Running an ultramarathon while on antibiotics for a bacterial chest infection, and after not having run once for the past four weeks, is what some might call folly. If you ask me, however, ‘folly’ is just the word ‘brave’ with all the letters swapped. Some misfortunate readers may recall my semi-coherent ramblings (pun intended) through the Frog Graham run-swim challenge back in 2020 (https://tri-anglia.club/event-reports/frog-graham-round-report/), and I wish I could say that this race report will be any more concise or informative: frankly, however, the outlook isn’t great.
Back in January I had an operation on my foot (fine, technically it was my toe but foot sounds more impressive) and, as a result, I was unable to do any exercise whatsoever until the start of March. In the midst of this metaphorical sporting desert, an oasis popped up in the form of a Facebook ad for the Ultra X Azores 125. This would take place at the end of April on the beautiful Atlantic island of Sao Miguel, split over two days (75km and 50km respectively). “That looks fun” I thought and, in typical well-thought-out fashion, registered and booked flights in the next 15 minutes. In my mind, I could get in nearly 2 months of solid training and all would be fine by the time of the event. Best laid plans, etc. etc.
Around four weeks before the event I was knocked squarely on my rear end by a chest infection which left me unable to get out of bed, and two weeks later I was still struggling to get up the stairs to my room. I seriously considered dropping out but, like a true Englishman, decided I may as well go and give it the good old-fashioned college try. My pre-race fears were further exacerbated by several events in quick succession. Firstly, I received an email informing me that I had to provide insurance in the event that I died during the race and my body had to be repatriated to the UK. Right… Secondly, the starting line-up was released: it featured just 50 competitors (far fewer than I had expected), the vast majority of whom were revealed after a bit of internet snooping to be serious and experienced ultra runners. Thirdly, I noticed that at 21 I was the youngest competitor by some 8 years. Finally, running into (pun intended) a few other people at registration the day before highlighted some marked differences in terms of the camp bags we had been required to bring: these would be transported to the overnight stop after Stage 1. Everyone else had large suitcases filled with special nutrition and rehydration thingies, blow-up mattresses and (I kid you not) electronic muscle massage machines. I had a carrier bag with an Aldi Specialbuy sleeping bag and some dehydrated spag bol. The kit list had only specified that the camp bag needed to be waterproof, so I asked the kit checker whether my bag would suffice if I tied some string around it. His smile faded like a British Winter Olympic medal hope as he realised I wasn’t joking. “Umm, well I mean, yeah I guess, if that’s all you’ve got…” Result.
And so to the start line, where I got chatting to an Irish lady who was so tough she made old boots look like Gucci slippers. “I did this one last year before a 250km race in Jordan,” she casually mentioned, “but the terrain here is so tough that I actually found this one harder.” Brilliant. Luckily the adrenaline kicked in right on time and the first few hours flew by in a haze of stunning scenery. I had considered being a ‘proper’ ultra runner and going without earphones, but eventually concluded that there was no reason I couldn’t appreciate the beautiful Azorian landscape while simultaneously listening to pounding hardcore electro music. My race plan was simple: walk the uphills, trot the flats and downhills. I knew I wouldn’t be particularly fast on the descents, but two decades of summer holidays in the Lake District and the keen childhood tutelage of my Nana (who walks faster than most people cycle) put me in good stead for the climbs. The organisers weren’t kidding when they rated the race a 4/5 for terrain difficulty: the route featured everything from hacking through jungle undergrowth, to crossing inches-wide wooden planks over enormous ravines, to hauling oneself up rocky cliff-faces. All in all I was feeling pretty good though: my secret weapon (a stack of homemade Yorkshire puddings flattened and drenched in golden syrup) kept my energy levels up, and soon I was at the final checkpoint just 15km from the campsite. Alas, for the first time I really started to flag: a long, tough descent down a steep road had taken its toll and the spectre of the 50km I still had to face the following day loomed before me like the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. There was only one thing I could think to play at such a time: Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1969 eponymous debut album ‘Led Zeppelin I’, whereby they established themselves as pioneers of the hard rock genre at the turn of the decade. At last the campsite did arrive and I came through in a time of 10 hours and 1 minute. I was pleasantly surprised to find that I was actually in 5th place overall, just three minutes behind the third-placed male. We were helpfully informed that the second stage would in fact be 56km rather than 50. Undaunted, after some delicious rehydrated delights (hot water was the only facility on offer) I collapsed into my tent, dreaming lofty dreams of medal contention the next day.
