I will say one thing for running fifty six miles in two days. You certainly aren’t fussy about your sleeping arrangements by the end of day two.
The first night’s sleep was punctuated by something between childlike excitement on Christmas Eve and that cold-sweat anxiety you get before going back to work on Monday, and although I felt OK I can’t say it was the most restful night I’ve ever had. By contrast, I slept like a log on the second night, barely even needing my iPad to help me drift off. Not that it stopped me getting up with the sparrows (and the long distance walkers) at 5:45 the next morning, but at least I woke up naturally instead of being jerked awake by an alarm like I usually am. And I was bloody starving.
Noushka, the runner I had met on the way to Tring on day one, was starting in the first group on day three and I caught up with her at breakfast. She was taking the weekend as easily as she needed to, enjoying the countryside and having a good old gossip along the way. Like most of the runners she was feeling a bit stiff and looking forward to the finish line, but in high spirits. As I inhaled a large bowl of muesli and a cup of coffee in the temporary canteen, I also bumped into Mal and Alfredo – each were dragging a tractor tyre behind them for the full eighty four miles – and discovered for the first time just how much work they were putting into keeping up with the main group. Whereas the elite runners started at 9am, the mid-packers (including myself) at 8am and the walkers at 7am, Mal and Alfredo were leaving the camp at 6am each morning and still getting back last. Not that you’d have read thirty hours of hiking with a 40lb tyre on either of their stoic, calm faces.
When I got back to my campbed I saw Storme, who was one position and about eleven minutes ahead of me in the overall rankings, trying to stretch out some very sore muscles. I had been chatting to her for a while on day two; a veteran of triathlon who had completed four Ironman races, she was one of the many runners who had signed up for the Marathon des Sables in 2016 and using the Druids Challenge as a training race. Despite her name Storme was sunny and fun and very easy to talk to, but obviously a very tough competitor. I had half an eye on not losing ground to tenth lady, currently eighteen minutes behind me, and half an eye on trying to leapfrog Storme, but seeing how much such an experienced endurance athlete seemed to be struggling before we even started made me cautious not to overcook it at the start, especially as the start would be the continuation of the long slow uphill we left at the end of the day before. We wished each other luck and prepared to pack up for the shuttle bus back to the race start.
The forecast for day three was much kinder than the first two – no rain to speak of, much less wind, just grey skies and a nice brisk temperature to keep us cool as we ran. Perfect trail weather. This time I kept my waterproof jacket in my bag and started in just a thermal long sleeved top and my newer Chasers vest. I also left my cap in my backpack this time and went for my new XNRG branded buff instead. Today I wanted to stay as cool and travel as light as possible. Today was all about maintaining a strong pace with minimum effort.
After an early two minutes’ silence for Remembrance Sunday, we started as a group of forty back at the trailhead just before 8am. I positioned myself towards the front of the group again, mostly keeping up with a obstacle race fanatic called Ciara. Ciara was easy to spot in head-to-toe orange and had a fantastically even pace going up and down hills; she said that she had never been a fast runner, but pounding through mud and over hills was her speciality, which suited the Druids Challenge absolutely. As we chugged along we both remarked on just how many women there seemed to be in our pack – not just keeping up with the men, but consistently outrunning them. In fact the first ten runners in our group included nine women, there were eight more in the elite group starting an hour later, and the leading lady was comfortably sitting in fifth overall. An encouraging statistic for female ultrarunners, getting ever closer to being able to drop qualifiers like ‘first lady’ and go for outright wins.
The third stage was twenty eight miles pretty much bang on, which I mentally broke down into four quarters at seven miles each. For the first seven miles I persuaded my weary legs not to slow down, despite the almost constant climb, and tried to put as much distance between myself and the tenth place lady as possible, but by the time I reached the first aid station a rejuvenated Storme plus about five other ladies were ahead of me and pushing on. Refusing to be drawn into someone else’s race, I spent as little time as possible at the aid station and continued in my own rhythm, happily singing along to the few bars of Modest Mouse’s Float On that I knew. My goal was to be as consistent as possible; not a spectacular strategy, but the only chance I had over such a strong field. Everybody had their game face on today, and this was my first real experience of racing.
