Running an ultra at 65: Run to the Sea

Monday 20th May 2024

V60 skipper, Dan Allen, dips his toes into the world of ultras. Here is his fabulously entertaining account of his first one (of many?!)...Run to the Sea...

It’s just before eight on a cool, bright morning in early May. Hundreds of runners are gathering in the picturesque grounds of Christ’s Hospital School, near Horsham. Ahead lies a 50k ultra, flat to halfway on an old railway line, then up on to the South Downs, rising and falling all the way to Hove. And one of the runners is me. But a couple of weeks ago I turned 65. Which is why I’m suddenly gripped by doubt, thinking this is insane, I can’t do it. I should be at home with pruning shears and a custard cream.

Then the clock high on the school’s ancient tower ticks round. Bong. Cripes. Start time. We’re off.

Dan starts Running to the Sea (credit to Ultra Violet Running Ltd for the photos)

As ultras go, Run to the Sea Brighton is a baby. Kilian Jornet would barely break sweat; Jasmin Paris would be home and hosed before I’d swallowed my first gel. But it’s still 50k – further than I’ve ever run. And as well as being old, I had a horrible meniscus injury a while back and my whole lower right side is as flexible as a plank.

But I’m a runner, therefore ‘being sensible’ is not my maxim. So last year, when my meniscus began to settle a bit, I spoke to it firmly. ‘We’re doing an ultra,’ I said. ‘Yeah, right,’ it said. But I’d already clicked ‘Submit’ on the early bird entry.

With race day a reassuringly long way off, I stepped up my rehab, strengthening and stretching like a demon. I walked, cycled, swam. Soon, whenever I walked, I also began to run – just a few steps, then a few steps more. I forced myself to be patient – not easy – and very gradually built a base, ticking off a parkrun, a 10k, an 18k trail race. I followed a plan but quickly realised it was too ambitious so scaled it back. My highest volume week was about 50 miles.

A very wet winter meant a succession of mud-caked long runs, sometimes on successive days. I gobbled down flapjacks and bananas often infused with puddle water following another inelegant slide into a bottomless tractor-rut lake. My knee grumbled at times but mostly it behaved and slowly I grew fitter and stronger.

Knee holding up so far...

The sun is shining brightly now and I’m 10k in. We’re still on the flat and although I’m feeling okay I’m daunted by the hills ahead. There are checkpoints along the way, with aid stations attached, but it’s clear I should have practised my technique. I’m tugging at zips and clips on my running vest, faffing with my bottles, spilling water all over the place and can’t decide between fruit and cake or both. I lose lots of time at the aid stations and even though I’m trying to kid myself otherwise, time is what matters.

We hit the hills and it’s properly hot now. I walk a bit, run a bit, but I keep moving. After a while, the downhills become as painful as the uphills, quads and hip flexors cramping in protest. There’s a lovely stretch down past the Chattri memorial on the outskirts of Brighton but right now it’s hard to see the beauty through the pain. At the aid station at the bottom of the hill, I faff a bit more, gulp down some coke and eat a date.

Then things get weird.

There’s a music festival at Waterhall and a stream of sweaty ultrarunners is going in one direction while hundreds of Rudimental and Fat Tony fans are going in the other. It feels surreal. Then, as I’m edging up the final climb, my phone, which is in the back pocket of my running vest, suddenly starts blaring out alarms and jingles and weird sounds it’s never made before. It’s so loud, it freaks me out but I’m too tired to stop and check it. Instead, I keep turning round, convinced there’s someone behind me. Fat Tony maybe. I must be hallucinating.

Approaching the hilly bits...

But the end in almost in sight now. I’m heading down The Drive and the sea is sparkling in the distance. A few minutes later, with my phone – or possibly Fat Tony – still blasting out random noises, I hobble over the line on Hove Lawns, five hours and 45 minutes after I set off and a full 90 minutes behind fellow Phoenix runners Alex Sawbridge and Alan Twomey who, heroically, bag second and third overall.

I totter back to my bike which earlier I’d left by the King Alfred, from where buses had ferried us to the start. Fortunately, it’s a short ride home but when I get there I’ve seized up and can’t get off. I’ll have to be hoisted, like Henry VIII in full armour dismounting his horse. Eventually, leaning on the dustbin and with much grunting and swearing, I’m able to ease a leg over and shuffle to the front door.

After a couple of ibuprofen that night, the following day I was surprisingly chipper. I haven’t run much since – which feels odd – but I’ll pick it up again soon. Would I do it again? When I was stuck astride my bike King Henry-style I was thinking no way, never, not on your nelly.

Now though? Hmm. Yeah. Maybe.

All worth it in the end...or was it?!