My last post was all a bit doom and gloom, wasn’t it? Not even any pictures. Sorry about that.
It spent a long time in the drafts folder, to be fair – a long time waiting for me to tie all the strands together, even though it did turn out to be like a loosely made pom pom: one weak central point and fluff scattered everywhere. But as I mentioned, it wasn’t easy to write. Time to look forward.
This one should be easier for both you and me – as I type I’m at the end of a week off from work with no particular agenda other than to rest, write and run. It came about after a gentle but firm reminder from HR to everyone who had ten or more days of annual leave: take it or lose it. As odd as it sounds taking holiday right after Christmas, the festive season isn’t exactly restful or relaxing and the first two weeks of January turned out not to be that busy, so it made perfect sense to take the time off. Andy’s already used his holiday days waiting for Thames Water to fix our sewer and we’ve neither the money nor the inclination to go abroad, so I treated myself to a staycation on my own. A whole week of wearing yoga pants and not talking to people.
The plan – because even on my day off there’s always a plan – was to use the mornings for running and the afternoons for writing and life admin; the longer game was to try and reset my routine altogether, hopefully making a few good habits that I could carry forward. Although a bit of rest (otherwise known as binge watching Fortitude on the sofa) would also be key, there wouldn’t be much point in getting used to a life of leisure only to suffer a massive culture shock on Monday. I didn’t just want to recuperate, I wanted a fresh start for a fresh new year.
So after moaning for eighteen solid months about never having time, what exactly have I been doing with my precious time off?
Obviously. Getting into a training pattern of any kind is often an exercise in creating a good habit more than it is about the training itself. In my experience, a good habit can help in two key ways: normalising an activity, making its absence more notable than its presence, removes the conscious decision whether or not to do something out of my comfort zone and the risk that I’ll avoid it; and establishing a routine provides a reassuring constant which strengthens my defence against anxiety and doubt. It’s not just helpful for those who suffer with anxiety though; a good habit is crucial for succeeding at any new challenge. When it’s a one off, or if it doesn’t have a place in your schedule, there’ll always be more reasons not to do a new activity than there will be to go for it. It’s sort of why I get so into streaks, I suppose. And, to me at least, there’s something very comforting about having milestones to look out for in my day.
This week’s target on my training plan is 42 miles, mostly at a general aerobic effort or recovery pace, meaning that my effort shouldn’t ever really exceed the ability to hold a conversation. I’m used to that being somewhere in the 8:30 – 9:30 minute mile bracket but my fitness and my health are so far below where they used to be I’m barely going faster than 10:00mm, even when I bust a gut. It’s a fairly depressing place to start, but the only way to improve it is to persevere. So I found a neat little way to fit the miles in without doing circles around my house all the time; driving Andy to work and following up with a run around Richmond Park, with the added bonus of parakeets to play with. It’s been slow, but utterly joyful.
Word of the day, biophilia, has often popped up in my discussions with trail runners about motivation: a hypothesis that being surrounded by nature and living systems can help reduce stress and promote well-being. Spending time in woodland and on open hills, soft ground underfoot and fresh air in my lungs, never fails to improve my state of mind. And another effect of going off-road is a drastic reduction in the perception of effort; I can tootle along the North Downs Way for hours and barely feel it. But when I haven’t got time to play tombola with the Southern trains timetable (“Will the 8:30 to Epsom Downs turn up? Roll the barrel and take your chances!”) there are still plenty of green spaces for me to explore in the city within reach of a tube or my bike: besides Richmond Park, Wimbledon, Tooting and Clapham Common are all regular haunts, as is the Vanguard Way.
Having done my run I’ve been getting back home mid morning full of pep, usually around the time I’d be getting into a meeting if I was at work and resigning myself to no achievements. That pep has been put to good use giving the house a bit of a spruce – cleaning is loads easier when you don’t leave it for weeks at a time – which means a much nicer space to work in. Having done that I’ve been trying to get in at least 20 or 30 minutes of yoga, again something I’ve neglected horribly. Once I’ve unfolded myself out of “corkscrew” and popped my joints back in place the rest of the morning is reserved for correspondence (that sounds more romantic and Jane Austen-y than “checking emails”) or any other odd errands.
There needs to be some rest in there, I am a lady of leisure after all. I got through both series of Fortitude in four days – now of course anxiety dreams are replaced by nightmares about rabid polar bears – while balancing lunch on my belly. It’s Friday as I write this, and time for a change of mood, so I’m watching Dinnerladies from the start. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Dinnerladies was. I don’t think it’s possible to overstate how brilliant Victoria Wood was. Victoria Wood taught me about humanity and about comedy, which are always the same thing, and had a massive influence on my sense of humour (when I have one). It seems appropriate to take inspiration from her when retraining myself to be human.
Then from three o’clock onwards I’ve been taking my laptop and a cup of coffee down to the summer house to write. I was lucky enough to get on the shortlist of Penguin’s WriteNow project, a scheme offering mentorship to unpublished authors from under-represented backgrounds, but my third of a novel with no discernible narrative written in a tense that made the editor wince didn’t make the final ten, surprisingly. However the WriteNow team gave us so much valuable support and advice that I’ve decided to finish the damn thing and try my luck the old fashioned way. I’m still not changing the tense though.
The novel is a folly for which the optimistically named “summer house” is a perfect setting. The summer house is really just a cabin at the bottom of the garden which seemed to have been used for storing catkins and spiderwebs when we first moved in, but we’ve since furnished it as a bedsit for when my brother stays and now it’s basically the biggest and nicest room in the house. My aim was to try and get around 1000 words down a day, and the cabin is just far enough away from the house that the wi-fi is useless without a booster, which is handy for avoiding distractions. With the help of a new carpet and insulation, an electric heater and a hand knitted draught excluder, it’s actually super cosy down there now. In fact it’s almost as well equipped as Roald Dahl’s hut – all I’m missing is the Thermos flask. I manage a couple of hours without fresh coffee then it’s suppertime.
As we do every January Andy and I have committed to cut down on stodge and make healthier suppers – not that we’re ready meal addicts, but anything requiring more imagination than a diced onion doesn’t get a look in on worknights. Since I’ve been home this week we’ve treated ourselves to square meals that have multiple vegetables and more than one colour in them, and again I find myself surprised (perhaps naively) at the effect proper food can have on mood. I know it’s pretty obvious, but it’s hard to be hangry when you’ve had your five a day. As with all these good habits, it tends to feed itself – you just have to get going in the first place. Or rather, you have to want to get it going. That, I think, is the biggest shift for me – after just one week of R&R I’ve started to care enough about my body to want to feed it decent things, not just to pay lip service to better living.
So I have to admit our HR department were on to something by insisting that people actually take their annual leave. This is usually where someone throws around the term “work-life balance” but as someone whose work patterns have traditionally been of the feast or famine model I’ve never been able to define what that means at all, let alone for me. Now I know what it doesn’t mean: pushing through fourteen months without a proper break, piling exhaustion upon sleep deficit, burning out and going mad. All feast and no famine. I could keep up that kind of pressure in my previous job because I knew there would be fallow months, but it’s taken me some time to adjust to this new, consistently busy schedule, one which requires me to take responsibility for my own health and rest even when we’re busy. It’s going to take time for me not to feel guilty about that.
Although I can’t keep up this lady of leisure act beyond Sunday it’s been just enough to taste what a properly structured life could look like. Work shouldn’t stop me from fitting in an hour of running and an hour of writing a day, or allow for the occasional lazy evening doing nothing of worth except rest – and to be fair it doesn’t, I do. In exposing myself to a routine I’d like to live by, in defining that for myself, I’ve given myself something to look forward to. I haven’t looked forward to anything for over a year now – I’ve been too tired to appreciate it or too afraid of making myself that vulnerable.
