by Beth May & Zoe Morgan
Mum and daughter Run Buddy duo Beth May and Zoe Morgan recently took on the challenge of running their first ultra. Read on to find out how it went!
I guess the first question to answer, which is often the first thing I am asked, is why? Why put your body through that? Why an ultra? Well, I guess for me the simplest answer is I can’t say no! A marathon had always been something I wanted to achieve. It was on my bucket list to complete a marathon before I am 30. I’d read articles and books from some fantastic ultra runners but always thought it sounded too far and for the fittest of fit. Then one day, my mum mentioned she’d read an article on how veterans do better in ultras because it’s about stamina and less about speed. She’d recently finished, ‘Beyond Limits’ by Lowri Morgan and I could tell she was inspired. I could see the cogs working in her mind…. So then she said it, “You fancy it?” I paused, thought about it… did I? Did I want to? Then she said, “see I’ve been looking at a few races online and I’ve found a nice one from Brecon to Cardiff along the canal path.” That was it, I knew she had already decided she was doing it. So, as on several occasions before, our first 10k, our first half, I said yes to my mum’s latest crazy idea! I felt that familiar bubble of excitement, nerves and anticipation. Could I really enter the realms of those runners I had read about and become an ultra runner?
Next came the hard work and the realisation. How was I going to train for this? I work as an emergency department doctor so my schedule can be pretty intense but I’ve taken some time out of training this year, working 30-40 hour weeks versus the usual 48-70! So no excuses, plenty of time to train. So the next question I asked myself was how? I’ve never run more than 13.1 miles, how do I prepare my body to run 40! So like all millennials, I turned to google. After a few weeks of searching we found a plan. The plan became famous among the She Runners, if a run wasn’t on the plan we weren’t doing it. We followed the plan religiously. There were times when, after a 10 hour shift, I had to squeeze in an 8 mile run, that I wondered if I could ever do it. But with around 500 miles in the legs, the day of the ultra arrived. I’d done my first marathon in training, in the snow, and I felt ready. Nervous, excited but ready.
The Big Day
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, our official race had been cancelled. However, we had already started our fundraising for the wonderful Velindre cancer centre. So, there was only one decision that we could make, how could we still run the distance within the guidelines. So, on Saturday 6th February 2021, we left our home in Treorchy carrying enough water, food and supplies to sustain us and started the ultra. We ran from Treorchy to Velindre Cancer Centre and back home to Treorchy.
The weather was kind. The week leading up to the event had been wet and windy but the weather gods were with us. A cold and dry day. The first 10 miles to Pontypridd flew by. My legs felt strong, my pack felt stable and I was filled with excitement. When I made it to the taff trail, I was greeted by some beautiful chalk drawings that brought a tear to my eye and a lump to my throat. One of our wonderful She Runners had drawn rainbows and messages of support onto the trail. It came at just the right time. Boosted my spirits and reminded me of the purple army of support behind us. I caught the wonderful Dani just down the trail and she gave me a cheer and a wave. Another mile and another familiar face. The next few miles passed with ease as so many of my wonderful friends took their daily exercise to come and cheer us on. It meant so much that so many She Runners walked, ran and cycled to support us.
I was approaching the halfway point at Velindre where I knew I’d get to see my sister and my niece who had come out to support us. My sister ran out to meet me and we covered the last half a mile to Velindre together, picking my niece up on the way. I arrived at Velindre to a round of applause and the whoops and cheers from more wonderful She Runners and friends. Again, tears flowed and I realised just how lucky I was to be part of this club. I spent a few moments chatting and having photos and then about 15 minutes refuelling before I set out home. Gem ran with me until we met our mum on her outward leg in Radyr.
A friend of mine had set out on her run to try to find me on the route but had found my mum instead! I continued homeward with Lowri and my sister continued to the halfway mark with my mum. I struggled a little for the first few miles, I’d indulged a little too much at the halfway mark and the food was now sitting heavy in my stomach. But thanks to the support and encouragement of my support crew, I got through and soon was running comfortably again. A few more familiar faces had come back out to support us and a lovely few miles with Dani and her family meant I reached the 26.2 mile mark in record time. A marathon PB!
