Wednesday, 16 October 2013


An Essex boy's review of back to back ultra marathons....
This was a brand new event organised by a small team from Maldon District Council. For those who don’t know Maldon in a small town on the Essex coast where the rivers Blackwater and Chelmer meet. Historically it’s reasonably interesting and it’s here where the event gains its name.

Most of the Maldon District’s coastline is surrounded by saltmarshes and the town is still home to one of the only remaining salt manufacture's in this country, the world famous Maldon Sea Salt.

Promoted as a fitness challenge more than a race (their statement), this event is aimed at walkers and runners and covers a 75 miles distance over 2 days. I signed up for this mainly because local events like this don’t happen very often and as an old Maldon boy I wanted to be a part of this!

Some people may have known I was supposed to have competed in the RAB Mountain Marathon the week before this event but a number of issues came up meaning I just couldn’t justify the time away. I’d been planning for RAB for a while and also spent an amount of time pulling kit together but was 100% the right call and it actually meant I came into this in decent shape. Because of the above though I decided that I’d take up the camping overnight option as at least I’d get the use out of the kit I’d brought for RAB and would give me the “complete experience” of the event.

I’d not planned any specific training for this and was really counting on my past ultra training especially my smaller back-to-back training runs which really helped to get the brain willing to work on tired legs and mind. The day before the event I started like always and compiled a list of what kit I’ll need. I split the list into sections covering “worn on body”, “pack” and “camping / overnight kit”. This is normally quite straight forward as I tend to carry the same equipment most of the time with the only difference maybe what load carrying set-up to use? This time though as the event was split over a whole weekend I would need to cover camping gear, overnight clothing and race kit for a second day.

Race fuel - Homemade cakes, flapjacks and my secret weapon.... Dates stuffed with Mazipan!

I chose to use my brand new Ultimate Direction Signature Series PB Adventure Vest that I’d brought from Keith at Ultra Marathon Running store I went for the PB vest mainly as I wanted a load carrying solution for longer distances that would be more comfortable than my traditional rucksack design of the Inov-8 pack I normally use. The PB vest is the largest of the UD signature packs and says it can carry up to 12 litres. It came with two front mounted bottles (I love the front mount bottle design) and the bottle are of good but I switched these to the flat Inov-8 bottles as the mass is closer to the body and also offers more clearance to arms etc. I also think these bottles offer a little more space in the bottle side pockets but I’ll pull together a better review later of what I think is a quality product.

I used a spare British Army issue black deployment bag to pack all the camping gear and stuff for the next day and this worked really well consuming my tent, sleeping bag, sleep mat and the huge amount of food and drink. The tent is a Gelert Solo 1 man and is probably the cheapest small pack size, low carry weight tent available and I used a 3 season Vango sleeping bag.

Anyway, to the event….

Fellow Springfield Strider and fellow competitor (ex-pro runner lol) Darren Coates picked me up from Chelmsford and we made our way to the start at Marsh Farm in South Woodham Ferrers. I’d been to this venue quite a few times but where before I’d been with the family checking out the local wildlife, today the only wildlife in attendance were clad in “short” shorts and tight lycra.

120 people had signed up to take part in the first running of this event where the aim was simply to cover 75 miles along the Maldon District coastline in a weekend, stopping overnight at the halfway point. The challenge was split into a number of categories. The main groups were walkers and runners but then you also had relay teams and also people just covering single days (this couldn’t be an easy task for the admin team).

By the time we registered, the walkers had already set off. We were the last people to turn up so I said my hello’s quickly before the briefing from Roy the head honcho. This contained the usual health and safety type stuff and I then quickly found the place to stash overnight gear and my personalised food / drinks for the first day which you could place at certain check points (nice touch!).