If you find yourself in this position, try to find time to take stock – OK you might not have a whole week going spare, but even one day or an hour every morning for a week is better than putting off your recovery over and over until it’s too late. It’s a bit like cleaning your house: if you do twenty minutes every day nothing gets too far out of hand. If you ignore it for months, you’re eventually going to have to call in the professionals.
It’s taken almost two years but I’ve finally begun to admit to myself, I might be suffering from Exhaustion with a capital E. Not just I’m tired today, or I need a lie in. I am an onion peeling layers of fatigue, as each layer rots and turns black it falls off and reveals another layer of eye-watering, sour smelling, profound exhaustion. All the layers are nearly gone. Soon there won’t be anything left.
Common sense would suggest that the last thing I should be doing is another marathon, but the truth is that running is the only thing that keeps my mind from crumbling apart like wet cake. I have managed to maintain my mile a day streak throughout 2017 so far, and the promise of at least ten minutes a day to myself has mentally maintained me. A marathon is a bit different though, especially a trail marathon in thirty degrees of heat. And yet, I couldn’t wait to get going.
Running in the heat is something of a monkey on my back; two attempts at the North Downs in August have ended in failure, not to mention countless training runs cut short and a history of suffering heatstroke. So when I noticed the weather forecast in the days up to the race creeping ever closer to the thirties, I actually looked forward to an opportunity to finally shake that monkey. Every time I have found a weakness I’ve worked to turn it into a strength: first mud, then nerves, then hills. Nutrition and heat remain to be cracked. So, I thought, let’s get cracking.
Cat and I arrived at Kingsclere stables which served as the race HQ, and immediately set up camp in the shade of a car. Having Cat there made a huge difference for the run-up at least, although contrary to her very gracious “no really, I’ll be very slow” I knew we wouldn’t be running together. She eyed up a few regular friendly rivals, sought out the only source of water (both our bottles already dry) and settled in at the front of the field. I looked ahead to the huge hands and feet climb a mile in and decided I wasn’t sparing a bead of sweat before lunchtime.
There were a few clues to how unprepared I was for the race, if I’m honest. The car park was around half a mile away from the race start, and I didn’t realise until we got to our patch in the shade that I’d left my peaked Buff in my car – no way I would get through today without it. The jog there and back to retrieve it would be a nice warmup, so off I trotted. Nope. My legs were two rumbling logs of nope. Heavy, rhythmless, slow, obviously nowhere near recovered from the North Downs 50. Today would be a challenge in management of reserves, in making the best of what I had available to me.
So once Cat tore off up the hill like a gazelle I settled in to a nice steady trudge. I had chosen to go with a small belt for nutrition and a handheld bottle for water so that I would remember to drink regularly. I’d nicked a last minute blob of sunscreen from Cat, whose packing skills are somewhat less minimalist than mine (read: prepared) and that and the trek to retrieve the peaked Buff both turned out to be good moves – even my Mediterranean skin wasn’t up to the hours of exposure in dry heat. There’s a saying I used to hear a lot in Cyprus: “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Add ultra runners to that and you’re grand.
That first hill was brutal, and it wiped me out for a good four or five miles despite limiting my effort levels, but it was at least useful in keeping the early pace down to something sensible. Having decided so early on that today was a survival race I didn’t even bother looking at my watch. I couldn’t remember where the aid stations were anyway, so there was no value in counting down miles until the next water refill. I’d just have to manage fluids as cleverly as possible and fill up at every opportunity. As it turned out, the official aid stations were bolstered by countless unofficial ones, as the good people of Hampshire turned up to various points along the course with car boots full of water, squash, fruit wedges and Haribo.
The marathon route took in a roughly square loop of the picturesque Hampshire countryside starting and ending in Kingsclere, dipping into the boundaries of Basingstoke, Overton, Whitchurch and Litchfield. Only a year old, the race is organised by Basingstoke and Mid Hants AC who are understandably proud of the area and seem to have gone to great lengths to show us the many trails and footpaths running through the countryside like veins. As such, I treated it more like a social hike than a race. I had had the race recommended to me by a few Chasers who had run the inaugural race last year, and raved about the relaxed and friendly organisation and the utterly not-relaxing elevation – catnip to someone like me. Even as I struggled to keep moving I had to agree – I wasn’t breaking any records but it was such a beautiful day there was no question of complaint.
To my surprise, I reached the halfway point in less than two and a half hours. It was the first time I’d really looked at my watch, having assumed that I was going at a snail’s pace, and I had to tap it a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t going doolally. That hadn’t felt as bad as I expected – but had I overcooked it already? The blistering sun wasn’t showing any signs of letting up, and although I wasn’t suffering in the heat I already had dry skin and a face full of salt. I hadn’t been eating much at all, apart from salty Hula Hoops and gels, but oddly enough that wasn’t bothering me either. I decided it was one of those things you just have to bank and carry on. Since getting past the first big hill my legs had been killed, gone through rigor mortis and come out the other side a pair of zombies. At least they could move again. Time to make hay while the sun shines.
The local residents were absolute legends, I have to admit. As the race wore on the official looking water and food stations were becoming increasingly outnumbered by people dispensing water and Jucee squash from the back of SUVs, children sitting out the fronts of their houses with tubs of sweeties, mums offering plates of orange slices, and even one family who turned the hose on anyone who ventured near enough. They absolutely made that race, especially as every time I thought we were dipping back into the wilderness we found another little country cul-de-sac or cottage full of people eager to help us out. Credit goes to both to the natural hospitality of Hampshire, and I think to the club for cultivating such a good reputation in the local area.
After my optimism at the halfway point everything suddenly went downhill. Or, I should say, uphill – I don’t remember feeling this at the time, but looking back at my GPS data I notice that the elevation cruelly maintains a gradual downhill to the halfway point, then climbs consistently all the way to the end. All I remember is my legs feeling increasingly more tired, my shoulders slumping further forward, the nutrition belt rubbing against my lower back as my posture got worse. Hindsight being a wonderful thing, I now know why this was happening; at the time I took it as a further symptom of my chronic fatigue and decided that I absolutely, definitely needed a protracted period of rest. The trick of the elevation might have done me a favour, because without that perception I might have chugged on for months to come, in deep denial about my health and clinging to any fragment of an excuse for poor performances. As it was, the race gave me the biggest wake up call I’ve ever had.
By the time I had six miles to go I was barely walking. Time was slipping through my hands and my pace was grinding almost to a halt. I knew that Cat would have long since finished and had to send a few emergency messages to her to let her know a) I was still alive and b) her lift home might be a long while coming yet. She sent back encouragements in caps lock, and an update on the race result – an incredible fourth lady finish and V40 trophy considering she wasn’t really racing it. That was enough to shake my legs out a bit – I still couldn’t move them very fast but there was not and had never been any question of stopping or quitting. It hardly seemed right to leave her waiting for long.
The volunteers at the last water station told me there was one more climb before a long downhill to the end, which was true, but also underplayed all the little bumps and divots in the ground that my legs didn’t even have the energy to lift themselves over. Finally though I turned into a wooded area and found something like an amusement park slide to take me back down the Kingsclere stables, the finish line visible in the distance. And for a brief moment, I got all excited like a five year old. Then I got a stitch.
That was the slowest, hobbliest downhill I think I’ve ever done, taking ginger little steps and tucking myself away every time someone came past at normal speed. I had been in good spirits for the rest of the race, but this really annoyed me – downhill mentalism is my thing and now I wasn’t allowed to enjoy it. I felt dehydration clobber me like a sack of bricks as well – I’d been sculling water at every opportunity but there was nothing left in the bottle at this stage. At the bottom of the hill was a flat stretch across the field to get back to the start/finish line, and I have to confess I walked most of it – I just couldn’t move any faster. Such a beautiful course, and here I was running the most anticlimactic race finish I think I’ve ever done.
