South Downs Way 50

Standard

I’ve tried twice before to complete one of James Elson’s races and both finished with a colossal bonk two thirds of the way in and a DNF. Granted, both attempts were for the North Downs Way 100, where in 2015 I attempted the distance only three weeks after my qualifying 50 mile race – not a recommended time frame for doubling distance – and in 2016 where I didn’t even commit to doing it until the week before, let alone train. Ahem. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate my approach.

So my challenge for 2017 is to take a step back and focus on a more manageable task, relatively speaking. Not to underplay the difficulty of the Centurion races, but as soon as I got home from deepest darkest Kent for the second time and dumped all the uneaten food out of my race vest I decided to sign up for the 50 Mile Grand Slam in 2017: four races across the year along the South Downs, North Downs, Chilterns and Wendover Woods with the promise of an extra bit of bling for finishing all four. If I can train for and normalise a 50 mile race, I might have half a chance of getting past Holly Hill.

Getting as far as the finish of the first race would however take a dramatic change in circumstances. My running routine had ground almost to a halt in 2016, and my work schedule had gone from crazy to totally insane. You can’t train for a 50 mile race by getting your knickers in a twist every time you miss a run, especially when you miss more runs than you make. So, for physical and mental reasons, I decided to restart my daily mile run streak. If I wasn’t going to get the volume of training required to finish the races I at least wanted consistency, and a change in priorities.

So, what could I do to prepare if I couldn’t do the mileage? A busy bit of scheduling at the beginning of the year meant that I was working every other weekend, not to mention many early mornings and evenings, so unfortunately social runs with the Chasers would be out. Loops around the common would have to be enough practice of off-road running, and occasionally doing flat out mile loops around home would take the place of speedwork. Other than that I slotted runs in wherever they fitted with the day’s work – running to and from the tube station usually. It’s only a couple of miles but when it has to be done with a heavy backpack – work clothes and shoes, laptop, lunch, stuff I forgot to take out – it makes for good strength training. And it’s more reliable than the bus.

I also restarted my running diary, which made a lot more sense when there was something to write in it every day, to track my progress on both fronts and keep a count of my weekly mileage. Lining up a few marathons to get back into the rhythm of racing really helped give me something to look forward too as well, not to mention the fact that bought and paid for races were harder to justify missing when weekend work popped up. My fourth attempt at the Moonlight Challenge finally saw me finishing the fifth lap, and the confidence boost that gave me became a massive turning point in my training. If I can get that far I can hike the rest.

Two things drove me to the end of the race. One was the experience of finishing the distance – although that’s a double edged sword, because it brings a calculable standard and the temptation to beat it – and the other was my overall goal to finish the grand slam. When running one race the definition of failure is quitting one race; when running a series the definition of failure in any one is failure of all of them. From one perspective that’s added pressure, but from another it’s the removal of the possibility of voluntary DNF. That’s the mindset I took with me to the start line at Worthing, anyway.

FullSizeRender

The weather forecast was good. Let me rephrase: the weather forecast was good for sun worshippers, less so for ultra runners and ducks. Not for the first time I let my Mediterranean bombast get the better of me and refused the many offers of sun cream; I would pay for that decision later with peeling earlobes and sore shoulders. It was a comforting, homely warmth when we set off at nine in the morning; it was dehydration so bad my palms had stopped sweating by the time I even reached mile 15. Everything stopped sweating. But at the start of the race there was only hope, and the liberating feeling of carrying the barest minimum of items that will keep you alive for the next 50 miles. You know, like melty Snickers bars and a map I won’t use and two head torches on the sunniest day of the year and a lucky (HA HA) QPR cap.

img_6968.jpg

The first aid station is just over 11 miles in, which should feel like a long old way to go without support but really doesn’t. I mean, you can spend a lot of time on the South Downs before getting tired of the scenery, and it helped that I was joined by good company too; in particular two runners from local clubs who knew the terrain and the area well, and spoke of it like someone in love. Perhaps the company was slightly too good; in all my chatting I hadn’t noticed how little I’d drunk of my litre of water, and quite contrary to my plans hadn’t emptied my bottles by the time we reached Botolphs. I had to scull them dry as we reached the aid station to justify refilling them. The sky was clear and cloudless, the air unmoving. The South Downs is, unlike the North Downs I’d spent so much time on, incredibly exposed. There is no tree cover to shield you from rain or rays. You take the rough with the smooth.

Shortly after the first aid station I fell in step with a wine master who had trained nearby and we spent a lot of time looking out for his college on the way to Saddlescombe. He reminded me of my friend Chris; chronologically the youngest in our group of hooligans but who, being more interested in the world than anyone I know, taught us how to identify Bordeaux by the vineyard and classify fish by most appropriate accompaniments, while delivering a history lesson to people almost twice his age. The wine master – also called Chris, also with excellent hair – had trained at Plumpton after deciding to trade his career in hospitality for a less lucrative but more sociable one in the wine trade, and ultrarunning was simply an extension of improving his quality of life. After staying the night before in my sister-in-law’s Art Deco seafront apartment in Brighton, drinking in the sea breeze with my bottle of locally brewed porter, I got the impression that people in Sussex know how to live a good life. It’s the sort of life I could get used to.

img_6974.jpg

Chris and I had been running at a comfortable pace that would have got us in around the ten hour mark and were hoping to sustain it until at least thirty miles in before stopping for a proper rest. A great plan, which got less great as the sun burned brighter, my water bottles got drier and my feet heavier. Eventually I had to slow down and let him go, knowing that trying to hurry to the next station was counter-productive; I might save a few minutes but kill myself in the effort. Get-there-itis had fucked me over enough times before, and if I was going to learn any lessons from past experience it had to be not to panic. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the halfway checkpoint at Housedean the heat was really taking its toll, and not just on me. Despite advice to the contrary I took a seat in the cool darkness of the barn and watched as runner after runner came in but very few left. Dehydration had knocked me sideways and I didn’t want to leave until it was under control.

img_6973.jpg

OK, systems check. Muscles, fine actually. No pain, no soreness (thank you Altras), no blisters, not really tired even. I had the pre-sunburn feeling of warmth under my skin but otherwise no mechanical issues. Internally was a different story. Head, swimming. Stomach, not having any of it. Even the thought of food made me want to throw up and I still wasn’t ready to confront that possibility. Mouth, dry as an ashtray. Tailwind, gone. I took my time sipping a couple of cups of water before refilling both my bottles and nibbled pathetically on some fruit and a couple of cookies. When I set off on the road again the reusable cup in my mandatory kit turned out to be a bit of a lifesaver – my problem so far had mostly been to do with forgetting to drink when I needed it and holding an open cup in my hand was a good reminder to my gluey brain to keep sipping away. With that in one hand and some Marylands melting in the other I trudged away up the next climb.

