When I tackled the 50 Mile Challenge last year, it was my second attempt at completing an ultramarathon. I met a man who revived my love of running by teaching me to share the experience with your fellow runners, I discovered that rain won’t melt you, and that it’s always handy to keep a change of shoes, and why Jack Kerouac was such an inspiration to Jenn Shelton. And I made it round 39.3 triumphant miles of the course before throwing in the (very muddy) towel. I hadn’t run further than that in one go since.
Last year, mum and I had stayed in a Travelodge about 20 mins drive away from the race start, being as it is in the middle of nowhere, but when we drove down on the Saturday evening to register and pick up my race pack spotted a couple of tents and sleeping bags and realised just what a trick we’d missed. This time we came prepared for a campfire and a sing song, and it was absolutely the right decision; even more so when we discovered there was space in the dry, cosy barn for us to pitch our tents rather than the rocky ground outside. We planned down to the last detail, each of us with specific responsibilities to make sure we had dinner, entertainment and lodgings covered between us. Mum was in charge of cooking implements. She brought wine, but forgot cutlery. I knew then it would be an awesome evening.
It was comforting enough to know I’d be right there for the 6am start the next morning, but it also meant we got to have a good old chat and a game of cards with the other campers: Julie and Derren, both of whom are regular fixtures at Challenge Hub races; Mal, who was attempting to do the whole race dragging a tire behind him; and Emma, who had come all the way from Staffordshire for her first ultramarathon. We cooked up a huge pot of cheese and broccoli pasta on mum’s portable stove, which we ate with some scavenged plastic spoon and a bit of twig, then taught everyone how to play Shithead, fuelled by mum’s interminable supply of chocolate nuts and raisins, before retiring to the pitch darkness of our tents. Camping has never been high on my list of things that are fun, but for a low key race in a low key setting it was the perfect preparation. And at least it wasn’t a fucking Travelodge.
Sleeping in a pitch black barn, on a quick build campbed (bought after discovering how cold sleeping on the floor is during the Pilgrim’s Challenge), ended up being one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had pre-race. I’ve got to the point now where I just give up any hope of sleeping the night before either through nerves or circumstance, but I honestly couldn’t have got a more satisfying forty winks if I’d been sleeping on clouds and happy thoughts. And so obviously I was in a hideously good mood come 5am the following morning; and for once, on time.
Lovely Mike Inkster gave his legendary pre-race speech as we shuffled around excitably, starting with the phrase “Don’t worry about the distance,” which is pretty much the best piece of advice any ultrarunner will ever get, and off we went. I fell in step with Emma and another lady called Gillian, all three of us doing our first 50 miler, and we promised to stay together for as long as possible to make sure each of us got to the end.
One of the things I love most about ultra running – especially Challenge Hub races – is just how sociable it is. It’s a huge part of the reason why I go back to these races time and time again; these races that make no sense, that push your muscles to melting point and turn your feet to pools of mush, and yet leave me musing on the mental challenges more than the physical, worrying about how I will keep my mind from fraying long after I stopped caring about the effect of fifty miles on my body. I learned in past races how much easier it is to have someone else to run with, and how important it is to switch off the iPod just when you’d think you need it most. It definitely helps when the people you are running with happen to be among the most inspirational people you will ever meet, and it’s not coincidence that the people you meet during ultras often are.
Emma, a petite and cheerful young lady from Lichfield with nothing more high tech than her club vest and a pair of basic running shoes, was relatively new to running. She told us how she loved taking herself off for long runs with no idea of how far she was planning to go; just to keep going until she knew she was done. In fact, she couldn’t even say for certain how far her longest run had been prior to the 50 Mile Challenge, although it must have been in the region of thirty or so miles. Her kit was the barest minimum of what it needed to be, and her soundtrack was her thoughts. At the beginning she asked to run with us in order to make sure she kept her speed under control as she had no idea how to pace herself, but within a couple of laps it became obvious she had nothing to worry about, as she left us in the dust. All I saw of her from that point on was a beaming smile as we crossed over halfway through my lap 6 and her lap 7, a genuine smile which came from the bottom of her boots. She is someone to whom running is the most natural thing in the world.