My perseverance paid off though, and eventually the last couple of hundred metres came into view. Cat ran back to get me over the line, and I couldn’t resist having a go at a sprint finish – although given that she kept up with me in flipflops I can’t flatter myself that it was much of a sprint. But I made it – I leapt over the line, curled up on the floor, and laughed. Five hours and thirty eight minutes later, the legs that weren’t even strong enough to start still got me to the finish.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t the least bit sore – presumably because I hadn’t been doing any strenuous work, just moving very slowly – so all I needed was my commemorative pint pot (filled twice over with fresh water) and a Cornetto to get me back on my feet and ready to drive home. As we stretched out on the grass briefly the sun was still beating down, even stronger than before, and if I hadn’t been covered in salt and bruises from my waist pack I could easily have fooled myself into believing I was on holiday. Far from being a challenge, I genuinely enjoyed running in the heat; although if I’d been trying for any kind of time it would have killed me. Still though, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to nab a better time (not to mention beast that downhill).
But not before a good long rest.
You can look at endurance sports in one of two ways:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
“The definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.”
I mean, I’ve had a QPR season ticket for the last 8 years, so perhaps a bent for hopeless endurance sports was inevitable.
Here I am then on my fourth outing at the Moonlight Challenge aiming for the elusive fifth lap. Regular readers will remember attempt number one, where I foolishly aimed to nab my first ultra marathon finish on only my second ever long distance race and ended up humbled by the mud; attempt two where I basically chickened out; when number three was stymied by a knee injury I knew I would be back again this year.
I would be, but two very important people would not. Wendimum, who had been such a regular supporter at Challenge Hub races that she probably qualified for a green number, had moved to The North where the weather comes from; and Mike Inkster, godfather of daft races, had finally handed the Challenge Hub reins over to Traviss and Rachel of Saxons Vikings Normans. The three challenges would now form part of their incredibly prolific portfolio of races, and all I’d heard about SVN was glowing reports. I mean, seriously-are-they-bribing-you glowing reports. Generous goody bags, medals so big and ornate you could pave a driveway with them, cake and beer a staple of every race. I was curious to see if they would do this historic event justice or if the spirit of the Challenge Hub races would simply be lost for ever.
Being Kent-based, the regular faces at SVN were many of the same ones that I knew from Challenge Hub and So Let’s Go Running, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar ground. What became very clear very quickly was that although I was one of a handful of regulars the new RDs would bring a huge field to this relatively tiny race, with many 100 Marathon Club members and wannabes keen to try a rare “new” course. What was also clear is that nobody ever does just one SVN race. This is a community built around the idea that a) literally anyone can finish a marathon – which is true – and b) one marathon is never enough, and nor is a hundred. It’s like the Challenge Hub ethos on acid.
There were a few tweaks to the race, which loyalty insisted I should HATE but practicality forced me to appreciate. Change number one was that the race would start at 4pm, not 6pm, and more importantly that it would be moved forward by 4 weeks so that it fell on the somewhat milder March full moon night, not a bitterly cold and foggy February one. Change number two was the format; instead of a multi-lap race with a limit of five, it would now be an eight-hour race with complete laps counted towards the total, as many as you could finish so long as the final one started before 10:30pm. I hadn’t any other reason to be optimistic about the race given my appalling preparation and my extra stone in weight, but I did cling to the little luxuries these changes afforded.
The biggest luxury, especially given that Wendimum wouldn’t be there, was to have Andy crewing for me. Let’s be clear; Andy is not a runner. He does not find running as exciting as I do. He certainly does not consider the idea of sitting in a barn on a cold Saturday night, with no wi-fi or electricity, for eight full hours sandwiched by a two hour drive there and back, fun. I had to put on my most pathetic face to persuade him to do it. If I was to have any chance of nabbing the fifth lap I would need not to be worrying about driving home on tired legs or finding my food and drinks at each pitstop. At least we found a huge John Deere tractor to use as a base, and Andy got his fill of machinery porn for the day as we set up our camping chairs in front of it.
Mooching about the start and half-heartedly stretching, I caught snippets of overheard conversations. The usual run-geekery and gossip, then I heard the word “elevation”. Three very serious looking chaps were discussing whether it counted as basically flat or the fact that the bridge over the motorway, which you cross twice per lap, cumulatively contributed to a lot of climbing. I held my tongue, but it was tough. I wanted desperately to jump in and tell them, elevation is not the challenge on this race. There are humps, but if you look back at your Strava when you finish the profile will look flat as a pancake. There’s a bit of mud, but any relatively experienced runner will be well prepared for that – and anyway, everyone here seemed to be wearing Hoka Stinsons and you can’t really be sure where the foot begins and the lugs end with those things. The repetitive nature of the laps aren’t anywhere near as bad a you’d think either; actually I’ve grown to love the rhythmic nature and comforting familiarity of lap format races. No, the challenge is far more insidious than that.
Judging the flatness of this race is like measuring fractals. Is that flat ground? Sure. No, wait, look closer. Is that a rut? Try again. A rut IN a rut? Getting warmer. This is a farm on the coast, my friend. That’s right – the ground for at least half of each lap has been rained on, churned, dried out, flooded, churned again, dried again, over and over until there isn’t a square foot that isn’t made up of peaks and troughs which are in turn made up of smaller peaks and troughs that redefine infinity. Good luck finding somewhere to land your feet. I’m guessing this is why the race always used to be run in the rainy season.
No time to worry about it now though. Part of my tactics for persuading Andy to come with me was to promise that we could listen to the QPR game on the radio – that turned out to be an optimistic gamble as pointless run-up coverage of the pointless Six F**king Nations filled the airwaves so I left him to grind his teeth in peace while I checked the first section of terrain. I was wearing my comfy zero-drop Altras in the car intending to change into my Salomon Fellraisers for the race itself, but the ground was much harder tham normal and the Fellraisers’ lugs would have shredded my feet looking for mud to bite into. Not having trained much in the zero-drop shoes was presumably an Achilles disaster waiting to happen, but I didn’t have much choice.
On the plus side, Mike made an appearance after all – dressed for once in smart clothes and boots instead of running shoes and jungle shorts, he had a cameo appearance as the race starter. I was so pleased to see him I nearly knocked him over with my hug. An auspicious start, but unless you’ve run a cumulative 200 miles (or more) around one of his fiendishly difficult courses you can’t appreciate the love I have for Mike, who has become the godfather of ultrarunning to me. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, isn’t it? Either way, another good omen for the race ahead.
There wasn’t the usual rocket going off for the start (“the man who was meant to bring it forgot”) but there we were, pretty much bang on 4pm, set loose on the trails of two of Kent’s muddiest coastal farms. The loop is made of (as Traviss perfectly described it) a dumbbell, where one loop is on Brook Farm, the furthest point of which is also the start/finish, the other is Bell Isle Farm, and the crossover is the bridge over the A299. Brook Farm is definitely the marshier of the two and includes the tricky little ridge of holy-crap-what-IS-that-we’re-running-on, which I am informed is only 400 metres long but can assure you is closer to about twenty miles. It’s ankle-turning central round there, and there are no prizes for finishing it first. So, although I held off walking until the fourth lap, I did take that section at a trot rather than a canter.
The first lap went smoothly, a good opportunity for regulars to reacquaint themselves with the route in the light and for newbies to learn it, for although it’s signposted Brook Farm in particular has a fair few turns that are easy to get wrong. By the second I was a little bored of being a Focused Runner, and tried to chat to a couple of people, and by a happy coincidence bumped into Jimi Hendricks (real name) from the Rebel Runners. I had run this same race with Jimi and Paula for a fair chunk last year, when both were on their third or fourth ever marathon. In the intervening year Jimi, with the help of SVN, had become a marathon running machine and had completed something like 70 more, well on his way to the 100. These are people who absolutely share my ethos for running, and the more I spoke to Jimi the more I learned about the work that SVN do effectively operating their running community as a feeder system for the 100 Marathon Club.