FullSizeRender3

All day I had been looking forward to the Southease aid station at mile 33: partly because it was a pleasing number, partly because I had promised myself I could call Andy there, and partly because it was the point where I had met Cat during her run in 2015 and I fell in love with the spot immediately. At the crossroads between the South Downs Way and the Ouse Valley Way, the YHA at Southease offers an adorable tearoom nestled between rolling hills in one direction and winding river in the other, and it’s a real travellers’ treat. It was my reward for sticking out the tough part. The break I had taken at Housedean made all the difference to my hydration, the midday haze was burning away as we approached late afternoon and I even managed to pee (I know, the glamour of ultrarunning). Still though, I couldn’t quite improve on mousey nibbles of food that weren’t giving me any significant calorific value. A few miles on I felt the wall looming again; it took a lot of will to overcome my gag reflex and force down a gel. But it kept me going. Who knew.

Knowing that there was a tricky bit of navigation around the Alfriston and Jevington aid stations I devoted my energies to staying on track and tried to take my mind off my churning stomach. The navigation function on my Suunto was a great peace of mind when I had no familiarity with the area – not that you can get lost for lack of signs because they’re bloody everywhere, but because the panic that sets in when you haven’t seen one for a few minutes is more likely to make you doubt your course and make stupid decisions – so I concentrated on that little arrow and almost nothing else.

By the time I reached the church at Alfriston low blood sugar had scrambled my mind as well as my belly; I lurched towards the volunteers panicking about the cutoffs, refusing to refill my water bottle or eat until they reassured me I was well within it. Of course, I’d confused the 13 hour finishing time limit with my own 11 hour target and got myself in a tizz over nothing. It was a bit of a wake up call, and I took another systems check on myself. Not good. Whatever was in my body wanted to leave it, one way or the other – the next minutes minutes was spent either hugging the toilet or pushing pieces of crisps into my mouth even though I’d forgotten how to chew. But once again that twenty minutes in the cool shelter of the church was worth so much more than the time I’d have saved if I hadn’t stopped. I didn’t exactly leave good as new, but I recovered enough to alternate between jogging until my stomach complained and hiking until my watch did.

Eventually my watch complained too much and the battery gave out just as I reached the final station at Jevington. Running the navigation function all day drained it much faster than the standard settings, and the one section I really needed the navigation for was the final stretch where there were no longer any SDW waymarks. But, I reasoned, I knew that there was only around four and a half miles left which should take about an hour, and James’ team hadn’t exactly skimped on the signage – I couldn’t go far wrong as long as I paid attention. I grabbed a handful of jelly babies and trotted off. The end was so close now. Always forward.

The final stretch into Eastbourne town centre was, as you’d expect, a lot of painful hard ground after spending so much time on the relative comfort of of South Downs chalk. I just kept visualising the circuit of the running track that would make up the final 400 metres of the 50 mile race; just as I had so many times before, I imagined powering round it as if it was the 10,000m final of the Olympics. Before I knew it I was right there, running like I’d forgotten the distance that was behind me, lifting my chin and raising my knees, pushing forward on and on until I got to the final bend. And then, I fucking went for it.

Jumping over the line with a war-cry earned me some funny looks, a handshake from James Elson and a medal from Mimi Anderson, but my biggest reward was the confidence that I now knew how to beat the bonk. I had gone to a bad place and I had come back out of it with patience, determination and a good talking to. Not with kit choices, nor salt pills or magic bullets – just willpower. The decision to finish and finish strong was mine, just as the decision to quit had been too.

Less than five hours’ sleep before I left for work at 5:45 the following morning for an onsite rig day – it’s the part of my job that usually kills me but that day I had a spring in my step and some hilarious dodgy tan lines from running in one direction all day, and I almost couldn’t wait to get to work. That one race gave me belief, gave me back my control, gave me a huge chunk of my life back. And it would only be a month until the next one.

Can’t

Fucking

Wait.

img_6990.jpg

Advertisements

Brighton Marathon 2015 – Wendimoo’s side of the story

Standard

You poor people hear plenty enough from me, and most of it is about my slightly bonkers and completely inspiring mum @wendimoo. I thought it was time you heard her voice too. Here’s mum’s response to my piece on the 2015 Brighton Marathon… 

What is the most important part of your body to get fit for running a marathon? Your legs? Feet? Chest? Heart? Nope – YOUR BRAIN!

I found this out, to my cost, when I ran (and I use that in the loosest sense of the word) the Brighton Marathon in April this year.

I was supposed to do it last year with my daughter, Jaz, but I’d had a load of injuries and that kept me from running for ages, so she did it on her own and I supported. The idea was to raise money for CLIC Sargent in memory of her friend Stuart who died of cancer when he was just 25. We had already completed Edinburgh the year before for Macmillan. You can see our video blog about Edinburgh here.

So, Brighton. It had been a pretty rubbish year really with one thing and another, and my mum, for whom I had been caring for a couple of years, sadly died at home in February of this year, aged 92. (Good genes, thanks Mum!) So not really the best run-up.

Jaz has caught the running bug and runs marathons and ultras all over the place, so I didn’t see her to train with as much as we did for Edinburgh. However, my good friend and training buddy Donna Carroll managed to get a place in London, so we trained together quite a lot. If it hadn’t been for her I probably would not have even made to to the start line!