The atmosphere was pretty relaxed and I was actually quite chilled looking forward to a weekend of relaxed running around the flat course, what could be easier? We were then steered onto a couple of mini buses and drove to the start line of a few metres away (again, nice touch!).
Everyone on the start line were chatting and it was nice to put names to faces such as local lady Jackie Stretton from Twitter and her boyfriend Justin (a proper barefoot runner!) as well as catching up with fellow club runners such as Bob Gear (joined by son Iain) and Maxine Stevens with her support crew of boyfriend Adam. Most of my time though was spent answering the usual questions on why I was weary flip flops.

After a couple of short announcements we set off running along the seawall. Everyone was reluctant to lead from the front so we all jogged slowly until finally me and Darren took the initiative and also the lead of the race! This was the first time I’d ever lead a race and this is where I’m really tempted to finish this review. The only plan I had was to stick with Darren until the first check point in North Fambridge where we hit the seawall again after heading inland for a short section and I would let him go off into the sunset.

I wasn’t too fussed about pace but checked the watch a couple of times and we were going at a frightening pace (for me anyway). Around 8 min miles but as I said this was always planned and I knew I’d be in “chillout” pace soon. Probably the biggest surprise so far was the weather! I’d dressed for a chilly autumn day but the sun was out and there wasn’t a breeze to be seen. By the time we got to the first CP I told Darren I need to stop to adjust my clothing and waved goodbye. By now we’d been over taken by a few relay runners and also a couple of fast ultra runners.

I knew we’d be on the coast path for some time now and settled into trying to maintain a reasonable pace for as long as I could (not planned). I was managing to hold my position until we reached Burnham on Sea. I’d got so excited at the start that I’d managed to run through the first CP without taking any drink or fuel but as I was carrying two bottles I was ok for drinks but I really should have started fuelling earlier. I'd been passed by a couple more people now and I was starting to feel the effects of the faster pace. I was joined for a short time by a guy (sorry I’m rubbish with names) who recognised me from SVP100. He’d finished that event (I’d missed the cut-off duets being an idiot) and he looked like he was in good shape as he powered on past me.

One by one people eventually caught me up as my pace slowed and slowed I think my average pace was something like 10:30 min miles now and actually I wasn't that bad. We were now on the biggest leg of the whole event from Burnham to Bradwell near St Peter’s on the wall. This was around 13 miles but was luckily split in half by an unofficial water stop manned by the Dengie 100 running club. Maximum respect to this club as this really helped on a day that was now actually quite warm.

I’d managed to settle into a slow but steady pace and I was caught up by a couple more runners that I’d recognised from LDWA events known only to me as Graham and Dave. These guys were seasoned runners and looked like they could eat ultras for breakfast and come back for seconds. They had settled into a run / walk strategy and this actually was proving successful. If you think about it, a "regular" ultra would have its fair share of hills and this is the time when you can walk also helps switching the load on the body. Well 20-30 miles of flat was actually proving hard work as the legs were only operating in one way and walking so far had been thinkable.

We had a quick chat I decided to join the walk / walk strategy for a while and this got me eventually to the next CP which looked like it was never coming. The aid station was packed with support crew, staff and runners (I’d passed all the walkers). There seemed to be runners everywhere, slumped on chairs or just wondering around the place. This had been a hard leg and people were starting to feel it! As I switched instructions and refilled my bottles I saw one of these guys was my SVP100 friend. He had his head in hands sitting at the back of a tent slumped in a seat (it didn’t look good!). I went over and he said his legs had just gone and he was thinking that he still hadn’t got over SVP and wanted to quit. I said he should maybe try to fuel up and just walk and see how it went? We were about 10 miles from the finish of day 1 and there were even 2 CP’s on the way! I said goodbye as I couldn’t hang round too long and I walked away from the CO drinking my usual 20 mile Iso drink.
I was finishing off my drink when I noticed I was now in the company of a lady runner. I’d been overtaken some time ago by the first lady so this person was probably in 2nd place? We swapped greetings as she started running before me and she looked in to good state as she dropped a gear and pulled away. I had a serious morale boast in reaching the last CP and now was running consistently again. I was now at approx. 11:30 min miles which for this distance was the fastest I’d ever ran. I passed Graham and Dave who were still run / walking and was just getting into it when "woosh" someone shot past me! It took me a second to realise who it was and I have to admit I was surprised but pleased to see it was the SVP100 man! He’d obviously had a word with himself, the mind is a funny thing.