Photo courtesy of Challenge Hub
My companion for the rest of the way was equally inspirational, but the polar opposite in technical terms. Gillian, also on her first 50 miler, was a 3.15 marathoner and wife of an ex-competitive triathlete, and she was a lady with a plan and a super-disciplined crew to back it up. Her husband, sister-in-law and brother-in-law were all on hand at roughly the halfway point of the course with an SUV stocked full of different kinds of food, plus a portable fridge freezer for cold drinks and ice pops and probably the kitchen sink too, and they even paced sections of the lap towards the end of the race. Having been her husband’s crew for years, she knew how to put them to good use and he, being an elite athlete, knew exactly what was needed before even we did. Crewing at that level is practically an art form.
I was prepared for the fact that we’d see all four seasons over the course of the next twelve hours, and we didn’t get much more than a couple of laps in before the heavens opened and the waterproofs came out. It didn’t matter really; it helped soften the sunbeaten ground, washed the sweat from my skin and the mud from my legs, and kept my body temperature under control for just a little longer than I had any right to hope. The rest of the day was forecast to be very hot with odd bursts of showers, which is actually quite a nice way to spend a whole day outdoors; just as you get sick of one extreme the other steps in with a reprieve. It wasn’t quite so nice for the supporters though and my poor Team Mum went from arctic survivalist to jungle explorer with a costume change and a different kind of drink at the end of each lap. Mike Inkster joked that he was considering changing the name to the Lobster Challenge: “First we drench you, then we boil you!”
I knew it was suicide to spend too much time comparing each stage of the race with how I felt last year – it’s suicide to compare how you feel at any one time with how you felt ten seconds ago – but every now and again a systems check told me I was still on course to finish and finish strong, which is all I needed to do, and maybe even keep in touch with Gillian until the end. The race was my qualifier for the North Downs Way 100, which would take place just three weeks later and on the other side of a high profile project at work. I’m pretty sure that when the NDW100 organisers stipulated all runners needed to have finished at least a 50 mile race before being allowed to compete they had something less ambitious than three weeks to double mileage in mind, but I couldn’t think about that. All I had to think about was getting to the end. And the best way to do that was not to think about it.
Chatting to Gillian, I’m even more certain in retrospect, got me through the race. I didn’t have time to register niggles or allow doubt to creep in or grow impatient or grumpy. We inadvertently started to mark parts of the course, finding bits we liked and bits we didn’t and breaking each lap down to manageable chunks. It was an unexpected advantage to lap racing, normally a form of psychological torture, and because we were chatting so much we even came across sections we didn’t recognise, despite having run them four or five times already. I liked going past the mummy swan with her nest of cygnets who hissed at us every time we ran by, and Gillian looked forward to the house with the windmill, partly because it signified the home stretch and partly because windmills are bloody cool. And obviously, we both looked forward to seeing her crew and their amazing stock of chilled goodies at the halfway point.
Photo courtesy of Challenge Hub
Having been a runner and cyclist for many years Gillian was clearly in excellent shape with radiant complexion and obvious reserves of mental and physical strength, and to me, that’s the definition of beauty. A working mother of two, she is a role model for women everywhere as far as I can see; not in a “How does she do it all?” Sarah Jessica Parker sort of way, all ostentatious modesty and thinly veiled bullshit, but a clear example of how to balance the needs of a family with the needs of an individual – or rather, how fulfilling the needs of the individual can be crucial to the wellbeing of the family. And yet, she told me stories of her experience as a working mother and athlete which horrified me; being attacked by other (female) athletes for competing in races while pregnant, and then being ostracised by other new mothers for running to and from baby yoga to keep fit, all against a background of conflicting, often plainly erroneous medical advice. Why are we so terrified by the idea of new and expectant mothers indulging in exercise, especially when a sedentary lifestyle carries just as many hazards with a far higher likelihood? The horror stories did nothing for my faith in humanity, but bloody hell did they make the laps fly by. And they reaffirmed to me that truly extraordinary people are simply people who make the extraordinary ordinary.