The belief that anyone can finish a marathon or ultra and in fact all those people can easily go on to finish a thousand more if they want to is underpinned by the practice of stripping back the things in races you probably don’t need (chip timing, baggage pens, disco music and coordinated warmups) and focusing instead on the things you do need (logistical support, sense of humour, a fuck ton of food and a pint of beer at the end). By running many of their races as timed events rather than distance ones, the stress of hitting cutoffs or getting drop bags to the right place is eliminated immediately. Of 91 finishers, 22 completed 5 or more laps in the allotted time to bag themselves an ultra (including one man, Alix Ramsier, who made it to 52.8 miles to take the longest distance by a full 2 laps); a further 49 completed a marathon. And the other 20? They all got their finishing time, their medal and their goody bag too. No DNFs, no timeouts. I’ve been listening to the Ultra Runner Podcast obsessively and host Eric Schranz raised this point just recently – if you’re running your first ultra, a fixed time event as opposed to a fixed distance one is definitely the way to go. I’ve got to hand it to SVN, they’ve got this COVERED.
Back to the race. Among the marathon finishers are two people without whom I’m not sure I’d have finished, certainly not with a smile on my face anyway. Simon Lewis and I did a little dance of face-in-a-strange-place “Do I know you?” until we worked out that no, we had not met at previous Challenge Hub Races, no, there was no Kent connection; Simon is in fact another Clapham Chaser and co-Event Director of Tooting Common parkrun. How we found each other all the way out here… I knew Simon’s face and I knew his name from the weekly club results roundup, but I’d never put the two together before. I’d also never realised there was another Chaser who subscribed to the more is more ethos for race finishes, and who was also well on the way to the 100 Club shirt. We ran half of the second lap together, just as the sun packed itself off to bed, playing chicken with our headtorches. Simon’s finish got him to marathon number 72 and his goal – which I have no doubt he will smash – is to hit the hundred before the end of December. I felt like I was in good company.
About halfway through the third lap, after I’d steamed ahead of Simon with a rare and foolhardy burst of energy, I realised I was back to running a boring loop on my own again and there weren’t even any views to enjoy. Well, there’s the sodium glare of the A299, but it’s hardly anything to write home about. And just as I started grumbling away to myself I came across another lone runner similarly wondering why the hell we were staring at a main road. Claire turned out to be more excellent company for what was becoming the slog part of the race. A lifelong film buff, she remains the first person I’ve ever met who does now for a living what she wanted to do when she was a little girl: a graphic designer that makes film posters. We chatted easily for a lap and a half, a good eleven miles that I barely noticed passing. In that irreverent way that you do when you meet someone you click with, we discussed GI issues on the run, favourite ways to fuel (both having recently dicovered Tailwind), why do romcom posters always have black and red Arial font on a white background, and Kiera Knightley. It turned out that she’d read my blog before (poor woman) and we shared URLs before we parted at the end of lap four.
I was genuinely gutted to lose Claire for the final lap but she had already pretty much made my race. She forced me to slow a little and walk the occasional inclines, which I’m usually loathe to do but always always regret later on, and I’m positive that that gave me the energy to make it through the final lap. Before I started Andy and I did a little mental calculation and worked out that by giving it a bit of welly I could actually be done with this lap in about hour and a quarter and make the six and a half hour watershed for starting the last one, but it would be a bit stupid to rush and risk injury. Plus, Andy really did not want to be there for another hour and a half. No, I would learn the lessons that Claire had taught me and take it easy for this lap. And since I’d be on my own I put my headphones in for the first time to listen to an interview with my hard-work hero, Jamie Mackie, on the QPR podcast. And off I went.
The zero-drop shoes were, surprisingly, a dream. Given the hardness of the ground and the lack 0f practice running in them I really expected to crash out with an Achilles nightmare (2016 had been that sort of year) but my calves, knees and feet were absolutely fine. I mean, slightly sore in the way that legs that have run a marathon tend to be, but not the sort of sore that actually stops you; in fact I felt as strong as I had in the second lap. Perhaps Altra are onto something here – why the hell are they so hard to find in the UK? I did a bit of shoegazing and saw a ton of Hokas, some Salomons, the occasional Inov-8 (I tried some of those again last week and they’re definitely dolls’ shoes, not made for duck feet like mine) but definitely no other Altras.
The Focused Runner approach actually seemed to be working for me and I kept a steady and not disrespectable pace up for three quarters of the lap before I became conscious of myself ramping up. Then I came across the windmill which marks the final straight, about half a mile of road which goes a bit up and then lots down, and I bloody went for it. The balls of my feet burned, my glutes started firing, my arms pumping as if I was on the Mall at the end of the London Marathon. It hurt, but it hurt good. A hop and a skip through the open barn door and I rang the bell to say I was done – 9 seconds after the final lap cutoff. Worth it. And the goody bag was, true to form, unspeakably good…
Andy had to concede it wasn’t the worst time he’d ever had, and I think he finally understood what I see in this daft sport when he met the other characters that make it what it is. For my part I don’t think I’ve ever finished a race that strongly, and it gave me a huge boost for the Centurion 50 Mile Grand Slam – something which, with the first race only four weeks away, I was terrified about. After a dismal year of injury upon exhaustion on top of weight gain added to laziness this race really hit my reset buttons – and obviously the first thing I did when I got home was sign up for the first random SVN race that wasn’t aleady sold out (August). Traviss and Rachel have done a fantastic job of keeping the Challenge Hub spirit alive and I’m sure Mike is relieved to know his races are in good hands. Me, I’m just glad to have my mojo back. God I’ve missed this.
Ask me again in four weeks.
Last year was a great year of running for me. I maintained a daily mile streak, and at least one official marathon each calendar month (16 in total). PBs fell all over the shop, and every time I did better than I thought it gave me the confidence to try harder. This year, not so much. It was bound to be a slightly fallow year in comparison, but (to continue the agricultural metaphor) whereas grass can still grow through paving stones running results don’t happen without actually running. And running has really not happened.
As I lined up for my second attempt at the North Downs 100 in August, having been unable to run a number of training races I was hoping to because of work commitments, I realised that I hadn’t finished an official marathon or even added a medal of any kind to my collection since London in April. Not that that’s such a long time between races, but for someone used to being the Mr T of running medals it gnawed at me. As it turned out, the North Downs Way 100 didn’t result in an official finish either so I headed towards the end of August feeling slightly less fabulous than I’d like to, not to mention heavier and less graceful than ever, and I missed the trail miles. So, I scanned teh interwebs for something nearby, low key, muddy and fun, and found the inaugural Woldingham Marathon. In three days’ time.
The route is a two lap loop which covers a couple of hills from the North Downs Way, and helpfully diverts to the one massive hill on the Vanguard Way where the two bisect in the middle too, before looping back to the start/finish in Woldingham School. The diversion up Oxted Downs is really only there to make up miles and offer physical and psychological torture, since all you do when you get to the top is go straight back down again and carry on along the rest of the route (also uphill), and this particularly simplistic brand of sadism is half the fun. Plus, it means the route is shaped kind of like a bum, cleft and all, and who doesn’t like tracing rude pictures with their runs?
It was exactly what I needed. I arrived at the school vaguely entertaining ideas of a four and a half hour finish, then recognised the area, and quickly downshifted my expectations through five hours, five and a half hours and not looking at the time at all. And then I bumped into fellow Chaser Alex Visram who, in preparation for the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (the Japanese UTMB, so even madder) had signed up for what he delicately called a “training run”. We bought on the day entries, drank coffee and caught up with a few familiar faces, then fifty or so runners (and one dog) doing either the one-lap half marathon or the two-lap full took off with the bang of the starters pistol (an unexpected bonus to the organisers who seemed as surprised as we did to hear it).