The next leg was tough. Uphill home with no more supporters planned on the route. And then it happened. My tired body tried to step aside to give a walker a 2 metre social distance and I failed to notice the edge of a curb under some muddy leaves and felt my ankle roll inwards. I felt a pop. A searing pain in the side of my foot. I recovered my gait and kept going. The adrenaline kept me moving for another mile or so but the last 10 miles were a struggle. I put my headphones in and blasted the She Runs playlist which got my through the last few miles. I remembered all the people we were running for. All the money we had raise. My great aunt was there with warm words of encouragement for my last half a mile and then I saw it, the Parc and Dare lit up in Velindre green, a complete coincidence but then I couldn’t stop the tears running down my face. I made it back. Phone calls from my sister and my mum who had about 9 miles to go and my step dad waiting with a cuppa. I’d done it. I was an ultra runner!
So, now I’ve had a chance to sleep, rest and reflect what have learnt and what would I tell someone who wants to do a ultra? 1) be prepared to bore everyone you know with running chat. It will become all you talk about. 2) you’ll spend money on kit that won’t work or you don’t need. Everyone is different and you may not get it right straight away no matter how much you read. 3) even if you don’t think you need supporters, you do. They will keep you going. 4) find what makes you really want to run an ultra. Find it and treasure it. Use it as a mantra. When you want to give up, remind yourself of why you’re doing it. 5) practice nutrition. Everyone said it to me and they were right. Getting the balance between getting enough calories in and not messing with your GI tract. Finally, 6) If I can do it then anyone can! Don’t let the fear stop you from striving for what might seem impossible. You can achieve it!
In October 2019 I ran the Cardiff Half Marathon. I was amazed to have run that far and thought that was as far as my distance running would take me. Couch to Half Marathon in 18 months felt like a pretty decent achievement.
And then, during lockdown 2020, Lowri Morgan spoke at one of the She Runs Book Club sessions. I couldn’t make the session itself, but I did read her book ‘Beyond Limits’. I posted on social media about how inspiring I’d found it. And one of my friends commented, half-jokingly, ‘Your next challenge, Beth?’
That planted a seed, which soon developed into a plan to use lockdown to train for a forty mile ultra marathon. All that remained was to convince Zoe that, instead of doing a marathon before she was thirty, she could do an ultra instead!
We recognised quite early on that there were going to be times, both during training and the event itself, when we were going to need a reason to keep going. So we decided to use the ultra to raise funds for Velindre Cancer Centre, where my Dad had received treatment, and to ask people to dedicate a mile to someone affected by cancer.
Zoe and I love a plan. We found a sixteen week Runners World one on the internet ( not very scientific , it just seemed the best fit for us), which involved four runs, a strength session and two rest days each week. We followed it religiously. I knew, as an older runner with dodgy knees , that I’d have no chance of completing 40 miles if I didn’t put the work in.
I really enjoyed the training. One of the things that we knew about ultra training was that you should get used to running on the type of terrain that you’ll be on for the event itself. So, when COVID restrictions allowed, we travelled to different sections of the route for our weekend runs. I loved exploring parts of the Welsh countryside that I’d not visited before. The event route ran from Brecon to Nantgarw along the Taff Trail, so a real mix of scenic, steep forestry trails followed by tarmac paths through the industrial heritage of South Wales. There were adventures along the way- I ended up wading through a stream in the Brecon Beacons because a foot bridge was down, and on one long run I experienced ‘digestive issues’ many miles from a toilet and had to find a bush!
We’d just about covered the whole of our ultra route over different sessions, when the official event was cancelled due to the pandemic.By then, we were well into our training plan and had already raised several hundred pounds for Velindre, so neither of us were prepared to back out. And so we kept on training and formulated our Plan B.