So here I am, summer has passed in a haze of bingeing on chocolate and cakes and I am fat, lazy, unmotivated and feeling like crap. Oh and my 57th birthday is looming – joy. It’s October, I have 6 months to get myself into some kind of shape to do this bloody marathon next April.

I have been a member of the amazing Petts Wood Runners for a couple of years now, having joined in the run-up to Edinburgh, so first I need to go back to our Tuesday night runs. At this stage I am not even up to keeping up with Group 1, so Donna agrees to help me get back into shape.

We meet on Monday morning with another lady, Tracy, and start literally from scratch.  Run for a minute, walk for five, repeat six times. I’ve set my mind to it now so I am also tracking my food on the My Fitness Pal app and watching what I eat. I then realize with joy that the more I run – the more I can eat and still lose weight! Heaven! I also find that now I am focused on what I am eating, I tend to eat more healthy anyway.

So back to the training. I manage to get in a few runs on my own during the week and soon I am feeling great again and chomping at the bit to get back to the running club. This is great – let me at ‘em.

‘NO,’ says Donna, ‘take it easy, don’t push yourself and get injured again.’ *pouty face*

She was absolutely right. That is exactly what I did before.  Patience is not one of my virtues!

We carry on for a couple more weeks upping the running time and lowering the walking until we are running continuously for half an hour and I can start doing the park run again. Donna has also started Group 0 on a Tuesday night. It begins at 7pm and they do 2-2.5 miles at a very easy pace for those people who are returning from injury or are not quite ready for 3.5 miles in Group 1 yet.

Finally I am ‘allowed’ to do Group 0 – hurrah!! And I love it! By this time I am really back into the swing of it and improving every day. A couple of weeks later, I move back to Group 1. Things are going well, the weight is coming off, running is getting easier as there is less of me to drag around, I am getting fitter and all is hunky dory. I might even try Group 2 before next April!  Unfortunately, Mum is getting worse and now needs 24 hour care and I am finding it hard to get out of the house. The St Christopher’s carers are coming in 3 times a day (they are awesome and mum is one of their faves as she is always ready with a joke or a cheeky quip!). So Jasmine lends me her treadmill so that I can still run even if I can’t get out of the house. I can just about manage Tuesday nights, some Thursday mornings and Saturday morning parkrun by now.

Christmas is a bittersweet time. We know it will be Mum’s last.  In fact most people are surprised that she even made it to Christmas, but she wasn’t giving in – I wonder where I get it from? I managed Christmas Day parkrun (fastest time of the year!) and we had all the family over for dinner. I also managed New Year’s Day parkrun (even quicker than Christmas day!). All is good. And I’ve lost 1½ stone.

The rest is a bit of a blur to be honest. My focus was on Mum and trying to make her last weeks and days as comfortable, pain-free and stress-free as possible. On Tuesday 3rd Feb, while she had a room full of carers and nurses (she loved an audience bless her) she slipped away.

After that it was a busy time helping my sister to organise the funeral, getting all the hospital equipment picked up, informing everyone who needed to know. Training and eating properly kind of went out of the window a bit, I couldn’t get my head around it.  Outwardly it all seemed fine. I was able to run whenever I liked, and it helped get me through it all. I walked or ran whenever I needed to go to town, I ran Tuesday nights with the club, Thursday mornings with Donna and a few other PWRs, Saturday parkruns (on 14th March I smashed my PB) and on Sundays Donna and I did our Long Runs. Some were great. Some really grim, cold wet and miserable but we kept each other going. It all got harder though. I kept telling myself, and anyone who would listen, “I’ve trained far more for this than I did for Edinburgh!”. Did I though? Thinking back I’m not so sure. Everything seemed like a big effort and a lot of the time I felt like I was carrying a great big weight around with me (which, actually, I was – a mental one!).

Jaz and I ran the Wimbledon Common half marathon in March and completed it in just over 3 hours. As it was all off road that was a good time for me, with very few walk breaks and I should have been really pleased. It was a nice course and I high-fived a Womble – what’s not to like? So why was my only thought when standing at the bus stop to go home “I’ve got to do TWICE THAT FAR in 3 weeks time – shit – I’m never going to manage it!”

mum and me wimbly half

From then on, my head dragged me down further and further.  I was late in putting up my Just Giving page and donations were trickling in, but I couldn’t get motivated to really push it. I started eating chocolate and crap again and putting weight on when I should have been losing it. I got away with it mostly as I was putting a lot of miles in but it was getting harder. I was beating myself up about it, wanting to have been at least another half stone lighter by this time, and because I felt depressed I ate more chocolate (sound familiar?).

We had been late in booking our hotel for Brighton. Last year we managed to bag a B&B right on the finish line almost. This time we ended up in the Travelodge in Gatwick. Not ideal. Then we had the problem of logistics. Eventually we decided to drive to Brighton on Saturday, pick up our race packs from the expo, spend some time in Brighton, eat our dinner there (same place, same food and same waiter as last year), drive to the hotel and get to Brighton by train the next day for the marathon, leaving the car in Gatwick to pick up later. It all looks quite feasible on paper.

We had a race plan. Jaz was training for an ultra and wanted to get used to carrying a backpack, so she had all the supplies on her for both of us.

It was a lovely day on Saturday and we ate lunch, picked up our race packs and had a wander around the Expo. I spotted Jo Pavey on the way and was warned by Jaz ‘not to accost the poor woman in the street!’. Then we had a coffee on the seafront.  This is when Jaz realized that my heart was not really in it. I had been making all the right noises and smiling and stuff, but inside I was thinking “What the fuck do you think you’re doing, Wendi? You are not ready for this! Who are you trying to kid?” I burst into tears. Poor Jaz was dumbfounded. Not realizing what was going through my head – and why would she? Usually I am an open book, everything is written all over my face, but this time I did a good job of hiding it all. Why? Perhaps I was ashamed; OK so life wasn’t a bowl of cherries for me at the moment, so what? Boo hoo. Some people have much worse problems and they just get on with it without being a moany old baggage about it. Stop being a wimp and get the fuck on with it woman!

Marathon day.