Alex and I started off together but it became painfully obvious that he was running well within his easy pace. He was kind enough to keep me company for a good half lap though, including up to the top of Oxted Downs and back down again, coaching me through my recent running woes all the way. Alex is one of the Clapham Chasers’ ultra kings and full of good advice on how to get through a race, although as one might expect from a seasoned ultrarunner his advice is pretty no-nonsense. I told him about my issues with nausea and fear of sickness through the North Downs 100, and his response didn’t pull any punches. “Jaz, if you want to run 100 miles somewhere along the way you have to accept that being sick is part of it. You can’t be put off by stuff like that. It’s like saying you don’t want to run long distances because you’re afraid of getting blisters.” It was sort of brutal and sort of liberating at the same time, hearing that. It reinforced a perspective that I viewed for the first time just a few weeks before – my ability to finish a 100 miler is a matter of choice. Either I want it enough that I’ll get over the unpleasant details, or I don’t want it enough. That’s all there is to it.
As we neared Titsey Hill he spied a regular rival a few paces ahead, and decided that as he wasn’t going for the win today he at least wanted to finish ahead of this guy, and off he went – zoom. There was actual dust at his heels, and this was a rainy day. This same stretch had been torture to me just three weekends before, an exposed plain by the side of the M25 with a singletrack barely wide enough for two feet, which under the height of summer sun seems to take forever to cover. Today it was a totally different story – refreshing, slightly treacherous but in a fun way, a flat stretch providing temporary relief from the climb-them-don’t-walk-them hills. As I made my way into the clearing by the Titsey Plantation I fell into step with a gentleman who was no more eager to run uphill than me, and we chatted to distract ourselves from the task.
Geoff – a colourblind surgeon, and veteran runner who was preparing for his first ultra in September after having run his first marathon in 1981 – was a fascinating companion, and we were well on our way back to the start/finish point before I noticed how much time had passed. It felt quite a lot like a social trail run, rather than a race; at least, I was treating it that way. I needed to rediscover the love of running itself, and dissociate the fear of failure from the act of the exercise. Focusing on the more social part of the activity sort of hit my reset button.
We talked at length about his career as a reconstructive surgeon, and I asked all manner of daft questions:
“Does being colourblind affect your work, when you’re doing intricate things like veins and arteries?”
“Well no, arteries and veins are different sizes anyway…” *looks at me as if I’m retarded* “What’s the worst job you ever had to do?”
“Skin grafts on burned children.” *awkward silence*
As time passed we realised each of us were dragging the other person along by turns, and that overall we were pretty much bob on the same pace, so as we climbed Titsey Hill the second time we agreed to finish together come what may.
As we passed the water station the final time with three miles to go, the volunteers told me I was currently fourth lady. It was the first time I’d really considered our positions in the context of the race. Gentleman Geoff urged me to push on, but since there wasn’t anyone behind us for miles and (I reasoned) there were probably only five women in the race anyway I preferred to stick with the plan to finish together hand in hand, and that’s exactly what we did. A watershed moment in the year that running forgot, I bagged a medal, a friend and a race that I enjoyed all the way through. I just can’t get bored of tootling around the Surrey hills and chatting and eating biscuits – and the silly thing is, I already know that abstract achievements like this drive me more than calculable results ever have. Not to mention ticking off another marathon on the list to 100; another huge moment, considering the last time I’d officially done that was April. I’d started to wrestle back control.
So Woldingham was almost as impulsive a marathon as it’s possible to get, but it was absolutely worth it. On the other hand, the Suunto Run Wimbledon marathon had been on the cards since July when I was drawn in by a Facebook advert for the inaugural race. The race was four squiggly laps around the common, offering 10k, half marathon, solo marathon and relay marathon options. Nearby and low-key, mostly offroad (I assumed), sponsored by my favourite brand of running watch, something about free marshmallows. Yep, sign me up.
It would also be a good opportunity to get out the headtorch; the race was due to start at 4pm on the Saturday meaning that the second half would be run after dusk, under cover of trees which blocked out what little moonlight broke through the clouds, in effectively pitch darkness. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to running on little or no sleep but I do love a race in the dark, especially one that starts late and necessitates an afternoon nap. And that’s pretty much all I knew about it until the Wednesday before. Once again, my failure to do race research would define my experience.
As I warmed up in the start/finish area in a clearing near the Windmill, I bumped into another Chaser trail regular Igor, who was returning to running with a stab at the half marathon after a busy year creating new human beings. Sticking with the theme of “this is a social run with a medal, not a race” we covered the first two laps together in a comfortable but not easy 2:05, chatting the whole way through about life, the universe and everything. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, moved to the US and there became a citizen before settling in the UK, Igor is a fascinating person to talk to/interrogate with daft questions; we covered Brexit, global economics, parenthood, the two hour marathon, America optimism vs Russian cynicism and why Turkish people are so charmingly blunt, all with the help of natural daylight. After the second lap I waved Igor on his way, downed a gel and set up my torch for the remainder of the race, as dusk was threatening to descend at a moment’s notice. And then I realised I needed the loo.
As if someone had switched the lights off we were plunged into darkness for lap three, apart from the half mile or so around the A3 subway lit by sodium lamps (frankly, I preferred the darkness) and it became more important than ever to watch where my feet were going. Igor and I had both had a couple of near misses even when the light was good, so there was no need for heroics; then again, the pressure was growing in my bladder with at least an hour to the next possible loo stop so I didn’t exactly want to dawdle. Being a lap race it was difficult to tell where in the field I was (although I assumed it must be a way towards the back) and the 10k and half marathon runners were mostly finished by this point. With the exception of a girl from the 100 Marathon Club who I caught up with a couple of times then gave up trying to follow, I found myself basically on my own.
When I got to the end of lap three I was flagging a little, having pretty much run 20 miles on one gel, and I passed the timing mat around 3:20. Not great, but not a disaster. I pulled over to ask one of the marshals if I could use the loo without being disqualified and she stared at me with horror. While I wondered if I’d broken some sort of running etiquette by asking to use the loo, she composed herself enough to ask if I had another lap to go.
“Yeah, this is my third. One more to go.”
“Well… you can use the loo, but the cutoff is four hours. Are you going to be finished by then?”
It took me a moment to a) process that she was asking if I’d finish the RACE within four hours not the toilet trip and b) that she was asking if I would finish a 6.5 mile lap, in the dark, in the woods, in under 40 mins. I admitted that I would not. “So, will I be allowed to finish?”
She had to go and find the race director to get confirmation that I’d be allowed to continue while I waited for an agonising 5 minutes, during which I was even too afraid to leave the timing area for the loo in case I’d missed another crucial rule. How did I miss that the cutoff for the race was 4 hours? I definitely didn’t remember seeing it before I’d signed up, as even Optimistic Jaz wouldn’t be that reckless, and I racked my memory for a clue in the race day instructions I’d read before coming out. I remembered (and a little bit ignored) the headphones rule, I remembered deciphering the squiggly map, I remembered that there was no food or gel on offer but that there would be water… then I vaguely remembered a comment about being done in 8 hours so the organisers could go to the pub and thinking how generous that was. Bit of mental arithmetic followed: 4pm plus 8 hours does not equal being able to go to the pub. In retrospect, I reasoned, perhaps the rule was actually “finish by 8pm”. Ah.
Eventually I got a reassurance that I could continue and officially finish, but there would be no medical assistance and no marshals. Not a problem to me, a seasoned night-time runner and part-time Womble, but it got me to thinking how you could expect the last finisher to finish within four hours; and moreover why wouldn’t you advertise that more before you even take anyone’s money? Four hours is pretty punchy for an off-road marathon, half of which is in the dark; although arguably only by today’s standards. I thought about veteran Chaser Rob who started running marathons in the early 80s when he admitted to often coming plum last despite finishing in under three and a half hours. I didn’t really have the right to get angry at the organisers, I told myself, when I hadn’t even read the instructions properly. I even considered pulling out halfway through the final lap so as not to make anyone hang around too long, but eventually decided the best I could do would be to finish what I’d started.