By now I was approaching the Bradwell Marina CP and I was especially looking forward to this point as I knew my Springfield Strider friend Sarah Colbert would be part of the team there. Just as we were getting close to the marina I approached a woman and a young girl on the sea wall. The little girl held out her hand as I passed and offered me a small sweet, this small gesture meant the world to me right now. Just as I turned into the CP I caught up with a runner that had passed me earlier. This guy was running steady and as it turned was using this event as training for the Marathon de Sable in the Sahara. I'm kind or SAD and guessed this as he was using twin Raidlight bottles in a front pack. This set-up is a firm favourite for hot climate adventurers so I knew he was “keen”. He was fellow Chelmsfordion Colin Harper (check out Colin’s blog here: I ran into the CP feeling great and said hi to Sarah. I asked how Darren was and she said he was at the front but had pushed hard and was feeling it. I still had water so I said didn't want to hand around so said bye and ran off quickly trying to chase down the next person in the distance.

We were now weaving in and out of marshland and I took the chance for once to actually admire the view. So far the only thing I’d been looking at was the 2 foot of ground in front of me but now as I passed the disused Bradwell Power Station and various yacht clubs I noticed what a breath taking  place this area actually is. There was wildlife everywhere and on the water you could see old Thames Barge's sailing as if we’d stepped back in time and they were carrying urgent freight to the many towns in Essex.

I looked at the current pace and I was now hitting 10 min miles and was gaining on the person in front. As I eventually caught up a couple more people including the 2nd placed lady who passed me earlier, she wasn't slowing but she looked to be spending more time in CP’s? A couple of us left the last CP at the same time and I was being careful to stay with them as we eventually left the easy navigation of the sea wall and headed inland to the finish. We were only a mile away and we were joined by 2nd place lady who again was turning on the pace. After a short chat she dropped a gear and I decided as we were so close to the finish I’d try and stay with her. Well that’s what I thought as she sprinted over a newly ploughed field and the flip flops (which had held up awesome so far) were making it a little slow going. We crossed the field and entered a small copse. I was starting to wonder how far the end would be when I heard the familiar voice of Darren Coates! I looked up and we ran along a small fence by a village hall to the finish 39.6 miles in 7 hrs 46 mins, happy with that!

I was greeted by Darren who had hung around to see me in (cheers mate) and he told me he’d managed to finish first but just 6 mins in front of the next guy. I had a feeling he’d do well and so far so good! As it was Darren’s birthday he had an event to get to in the evening so was staying away overnight. I reminded him that the “real runners” would be camping ready for the next day!

Well the first day went well. I’d started too quick, slowed but then hung in to finished in a decent time for me. Before this race I’d been talking local running coach Paul Anderson about a few things in the light of my recent DNF’s and one of the topics was getting generally faster. I’d noticed all my race plans were based on the slowest pace I could get away with and this in my opinion was the main reason I failed at SVP100. I’d started to do some speed work in the build up to this event and I also specifically wanted to see what I could do if I pushed?

I sat in the hall at the finish and really took in the days work. It was great to finally relax and also nice to share a cup of tea or 10 with some of the people I’d ran with today. I had a light rub down from the masseuses which helped flush the legs out and I sorted my kit out ready to move to the pub and the overnight campsite. I hung around the hall to see fellow Striders Maxine Stevens and then eventually Bob Gear and son Iain come home and couldn’t believe how well Maxine and Iain had done considering this was their first serious ultra. RESPECT!

