On the right day, in the right circumstances, 100 miles is nothing and yet 10 miles is the longest distance in the world.
An ex boss once gave me a piece of advice that didn’t quite sit right with me: “Never admit you don’t know what you’re doing; just wing it and pretend to be confident.” That’s not an unusual piece of advice to be fair, certainly not to anyone with ambition. I disagree with it though; I think ambition is defined by more than just bullshitting your way out of any situation, I think it’s judging your limits and then pushing as far beyond them as you can bear. Then having a bit of a rest and a slice of cake. Kind of like interval training.
Needless to say I didn’t take the career advice at face value, but I did carry on pushing myself out of my comfort zone, responding to setbacks with my usual cheerful candour, and never pretending I had something in control when I didn’t; sometimes, painfully obviously so. It’s not a tactic that always pans out well, and consequently I’m not scaling the great career heights that some of my contemporaries are, but I know that when I do succeed I’ll have done it on my own terms.
I know that my approach to management tends to put people on the back foot; they’re not expecting candour, they’re expecting absolute control. My job usually means coordinating a number of total strangers from different trades, none of which I excel in myself, to make sure an artistic vision is achieved on time, on budget, as safely as possible and exactly as designed. Many experienced production managers I know would agree with that piece of advice, because much of the job is PR rather than technicianship, and because no matter how good you are at your job you won’t get much chance to do it if the artistic team doesn’t have full confidence in you. You never say “I don’t know”; you say “I’ll find out” or “Yes, definitely.” That’s just the way it is.
It doesn’t stop me taking on challenges, mind you; I just don’t go into those challenges acting as though nothing could go wrong. On the contrary, I spend every waking minute thinking four or five steps ahead at every possibility, planning for the worst and hoping for the best, and every sleeping minute having horrific anxiety dreams. It’s a tiring, arse-backwards and entirely inefficient way to conduct my business, but I get it done. And, I now realise, it’s how I’ve conducted my running career so far as well.
It is the approach that lined up my calendar for July and August 2015 thus:
Sunday 19th July: Run 50 Mile Challenge; at closer to fifty-three, fourteen miles longer than any continuous run I’ve ever done before. Also my qualifying race for the NDW100, as rules state you must have completed a 50 miler before being allowed to compete.
Monday 20th July – Saturday 1st August: Thirteen straight days of work, each starting at 8am and finishing anywhere between 7pm and 1am the next day. Usually a fair bit of shouting. Not always me.
Sunday 2nd August: Run Vanguard Way Marathon, persuaded to sign up at the eleventh hour because no reason. Being out in the sunshine on my one day off from a dark room seemed like a good idea at the time.
Monday 3rd – Thursday 6th August: Back to work on normal hours. Possibly including a very messy press night party and a lot of espresso martinis.
Friday 7th August: Oh shit oh shit oh shit pack bags…
And so I found myself in Farnham, back at the same hotel Cat and I had stayed in for the Pilgrim’s Challenge, eating the same calzone at the same Pizza Express, and trying not to think about the alarm set for 4am on Saturday 8th August.
Becky and Russell, two other Chasers who were also preparing for their first 100 miler, were staying in the same hotel and I caught up with them as I left registration. We had fellow Chasers poised to join us at the 50 mile checkpoint and pace the rest of the way; for me that would be Alex (Albro) who gave up a Less Than Jake ticket to come and who had been learning songs to sing to me and keep me company. Solid gold.
I met Becky and Russell in the reception at 4.45am the next morning, ready for the mile long stomp to the race HQ. We were a vibrant, sparkling bundle of positive energy and happy thoughts- no, sorry, I couldn’t even finish that sentence. We were not that. We were three very bleary-eyed people, slightly mushy of brain and furry of tongue, and always on the lookout for a loo. So, average runners on raceday morning.