It was a nice sunny day, but windy and a bit chilly. Perfect running weather. Jaz was bouncing around like a 6 year old at Christmas, bless her. I couldn’t manage to eat my porridge because of this big lump in my stomach. OK it’s here, just get it over with and stop worrying about stuff. We got a taxi to the station and got the train to Preston Park. I was really trying to feel excited but it just wasn’t there. I tried to keep up the pretense because Jaz was obviously loving every minute, as usual!

We high-fived Jo (legend) Pavey as we crossed the line and we were off!

It all started fine. Jaz was pacing me and we were aiming for about 6hrs 15mins. We were a bit ahead of our time and she suggested we dial it back a bit. I, however, in my infinite wisdom decided I was fine and comfortable at the pace, so we carried on. The plan was to run for the first 6 miles and then do a run/walk strategy. Up to 6 miles all was going well, and as we reached the 6-mile marker we decided to have a bit of a walk. We passed a drink station and had some water. This year they were giving it out in cups. This was ok but when you have a cup you tend to gulp it all down so you can get rid of the cup. First mistake. When you’re running in a marathon, the last thing you need is a load of water sloshing around in your belly. It’s very uncomfortable. We carried on and ran past Roedean school and then round the roundabout and up to Ovingdean.  We decided to stop for the loo. Second mistake. We waited ages in the queue and lost our rhythm. 9 miles in and I’m starting to feel the big weight dragging me down again and that nasty little voice in my head saying “I can’t do this!”.

We soldiered on trying to get back into some kind of running but now I had a bellyache and my groin was hurting every time I put my foot down. Poor Jaz was trying her hardest to keep me upbeat but my bloody brain was having none of it. Then I felt really bad for putting her through this. If not for me she would have been well on the way towards the finish by now! (In fact, the following week she ran the Manchester marathon in 3:41 qualifying for a ‘good for age’ place in London next year. So proud of her!) So I felt even worse. I really think if David Cassidy (he was my idol back in the day) had appeared and asked me to elope with him I would have told him to fuck off. I was also worried about Jaz by now. It was really cold and she couldn’t feel her hands. She should have been running and keeping warm but she was stuck with me.

Then we were heading back into the crowds. Usually this is when I really come into my own. I love a crowd and I love to show off and have a bit of fun. Not this time. I was dreading it and just plodded along head down wanting it all to be over.

Then we saw Jo.

The PWRs had waited to cheer me on and I saw Jo at the side of the road and ran to her and gave her a big hug! That was a massive boost to my mood and I think I nearly cried. I didn’t realise at the time but the others were all on the other side of the road and I didn’t even see them! I was so wrapped up in my own pain and misery.

Things got a bit better for a while and we tried music to lift our mood. By this time the crowds were thinning out a bit but those who were about were great. One lady gave us some lovely oranges, which really hit the spot. Food and drink all in one. I found a song that lifted my spirits, and I actually danced a bit. Things were going to be ok.

Then we hit the power station.

We were prepared for it to be grim. We had a plan. Put music on, don’t chat, and get through those 3 miles as quick as possible. It was up hill going in (I’m told it’s not a hill but it felt like bloody Everest), it was cold, the wind was in our faces pushing us back, I was fed up, exhausted and crying like a stupid idiot. I could barely walk never mind run. That was my lowest point. I was dragging my sorry carcass plus another ton weight in my head around the wastelands of Mordor.

I think I might have given up then but I kept thinking of the people that had supported me and donated and I kept reminding myself why I was there – so we carried on.

Back onto the seafront.  Much nicer but still windy and chilly. By this time the roads had been re-opened so we were dodging around holidaymakers and people on bikes and skateboards. Not too far to go now, I could almost see the finish line. It seemed to take forever but at last we got to the last couple of hundred yards, then one final push to the line.  We had made it! SEVEN HOURS! I was gutted. Did I feel elated that I had managed another marathon? Nope. Was I proud of myself for completing the task even though it had been way tougher than I expected? Nope. I wanted to beat my last time and I was way slower. I sobbed like an imbecile and said “If anyone has a gun, please just shoot me now and put me out of my misery.” I am never, ever, ever, ever doing another marathon. EVER.

“That’s ok,” says Jaz to the sobbing wreck, “you don’t have to”.

When I got home I saw all the messages of support from friends and family I was humbled and touched and cried all over again!

Fast forward 2 weeks.

A group of us PWRs went to London to support my training pal Donna and many others from our running club who were running the London marathon. It was a great day and fab atmosphere. I sent a text to Jaz.

‘Just thinking – the New York marathon is in November and so is my birthday.  Perhaps we should do it for my 60th in a few years time.’

‘HA HA HA! Mrs never doing it again! You know I’d be all over that like a kid on cake!’ came the reply.

I slowly came to realise that I FINISHED!! It’s a massive achievement. It was awful but I got through it. And my family and friends are beyond awesome!

Another week went by and the ballot for London next year opened. You’ve guessed it. I’m in. I’ve learned a lot about myself in the last few months and I’ve decided that I have a whole year to lose this other 3 stone and get marathon ready. I’m going to do it properly this time. Weight loss plan has begun. Head is back in the right place. Never say never. Watch this space…

I am still a bit short of my fundraising total so any donations however small will be greatly appreciated.  You can visit my page at:

www.justgiving.com/wendi-walker1

Or text WMOO57 £5 to 70070  to donate £5.

THANK YOU

A tale of two marathons – Brighton and Manchester 2015

Standard

I didn’t really plan to do a two in two weekends challenge; actually, mum and I had planned to run Brighton together for CLIC Sargent in 2014, but mum suffered a series of injuries which put her out of action for almost eighteen months, so she deferred and I did that one on my own. While picking up my number at the expo I was seduced by the early bird rates and signed up for 2015 there and then, so that we could still run together when she was fit again.

A few months down the line I was going through the Chasers race calendar – still hoping for the outside chance of a ballot spot at London – and noticed that the club’s target spring marathon this year was Manchester, and that there were around twenty Chasers already going. After checking the actual day of the event in my diary and noticing that it was free – because clicking on the weeks either side would have been TOO MUCH effort – I got all trigger happy with the application form and I was in. Then I noticed Brighton the week before, and London the week after. Ah, the trusty leap-first-look-later approach. Fuck it, I thought, I’m doing it now.