Dragging myself through the inevitable 20 mile crash (one Gu gel and three Shot Bloks in, I now realise it was also the least well fuelled marathon I’d ever run) I tried to push as hard as my legs would allow while still maintaining some control. I switched from audiobook to upbeat ska punk (thank God for the staple Less Than Jake playlist) and ploughed on, with absolutely no other runners, no marshals, no people at all in sight. Even if I didn’t officially finish and get my bling, it would be important to me to overcome my doubts and finish, to prove to that negative voice in my head that it didn’t rule me. I skipped along to the blaring music through the eastern edge of the common, over ground that forms part of the Wimbledon parkrun lap, enjoying the familiarity and pretending it was a summer Saturday morning. And then everything was suddenly black and silence.
Where am I? You’re face down in the soil on Wimbledon Common.
Why do my hands hurt? Uh, you Supermanned it. Covered a good 6 feet gliding along the floor. Probably.
How? A tree root, I imagine. What else? Dickhead.
Holy fuck why can’t I hear anything am I deaf- No, you’re not. You landed on your iPod shuffle and paused it. Also you bruised your hip landing on the iPod. But check the iPod first.
My knees are screaming they’re going to fall off. No, they’re not. But they’re pretty bruised too.
I picked myself up and tested the weight on my fragile joints; adrenalin coursed through me so I couldn’t really feel what was damaged and what wasn’t, and that seemed like good enough reason to coast on it while it lasted, so I restarted my music and carried on running. My right hand in particular was pretty badly cut – two gouges caused by hitting a piece of branch on the floor had been stuffed with soil from the momentum of my fall, and nothing I could do would get it out. There wasn’t any help except at the end, so the end was where I needed to get. I laughed at myself remembering the last fall I’d had was another Superman slide along Wimbledon Common, a quarter of a mile up the trail, running the Wimbledon Half Marathon earlier this year. I’m nothing if not consistent.
The adrenalin did its thing – I ploughed on at something slightly faster than walking pace, crossed the finish line to a one-man reception who handed me my medal (yay!), my marshmallows (double yay!) and a sympathetic smile. I thanked him and asked if there were many more people to come. “No dear. Just you.” And that was how I got my first ever last finisher. All those times I freaked out about being the last person on the course when I first started running in 2012; I couldn’t help but giggle. Having done it, it was actually sort of liberating.
When Chasers’ results guru Graham Sutherland posted up his weekly roundup on Monday evening it was the first time I’d even considered my race position (except for being, you know, DEAD LAST), so I was pretty surprised to discover that I was aso technically second lady. That’s right – the 100 Marathon Club girl that I had been trying to keep up with was the only other girl doing the full marathon. This lofty accolade was confirmed a couple of weeks later when I went to the Post Office to pick up what I thought was a parcel of bedding, and discovered instead an amazing 25l running backpack/drybag and a handful of Buffs as my second lady prize. I’ve never got a podium position before either, so getting both that and the wooden spoon in the same race deserves a prize of its own, I think. And I suppose, in finally regaining my sense of humour, I did. Which is the best possible prize I could have picked up.
On reflection, I got to the end of 2015 feeling a little tired but overall pretty fit, and like a much better person than I used to be; not so many temper tantrums or panic attacks, with a more positive perspective in general. The new job and the tiredness (and the partner increasingly worried that I’d joined some sort of exercise cult) persuaded me that I needed to dial back a little and recharge this year, whereupon the first thing that happened was a classic overuse injury, my first ever. Was this the delayed effect of last year’s exertions or was it because I’d stopped doing daily exercise that had previously helped ward off niggles and promoted faster recovery? In February, I’d have been easily persuaded that it was the former; now, the latter seems unquestionably true, especially corroborated by other daily run streak runners I know. Because it’s what I want to believe. I want to believe that running a mile or more every day and a marathon every month is good for me physically, because psychologically it turned my life around. That part isn’t in question at all for me, as anyone who knows me knows what a grumpy cow I’ve been this year. Running every day makes me happy. Or at least, it makes me hate the world and everyone in it marginally less.
On a slightly more sophisticated level, I have to acknowledge that happiness also comes from a sense of achievement where success is measured against expectation. All year I’ve had my expectations set somewhere between where they were last November when I was in much better shape, and the moon; no wonder that I was struggling to reach any of the targets I’d set and have been consequently feeling deflated. In my mind I was prepared or the fact that this year would be a bit of a plateau and hadn’t planned to go for any big goals or expect the leaps and strides I had last year – treating the whole year more like a rest and recovery period, I suppose – but in my heart I was still persuading myself that I should go for a 3:35 marathon and finish a 103 mile trail race on a month of no rest. A perfect recipe for unhappiness.
So how do I get happy? Trusting in my year out, making the rest and recovery work for me not the other way round, making decisions by looking at what I want to achieve not from FOMO are all good starts. The sense of humour, that’s the clincher. This shit is meant to be FUN. In the spirit of which (don’t laugh) I’ve decided to focus on the Centurion 50 milers next year before even considering upgrading to a 100 again – although, because I’m a borderline compulsive, I’m going for the four race grand slam (obviously) – and I’ve asked for help this time too. My early New Year’s Resolution will simply be to give myself a realistic target and trust in the awesome support network that the Chasers offers. After “eat more cake” that’s about as easy a resolution to keep as there is.
I mean, I love running. We all do. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?
Nothing can prepare you for it. There are no words to describe the crushing blows of sound coming from the crowds, the pressing mass of bodies moving around you, pushing you always forward, though the twenty six mile tunnel lined by impenetrable, unscalable walls. Even if you wanted to bail out you couldn’t. The only way out is at the end. So, get to the end.
I don’t have a great track record with crowds. I’m definitely better than I used to be, better than when I wrote about zombies, but given the choice between open trails and thronged city streets… well, the road shoes aren’t getting much wear. So why am I doing this? In the days after the race I’m amused by how many people – even those who know me and how many marathons or ultras I’ve done before – want to hear all about it, much more than my previous races, as if it’s a league apart from any other marathon in difficulty or involvement. It’s just another road marathon, in theory. Except it’s not; it’s a national event, a city-wide gala, the zenith of many running careers. Despite the ever-lengthening odds of your average Joe actually getting a place on the starting line London is often either their first or last marathon (or both). Especially to someone living in London, it’s a tangible, real thing, not just a thing that happens somewhere else and well done. On a year that will celebrate the millionth finisher, how many Londoners have either run it or know someone who has? Just for one day, they’re all a little bit of a celebrity.
And there I am, as far away from a natural celebrity as it’s possible to be.
About a week before clubmate Cat admitted she was planning to take it easy at London because she was targeting a podium finish at the Pembrokeshire CTS Marathon the following weekend (as you do), and luckily for me her easy pace is my balls out PB pace, so I had myself a companion. We ran to ExCel on the Friday to traipse around the expo and buy tat we didn’t need, and to talk tactics. Broadly speaking, ‘tactics’ involved me wavering between 3:45 for another good for age qualifier and trying to persuade myself maybe I could do 3:30 after all, followed by Cat firmly and sensibly insisting that a) she can’t afford to do that and b) I probably can’t either. So, I picked up a 3:40 pacing band, then a 3:35 one for good luck as well, then my body weight in Clif products. I’d been marauding around looking for a pair of pink running shorts (because it’s the only obscene colour I don’t own) and maintaining that I’d NEVER wear tights or capri pants for running; meanwhile, half an hour later, there I am carrying away one pair of grey patterned capri pants and zero shorts or pink things. Cat would have her work cut out for her.
Despite there being another huge Chaser turnout I travelled to Maze Hill alone on Sunday morning intending to meet Cat and the others there. It wasn’t so much me being unsociable, although I do like a bit of alone time before a race; I just like to get to the race start two hours in advance, partly to be prepared but mostly to avoid the busy trains. By 8am I was mooching around the Green Start, trying not to bump into Kelly Holmes while glued to my phone looking for a message from Cat; fast forward an hour and a half, and as the announcer made increasingly hysterical pleas for the runners to drop off their bags there was still no sign of her or any of the Chasers. I had to hand my bag in, phone and all, and hope we’d spot each other at the starting pens. Literally minutes before we were due to line up the familiar blue and green stripes flashed by and I found Cat, Korkoi, Kate and Shermayne haggling with the marshals at the pens, hoping to be allowed to start together. Panic over. For now.