This was not the first attempt at a group selfie…
I’ll be honest, I wasn’t at all worried about the distance at this stage. I thought I was prepared, deep in the darkest recesses of my mind, for the possibility that I wouldn’t finish it, but as a thing I couldn’t affect in advance it was right down at the bottom of the list of things I was worried about. I was worried about the warm weather forecast, about the fact that I’d got it into my head to try for a 24 hour finish even though I knew that was a stupid idea, about hallucinating in the dark and about getting lost in Kent. But not about the distance. Just break it down to the chunks between checkpoints, and eat like a horse after a hunger strike.
It took a couple of miles over singletrack before the pack started to thin out; a blessing in disguise really, as it meant that I could stay with Becky and Russell for a bit longer and not be tempted to go too fast. It couldn’t last though; Becky was bouncing up the hills like an ibex even as everyone else was already taking the opportunity for a walk break, and Russell’s seven league strides were too much for me to keep up with so I let them go on and tried to resist the temptation to race. Besides, half the fun is finding new people to make friends with.
And so, the familiar stretch from Guildford through Box Hill and on to Merstham was given a whole new complexion through my chats with a runner called Ilsuk Han, a calm and kindly Centurion regular doing his second 100 miler and first North Downs Way. We had the same average pace for much of that section, but with his steady rhythm and my uphill plods and downhill cartwheels we crossed over here and there and mostly only stayed together on the flats. His running stories were encouraging and the Box Hill/Denbies rollercoaster passed almost without notice, compared with the vessel bursting effort on the same stretch back in February; although, to be fair, it’s a lot easier when the ground is solid rather than porridgey, glutinous mud. I think – I hope – my docker’s vernacular made him laugh more than it did blush, and I hope he knows that his patience and kindness made twenty miles feel like two. I’ve proselytised before about the inspiration I find in the strangers I run with, and I’m grateful for the stories I’m able to collect along the way.
So it was a shame that I eventually had to let him go too – he was on course for a comfortable sub-24 which he absolutely nailed, and I had started to feel time slip away from that target – and find a new stretch of trail to make friends with. The iPod stayed in my pocket, and my soundtrack was my thoughts. The first time I felt any sort of discomfort was the Caterham aid station, but a pause and a change of socks sorted that right out. It occurred to me that it was a little early to be feeling tight muscles and tired legs, but then I had enough experience under my belt to know that discomfort and pain comes in waves not a linear progression, and before long the niggles were shaken out and I was back into a happy rhythm.
From that point on the route recces I had done started to pay for themselves; unbelievably, given my track record, I didn’t get lost once. The section that hands over from Surrey to Kent is notable by the beautifully carved signpost, farmlands, and sudden absence of obvious signage (or, more accurately, sudden profligate overgrowth of the trees covering the fingerposts) but I found the familiar twists and turns with relative ease. By this stage I was doing my “old lady trot” as Katherine would put it, keeping a steady turnover with minimal impact, and taking tactical walk breaks any time I approached cows and baby cows, which was lots. I love animals, including cows, but being a thing that moves fast and is usually brightly coloured I’m very careful not to startle them and cause a stampede. A metric ton of stupid hurtling towards me would be a bollocks way to DNF.
The last few miles to Knockholt and the fifty-mile mark – the point where I could pick up some hot food, my pacer Alex and a change of shoes – seemed to take hours. ACTUAL hours. It was a section I had tested part of (except for the detour to the aid station which represented the only variation from the official North Downs Way) so I should have known exactly how long it was, but being full of handovers from field to identical field I found myself expecting to be at the end about twelve times over, and without my Garmin on to tell me my mileage my sense of scale was all out of whack. I’m sure it can’t have been as bad as I thought it was, but it made me realise how crucial the recces had been for me from a psychological rather than physical point of view. Finally, finding the road to the aid station and seeing Team Chasers hanging over the rail hoping to catch sight of me, I put on a sprint and basically dived into the hall.
When I got there Becky had very recently left, but Russell was still slumped in a chair despite having reached the checkpoint an hour earlier. He looked peaky, and had had a little nap already, notwithstanding the efforts of pacer Frankie and the exuberant marshal cajoling all the runners to get moving as soon as possible. Whether it was simply relief at reaching the aid station, joy at seeing my friends again or the prospect of hot food and cold shoes, I felt as strong as I’d felt all day, if not stronger. I charged up my phone with the block I left in my drop bag, changed into my QPR top and topped up with Lucozade. Between the marshal, the fear of cramping up and the desire to bloody finish, I wanted to get out of the door as soon as possible and on the way.
