alcohol until 12 so had to head out on the return leg without. I hit the Two Boats pub at around marathon distance just over 4hrs and most importantly they were serving. This is also the pub I stopped at on the Grand Union Canal Race so it seemed fitting to stop and enjoy a cold beer in the sun with Redway Runner clubmate Jim on volunteer duties for company.
Beer done it was just a case of keeping momentum going on the return except for stopping to pet a particularly cute dog along the canal. The lack of training really showed as I was reduced at times to that awkward shuffle normally reserved for the final stages of a 100 miler. My race goal had been somewhere around 6h45 and I finally crossed the finish in 6h46, 23rd of 89 finishers with sadly a few DNFs including Si who I’d first met at Transgrancaria a few years ago. I’m hoping I’m not his bad luck charm. Broadly I’d run a 4h10 marathon, and after a pint and a chat a half marathon of about 2h30 so quite a lot of fade.
Would I recommend it?
Definitely. This would be ideal for a first ultra due to the out and back nature (course familiarity, no need to get a coach back to start etc) and the length at 39 miles is a sufficient jump from marathon to feel challenging without being as daunting as a 50 miler. This also isn’t the sort of event where the sadistic Race Director sends you up and down a massive hill to try and break you. Best of all is no awkward stiles to clamber over. It sounds minor but in the later stages of an ultra when you’re desperate to maintain pace having to negotiate a stile with legs that refuse to bend is demoralising and makes you question your poor life choices.
For the more experienced runners it’s either an ideal training event to test gear, nutrition and pacing or to go for a hard effort on a fast course.