The Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 by Abi Cooke

(You might want to have a cup of tea and a snack while you read this!)

In February after going through a bit of a rough patch, my super runner Brother Paul, suggested we enter an ultra ‘to cheer you up’.  I think it says something about my state of mind at the time that this seemed like a brilliant idea. Since we entered in February the thought of running an ultra has been quite all consuming, it seems like the whole of this year has been focused on one day in August. Training has had to fit around lots of weddings, and many a Sunday has been completely wiped out by a long run and the recovery afterwards.

The weekend didn’t get off to a great start, the plan was that Paul and his wife Heather and I would all meet up in Salisbury, where we were booked to stay for Saturday and Sunday night. Paul and I were to run the ultra together, and Heather would be running her first marathon.  However, on Saturday morning I woke to find a text message from Paul, asking if we could cancel the adventure as he really wasn’t feeling well, and Heather had a niggle in her hip and had her doubts about running the marathon. A panicked phone call confirmed that they would definitely not be running on Sunday, and not going to Salisbury. This was quite a blow, and for a split second I considered not running either, but the thought of all the training and the good luck messages that had been rolling in soon put that thought out of my head.

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So on Sunday morning I was at Salisbury fire station waiting out the nervous hour before the kick-off. I had spent the morning applying compeed plasters to any part of my foot that had ever had a blister, and had gel toe caps on my pinky and big toes. We started running at 9.30, it was a strange start to a running ‘race’, I am used to the surge forwards when the gun goes off, so it was a new experience to start slowly jogging. The first few miles were along single track pathways and boards going through marshes, it was single file and very congested; if the person in front of you had to stop it would create a domino effect several people back. After a few miles it opened out into a field and I did some quick overtaking just to try and get myself in some space.

We passed through some lovely countryside and huge houses as we made our way towards Old Sarum. The sun was up and it was getting hot. I was surprised that even this early on (around 5 miles) a lot of people were walking the hills. I decided to keep running them, as I am much better if I can keep ticking over slowly rather than starting and stopping all the time. Around mile 7 we did a whole loop of the top of Old Sarum which provided a welcome breeze and lovely views of Salisbury.

For the next few miles I merrily trotted through the countryside, finding people to chat with and run next to for a little while before one of us would change pace and I would be on my own again. Around the 20 mile point I felt the first signs of tired legs, there was a very long slow pull up a lane with no shade and myself and three others walked the whole way up. I was also feeling a little disheartened as I thought we would be at Salisbury race course at mile 19 and I would see my Mum, but we were a mile over and I couldn’t see the race course yet. Amazing how these things will knock your morale!

Eventually we got to the top of the never-ending hill and there was a welcome drinks station and a lovely little section through an old yew tree wood.

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By now we were at Salisbury racecourse and seeing my Mum did perk up my spirits which were starting to wobble a bit, this was now mile 23.5 and I was getting very aware of the fact that 24 miles was the furthest I had ever run.

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The next section was through beautiful shaded woodlands, followed by long stretches through baking hot fields until we reached the main road.

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At around mile 25 I was aware that my right knee felt sore, and I started to get flashbacks to last year’s final fell run where I had to hobble the last few miles home in tears.  I stopped and did some stretching and to my relief when I started running again it felt better. Unfortunately, when I stopped running I must have stopped my Garmin, and didn’t notice for ages. Which doesn’t seem like a big deal, but when you are really counting down the miles it is so disheartening to not have an accurate idea of how much further you have left.

When my Garmin reached 26.2 I had a little celebrate as I’ve never actually run a marathon before! This gave me a little boost, as did seeing one woman cheering squad Polly Segar from Isle of Wight Road Runners, who I had seen at several points around the race (and I would see more of nearer the end) and made a huge effort to cheer me every time I ran past.

From mile 27 onwards it was a real struggle, my legs were the sorest I’d ever experienced and it took a lot of concentration to keep myself running, 4 miles has never felt so long. I found myself running with two chaps who were also doing the 50k (the marathon route and 50k overlap and I always seemed to be running with the marathon runners) and we ran as a little train to try and keep each other going, again this helped a lot. The last mile and a half take you through a very pretty old part of Salisbury, across the cathedral grounds and along the river to the finish line. The river section seemed to take forever, and the lack of ‘200m to go’ signs that I am used to was a little disheartening, but eventually we took a left turn and I could see the finish. As you all know, I normally try and go for a sprint finish, I think I managed to get my pace down to 8.30 min/miles for the last few metres and that was all I could muster! I had been feeling emotional from about mile 27, when it had got really tough, and as soon as I saw my Mum I had a big old cry!

In the end it took me 5:50, which is a little longer than I had hoped for, but actually I am just so glad to have got round in one piece, and now I have a time to beat next year! According to the results I was 35th woman, which I am slightly amazed by! Looking back on it today with stiff legs and sore feet, the first 18 miles were wonderful, but towards the end it was definitely the toughest I’ve ever experienced – even worse than the 24 mile hungover run! I would definitely do it again next year, and I am already thinking what my next ultra might be. Although it was tough, ultra’s definitely have a different vibe which I think almost make them more inclusive than other running events. Nobody bats an eyelid if you stop and walk or take your time at the checkpoint, everyone is really friendly and happy for you to run and chat with them, and it just doesn’t have the same frantic, competitive feel that shorter races have. So on that note, South Downs Way 50 anyone..?

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