And speaking of inspirational people, a Challenge Hub race wouldn’t be complete without Team Mum there to back me up. Lap races are a special kind of tough not least because every time you get to the end you have to start again, but having her there to push food into my hands, record my splits, make a general fuss and give me my lap end hug made it feel like I was simply starting a new race each time, without giving her a logistical headache. And as is customary, she did her Wonderwoman costume change for lap six and joined me and Gillian for the 6.6 mile loop, despite it being her furthest run since Brighton Marathon by a long way, and with a smile plastered to her face all the way round.
Well, most of the way round. Towards the end of the lap she started to flag, and with a mile to go I knew I had to push on while I still had the momentum in my legs. I didn’t want to leave her behind but I was still feeling too fresh to slow down and walk, and I knew that once I did my legs would turn to treacle. She was struggling, pausing for a break after every few steps, getting frustrated and resisting my attempts to keep moving. Asking her to keep up wasn’t fair, and having been on the other side I knew how crap it feels to be pushing just above your comfort pace on such a long run. Then again, I also know mum, because I know myself, and just like me I know that she can do anything she puts her mind to, but force her to do anything and it’s fuck you society. Lo and behold, when I reached the HQ a mile later she was less than half a minute behind me. Because mum can do anything she puts her mind to, and because fuck you society. I love her so much.
I had planned to give myself something to look forward to each lap after halfway for a little psychological boost. 5 was a change of shoes, 6 was mum pacing, 7 was a fresh vest, 8 I was hoping would be a reward in itself. Then I felt the dreaded bonk crash into me like a wave on Reculver beach, on the crossover between lap 7 and lap 8. For the first time I started to feel hotspots forming on my toes and had to change my socks to avoid blistering, but it was almost too late. Gillian was feeling strong and needed to carry on, but her brother in law kindly stayed behind to pace me for the final lap and off we plodded, watching Gillian and her husband put more and more distance between us. I was a little disappointed not to be able to keep up, but so happy to see Gillian with her game face on, going for the strong finish she deserved. I knew I couldn’t catch her now, and Emma was long gone, so I had to content myself with third lady and remember what I came here for in the first place. All I had to do was finish, and I would do it crawling if I had to.
It was a long lap, and a slow one. We chatted about football (he was a Leicester fan), and when I didn’t have the energy to run or even speak we trudged patiently on. Despite chat being the force that drove me through the first seven laps, his patient and quiet demeanour was probably the perfect company for that last six miles, when my energy had run out and all I wanted to do was finish. Finally we passed the windmill for the last time and rounded the corner to the farm, where the end of the lap fiendishly required runners to go past the exit and the shortcut to the barn, circumnavigate the outhouses and turn back to reach the checkpoint. I did this last little loop on my own, the better to enjoy the rush down the slope and crash into Team Mum’s arms at the end. I had done it. 53 – or something like it – miles in 10 hours 43 minutes.
Emma – looking a bit hot but otherwise much the same as she did at the start – had clinched the first lady spot by miles, finishing in just over nine hours pretty much as I was coming in for my final lap. Gillian was about twenty minutes ahead of me, and she and her team were there waiting to cheer me in at the end. We hadn’t managed to stay together until the end, but we’d certainly kept each other going. Only thirty five runners finished any distance, and of those just twenty four completed all eight laps. Emma had her name engraved on the winners’ shield but as is customary in Challenge Hub challenges there’s no prize on offer, no difference between coming first or last. You’re all in it for the same reason. And I’ll be back there next year for the same reason.
I forget sometimes that what I’ve achieved over the last couple of years is actually a bit extraordinary. I think of myself as someone with reasonable standards, but I still take for granted the leaps and bounds I’ve made in my running career – in distance, speed and general fitness – since I was that chubby girl who couldn’t quite make a quarter of a mile without pausing for breath. That was four years and three stone ago. My overwhelming feeling as I crossed the finish line of the 50 Mile Challenge this year was not so much pride at finishing, but pleasure at feeling relatively strong at the end of it – maybe not like I could run another fifty miles straightaway, but at least not afraid of another hundred in three weeks time. Maybe I got cocky. Maybe that was my downfall…