While I was sorting myself out Albro brought me a plate of cheesy pasta and bolognese; delicious, as far as my ruined tastebuds could tell, and the perfect antidote to energy bars. Or so I thought. In retrospect, taking a rest at the one aid station with a roof and facilities would have been the sensible long term plan, not to mention letting my dinner go down before getting back on the road. Bloody hell, my mum taught me to do that when I was two years old. And yet, at thirty one I somehow forgot that most basic piece of dietary advice, and jumped straight back on the road. And immediately suffered what Runners World delicately calls “gastric distress”.
I’m not going to get obscene on you here; “distress” is very much the operative word. The simple (obvious) mistake of failing to wait for my dinner to go down resulted in excruciating pain and nausea like I’ve never experienced. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I’d have been fine had I waited fifteen more minutes at Knockholt, but not doing so meant an agonizingly slow ten miles to the next checkpoint, stopping every now and again to suppress the urge to throw up or pass out. Maybe throwing up would have sorted me out – it’s certainly not unknown for ultrarunners to metaphorically wake up after a technicolour yawn – but in my delirium I was terrified of the prospect of vomiting and resisted it with all my strength, to the detriment of my ability to run. The ten mile stretch to the next checkpoint took three hours.
Three hours, during which time I didn’t eat a single thing and barely managed to keep down even Lucozade. I know that pacers know what they’re letting themselves in for, but even so it must have been a miserable three hours for Albro and yet he kept a brave face and a bouncy step all the way, singing songs with me and patiently waiting for me to pick myself up every time I doubled over. How had I gone from strong and sprightly to barely able to move in such a short distance? I think my inability to rationalise it crushed me as much as the physical effect did. No blisters, no muscle or joint problems, no sunstroke, no broken bones. I just ran out of gas.
The worst of it was, I didn’t really understand what had happened to me until the Wrotham checkpoint by which time it was too late to recover. I tried vainly to send down a few pieces of fruit and half a cup of coffee, which picked me up enough for the next stretch; at just five and a half miles, I couldn’t not have a go. But it was too little, too late. I savoured the fruit and the milky coffee – even more so as the aid station’s portable stove caught fire just minutes after Alex brought me my cup and put paid to anyone else’s intentions on a hot drink – but their calories were spent before I reached the end of the road.
Maybe it was psychosomatic; maybe I just needed to give myself a talking to. We’d only just hit sundown, a watershed I hadn’t been looking forward to, but the fear of darkness was as nothing to me as my desire to rip out my stomach and be done with the troublesome bloody thing. I could manage five and half miles on my hands and knees, I told myself, and being mostly hill and scrub I pretty much had to. Albro kept my spirits up and my mind sharp by asking me riddles; I remember really clearly one being about a man in darkness which for some reason scared the crap out of me, and it was one of the few that totally stumped me. At least the views, lit by only a headtorch and a hint of moonlight, were unforgettable. I don’t think a photo can really do justice to how stunning the M25, enveloped by countryside, really looked that night.
I have no memory of approaching the checkpoint at Holly Hill; I do remember flumping into a fold out chair underneath a gazebo, allowing Albro to put a cup of coffee into my shaking hands, and realising then that I simply had nothing left to give. I bargained with myself for a bit: if I sit down for five or ten minutes I might feel better, then I can make a decision; if another runner comes in looking worse than me and still carries on then I have to as well; if I get Albro’s next riddle right… It was all bullshit though, I knew that. The next aid station was another ten miles away; had it been five or six again I told myself I would have tried to limp on, but deep down I knew there was no fuel in the tank. It’s a really demoralising way to crash out. No heroic injury to battle against, no disaster or calamity or defining moment to cling on to. It didn’t feel like hitting a brick wall; more like falling into warm marshmallow, sinking further and further and eventually suffocating to death.
