Battling Desmond! How to race in a hurricane! – Dorset CTS Ultra Plus 2015

My last race of the year and my season, later than usual due to having a 4 month lay-off March-July from a car induced open knee injury! As I missed Race to the Stones and the Endurance Life CTS Fleet Ultra, I wanted to try to claim my year back by running the Gower 50 and finishing the season with the CTS Dorset Ultra Plus. I also fancied entering the ballot for one of the Ultra Trail Mont-Blanc races, the 100km CCC® (Courmayeur-Champex-Chamonix), or getting enough (International Trail Running Association) ITRA performance points to qualify for an elite entry.

With a 3 week illness only 5 weeks out from race day, I was not in peak form, but it seemed to come together in the final weekend before the ultra. I felt spritely and ready to hit that coast path.

Then the weather forecast broke… Hurricane Desmond! Predicted to hit the UK coasts Friday night through to Sunday morning, perfect timing for race day. 40-50mph constant SW wind, with severe damaging gusts of up to 70mph on the tops! Oh joy! Weighing in at only 7.5 stone has its advantages most of the time, but not when it comes to wind in exposed areas and cliffs! The Jurassic Coast in December was a tough enough challenge, without hurricane force wind…

Anyway, race day broke. The usual pre-race struggles with food, but managed my staple of syrup porridge pot with raisins, chia seed and almond butter. 2 hour drive later, with a fellow Chippenham Harrier Alex Ralton, and we made it to a very windy Lulworth Cove in the pitch black, in time to register and collect our fabulous race t-shirts, with the very poignant logo ‘Never Give Up!’

Race tshirt with Never Give Up logoDrop bag positioned, pack on, last snacks consumed and we were off up the huge steps towards Durdle Door, straight into the wind!

None of the photos or videos portray just how strong that wind was. I have never experienced such a strong wind ever before in all my years of running up on mountains, moorland, coast path and other trail. It was brutal and relentless, never stopping, incredibly loud and constantly trying to trip us runners up! The pure concentration and core strength required to stay upright was exhausting. I can safely say I left everything out on the Jurassic Coast!

…Quality core and what we as coaches call ‘physical preparation’ arms and empowers the body, to enable it to cope with all situations in a race….

Strength training is such an important part of any runners’ programme, but I think for these extra-long distances on the trail, it is even more important. Quality core and what we as coaches call ‘physical preparation’ arms and empowers the body, to enable it to cope with all situations in a race, and as in this race, go to battle!

Michelle running neat to Durdle DoorThe first 6 miles of the race took us towards Weymouth, straight into the arms of Hurricane Desmond. 4 miles of the most phenomenal scenery, combined with crashing waves against the cliffs, ridiculously high rolling hills and the wind trying to push us into each other, barbed wire, ditches, rocks and fortunately away from the cliff edge. At around the 10k point we turned inland, the only time we were ever out of the wind, along a trail in Ringwood. This path was extremely muddy, but I actually loved it, purely because it was out of the wind. However, only one mile later we arrived at the very welcome first checkpoint and after this straight back into the wind. Desmond with its South Westerly direction was kind of blowing us eastwards at this stage, but the gusts still knocked me sideways at times. Still the pace was much better than the westerly direction and the hills not so severe, so 6 miles passed pretty quickly chatting to some fellow runners mostly doing the shorter ultra-distance.

Through the Durdle Door caravan park, to the shock of some residents, and down the steep descent back into Lulworth Cove. Quick water bottle refill, and onwards aDescent into Lulworth coveround the rocky beach and up into the MOD range area on the Easterly side of beach. This area is often closed as the army use it as a firing range, so it was a good chance to see what this part of the coast path looked like, and oh boy, it didn’t disappoint! The hills again were incredible, steep ascents and descents, with the wind battering us from the side. I realised I’d been concentrating so hard on staying upright that I’d not eaten much, so with 15 miles under the belt, I did some good noshing. I ate mostly Cliff Bloks, with the odd bite of Chia Charge flapjack and handful of salted peanuts. My pace was still ok, a little disappointing but the miles were ticking by. I had no idea where I was in the placing, but had a feeling I’d seen another ultra plus female Jurassic Coastahead of me, so assumed I was the usual 2nd or 3rd in the ladies. I was struggling with the wind a lot, and knew that most of the men, being bigger than me, would be coping much better, but other than adding lead weights to my shoes there wasn’t much I could do about that! The waves were fabulous and at times created snow-like drifts of froth in the wind over the path. With 20 odd miles under the belt, and through to the other side of the firing range, we again turned inland. The section was incredibly muddy around some ploughed fields near the village of Kimmeridge. The route took us up and up and up, via footpaths, onto the ridge and straight into Desmond again! This section was a mental struggle for me; I was barely moving at all. Every step was a battle, with the winds seemingly attacking from every direction. My arms pumping wildly, my core held tight against the force of the wind, just trying to keep focussed on the path ahead.