So there we are again, traipsing round the expo at the Brighton Centre, spending money we don’t have on kit we DEFINITELY need, and somehow managing to buttonhole Jo Pavey and her family (to mum’s delight and my horror). Creatures of habit that we are, we found the same Italian restaurant that we ate our pre-race dinner in last year, at the same time as we found it last year, sat at the same table and were served the same meal by the same waiter. Honestly, that is the very definition of happiness to me.

Disappointingly we couldn’t make it three for three by booking into the same hotel – by the time we were certain that mum could race everything had been booked up as far as Three Bridges – so instead we stayed at the Gatwick Airport Travelodge and took the train straight to Preston Park on race day morning. Gatwick Airport Travelodge: I challenge you to find a more depressing collection of words in the English language. This, dear readers, is the reason for booking first thinking later.

As we prepared I could see in mum what she must have seen in me a year before: excited but nervous, fidgeting and squeaking, freaking out about tiny details to avoid confronting the huge task. I remembered panicking about how I’d get hold of a coffee and had I chosen the right kit and where were all the toilets. With the benefit of the experience I’ve gained over the last twelve months I now know that, unless your margin of error is measured in seconds not minutes, nothing you do the night before makes a damn bit of difference anyway, but nobody could have persuaded me of that without me experiencing it for myself. And nothing I could tell mum would persuade her either. I just had to let her ride it out.

The last few months have been hard on us as a family; between ill health and upheaval and loss and more loss, there’s not been much time to draw breath. To me, running has been an invaluable diversion from this, but for mum – despite her low boredom threshold and voracious appetite for challenge – training for a marathon effectively from scratch was not the piece of straw the camel’s back needed. She’s borne it all with incredible good humour and if she ever felt that she wasn’t up to the challenge, she never let on. At least, not until we were sat on the seafront on Saturday afternoon, enjoying a coffee.

In the run up we’d talked a lot about tactics and how I would pace her, how much her preparation had improved on that of Edinburgh’s, how she had done so much more training. We had focused so intently on her physical preparation that we’d completely taken her mental readiness for granted, and as we sat stirring lattes she finally, tearfully, admitted she wasn’t sure if she was up to it. I knew she was more than capable – we’d run a comfortable Wimbledon Common Half together in the run up and barely broken sweat, and she runs at least four times a week – but in that moment she seemed powerless, broken. This is my mum. She’s not meant to be vulnerable. I was so, so scared.

The race day morning went off without a hitch, despite the awkward logistics, and we were even treated to a man with a leprechaun costume and a mobile PA system dancing a jig from Preston Park station all the way to the pens. Mum was smiley and chatty at the starting line and high-fived Jo Pavey on the way through, but something wasn’t right.

Brighton 2

Still though, we managed the first 10k without pausing once and with a good pace – too good a pace actually, but trying to persuade her to slow down was like trying to tell the Saharan sun to tone it down a bit – and took a tactical decision to pause for the loo just after mile 9. We’d probably chosen the worst possible loo to stop at, as ten minutes passed and still we jigged about in the queue, but it had got to the point where waiting for the next one wasn’t an option. When we finally got going again it took forever to regain our rhythm, and the undulating seafront road hit mum like a ton of bricks.

The sun was warm and strong, but not strong enough for the brutal sea wind that followed us along the coast. Our pace slowed, the crowd thinned out, and every step felt like treacle. And then, just before mile 11, mum suffered an excruciating groin strain and burst into tears. Where’s that camel, I’ve still got a bundle of straw…

From that point on the race was an exercise in damage limitation. Even as early as mile 14 the thought of not finishing entered both our minds, but we put it straight out; with all the money mum had raised it simply wasn’t a viable option, and besides, I’ve never seen her give up on a race yet. Instead, we took it step by step. Just get to the next speed limit sign. Jog to the traffic lights. Walk as far as the pier. By the time we made it to the CLIC Sargent cheering point there were only a couple of people left, and no sign of her club, Petts Wood Runners. For someone who thrives on the atmosphere of a big race, it crushed mum.

Then, a brief ray of light as Jo from PWR called out to mum from the side of the road. Even I nearly cried a bit when I saw them go in for a hug, and for the first time all day mum smiled with her eyes as well as her mouth. We found out later that they had been there all along, waiting to video her coming through, but in her exhaustion mum couldn’t see or hear them calling her. Jo’s hug was enough to carry her as far as Hove, put the frustration and pain of yet another injury out of her mind and pull out the aeroplane arms again. There were only a few people around the residential streets but they were as warm and welcoming as anyone could hope and they offered an endless supply of orange slices which mum munched through gleefully. For a little while at least, we were back in kid mode.

Eventually though we had to get back to the seafront, and without the pace to keep me warm I felt my body temperature dropping drastically. Luckily I was carrying my new Salomon race vest stuffed full of spare clothes and food, as I was planning on using the hours on foot as training for August’s 100 miler, so I fished out an extra layer, but I could already feel my lips turning blue and my fingers were so frozen as to be useless. The sun’s rays were completely unfettered by clouds and I ended up with ridiculous tan lines, but it didn’t stop the windchill doing its thing. I could barely speak for the last six miles.

Brighton 3

The boring power station section passed, the coloured huts left behind, we finally crossed the line in a little over seven hours. I felt shitty for failing my mum as a pacer, I felt shitty for being snappy with her, I felt shitty for not noticing sooner how much she had struggled with the last few months, and I felt shitty that she felt so shitty. As soon as we got home we ran ourselves the hottest baths we could stand, the better to wash away the day.