I started to struggle after the halfway point, knowing that I would be unlikely to catch Storme and was most likely losing ninth place as well, but I didn’t let it bother me. Instead, I looked back on what I had achieved over the last two and a half days. It wasn’t just the distance, although I was proud of that; I thought back on my mental state, how I had coped with racing and spending less time chatting to others, how I had faced down torrential rain and winds strong enough to knock me over, how I had pushed myself when there was the temptation to dial back and how I had handled exhaustion. More than anything though, I suddenly realised how well my body had held up. Apart from a bit of stiffness I hadn’t suffered any pain or injury, nor had I had any real fitness issues to speak of. I was amazed.
And, sappy as it sounds, I was temporarily overcome with gratitude to my body for staying in one piece all this way. Out loud, I told each part in turn how proud I was – proud of my feet for carrying me so far without pain, my hamstring and my calves for not giving me any bother, my back for staying strong, my stomach for not staging a revolt, my neck for keeping my head high, my head for not succumbing to negative thoughts or doubt, everything for battling through tiredness. For the first time since I was a teenager, I felt genuine love for my body and what it could do. We haven’t always had a great relationship; I’ve taken it for granted, scolded it for letting me down, all the while subjecting it to more abuse than most people would even consider. And all this time it had soldiered on, without thanks or even recognition of its efforts. Like a dog expecting another kick from its bad-tempered master and instead getting a scratch behind the ears, it responded with a bound of joy and I pushed on to climb the next hill as if it was the first step on the first day again.
To be honest, the hills were a welcome distraction in an otherwise slightly dull course. Does that sound churlish? If it is, it’s no reflection on the race organisers or on the trail itself – after covering so much of it I suppose I was started to get bored of seeing beautiful things. It reminded me of when I went to Rome with Andy for his thirtieth birthday; for the first two days we were dumbstruck by everything we saw, which wasn’t hard because the city is saturated with history and beauty. Turn a corner, there’s another thousand year old building of huge cultural importance, tucked in between insurance brokers and ice cream shops. The Coliseum sits in the centre of the road like an enormous roundabout, the Trevi Fountain jumps out at you from a side street without warning, people live in historical artefacts like squatters occupying a museum. It’s overwhelming to begin with, but then after a few days we became a bit blasé – even a little hardened against the charm of these incredible monuments because they were just everywhere. Oh look, another famous thing. That’s nice. I felt a little bit like that after fourteen miles of perfect trail conditions. Maybe I’m just a spoiled brat.
Then again, within moments of coming up to the only real section of main road we’d have to cover that day I was already pining to be back on the trail. A slightly hair-raising stretch, running along the grass verge of an A-road that crossed the M4, I was both mindful of traffic and terrified of sign-blindness; whenever I’ve lost my way in a race before it’s been when a trail crosses paths with civilisation and a nice simple track becomes a disorientating spaghetti jumble of where the hell do I turn next. Luckily, I came across a few runners from the early start at this point so I knew I was on track, including Alfredo and Mal, and one chap who was standing dead still on the side of the road, chin on chest, being buffeted by the passing traffic. I stopped to ask him if he was OK and he nodded and simply said “11am”. Of course, he was observing the Remembrance Sunday two minutes’ silence, properly this time. I stopped with him and reflected for a minute. I remembered my own grandparents who both served in World War II – my nan who never ever threw leftover food away because rationing taught her she might not get another meal, my grandad who lost all his hair in the heat of Burma and always marched rather than walked, even when he was going down the shops – and I remembered Andy’s grandad, who until he passed away last year would take part in the Remembrance Sunday parade come rain or shine. Normally I would have been at Westminster watching him; today I had my own parade to march in.
When we finally turned off the road it was to climb yet another steep incline up to single track trail, out in the open and exposed again. I didn’t mind the climb, but I thought of Mal and Alfredo. Singing Float On louder and more tunelessly than ever, I looked forward to the final checkpoint which would come at the bottom of a long descent before one more steep climb – ups and downs, just what I’d been hoping for. As I approached I saw first lady Maree come gliding past me almost effortlessly, slow down just long enough to have her number taken and cross the road, then she was off again. It was inspiring to see, and by my count she was still in good position for her overall placing too.