Stage 2 was a near-unalloyed gallery of anguish, misery and woe. The course started off with several kilometres of steep, ploughed-up fields which, after 75km of running the previous day, were the mental and physical equivalent of someone stomping on your genitals while simultaneously informing you that your house fire was not actually covered under your insurance policy. There was only one thing I could think to play at such a time: Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1969 eponymous follow-up album ‘Led Zeppelin II’, whereby they achieved greater commercial success but stayed true to their roots of heavy riffs and powerful vocals. Despite getting lost and being chased across a cow field, I was still in touch with the leading group of four through the first hour. I was starting to get into my rhythm, and I knew a long climb was coming up where I could hope to pick up some time. That was until the 15km mark, when my right hip flexor tendon (a technical term I was unaware of until later) completely went. It ceased to exist. It was not extant. Elvis had left the building. Suddenly I couldn’t put any weight on the leg at all. For the first time I genuinely considered pulling out: there were still over 40 kilometres remaining and I could barely walk, let alone run. I was haemorrhaging time as I dragged myself up the hill, and I knew I was in trouble as other runners started to come past me: my race strategy was in tatters. I had been reliably informed by a race volunteer that painkillers were available at the summit checkpoint, and this thought kept me going until I arrived. “Oh no,” the smiling lady told me, “she must have meant checkpoint three: that’s another 10km. Don’t worry though, it’s all downhill.” Goody. It turned out that going downhill on a busted quad was even more painful than going uphill. There was only one thing I could think to play at such a time: Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1970 eponymous third album ‘Led Zeppelin III’, whereby they struck a well-crafted balance between heavy anthems and softer, Blues-inspired tracks.
Two hours later I finally made it to the next checkpoint, where some paracetamol managed to reduce the pain from a bellow to a grumble. For the first time I was able to appreciate the beauty of the Lagoa Azul crater; the course was well-marked by red flags every 40m or so, apart from one section of a few kilometres where some volunteers clearing up after a different event had helpfully removed them. The race director looked like he was about to have an aneurysm when he found out. Further along, the 3000ft descent from the crater down to the coast jarred my knee pretty badly and I was forced to stop briefly at the final checkpoint. This allowed a physio to put some special blue tape around it: I felt like a proper athlete for about 200m before it all fell off. Not having the energy to go back, I ended up carrying it the rest of the way à la Eric Liddell in Chariots of Fire. The end of the race followed the main road back into town and towards the finish line at the city gates: pain hung around me like tinsel in January and I was in dire need of a boost to get me home. There was only one thing I could think to play at such a time: Led Zeppelin’s iconic 1971 untitled fourth album, whereby they cemented their position in the foreground of rock history with unprecedented critical acclaim. Jimmy Page’s guitar solos were pulsating through my veins as I lifted the pace and picked up a few places, managing a respectable 55-min split over the final 10km. Total time: 17 hours, 43 minutes, 21 seconds; enough to place me as 5th male and 7th overall.
The race had been won by two mental Romanian blokes who came in under 15 hours: they had raced the entire 131km on a 500ml bottle of water and a couple of cereal bars, then finished and promptly got blind drunk. Following in their illustrious footsteps I departed for the pub along with most of the other runners. If any of you have seen the classic 1950s war film ‘Ice Cold in Alex’ (starring the late great Sir John Mills) you can perhaps imagine the sheer magnificence of that first crisp pint of Sagres beer; it slid down my gullet like a gleeful child on a well-polished playground slide. Some hours later word filtered through that the final contestant was coming into the finish, and we all headed back to give her a guard of honour. I am acutely aware that this report is rapidly nearing the 2000-word mark, but I hope you will forgive me for spending just a little more ink to briefly mention Michelle. She had finished Stage 1 at half-past midnight, some 17 and a half hours after the 7am start and just half an hour before the 1am cut-off time. After only a few hours of rest she was up and out again for the second stage, which took her a further 13 hours to complete. In total, then, she had been running and walking for over thirty hours, most of it completely alone and much of it in complete darkness. The group hug when she crossed the line may even have stirred a few emotions in this old stony heart.
It sounds horrendously cliché to say moments like that are what these kind of events are all about, but moments like that are what these kind of events are all about. I would unhesitatingly recommend an ultramarathon to anyone: being bonkers isn’t an official requirement, but it certainly helps. It gets you out of the house, helps you meet new people and certainly gives you a (rather lengthy) story to tell! Who knows: in the illustrious words of Portuguese president Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa, “Anything could happen, but nothing might happen.”
I’d just like to finish this report with a shameless self-plug: at the end of May I’m doing a 1000-mile solo bike ride the length of France to raise money for a homeless charity called Emmaus Cambridge. If anyone is still reading at this point and feels in a generous mood, any donation at all would be massively appreciated and can be sent via my Just Giving page at https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/edward-cator-length-of-france-bike-ride.
Until the next ill-advised adventure,