Six days later I was back in an Italian restaurant, this time in Piccadilly Gardens and at a table with seventeen other Chasers, fizzing with anticipation for Sunday’s Greater Manchester Marathon. There was cautious optimism, a party atmosphere, wine and beer flowing already. Everyone wanted to know everyone else’s target time. All I knew was, there was a homemade pacing band in my hotel room with a 3:44 target, a long time ambition to get a London Marathon good for age qualifying time, and I had absolutely no idea whether I’d be wearing a realistic goal or a really crap novelty bracelet. I answered conservatively that sub four would be nice but frankly I’d be happy to finish. If you don’t have a plan then things can’t fail to go to plan, right? Maths.

I’ve been running eight and a half minute miles comfortably for a while now, which would be enough to hit my target, and the Thames Riverside 20 had shown me that a little bit of discipline and steady pacing goes on a long way on a flat road race. In theory, that was all I had to do for mile after mile. But all week my feet had been heavy with the effort of seven hours’ plodding in them, my lower back was screaming and right up to bedtime on Saturday I was battling a niggly left ankle that couldn’t take my full weight. It was either going to happen, or it really wasn’t.

There’s a phenomenon in my industry known as Dr Theatre – no matter how ill or hungover or injured a performer is, they always mysteriously pull it out of the bag on the night. Seriously, I’ve worked with dancers who turned up to work ashen-faced with the Norovirus, floated gracefully onto stage, did five pirouettes, leapt into the wings and immediately threw up into a sand bucket, only to do it all over again two minutes later. No-one in front of the curtain is any the wiser. Dr Theatre was there, tapping on my shoulder as my alarm went off on Sunday morning. Up you get, you lazy moo. Your ankle’s fine, stop bitching about your back, and the quicker you go the less your feet will hurt.

Manchester 2

I know I always say I’m not a city marathon person – and trust me when I say there are few places in the world I like visiting less than Old Trafford – but I fell in love with Manchester almost immediately. The weather was perfect, the route was entertaining if not exactly picturesque, the crowds were encouraging, and I could barely keep up with the number of kids holding out their hands for a high five. There’s a particular brand of understated Northern hubris about the event – a Bet Lynch lookalike called out “Come on love, chips for dinner” and at least three banners told me to run like I stole something – that made me feel like I was running through the set of Coronation Street. I can see why it won the award for Best Marathon yet again this year.

As excellent a turnout as it was for the runners, much respect goes to the Clapham Chasers support team who came all the way to Manchester with a blow-up doll just to cheer us on. It took a good few miles for me to notice that, between looking out for the faster Chasers on the switchbacks and looking out for Ingrid and the cheering squad, I’d barely had my music on for the first half of the race, something I usually rely heavily on. In fact, I’d barely noticed we were at halfway, and I was still really comfortable with the pace.

Cat – herself going for two in two weekends and a PB – had put up a Steve Prefontaine quote on the Facebook page earlier in the week: “The best pace is suicide pace, and today looks like a good day to die.” Grr. As I ran along, listening to party punk god Andrew W.K. and repeating the quote to myself, I drowned out that voice that barters with me to take it easy, that says finishing is a triumph in itself. Of course it is, but I’d come too far to give up the chance of a good for age place I now knew I was capable of, and I knew I should have had more faith from the beginning. I know it’s not exactly in keeping with the whole This Girl Can ethos, but I channelled that testosterone-filled chest-beating machismo and started reeling people in. Club vests disappeared in my wake. Every kid that high-fived me felt like a Super Mario 1-Up.

Andy puts up with enough from me without being dragged to every single race, so we have an understanding that he only comes to Big Races, like city marathons close to home or races with a big goal; since I’d be surrounded by Chasers at Manchester and had persuaded myself not to get too excited about the good for age time, it didn’t qualify as one of them, not to mention the fact that it was in bloody Manchester. But as I approached Stretford I desperately wished I could see his face in the crowd. It was the point at which I knew I was going to make it, and I wanted him to see me do it. What’s more, I wanted mum to see just how much fun running should be.

I crossed the line in front of the Old Trafford Holy Trinity statue with a chip time of 3:41:22, elated and mildly surprised. At least two-thirds of the Chasers running that day got PBs, and the party was nowhere near over. It would have been nice to stay in Manchester for one more night and celebrate with them, but frankly I was ready for home. For me, crossing that line wasn’t the end of three hours and forty one minutes, or the conclusion of a tiring eight days, or the culmination of a few months’ training. It was curtain down on a year-long performance that saw every extreme of tragedy and triumph, and a good deal of comedy for good measure. It’s not the final performance though, not by a long shot.

See you in London…

Manchester 1

P.S. Mum spent seven hours insisting she would never do another marathon. Two weeks later, I got a text from her pointing out that her birthday falls in the same week as the New York Marathon. So…

Brighton Marathon 2014

Standard

As I prepared for my first ever marathon last spring, worrying about being able to finish, I got some words of support from Andy, the leader of the work running group. “Don’t worry Jaz. Distances are your thing. God bless you you’re not fast, but you can go long.”

It sounds like a backhanded compliment but I knew exactly what Andy meant. By this point I was one of the stalwarts of the group, running it when he wasn’t there and encouraging more and more newbies to join. But I was always at the back, and I was happy there. As long as I went at my own pace I believed I could carry on running forever, and Andy’s words carried me for miles.

Mum and I finished Edinburgh just inside the cut off point at 6 hours and 26 minutes – well within my capability, I suspected, but I promised mum I would run with her and I did. She loved the cheering, the live bands and the big city event atmosphere at the start and really struggled with the quieter stretches; miles of road flanked by woodland on one side and the sea on the other which I would have been happy to trot through and enjoy but which she found demoralising. Meanwhile I found the crowds distracting, piling on extra pressure and sometimes just plain annoying. I decided the low-key no-frills gigs were more my thing.

So when mum had to pull out of this year’s Brighton with a hip injury, I was suddenly faced with my first “proper” marathon – that is to say, my first time running a road marathon on my own at my own pace. And it was going to be in a big city event with cheering and live bands and crowds and pressure. It would have to be my thing now.

Whatever I thought a big city marathon meant, at the very least the experience would be invaluable. We’d made a couple of mistakes in our preparation for Edinburgh last year and we weren’t going to repeat them. The first big surprise – although probably only a surprise to a rookie like me – was that race numbers needed to be collected from the expo on the Friday or Saturday before, rather than being posted out. A bustling expo in the Brighton Centre, tightly packed stalls, queues and crowds everywhere? Not exactly my cup of tea.