Which pen should I be in anyway – what was I realistically aiming for? Only the night before the expo I discovered that my result in Manchester 2015, the result that gave me the Good For Age entry to London in the first place, was now null and void thanks to a man with a dodgy measuring wheel. It was irritating enough to have put so much work in, got my qualifying time for two Londons and then have it taken away; I can’t imagine how infuriating it must be to those who got a significant result, a podium or a PB to retire on. Up to that point I had been realistic about how well a winter of no speed training and a stone gained in weight could actually prepare me; now of course I would have to try and requalify if I ever wanted to run London again. I can’t raise £2000 for a charity place and the ballot entry odds aren’t even as good as the lottery any more. So, do I accept this is probably my first and last opportunity to run London and just enjoy it, knowing that I’ve much bigger fish to fry between now and September? Or do I go for suicide pace and bugger the consequences?
In retrospect, I massively underestimated just how busy it was going to be; not helped by the fact that we were in the relatively quiet Green Start, and not actually catching up with the crowds until a few miles in. We crossed the line – Cat in her usual gentle forefoot trot, me skipping along with Andrew W.K. party moves – only a minute or so after 10am and filtered through the peaceful streets of Greenwich, jostling and being jostled as you do at the beginning of a race. It made me uneasy as it usually does, but I kept telling myself it’d be fine when we crowds thinned out. To Cat’s credit, every time I said so out loud she corrected me – “Jaz, this is London, it’s not going to get any less busy” – and yet somehow I managed to gloss over this crucial piece of advice every time… until, that is, we merged with the other two start pens. As we came down the slope to river’s edge around Charlton a tidal wave of runners met us from one side and the volume of people more than doubled in an instant. It looked like the scene in the Lion King where Simba sees his father crushed by a stampede of wildebeests. I’m not going to get too crude about it, but I’m pretty sure this was around the time my nausea kicked in.
Like the country mice visiting the town mice Cat and I lifted our chins as gracefully as we could, thinking about the trails and pretending we weren’t inches away from other people’s sweat. We chatted about the weather, about other people, about the finer points of existence – we might as well have been two old ladies taking afternoon tea at the Penrith Tea Rooms. The crowd was carrying us along at slightly above our target pace but if we didn’t want to cause a pile-up there wasn’t much we could do about it; there was no moving out to one side or slowing down and allowing others to pass. Every time someone brushed my arm it made me bristle a shudder a little more though, and it was getting pretty difficult to hide. Every half a mile or so we’d both look at our watches, cheerfully announce we were going too fast and should probably slow down, then carry on regardless. Some serious classic British stiff upper lip denial going on.
I had started the race with half a bottle of Lucozade in my hand intending to throw it somewhere convenient within a mile – at Bermondsey I’m still clinging to it like a Linus blanket when I hear my name called off to the left. We’d just settled into a comfortable stride in a relatively quiet stretch, and perfect timing it was too; fellow QPR fan Cez was waving frantically while Loft For Words’ Neil, positioned a little further along with his ubiquitous camera, was snapping away. I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays in the pub with Neil and his camera and I’m always impressed by how he manages to catch a perfect moment. It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t been enjoying myself before, but I felt such a rush of relief to see them both it was impossible to hide and his lens picked up the very instant a grin blossomed across my already sweaty, salty face. There was the boost to get me to Tower Bridge.
Cat warned me that Tower Bridge can be a particularly emotional moment; I wasn’t that convinced to be honest, especially as I run across it quite a lot in my usual Friday lunchtime loop around work. As lovely a sight as it is it’s also normally a nasty congestion point, trying to weave through the narrow walkways past people with no haste and no idea where they are, and I can’t really settle down until I’m past it. Today it was a whole different place altogether. Today we were running along the road, the two narrow walkways crammed with spectators screaming and raising a right ruckus around us. The sound swelled and burst through those iconic tower supports, washing over us and pouring into the tide of the Thames below, and for the first (although not last) time I burst into tears. Ah. So this is what everyone was trying to tell me about.
OK, so yeah. That redefines special. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I’ve certainly never felt anything like it. And it set a tone for much of the next four or five miles – the route flanked by two walls of noise, surging and rushing over us. Cat ran slightly ahead of me through the Isle of Dogs and Poplar, which suited me absolutely fine. I couldn’t concentrate on where I was putting my feet or the path ahead of me – I just had to follow her ankles and not look up at all the people. Every half a mile or so the overwhelming noise would hit me again and knock me literally breathless; I would clamp my hands over my ears and catch my breath in sobs until it passed. At least twice I actually blacked out briefly, and when the cloud cleared from my eyes I found myself back in a relatively quiet stretch with no recollection of how we got there. And absolutely no way out except forward.
I had arranged for Andy and his family to be stationed along this stretch just after Tower Bridge as it meant that I would see them twice when the route doubled back. It was a great idea in theory, even though I knew it would be a popular spot for exactly this reason, but as usual I had underestimated just how busy it was and therefore how hard it would be to spot them. I ran for a good three miles, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of him or the QPR flag he said he’d be waving, and being horribly antisocial to Cat all the while. Every step I took without seeing him thumped me in the chest. Maybe he’s a bit further down… maybe he couldn’t find a spot there.. maybe they misunderstood… maybe not. It’s silly really, since he’s never at my races, but this one was the one he’d always said he’d be there for, and the one time I knew I’d really need to see him. Eventually, I had to concede defeat and hope we’d catch each other on the return journey. Cat reassured me that he must have been there, he would have seen me – it’s just that I couldn’t see him in the crowd. I knew it was true, but it didn’t make me feel much better. If I had been monitoring my heartrate I’m sure it would have registered such dramatic peaks and troughs as to make an ECG look like a seismograph.
As industrial East London unfolded and everything started looking like the road to the ExCel centre, another familiar sight appeared. Katherine French, stalwart of the road marathon and secret trail fanatic was just a few yards ahead accompanied by her pacer Chris. Aiming for a safe Boston Qualifier time of around 3:30, Katherine and Chris had passed us a long way back as the three groups merged way back in Woolwich and Katherine had the look of a determined lady; by now though she was struggling, stopping to walk and looking downcast. It broke my heart to see her in trouble – I wanted to stop and run with her for a bit, but she had one of the best pacers money (or rather, love and wine) could buy with her already and the last thing she would have wanted was more fuss. Seeing someone else that I admire so much having a crap time just added to the feeling that this just wasn’t fun. I missed the mud and the jelly babies and even though they were right there with me, I missed my friends.
By this point we’re deep in DLR territory and approaching three quarters of the way through. I kept telling myself that next time we passed a fuel station I would pick up a gel or a Lucozade, but by mile 20 I hadn’t managed to do either, whether because I simply couldn’t get to the edge of the pack to reach or because I was afraid of getting tripped up. My stomach was starting to cramp, looking for calories to process which I hadn’t been able to take on, and although I wasn’t feeling tired or sluggish at all I could feel my body crying at me to slow down until the nausea passed. I persisted with the logic that the quicker I went the sooner I’d get to a quiet fuel station, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We were a good couple of miles past the last gel station before I realised I had missed my last chance. Time had to go out of the window now.
As we approached Shadwell on the return journey I kept my eyes peeled for Andy – surely I couldn’t miss him twice? I was starting to panic now, although I don’t know why I’d suddenly decided that seeing Andy for a brief moment was more likely to get me to the end than having the patient, tireless and graceful Cat by my side the entire time had been. Cat who never once complained about my being distant and unsociable, about the burden of my reliance on her, about the fact that our pace had started to slow and our muscles in danger of cooling. She was a rock all the way through, but she had her own race to think about a week later. She let me drift off to the side of the pack while I scanned every face in the crowd looking for Andy, and when I finally found him there was a brief shriek, a little jump, and then we were past and they long behind us, on the way to the finish. That little boost I had been looking for came and went almost without a chance to register, and the nausea that had been held at bay by the distraction of searching for him came back with a vengeance. After another mile I told her to go on without me. There was no chance of me making my time now, and no point in her risking injury.
