The Promise

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I’m running my first ultramarathon in 20 days. I’m supposed to be, anyway. I promised myself I would run an ultramarathon before my thirtieth birthday, and it’s the last opportunity I have to keep my promise.

I want to do it because I love the challenge, and I love the peace of long-distance running. And I love that you don’t have to be good at it to enjoy it. In fact, not running for a time makes the experience all the more enjoyable for me. The last time I took a break from running was shortly after I’d got my 10k PB 2 minutes quicker than the previous attempt and had started to wear myself out trying to beat it. I’d fallen into that “what’s the point of trying if I’m going to fail” trap and only the new challenge of distance rather than speed got me back on track. With the unenviable combination of a vicious competitive streak and no aptitude for sports, I had to take up running; I’ve only got myself to answer to, account for and compete against and that suits me fine.

The ultra I’ve chosen – partly because of timing, partly because it’s not too nuts a distance (32.75 miles) and partly because it’s run in 5 laps of just over 10k which means my support team (mum) can be waiting at one spot with top up supplies for me rather than chasing me around the course. It’s also in the middle of the night, in a farm in Canterbury, in February. That sentence alone did it for me.

When I tell people about the race, I always find myself qualifying it with “it’s not even quite 33 miles”, “it’s not much more than I’ve done before”, “it’s only technically an ultra”. Why do I do that? No-one’s ever agreed with me on that last point – not even one running buddy who has attempted the Grand Union Canal run three times and who knows what is an ultra and what isn’t. Why I am downplaying it?

I’m not trying to show off (said the woman writing a blog about it). No really, I’m not. This blog isn’t meant to be about me dick measuring – with any luck it’s just equal parts sharing experiences with like-minded people and catharsis. It’s also not that I’m taking it lightly. What as you up to at the weekend? Oh, just knocking out 30-odd miles, nothing special. If only 30 miles wasn’t a big deal to me. And I’m certainly not fishing for glory or compliments like some kind of Facebook attention seeker throwing out vague, maudlin statuses that people reply to with comments like “U ok hun?”. Not today, anyway.

I think ultimately I’m managing my own expectations, not anyone else’s. If I stopped to think about the enormity of the challenge I’d never get further than the foot of my bed. How many miles? And I’ve got to do the same loop five times? And I’m running on my own? In the middle of the night? When the temperature is bound to be in minus figures? And probably raining? And I’ve got a two hour drive home afterwards? ARGH.

Which must have been at the back of my mind for the last two weeks. Two horrendous run-free weeks, for one reason and another. For every session missed the panic in the pit of my stomach doubled, another hour’s sleep was lost. First work – both my day job and a freelance job I’ve for some reason signed up to – started to eat into my running sessions. Then unexpected family visits, then family visits I was expecting that never materialised. Then illness, while I wrapped myself in cotton wool against the terror of… a common cold. Then my Wednesday running group cancelled, and I didn’t want to go alone. Then it was a bit cold. Then there was a y in the day. Any of these sound familiar?

Keeping up my training is all about streaks for me. A good training streak sustains itself – you don’t want a blemish on the record so you’ll drag yourself from your deathbed to go out running. Then there’s the other side of the coin. Haven’t been for five days? It might as well be six. Make sure that sniffly nose is definitely recovered, or get that report finished for work so you can concentrate better tomorrow. It’s a defence mechanism against nerves and worry. If I’m on a streak I don’t have the luxury of worrying if I’m able to continue it, because the compulsion to maintain the streak takes precedence. But if I pause for one moment that’s one moment to spend worrying about all the things that could happen ever, which becomes two moments, which becomes two weeks. My compulsion to sustain a streak or keep a routine is my catalyst for action otherwise I’d rationalise my way out of ever leaving the house.

Of course that’s not the whole story – on a good day I can go out feeling like shit but knowing that I never come back from a run feeling worse, and it’ll all be worth it in a few miles time. I know how much I love running while I’m out there doing it but it always starts with that first tight-muscled wheezy-breathed numb-fingered step to kick start the engine. So how do I recapture that thought when I’m wrapped in a blanket, simultaneously convincing myself not to run and torturing myself for giving in so easily?

Some people either don’t have that hard a time persuading themselves to go out, or instinctively know it’ll all be worth it when they do. These are good people, and they probably help old ladies across the street and smile for no particular reason. Some people raise money for charity to give themselves the motivation to go out and train in all weathers, the fear of letting someone else down worse than the fear of the challenge itself. For others, the motivation lies in getting fitter or slimmer and looking like someone out of Heat magazine. Some people have no fear; running is as part a fabric of their being as breathing and eating. For me, and I dare say (hope) many others, a challenge is its own reward.

That’s it for me; I’ve said I’m going to finish an ultra before I’m thirty and that’s what I’m going to do. I’ve told enough people now I’ll be made out a liar if I don’t follow through – or worse, flaky. It’s a verbal contract. The downplaying tactics are all for my benefit, not anyone else’s.

Enough psyching myself out. I’m lacing up my running shoes. I’ve a promise to keep.

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