As it turns out those folks at Brighton Marathon HQ do know what they’re doing. Once we’d got through the terrifyingly tight revolving door the expo was well laid out inside, with an army of sports masseurs on the lower ground and sponsors’ stalls upstairs. We’d been planning a surgical strike: get my race number, find my charity if they were there, and get the hell out of dodge. An hour and a half later, we were still darting excitedly between stalls and eventually came away with a box full of my favourite gels, a new gel belt and pouch (best investment EVER), a 5hr15 pacing band, early bird entry to next year’s marathon and unbridled enthusiasm. Ah, so THAT’s why they have marathon expos.

Having completely screwed up our pre-race preparation in Edinburgh by first missing the pasta dinner we’d booked, then making do with a greasy takeaway pizza long past bedtime, we made sure that we were comfortably nestled in a nearby Italian restaurant before five o’clock and in our hotel room by six. Another lesson learned from the year before, mum had booked us a room overlooking the finish line rather than nearer the start, meaning we had a gentle warm up walking the 2 miles to the start line and a 2 minute stagger home at the end, not the other way around. The Ritz it wasn’t – by which I mean our room had no surface other than beds, the bathroom was a cupboard with a shower in it and the floor sloped so badly I had to hang onto the dado to take my shoes off – but after the two hour bus back to the hotel post Edinburgh, I’d have taken a scabby mattress in a tip so long as it was near the finish. And besides, quirky hotels are half the fun of travelling to races. No clear floor surface? Do stretches on the bed then, much more comfy than the ground. Sloping floor? No need for those cushions to elevate my feet at night. And now I’ve got some great ideas about how to use that alcove space that doesn’t seem big enough for furniture.

Races are all about the mindset and I tried to set my mindset that Sunday morning to “This is really your first marathon. Enjoy it. Finish it. Find out what you can do.” Unfortunately that mindset was somewhat drowned out by an internal monologue of “THIS ISN’T LONDON – WHERE WILL YOU FIND SOME BREAKFAST. SCULL A COFFEE. OH NO THERE’S NO 3G. PAULA RADCLIFFE IS WATCHING, DON’T FALL OVER.” for the full two mile walk to the start line and my poor mother – who not content with the agony of giving birth to me has become my unthanked and unpaid support crew – suffered it all with a smile and a plaintive declaration that she loved me. So, another first. Starting a marathon without any form of food in me, under gloomy grey skies but resolutely wearing a redundant (and frankly, hindering) pair of sunglasses in the hope that no-one would see me weep.

I’ve said many times before that big crowds and occasions only serve to make me more nervous, and that I prefer the no-frills gigs. As exhilarating as it feels to be cheered literally every step of the way, I had to keep my earphones in – I think if I’d heard a single person call my name I’d have fallen apart. The first couple of miles constitute a loop back around Burgess Park where the race starts before turn south towards the coast, and even though we’d arranged not to see each other again until mile 14 I secretly hoped my mum would see me on the other side of the loop. God bless her there she was; tucked in among the journalists taking photos of the man with the tiger on his back (not a euphemism), excitedly screaming my name not a mile into twenty six, and I suddenly appreciated how heartbreaking it must be for her to watch me run when she couldn’t, and how gracelessly I would have behaved in the same situation. I kicked it up a gear.

Which, without wishing to sound even more graceless, eventually became my downfall. Planning to run a steady 12 minute per mile race, I was comfortably mooching around 10 minute miles right down to the first time I saw the coast and emboldened by my comfort, decided I would not walk until after the half marathon mark. Cocksure, but not clever, as strategies go; nonetheless, at the time I felt great. Although I’m no Mo, I’ve learnt that long distance running is really only a balance of physical and mental strength. If mental strength wasn’t a factor, I could happily plod along for hours until the job was done without worrying about going insane in the process. On the other hand, if my physical strength could hold out I could sprint all 26 miles and never suffer the internal voices pleading with me to give up and crumple in a heap with a jar of peanut butter. But endurance sports are so much more complex than that, and the desire to limit the time on my feet – not to mention my eagerness to see my support crew at mile 14 – overruled my pacing sensibilities and I foolishly kept up an unsustainable speed.

Brighton Marathon route map

The beautiful Sussex countryside was the one thing that slowed me down a bit; not just because of the incline, but because of the view of the lush green hills dovetailing gently into the coastline, the marina and the frothing English Channel. The course had been altered from previous years as I understand – this stage of the race apparently used to be far hillier but had been updated in favour of a flatter, faster route while still taking in the rural area and part of the village. This was my sort of race – too remote for the charity cheering points or for supporters not local to the area, it was peace and quiet and natural beauty, and it was joyful to run through. I briefly reflected on the Edinburgh Marathon of 11 months ago, and how this section would have been torture to my mum. I on the other hand barely checked my Garmin for distance or pace, enjoying the scenery. Which in hindsight probably contributed to my woefully optimistic pacing.

After turning the hairpin and coming back to the city centre I had to take a walk break at the twelve mile mark – not yet tired, but finally conceding that I’d pay for it later if I didn’t. And it was my last chance for rest before the CLIC Sargent cheer point where my long suffering mum had been joined by my partner Andy, and neither deserved to see me anything other than sunny. So when I saw them I took in a mini sprint, grinning from ear to ear and trying to hold back tears of joy as I saw them wielding pink and purple batons, and Andy immortalised the moment in a grainy iPhone picture of two heavy legs and a Cheshire Cat grin bounding towards them. Since Brighton I’ve often come across advice against employing friends and family as support crew because the economy of strength during marathons or endurance sports does not contribute to politeness or good relationships, but at the time I was so happy to see them I could have started the marathon all over again. I want to say I told them this; what I actually said was “IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN IBUPROFEN.” And the lesson I learned not four miles on was: keep the damn ibuprofen on you. It’s too late at mile 25.