Michelle running on the Jurassic coast pathWe turned back towards the coast path, and met many of the marathon and slower ultra-runners going towards Kimmeridge. Lovely to see my team mate Alex at this point, who looked very comfortable and enjoying the challenge. We then headed inland again here, slightly out of the wind, through the MOD training village of Tyneham, joined by hordes of half marathon runners and up to the checkpoint. I stopped to catch my breath a wee bit too long, whilst filling my water, but just needed to get my heart rate down a bit. Then off again along the high ridge into the ever present Desmond to re-join the coast path again. Taking the high range paths towards Lulworth with the half marathon runners, a group of us went wrong shortly after the exit gate to the Range area, due to lack of signage, adding on about a mile onto my run. Jurassic coastWe met an Endurance Life guy sprinting up from the village with signs in his hands. I was not happy, as a few of the guys I’d worked hard to overtake had all caught up. Then, the nasty section I was dreading, down the very steep steps and back onto the rocky Lulworth Cove beach.

Lulworth Cove, waves crashing on beachInto the 27 mile checkpoint in the carpark. Water bottle refill, kit and head-torch check, and off we went back out onto the Durdle Door / Ringwood section again. The wind was stronger than in the morning, and I just could not stay upright. How I didn’t twist an ankle or worse I do not know. The wind was literally picking me up and throwing me down again, like a rag doll! Still I tried to push on with a group of runners who I then realised were doing the shorter ultra-distance. My heart sank a little here, as I realised I was alone for a bit. Still onwards and back into the wood away from the wind, just for 15 minutes. Hurrah! Down the very muddy field onto the Ringwood checkpoint at 33 miles. Here I was told I was 19th overall and 1st lady! I couldn’t quite believe that, but obviously everyone else was struggling as much as me. My time was very slow, I had hoped to be at the 39 mile point by now, but having caught a couple of blokes we trotted on up the road hill back towards Lulworth feeling OK. Negotiating the fields and Durdle Door caravan park for a second time, we then came back into the final checkpoint with 39 miles under the belt. I was feeling rather ropey and very tired and it was starting to get dark.

…The mind plays tricks on you at times like this, but there is also this desire, deep inside, to keep pushing on. Endurance running always requires a level of mental strength, but to train your mind to cope with this level of event does take some time….

The checkpoint volunteer asked me if I wanted to continue. I said, I wanted to call it a day there. I half hoped they would say, we are stopping the race there guys, but no they didn’t! Instead, he said, ‘You have to carry on, you are first lady!’ So with the promise of some books, a gold medal and some underwear, I set off back up the huge steps to Durdle Door for a 3rd and final time. The next hour was incredibly surreal. I don’t remember much, other than sheer terror, but pure calm at the same time. The sound of the wind and crashing waves, with the knowledge that the sea was just to my left side, was rather soothing, but I could not help but feel spooked at times.

The mind plays tricks on you at times like this, but there is also this desire, deep inside, to keep pushing on. Endurance running always requires a level of mental strength, but to train your mind to cope with this level of event does take some time. Not always actual running or strength training, but planning, route checking, practising with kit and motivating yourself through reading and talking to others.

The two chaps I’d been running with were just ahead and bless them, kept looking back at me to check I was OK in the dark. The wind had eased very slightly, but my now legs of jelly, still kept being blown into the fence and ditches. The hills were very hard in the dark, but almost easier in a way as you couldn’t see them!! There is something rather amazing about seeing a line of head-torches in the dark bobbing up and down ahead and behind you. Onto the final check-in point, just after the Beacon, with only 3 miles to go. I knew at this point I would make it to the finish, and overtaking several runners that still had another lap to go, I was spurred on, and finished relatively strongly, trying to remember from the previous laps where the muddy sections were! The steep descent into Lulworth Cove carpark in the dark was very daunting but totally invigorating!

A huge hug from the ladies at the finish line, I was 1st lady and 18th overall. I then promptly threw up and was helped to my feet by the fabulous Alex Ralton. He had himself had a superb run in the 33 mile ultra.

Onwards to 2016, hopefully it will provide me with as many challenges as 2015…but hopefully only of the positive kind!

Gold medal and RunderwearMichelle holding her finishing medal