Well eventually I was in danger of OD’ing on tea so we walked to the pub just around the corner. MdS Colin, Jackie and Justin were all camping so we stumbled into the pub car park to be greeted by a small tented village. The organisers had only put up everyone’s tents! (well nearly everyones), my tiny tent was still in my overnight bag so I set about putting it up. Well this tent was promoted as small and lightweight, well the first part was correct! Once up you had barely enough room to crawl into it and my kit bag barely made it inside and it was so low that I couldn’t even sit up! I’d had a pulled muscle in my back the previous week and I thought that this would be “kill or cure”.

MdS Colin was on the other side of the grass and he too didn’t get his tent put up but he’d brought a small 2 second “pop up” tent which looked like a marquee compared to my "coffin". If I ever do the event again, I will be bringing my larger tent and taking up the “pitching option” (this isn’t an option BTW for Darren Coates as he needs the “full experience”). Well I slipped out of my tent trying not to get soaked on the wet grass and stumbled into the pub for some food. I’d paid a whopping extra £20 on top of the £30 race entry fee (tiny!) and for that I got to sleep outside in the car park, eat a pasta dinner and breakfast the next day. As I tucked into my food and a well-deserved pint, I was joined by Colin who was bravely continuing his MdS training by only eating his race food which as far as I could tell consisted of only Pepperami’s (I bet the “atmosphere” in his tent was nice!)

Later I slid back into the tent, I could barely move my arms once inside but somehow managed to have a full body wash with wet wipes and get changed into my race gear for the morning. I stuck my watch and phone on charge from my USB battery pack (great bit of kit) and zipped myself up in my sleeping bag. Changing the subject slightly but while I remember, I was also using for only the second time a phone app and website called View Range / Beacon Buddy. This site is quite clever as it uses GPS and phone signal to calculate your live position and broadcasts it live on the web. It’s obviously as secure as you want it to be but mine’s open so feel free to follow me on race days.

Beacon buddy details


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The view from my bedroom!

After what I can only describe as one of the worst night’s sleep ever, I decided to get up at 6 am as I needed to answer the call of nature and it was close enough to 7am, the time when food was served in the pub and more importantly this meant one thing… HEAT! Sitting inside I felt like I’d been to some kind of all-night music festival. I forced myself to eat as much as I could but really it was the fear of having to return to the tent that was keeping me there. I was joined in the morning by another chap that I’d briefly spoken to last night. He’d been showing me show of his blisters on his feet and I was telling him he should wear flip flops as I was fine. He took a look at my mug which had my name on it and he asked where I worked? A strange question in this situation but it turns out he worked for the same company as me and we even shared some common friends! Small world indeed (sorry I’m rubbish with names but I think he was called “Andy”?)

Well I sorted out my admin and bumped into MdS Colin who wasn’t at breakfast as he was probably tucking into his 20th Pepperami by then? (sorry mate). The morning was nice and clear and the people who had decided to sleep at home in their own comfy beds (yes you Mr Coates) were starting to arrive. After a couple of announcements which included the confirmation of Darren in first place, we were all lined up runners and walkers at the same time today ready for the off.

Today we were running back to the seawall and winding our way into Maldon then through Heybridge, along the coast to the finish. The route was “only” 36.5 miles and I was mentally looking forward to this easy stage as yesterdays “flat out” was replaced by “chill out” today. I planned to start slow and get slower but maintain around a 13 min mile pace, easy I thought. Well soon we were off. First thing I noticed was where had everyone gone? There weren’t the hundreds of people that started yesterday and I was beginning to hear stories of people that had dropped out mid-event yesterday and a large number that had decided day two wasn’t a great idea. The next thing I noticed was just how bad I was feeling and the missing people probably made a good call? The pace of everyone was noticeably slow and I was nearly at the back of the pack and I didn’t think I could go faster if I wanted too?

I’d not felt anything before now but I had what I can only best describe as a trapped nerve in my left hip which made moving really painful. I just told myself that it was bound to hurt and that as the miles went on and it warmed up during the day, I’d settle into things. Well we got to the first CP in short time as it was only 3 miles from the start and I thought this was going to be a long day! As I left I noticed that Ford Andy as with me which surprised me as he’d finished ahead of me yesterday but it turned out he was in exactly the same boat as me but his knee was playing up (I wish we did have a boat BTW as I would have sailed to the finish which was about 2 miles away on the other side of the water!)