me at Brighton

Everyday’s a schoolday, and this was no different. My iPod playlist – so far something I can’t get more than a few miles without unless it’s a trail run or obstacle race – was a tried and trusted mix of pub rock and heavy metal classics on shuffle. I love this playlist, because it absolutely complements my running philosophy which is something akin to that of Phoebe from Friends: it’s only worth doing if you’re having fun, and who gives a shit how cool you look. Over two hours in though, I needed a little change from Ozzy Osbourne and James Hetfield, and switched to my running playlist full of upbeat pop songs (that is to say, the twelve songs I know from this century). Partway through the residential area and a mile or so before the switchback to the 18 mile point, which marked the onset of the ubiquitous Wall, I ran into trouble; literally. The Gods of shuffle threw up my Kryptonite, my sprint finish song: the DJ Fresh mix of Gold Dust by MS Dynamite. I can’t help but go all out when this song comes on, not least because the beat matches perfectly my cadence when sprinting and the tune is anthemic and exhilarating. I went for it.

Like I said, I’m never going to be fast, but running to this song makes me feel like I’m flying. I can run at a speed that actually causes wind turbulence, ruffles my hair and goes some way to cooling me down, instead of my usual pedestrian trot. I know I can’t sustain it, not even for the length of the song, but it gives me the feeling of being a proper racer just for a minute or two. The reality (I now understand) is that all I was doing was using up the last of my energy stores and leaving nothing for the last seven miles. And those last seven miles hit me like a ton of bricks.

Having built myself a comfortable twenty five minute cushion on my target pace for 5hr15, I allowed myself a little breathing space into mile 18 as we wended our way up a slight incline towards the power station and final switchback. Slight though the incline was, I could already feel tightness in my thighs and knew they would be shredded within a couple of miles. For once, the relative peace and quiet did not help – when all you have to look at is wasteland and both directions feel like they go uphill, any sense of joy is lost and there’s nothing to take your mind off the slog. I fell to pieces, and had to walk. I told myself over and over it was too long, too steep, too painful, I’d never make under five hours now. Everyone else was doing better than me and I should probably give up running altogether. But for a well-timed text message of support from my mentor at work, I was considering giving up and sitting on the kerbside to wait for gin.

The psychological turning point for me was when I stopped caring about my finish time. I hadn’t even realised I cared so much until then; particularly as I hadn’t set myself a goal time until the expo the day before where I picked up a 5hr15 pacing band because a) it was in my capability and b) it was a nice shiny silver. I knew with every walking step I was jeopardising that potential sub five hour finish – a time I had never even been aiming for and really shouldn’t have persuaded myself I could do – and when I finally accepted this fact, I stopped hurting quite so much. By this point I was twenty four miles in and running between the pretty shingles and the multicoloured beach huts. Suddenly there were people cheering again, and god bless them them all cheered like their lives depended on it. I was told to hurry up, no walking, I’m nearly there. I’m pretty sure I told more than one person to fuck off but a combination of obstinacy and pride refused to allow me to walk in front of them, despite the searing pain in my thigh muscles, and amid their irritating cheers I plugged on towards the seafront.

me at Brighton 2

At mile 25 I was planning to see my mum and the CLIC Sargent gang one last time, but my Garmin had run out of juice even before I had and I lost all sense of judgement for distance. What seemed like hours passed between the beach huts and my mum’s outstretched arms offering more ibuprofen, by which time it was far too late to be useful and I made do with a kiss and a promise to see her at the end. And I picked up the pace.

By this point I decided the quicker it was over and done with the better, and dug deep for the final mile. I can’t tell you how long it actually took me but it felt like 5 minutes compared with 15 for the mile previous, and I can’t pretend that had nothing to do with what remained of the crowds. What you get over five hours into a marathon, when faster runners have finished and their supporters gone home with them, is a small contingent of die hard nutters who cheer and scream as if they’re ten people each. These are good people, wonderful people, and if I believed in heaven they would be first in the queue. There’s nothing to be gained from cheering in a marathon apart from the knowledge that you’ve made a complete stranger’s day slightly more bearable, and I’d far rather run for 6 hours than cheer.

Despite the pain, the grumps and the desperate thirst (having lost my temper with the fiddly Iqoniq water pouches two water stations back) I couldn’t resist sprinting the final 400 yards. I don’t believe there’s any point running that far if you have anything left in the tank at the end, and finally Gold Dust came good. Squeezing inside my original target and beating my wristband, I crossed the line in 5:11:02. The song has since been removed from my running playlist and put in a playlist of its own, like a priceless jewel in a glass case. You don’t bring out the diamond tiara for a night down the Tiger’s Head, and I won’t play that song until the end of a run ever again.

My mum and Andy had been tracking me on the hip and groovy Brighton Marathon app; which, as long as you know a runner’s number, tells you at their chip time at each 5k checkpoint and uses this data to give an estimated finishing time. Apparently – and boy am I glad I didn’t know this at the time – I was on course for a 4:45 finish at the 30k checkpoint before hitting the wall, adding nearly a minute per mile to my average pace over the last 12k and skewing the estimated finish time so much my mum began to wonder if I really had given up and gone to find gin. The app is a fantastic idea and runs on technology already available at most large races; the only slight problem is that Brighton’s seafront is notoriously bad for mobile phone and data reception on a good day let alone when there are 30,000 people all trying to use it at once, and that having a hip and groovy GPS app to track people running around Brighton is like buying a plasma TV when you live in a tepee.

Unlike the previous year’s dash trying to find a taxi driver to bribe after two hours on a stationary bus, our journey back to the car from the CLIC Sargent finishers’ tent took all of five minutes including the time spent getting my mum and her dodgy hip up the steps from the promenade. I tease her, but despite injury and exhaustion she covered over a half marathon distance on foot herself that day and still managed to drive first us home to south west London then herself onto deepest darkest Kent. As I curled myself up in the back seat of her car, cradling my hip flask full of cherry brandy and feeling my muscles slowly seize, I thought just one thing: when’s the next one then?

Crowds and atmosphere may or may not be my thing. Speed may or may not be my thing. I know what is my thing though. Running.

Brighton Marathon medal