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We’re Going Underground

by kirsty
Thursday 6th November 2014

Run247 columnist Kirsty Reade reports from the Underground Ultra, the ultimate in bespoke running experiences

The Underground Ultra - the ultimate in bespoke running experiences

Photos © Lewis Cousins

It was the brainchild of Mel the Merciless, a woman who spends her time devising new ways of making people suffer in her exercise classes and her OCR races, which are ominously called - for a weak swimmer like me - Lake Fear. She’d conquered the most evil OCRs, she’d done triathlons, she’d done a marathon and she wanted to dip her toe in the world of ultras. But the ones she looked at in the timeframe she wanted were either: too expensive, too far away or looked too challenging for a first ultra. So we hit on the idea of designing our own perfect ultra and Underground Ultra was born.

So what were the elements that made up our dream ultra?

Firstly, we wanted a picturesque route to take our mind off the miles. Mel lives down on the coast, on the border of Hampshire and Dorset, so that was easy. We had miles of beautiful coastline to explore.

Next on our list was a relaxed vibe for the day. We wanted all of the fun elements of a long run – nice, sociable companions, great route, the perfect food on aid stations – without any of the stress – portaloo queues, parking, cut-offs. So we decided to keep it really small and just open it up to friends. That way we knew all the runners were cool people, who’d done the training and had a similar attitude to us. As my friend Pip put it: ‘no winning allowed’.

The Underground Ultra - the ultimate in bespoke running experiences

Photo © Lewis Cousins

Mel devised a route (getting it to exactly 50k was pretty tricky) and I went down to do a test run. I thought this would consist of running little bits of it, then maybe jumping in the car to another bit, but Mel had other ideas.

I was her lab rat. Working on the premise that ultra runners will happily bang out 30 miles with very little persuasion (which, to be fair, is mostly true), she decided that I was to run the whole course. It was a hot day and I set off on the first half of the test run with Mel’s speedy husband James and our friend Lucy, who was on a bike. After about 13 miles I was feeling fairly broken (but didn’t want to let on) and James handed me over to Mel, my companion for the second half of the run.

Fortunately we had work to do, assessing the route and taking photos of landmarks along the run, so at least I got a few breaks in the second half, as Mel compromised on her usual speedy pace (she was getting the hang of this ultra thing). Even better, Mel let me off the last bit of out and back, so I only ended up running 27 miles. It was the nicest run I’d had in ages, a fantastic route with brilliant company, and I knew that the Underground Ultra was going to be a great day out. Apart from that last bit of untested out and back which I was fairly sure wouldn’t make us very popular with the runners.

The Underground Ultra - the ultimate in bespoke running experiences

Photos © Lewis Cousins

We had some fun with the organisation of the run and decided to go for an ‘underground rave’ vibe, for those who are old enough to remember raves. We set up a website: www.undergroundultra.co.uk. We deliberately left the details fairly vague until a few days before the run, when we sent out a postcode for the start address. Mel enlisted the help of family and friends to man aid stations and stocked them with all the perfect food and drink for running ultras:  the sweet, the savoury and the full fat coca cola. Despite the rave vibe, no actual drugs were involved. Or glow sticks, whistles or white gloves.

The day of the run dawned and we met up for a very relaxed start. On the start line were Mel and James, who had never run an ultra, Bill, who at the other end of the spectrum had run the Winter 100 only two weeks earlier, Lyn, who had run one ultra (Race to the Stones), Sue, another runner new to ultras, and Sam, who had run a 12 hour lapped race but this was her first ultra. With the exception of Sue and I, all of them had only started running in the last few years, so it was pretty impressive that they all wanted to run an ultra.

We all agreed that it was the most relaxed build-up to a race we’ve ever had. On the morning of an ultra I’m usually trying to force down toast, stressing over kit choices and worrying that the size of the toilet queue will exceed the volume of my bladder. But for the Underground Ultra I rolled out of bed having slept well, cheerily drove down to Mel’s house and her dad gave us a lift to the start. All races should be like this.

The Underground Ultra - the ultimate in bespoke running experiences

Photos © Lewis Cousins

As the ethos of Underground Ultra was that it was a social run, we decided that we would all run together. So we set off at a leisurely pace that was comfortable for everybody and instead of toiling, sweating and obsessing about our watches, we just enjoyed the journey.  We took in beautiful harbours, a castle, miles of beaches, the ruins of a tower, Harry Rednapp’s house, a bit of woodland trail. Some of Mel’s friends, not yet up to ultra distance, joined us for a bit of the run, and other friends had set up makeshift aid stations along the way, where we stopped, ate, drank and chatted for a while. Sam’s husband Lewis met us every few miles with drinks and food and general encouragement. We stopped and took photos, we even stopped for a cup of tea at a couple of cafes. How many times have you wanted to do that in a race? Well, in an Underground Ultra you can!

The miles flew by as we chatted away. Our relaxed attitudes seemed to make it feel easy. I think a big part of it was that you didn’t feel that pressure to go too quickly at the start of the run and you were running comfortably throughout. I can’t say that I often feel that way in a ‘proper’ ultra. I normally go out too quickly, start to die a bit in the middle and buck my ideas up towards the end. There were definitely some lessons learned in terms of keeping an even pace throughout. I also found eating so much easier than normally, which I think helped me to keep my energy levels up. The easy pace, the ability to linger at aid stations without guilt and the lack of any stress no doubt made me eat more than usual, possibly too much.

So was it all fun? I have to admit that I had this nagging fear of a runner uprising when we got to the out and back bit at the end. We resolved not to tell the runners about it until the point at which we actually turned round. However, once we got to the start of the out and back bit (a lovely bit of coastal path between Barton-on-Sea and Milford), the wind really got up and the coastal path - one that’s slowly falling into the sea - became not a great place to be. Spirits definitely took a dip at this point. The reputation of Underground Ultra as a fun and social run was at risk as we tried to avoid being blown off the cliffs. But, unlike a conventional race, with an Underground Ultra we can make it up as we go along, so we resolved to get the hell off that coastal path as soon as we could and make up an alternative, more ‘fun’ end of the run. Phew!

The last few miles were definitely tough for everybody, which was good because you really felt like you’d worked hard, which gave you a nice sense of achievement. So it was with a mix of relief and a big dollop of pride that we made it to the finish at Mel’s house. We started together and finished together and I can honestly say that I’ve never enjoyed a run so much. It wasn’t about times or finishing positions, it was about enjoying the company and the journey. There was no ‘if only I’d gone a bit quicker’ or ‘I wish I hadn’t spent so long at aid stations’; there was only ‘we did it!’.

Objective achieved, 100% success – how often do you feel that at the end of a race?

Then came the best part. After a race I’d normally be desperately trying to keep warm in a field, getting changed very inelegantly in a car park or eating a service station sandwich, while driving home. But this was Underground Ultra and that’s not the way we roll. It was back to Mel’s for a hot shower, a bit of relaxation on the sofa and a massive bowl of chilli.

I’d like to say that participating in Underground Ultra was the ultimate in bespoke running experiences but I can’t speak too soon as we’re already planning the next one. Rave on.

The Underground Ultra - the ultimate in bespoke running experiences

Photos © Lewis Cousins


About The Author

Kirsty Reade

I’d describe myself as borderline obsessed with running, racing, reading about running, and watching others run so hopefully I’m fairly typical of Run247’s visitors. I tend to do longer races, particularly off-road marathons and ultras, but am pretty much a fan of any distance. I'm passionate about helping runners of all levels to improve through running communities I'm involved in, such as Underground Ultra and Free Range Runners. 


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