So a couple of weeks ago I ran one of the most cold, brutal and fun ultras that I have ever run. The Millennium Way Ultra is organised by a little race company called Beyond Marathon, who I have never run with before, but who charge £25 for their races with literally no bells or whistles (or medals unless you pay for one). Total bargain, thinks I. Also, it’s in March, so the weather will probably be lovely and I’ve never been up that part of the country, thinks I. The race runs 41 miles from Newport in Staffordshire all the way down to Burton-on-Trent along the pretty much unmarked Millennium Way (we will come back to that in a moment). It’s flat, and a mixture of roads, villages, fields and canals. It sounds like the perfect training run, thinks I.
Fast forward to the day before the race, when once again the country goes into apocalyptic meltdown because there might be some snow or “the mini beast from the east” as nobody apart from the Daily Mail and dickheads are calling it. Just a thought people, while you’re all looking at the weather, Teresa May continues to fuck up the country. But I digress. Check emails, race not cancelled, so pack my bag and get on the train to Burton-on-Trent. Get to the hotel - race not cancelled, so get in bed with a pizza and do a sleep. Wake up at 5.30, race not cancelled but it is -2 outside, windy and fucking snow everywhere. I wonder if the race will be cancelled. Race is not cancelled.
My pal Pete picks me up from the hotel and we drive to the registration point where I get my number and tracker. It’s a bit quiet at registration. Everyone looks a bit like they’re expecting it to be shelved, and are sort of disappointed it’s not. Looking at the internet, every other race in country is cancelled. Apart from this one. Not cancelled.
Registration. A bit chilly.
So we jump on the bus to the start. Kit wise I have nailed it. I basically have most of the kit I wore in Mongolia on, minus the salopettes. The wind chill makes it feel like -8 outside. I am snug and smug. There is a lot of chat on the bus about the route, as this is self nav - something that I am terrible at. Pete has laminated and highlighted the route instructions. I have looked at them once online and then got bored. Oops. There is actually a really good vibe on the bus - its kind of exciting doing a long race when everyone else in the country is hiding under their duvets at home.
We get out of the bus and start the race in the glamorous surroundings of a Waitrose car park. I set off with Pete knowing I have about 2 minutes before he sprints off, all long legs and brilliant at running. I settle into a 9.30-10 min mile pace and bump into one of Pete’s friends, so start running with him. He’s a bit speedy but he loves a chat, so I decide to keep up with him so I have some company. The first 9 miles is down and old railway track so it’s flat and relatively boring. The snow and ice make it way more fun than it would otherwise be, and Andrew, who I am running with, keeps me chatting so I am actually having a nice time. The wind is heart stoppingly cold and is blowing towards us, but my kit feels right and I am actually having a nice time.
Death spikes are always fun.
First 9 miles basically look like this
The aid stations are pretty well stocked on this race and there are 3 of them. They have lots of crisps. I kind of breeze through the first one with Andrew, and keep the pace up until mile 21. We’ve been running along railway tracks and canals up until this point and the wind , ice and snow under foot has not made this easy, but I am wearing spikes so am relatively confident on my feet, but I am col. As we reach mile 21, I realise that I have been clocking 9.15 min miles - way to fast for me on a 41 mile ultra - and I need to slow down. I also need to put some more clothes on. This is the first time I have put clothes ON in an ultra. I put my North Face fleece on over the top of my merino base layer and compression top - I am now wearing 4 layers in the UK in March. Ridiculous.
There is a lot of this which is quite nice.
The next part of the route is 9 miles “across fields” that are not really marked. The conditions are fucking terrible. The fields are full of rivets, tyre marks, cow hoof prints, cow shit, ice and loads and loads of snow. I mean loads. At some points it’s knee deep. As your foot hits the surface of the field it smashes the ice leaving you ankle deep in mid and cow stuff. I’ve found a group of runners who appear to know where they are going, so I keep up with them at a much slower pace - it’s really hard to run across these fields, so it’s trotting and speedy walking so as not to break an ankle. I am laughing a lot at this point because the whole thing is so ridiculous. Running in these conditions really wears me out. So much concentration and watching your feet, whilst making sure that you are looking after yourself, eating, changing buffs as it’s so cold etc. In a way, this makes for a better race because you are so focused on this stuff you don’t realise the miles are ticking away quite easily.
You’re cold are you mates?
Welcome to the fields of hell
Yeah. That’s knee deep snow and an electric fence. The electric fence is on.
There are small, muddy hills and woods to scramble across and none of the terrain is less than ankle deep ice mud. It’s brilliant.
My new favourite type of mud. Ice cow shit mud. For 9 miles.
At about mile 35 we take a detour on the road until we come to the canal again - its straight on from here and I am on my own. Its pretty lonely and its getting dark - I am cold and tired and its one of those parts of a race where you basically questions your life choices for half an hour. Eventually I get to the marina and head back to the HQ - I finish in 8 hours 39 minutes, 22nd place and 5th woman. I’d had so much fun. This is what running is about - it’s about learning and experiencing things that you otherwise wouldn’t have. Who goes out and runs 41 miles in that weather?! Also look at this. This is an ice bush. Fucking epic.
I was also super impressed by the race company. Beyond Marathon are completely back to basics and this race was amazing. The RD was more than aware that some people wouldn’t want to drive to the race or might have to pull out early because of the cold, so he put in place plans that meant nobody felt pressured. Anyone that didn’t want to, or couldn’t, drive was automatically put forward for the Millenium Way Back in April - the same race but the other way round. Anyone that DNF’d due to cold was also added to the MWB. No fees, no transfer issues, just a really lovely gesture from a brilliant RD that meant nobody got stressed or upset about the conditions. The aid stations were great and the support staff were awesome too. Think I might give this another go next year.