I was actually right for once though and as the miles slowly ticked down I started to feel better. I eventually started to catch people up and was feeling better when something strange happened… As the route wound its way around the marshes, you could see people well ahead and people behind, sometimes within arm’s reach but in reality they were a away off as the path twisted. I was looking at a small group who where a way behind when something caught my eye. I could see someone waving? Well that was a little strange but I thought I'd be polite so I waved back? I thought nothing of this until a few minutes later. I have a habit in races of not looking behind me (don’t ask why!) Well I could hear someone behind me now so I slowed a little so they could pass. Well blow me down! The mystery waver was only Darren. WTF.... I told him! Well he’d only managed to take a wrong turn and covered some extra bonus miles, this man's map reading is legendary. I swore at him a few times but told him to stay calm and not panic as he shouldn’t risk the whole event trying to catch the guy who was probably now leading? I knew he’d be kicking himself as he sped off like a greyhound chasing a hare.

I was gutted for him to be honest as I knew he’d struggle to catch the guy. The second placed man at the start of the day was only a few minutes behind Darren and he looked like a Scott Jurek lookie-likie, someone that could sprint all day and not even sweat. Eventually as we neared Maldon I caught up MdS Colin and LDWA Dave who had split from Graham. As we came into the promenade, I was greeted by a fellow Strider Jamie  cheering us along and I thought I’d even saw Strider Liz Irvine's mum but I might have imagined that? (it was later confirmed that it was her!)
As I ran through the day trippers on the sea front to the CP I was starting to feel a lot better. I topped up fluids again and quickly sped off looking forward to the next few miles as the route took me through me old hometown. It was then I realised I’d made a huge mistake and not swapped my route description with the next section. I was too far to turn back and thinking about it, I wasn't too concerned as I was in familiar surroundings but I didn’t want to risk taking a wrong turn on the course and be accused of taking a short cut. I was just in front of LDWA Dave so I shouted to him what had happened and he said I should take a photo of his route just in case… I was just reaching for the phone when I decided I should be slightly more social on my “easy day” so I eased a little and told Dave I’d run with him to the next CP if it was ok? We ran along the streets in Maldon until we crossed the river at Fullbridge and made our way along the Causeway to pick up the river on the opposite bank.

As we chatted on what can only be described as an awesome day weather-wise, we were joined by another runner (in a very nice UD Signature Series running vest!). The 3 of us took it in turns to lead and for a while the pace actually increased considerably as morale rose. I pointed out the next CP not too far away and I had a last push and ran into the CP to be greeted once again by enthusiastic volunteers. Shortly after we arrived, we were joined by Ford Andy whose knee was obviously a little better as he was maintaining pace and had caught us up. We all stopped for a minute, grabbed some food, then we slowly left the CP walking away as the race was beginning to show its true effects once again. After a short chat we started to run again and once more rotated the lead runner but this time we agreed without even saying a word that we’d run as hard as we could for a while then walk a short time, and so on.... This continued for a few miles until Dave and “UD pack man” dropped off the pace a little leaving just me and Ford Andy. We carried on together until I started to feel tired and had to slow a little as Andy led us into the Goldhanger CP on the river bank.

Even though the body was on one of its low points, I was feeling mentally strong as I knew we only had one CP left until the finish. It was the longest leg of the day but the end was in sight (literally at times!) I was busy drinking my “20 mile Iso drink” and looking forward to coasting to the finish when one of the CP staff dropped a bomb on us…. “Well done guys! You’re halfway now” he said. “WHAT” was my instant reply! He explained that we’d ran 18 miles and had another 18 to go. This news broke my heart. I knew he was right but as I said, in my head we were nearly finished, funny how the brain works. I downed my drink at the CP not wanting to carry the extra bottle the 9 miles to the next stop then walked off sulking.