At that point I was also looking forward to allowing myself a brief bit of tourism – I saw the route card mention a castle just after the last checkpoint that I wanted to get a photo of, but I soon discovered that our perfect trail running weather was turning bad the higher we went, and soon enough there was no chance of seeing my hand in front of my face let alone a castle. I did however see Noushka and another runner who were both hiking more than running, and for a short while we climbed together into the mist. Eventually though I left them behind and pushed on, now impatient to get onto the final stretch. My good mood and benevolence was starting to wear thin, and I was starting to lose my nerve as well. The higher we climbed, the thicker the pea-souper we were plunging into, and soon enough I couldn’t see any points of interest to aim for, or a way out, or my bearings. Agoraphobia started to set in. Had I made a mistake in not sticking with company? I couldn’t tell how much more of the fog we had to get through, although I knew that we’d go downhill again before the end and therefore come out into clear air again, and I was frightened. I tried to keep my spirits up by singing but my voice came out as dry sobs, and after having got this far without music I was damned if I was going to give in this close to the end. The photo at the top shows the only two souls I saw that whole stretch. If I hadn’t had them in front of me I might well have given up and would probably still be there.
By the time we reached the gate and turned right off the Ridgeway and onto the home stretch, my mind was unravelling. The last mile and a half was on a road, and I was torn between feeling as though I ought to run and still struggling to get my breath back; it was only then I realised I’d had a mild panic attack up on the last hill which is why I was having such trouble breathing. Still disorientated and impatient to reach the end, I picked up the pace just a bit too early and caught up with a couple of guys at what I thought was the road to the hotel where we were due to finish. Cars kept screaming past me or impatiently revving their engines behind me and it pissed me off. Surely these drivers are all friends of runners otherwise they wouldn’t even be on this road – why are they being so aggressive? One of the other runners shouted something back at me that sounded like “right” as another car skimmed me by inches, but it was a few minutes before I regained my senses and realised what he was saying. I’d finally clocked that we still had over a mile to go, and what I thought was the hotel was just a random house. The runner had been telling me to run on the right hand side of the road so I could see cars coming and avoid them. We were probably still on a public road and the drivers most likely local people who had nothing to do with the race. Whoops.
When the turnoff for the hotel eventually appeared I burst into sobs again – I couldn’t believe it was finally here. This time I could speed up again without fear. I sprinted towards the familiar white flags leapt as high as I could over the finish line, and stopped my Suunto. Sixteen and a half hours for eighty four miles, give or take a couple of minutes, give or take a few tenths of a mile. Even without the contrast of my panic attack from earlier, I’ve never felt jubilation like it. My brain and my body had finally proven themselves to be a dream team, and after the heartbreak of the North Downs Way 100 I most definitely had my mojo back.
After one last quick sports massage to tide me over until I was home, I took advantage of one of the hotel rooms they had booked for us and jumped under the shower to wash off the worst of the mud and sweat. By the time I got back to the main room to pick up a coffee and some cake, catch up with other runners and look out for the live scores, the shuttle bus was just about to leave for Swindon station and would get me there just in time for the next train to Reading so I jumped on. One of the other passengers had had the presence of mind to take a photo of the current standings and showed it to me – there I was, unbelievably, eighth lady. Surely not? I knew I’d lost ground on the person in tenth – had two dropped out ahead of me, or had I gone faster than I thought? I was gobsmacked. Text messages went to Andy and Cat, frozen fingers mashing the screen, and I tried to see if there was any information on the website, but couldn’t get data signal for long enough to sustain the loading of a page. Eventually a message came through from Andy congratulating me on tenth place; I was right then, it WAS too good to be true. I’d forgotten, of course, that the photo had been taken less than an hour after I’d finished – which is to say, before all the elite runners in the later start had come in – and clearly there were two still to go when I got on that bus.
I gave myself a slap. Tenth lady on my first ever three-day race is not something to turn my nose up at, and I knew I hadn’t held onto my position anyway. My body gave me a disapproving nudge and reminded me not to be so ungrateful. You’re right, I said – and my heart was suddenly filled with pride. Statistics aside, I was ecstatic about what I had achieved. Faith in myself: tick. My first ever hundred-mile week: tick. Running an ultra without needing my iPod once: tick. The knowledge that I had given it my all, but at the same time managed my efforts perfectly: tick. I was proud of me. Andy would be proud of me. I had done the Chasers vest justice.
Now I know what I’m capable of. Next time, all I have to do is prove it.