Apparently I was slurring like a drunk and hypoglycaemic, although I remember being pretty lucid, which I hope was at least funny to watch. I gave my number to the marshal and waved my white flag… and then I had to do the really heartwrenching bit, forcing Andy out of our warm bed in the middle of the night to make the hour and a half drive and pick us up. The nausea and pain had started to abate by this stage, so we waited patiently (Albro) and miserably (me) for our lift, watching the other runners pass through the checkpoint. I wasn’t the only dropout at that station – by the end of the race there was around a forty percent DNF rate overall, which was both sort of comforting and incredibly depressing – so the kindly nurse had his hands full. After over an hour of waiting, during which time I’d been huddled up in my foil blanket and dry spare clothes (as prescribed by the mandatory checklist, thank fuck) the vague feeling of tiredness and gluey mouth gave way to a wave of intense nausea, nausea like being in a lurching taxi after five Jagerbombs, a spinning head and a loss of control in all my limbs. Everything went black. This was the moment I’d been dreading, fighting for nearly six hours. I’m terrified of being sick; I can’t deal with it at all, much less when there’s nothing there to be sick with. I started to panic, crawled over to one side – what I thought was one side, until the nurse caught me and steered me towards some bushes – and collapsed. Two cups of coffee and some bits of apple. And as if the last six hours hadn’t happened, I was absolutely fine again.
I started to pick up physically, but all that did was make me feel even more stupid for not allowing myself to be sick earlier and getting it over and done with, so I could eat and carry on. Albro was keeping up with the reports on Russell, who was also struggling to eat but after a tactical chunder kept himself going on sugary tea. Eventually he was able to overtake Becky and make his sub-24 hour target; an astonishing enough achievement for someone on their first 100 miler, never mind following that up with a 36 mile navigation race in the Lake District three weeks later. Becky herself had slowed down but ploughed doggedly on and completed in 28 hours, her sunny smile breaking through the morning fog. I was so happy for both of them, and at the same time completely crushed that I couldn’t share that triumph.
The drive home, the few hours’ sleep, the drive all the way to Wye and back the next day to pick up my finish line bag, all were conducted in a self-pitying, graceless torpor. All I could hear in my head was the voice of the marshal asking if I was sure about pulling out, telling me how much worse I’d feel if I didn’t try and carry on. It wasn’t even about feeling physically bad; it was feeling as though I’d let Alex and Andy down, two people who gave up their weekends to support me only for me to give up two-thirds of the way in, and as though I’d let the Chasers down, registering a DNF against the club’s otherwise stellar reputation. And then the car broke down.
I’m writing this four weeks on, and I still haven’t fully pulled myself together. Going out for social runs with Chasers and with other running friends is tough, because being reminded not just of the race but of running in general feels like being reminded of my failure. I force myself out of the door because indulging in Eeyore-y moping is both counter-productive and utterly selfish. Not to mention a kick in the teeth to anyone who would give their right leg to be able to run sixty six miles, as I was sharply reminded by my non-runner mates when I rebuffed their congratulations. They’re right; I am behaving like a petulant dickbag. I will snap out of it eventually. I will appreciate what I achieved; technically a distance PB, a pretty respectable 50 mile split, nearly two and a half marathons back to back. It’s not the achievement I set out to get, but as Mick Jagger once said, you don’t always get what you want.
I read a quote recently that goes “Success is measured by the difference between your goal and your performance.” By that metric, I have every right to be all maudlin and emo about my DNF. Then again, I have to confront the fact that either my goals were unrealistic or my performance was well below standard. One way or the other, there’s no chance of me redeeming myself without accepting my shortfalls and examining how to address them, applying the effort to do so and preparing myself for setbacks. In other words, I’ve been a hypocrite. I took on a challenge with my fake confidence and shit-eating grin and expected to brazen my way out of it. Doubling mileage in just three weeks? Trying to run 100 miles right after two straight weeks of no sleep? Sure, they’re excuses, but I should know better than that. I’m not superhuman.
Not yet, anyway. North Downs Way 100, I’ll be back for you next year.