We worked out that the distance from our house to Velindre and back would be approximately the same as the ultra we’d entered. It would be a much less picturesque route, and would be almost entirely on pavements or tarmac paths. But there was something very meaningful to be running towards the hospital that we were raising funds for.
As this wouldn’t be an official event, there’d be no aid stations, so we got used to carrying the food and water that we’d need. Most ultras have compulsory kit lists, so I’d encourage anyone training for one to get used to running with a back pack early on; as well as the extra weight to carry, it can alter your sense of balance and running gait.
Given my earlier digestive problems, I also needed to identify public toilets along the new route ! These are already in short supply for women, and due to the pandemic our council had shut some others. Fortunately, we would run past several larger supermarkets, and these were my saviour on longer runs, as well as on the day of our ultra.
The training plan incorporated back to back long runs, which helped us build strength and endurance, whilst reducing the risk of injury. I was amazed at how soon I was able to cover longer distances. I took a photo of my watch face every time I achieved a new ‘longest run’, and felt a great sense of achievement when that happened.I was especially proud of our longest training run – a marathon distance of 26.2 miles, when we woke up to several inches of snow, and still managed to complete the session.
The Big Day
Right up until the week before our ultra , we weren’t sure if there’d be another change to the regulations that would require a Plan C- in Scotland and England people were unable to leave their local authority area, and we were due to leave Rhondda Cynon Taf and cross into Cardiff at Tongwynlais.
As it turned out, the exercise regulations on the day of our ultra challenge didn’t place any restrictions on the amount of exercise, as long as it began and ended from home. We’d resigned ourselves to completing the whole distance alone; our paces were so different that we wouldn’t be able to run together. We were running an unofficial ultra in Tier 4 lockdown. It was going to be difficult.
In the week leading up to our ultra, the amount of online support was incredible, including a lovely video (see above) from She Runs: Cardiff, wishing us good luck. I knew that my elder daughter Gemma was planning to run part of the route with me at the Cardiff end; lockdown had meant weeks of not being able to see her, so I was really looking forward to that part of the run. What we hadn’t anticipated were the number of other friends, and wonderful She Runners who timed their runs, walks or cycles, so that they could see us out on our route, and offer support and encouragement. Or the colourful chalk messages that Dani had gone out to draw on the cycle path at Glyntaff, as a cheer station. It meant so much to us that people, most of whom we’d never met in ‘real life’ before, came out to see us. For me, bonds were forged that day which typify the strength of the She Runs community – and will be something that I’ll never forget.
I’d covered over 480 miles in 16 weeks of training, as well as numerous strength sessions. In terms of the distance, I’d say it really got tough for me after about 30 miles . Because we live near the top of the Rhondda Valley, the homeward stretch was uphill. It got dark when I was at mile 31 and the temperature dropped quite sharply. The valley was submerged in freezing fog. It became more and more of a struggle the closer I got to home. It really was the cause I was running for, and the thought of the family , friends and our wonderful purple Cheer Squad who were following updates from Gemma online , that kept me going.
It was more of a shuffle for me than anything resembling a run by the end. I was cold, I was aching and I felt sick. But I’d done it! Less than three years since I started my running journey, my 54 year old legs had carried me just over 40 miles!
I still can’t quite believe that I’ve completed an ultra. But it’s on Strava, so it must be true! At the moment, I’m in the ‘never again’ phase in terms of attempting another one. I do wonder, though, if it’s like child birth and you forget the painful parts and focus on the end result?!
The level of training needed was a significant commitment. I’m a slow runner, an enthusiastic participant of the Party at the Back, and I relish that. But there are consequences if you’re going to do an endurance event. My long runs took a lot longer than Zoe’s long runs! Lockdown offered me an opportunity to commit to this distance, without impacting on other aspects of my life in the way that it usually would have. In many ways, it’s been a real privilege.
Whether I’ll ever find myself in a position to do that again, remains to be seen. In the meantime, I’m going be part of the support squad for other She Runners tackling their ultras, take satisfaction from the fact that we’ve raised over two thousand, six hundred pounds for Velindre, and be proud to say that Nanny Beth ran an ultra.