I left on my own leaving Andy as I just wanted to get this over now plus I could see the bright yellow of LWDA Graham’s shirt just in front and as this was the first time since the start I’d seen him I felt a little better. I jogged up quickly as Graham was walking a little at this point and he told me he was just taking it easy as he didn’t want to get to the last CP too soon, I smiled as I said bye for now not knowing if we’d see each other again before the finish?

I now started to feel a little better and I resisted the urge to run / walk for now and decided I needed to which focus for a while and loose some miles so I dug out the Yurbud headphones (thanks Run Active in Chelmsford) and fired up my new waterproof mp3 player. This had the desired effect and I was soon catching up people once again. I managed to catch up with the first placed lady who I believe was a runner from Tiptree Running Club? I stopped and said hello and she was saying that she was feeling it now. I was now on yet another low (somebody say rollercoaster) and we started run / walking and I was actually feeling probably the worst I’d felt on the whole event as I was running out of energy fast. The next CP was close but the coastline wound inland and out again just as you thought you were getting there, this was the longest 9 miles ever! Eventually we met a friend of my new running partner and she led us into the last CP.

As I stood at the table not really being able to take everything in, I noticed that the next placed guy in front of us was still at the CP with us. Again we all swapped greetings and we were then joined by Ford Andy and UD vest guy. Both had obvious taken advantage of me slowing in the last few miles but Andy especially looked in bits as he could barely walk! (if you’re ready this Andy, I’m sorry mate but it wasn't your best look). I composed myself and me and the leading lady left together. She by now thought she’d lost the lead as Jackie Stretton had steamed through the field today (Justin had unfortunately dropped during day one) but I told her that Jackie still had to make up time from the previous day so it was still all to play for? Not sure if this made any difference but she pulled away from me and I never saw her again. I was soon overtaken and I tried to keep with this guy as we passed the last point we could cut short the race and retire to the finish. We were both asked by marshals if we wanted to stop and neither of us even slowed down as we shouted “no thanks”.

This was it. The end was close as we only had 6 miles until the whole event would be over. I felt alright but again was on a low point as the guy I was with slowly pulled away and I couldn't keep with him. We were on a killer sea wall loop along marshland with no landmarks or features just miles and miles of grass track and water. By now I had no choice but to walk regularly and then as I noticed my running pace was at 15 min miles! I kept pushing as I passed a few walkers and as I was rock bottom I bumped into Sarah Colbert and Malc from my running club again! I didn’t stop as they said I had a couple of miles to go, so I dug in one more time and tried to up the pace. I’d got the instructions out as I was paranoid that I might get lost and any extra miles would probably be the end of me. I saw another supporter who said “just around the corner” and I was on a high now, gave it all I had as I crossed the last field and onto a road. I passed some cheering children who “High 5’d” me and they’d even made massive “well done runners” banners! I could see the finish now and everyone cheered as I ran into the grounds of the hall in Salcott, it was over!

It had been hard today as I was still tired from the first day and camping and I was feeling a little light-headed and sick near the finish so I was just glad it was over. I had a little stretch and had a few cups of tea. Soon a few of the usual suspects crossed the line and we shared some thoughts on the days adventures. LDWA Graham had a 2nd wind and finished well as did UD vest guy, Ford Andy’s knee had given up at the last CP but he got it strapped and managed to crawl to the finish (nails), Graham said that Dave had decided to drop at the last CP as he said he had to pick his dog up? (I kid you NOT!) and MdS Colin made it home “comfortably” and still managing to smile.

We all sat and had a well-deserved something to eat and shortly after we were joined by Bob Gear who was now solo as his son Iain had dropped at Maldon (still he’d covered an impressed 50 plus miles!). Later Maxine finished well, an awesome weekend's work girl!

My overall time to cover 76.7 miles was 15 hrs 56 mins. 14th placed.

Full Runners Results:

Beacon Buddy track for day 2 - A great app!