The pressure relieved somewhat I trotted along under the underpass, by Blackfriars bridge and along the Embankment where I had run hundreds of times before. Every time I do this route with work I imagine being on the road, running the last few miles to the finish at the Mall; now I was on the other side, wishing I was back on the pavement. I was doing the classic juggling act: walking as much as I could to avoid being sick until the encouragement from onlookers embarrassed me enough to try and trot again, then slowing back down to a walk when I was safely past. I didn’t care about time any more, and I knew I’d still be able to take away the fact that I’d finally finished my first London. I had the support of my club and my family and I had my health, and that was that. It’s not meant to be easy, but as everyone had tried to tell me it does remind you of the goodwill of strangers – never mind my fear of crowds it’s not as if they were malicious or threatening mobs, just a lot of people who had all given up their day to tell total strangers that they believed in them. That’s why it’s different from other marathons, I suppose. Maybe, twitchy little misanthrope that I am, it’s just not for me.
No longer worrying about time I tried to help a couple of other runners who had slowed down, but who looked like they still had a final push left within them – it didn’t seem fair to be overtaking anyone at this stage when I had given up so long ago. The final mile leading to the Mall was a reflective one, but an awesome spectacle nonetheless. This bit I wouldn’t give up for the world – with one last burst of energy I leapt hurdle style over the finish line, stumbled into the marshals holding out medals, and burst into tears. While I waited for my chest to loosen up and my breathing to settle I turned around to watch the finishers behind me coming through, hoping to see Katherine and Chris among them. Those waves of triumph and pain coming through the final arch are what defines any marathon, and it was worth scanning all those faces to pick Katherine out. Seeing her finish represented to me a symbol of strength, of someone who regularly sets themselves standards so high that most people would baulk at attempting let alone be disappointed not to reach them. They came through a few minutes later, both looking calm and composed in comparison to my snot and sobs, and we exchanged sweaty hugs. I was done. We were done.
My mum had been hoping to catch me at the end after her volunteering shift but couldn’t get through the crowds in time, so I met Andy and his family at the meeting point and we went straight back to Earlsfield. Running for nearly four hours on no calories had taken its toll on my complexion and apparently I was looking grey and slurring, a real poster girl for the virtues of exercise, so we hobbled off to a local pub for a full Sunday lunch which I barely touched, although a couple of virgin coladas went down a treat. If that had been the only evidence of the effect of a marathon on the human body I wouldn’t have blamed them for never wanting to try it for themselves but just a couple of weeks later Andy’s sister Emma was asking my advice on shoes and how to train for the Brighton half and parkrun and all sorts. That’s exactly what I’d hope someone would take away from my grey pallor and limp and hypoglycaemia and shivers. It’s fun, but it’s not what you think I mean by fun. And everybody should try it.
It’s not the sort of fun that’s fun while you’re having it, transient fun that exists while it’s happening and disappears into the ether as soon as it’s finished, an unsatisfying and impermanent sort of fun. Cat calls it fun type 2: the afterburn of fun; fun that is had not at the time necessarily but after the hard work and stress has been experienced, and which lasts for weeks afterwards, in the form of memories and a sense of achievement and a change in your outlook. I’ve still never quite managed to articulate the answer to the question “why do you do this” but that’s fairly close. And, you know, the goody bags and the bling make up for it all.
I can tell you probably don’t believe me. I wouldn’t either. All I can say is, try it for yourself and see.
Funky graphs and stats below (I couldn’t resist):
PS: If you like reading, or running, or reading about running, then you should follow Katherine’s blog girlrunningcrazy.com – winner of Best Running Blog at the Trespass Blog Awards 2015. Hell yes.
I remember planning for my first marathon – Edinburgh, 2013, with my mum, after missing out on the London ballot (of which more here). Lots of weight still to lose, lots of lists and logistics, lots still to learn about how to finish a marathon. Eventually you learn that nothing and nobody can teach you how to finish a marathon. You learn that what you really need to learn is how to listen to your own body.
When I crossed the line at Manchester last year in a little over 3:41 the first thing I thought was that I really hoped they didn’t change the Good For Age qualifying time for London, having just about squeezed in. I still didn’t quite believe I’d done it when I applied, still thought that something would change at the last minute or that I’d read my time wrong or they’d lose my application or something. I almost didn’t believe it even as I clutched the cheerful “Congratulations, you’re in!” magazine in my quivering hands. It didn’t really sink in until after my last marathon of 2015, when every time someone asked me what I was training for I had to amend my answer from “Oh nothing really, I’m always doing something or other,” to “London.” London with a full stop.
Perhaps it’s time to start training seriously for this marathon lark then – you know, training plans, strength and conditioning workouts, speedwork and pacing, eating real food and cutting back on pints of Honeydew. All those articles in Runner’s World I usually skip over to get to the stories of iconic races and Tonks’ column might actually come in useful. My goal is to get under 3:30, taking around twelve minutes off last year’s time – a tall order, but an achievable one. After trying one off the shelf plan and finding that it isn’t pushing me anywhere near enough, I ask my clubmates at Clapham Chasers and discover – almost too late – that many recommend the high-mileage Pfitzinger and Douglas (or P&D) training plan. I like running a lot, so this seems like a no-brainer. I do a few sums and work out that I can just about fit in the 12-week version between now and 24th April, since I already average 40 miles a week. So I draw up my calendar for the next 12 weeks and get stuck in.
Then I compare it with my work calendar. Ah. Three broadcast events in six weeks. Yes, that will be tricky. I’m used to squeezing runs in around work, but with this new job the broadcast days will rarely be less than 18 hours on my feet, and I’ll be learning my job as I go. It’s stressful both on my body and my brain – not to mention my digestive system, eating rancid Pret sandwiches for breakfast lunch and dinner – but I know if I’m going to do this it’s going to hurt occasionally so I suck it up. I stubbornly persist with the speedwork and tempo sessions whenever I can fit them in; then one Thursday, after a particularly stressful day at work I get halfway round before suffering a panic attack and need help from Cat to get my breathing back under control. Cutting one session short is not the end of the world, but the planned hours of speedwork I’m failing to make are slowly stacking up. Perhaps the panic attack is brought on by more than just work.
I get the first half of the project out of the way and hit the ground as soon as I get back. This is mid February now, a couple of weeks away from the small matter of my third attempt at the Moonlight Challenge. I’m in with half a chance of getting first lady if only I can finish all 33 miles and remember my bloody torch this time. I’m going around Battersea Park one freezing evening, not quite hitting tempo pace but not exactly struggling, when I feel a sharp pain develop behind my right kneecap, then it seizes up completely. I try to lollop along in the hope that it will loosen up but the camber and anti-clockwise loop isn’t helping, and I miss the last lap of the session again. This feels bad. This feels worse than the normal run-weariness I can shake off by, well, running. This feels like An Injury. And An Injury means Rest. I am not good at Rest. My metabolism is not good at Rest. I have gained almost a stone in weight since Christmas, and it feels like an actual stone tethered to my feet.
I’m superhuman, so these little setbacks don’t affect me, obviously. No, wait. The other one. Just a bog standard dickhead human who’s too stubborn to recognise something going wrong. I give the knee a few token gestures towards helping it heal – which is to say, continue to run into work once a week at the same intensity, hitting the pavements only slightly less hard than normal, occasionally give it a bit of a rub – but I never get more than 5 miles before it blows up again. I barely run at all in the week prior to the Moonlight Challenge, and unsurprisingly it starts to get better. But a week is not enough. 20 miles into the race, boom.
If I had a coach they would probably ask me which of the 8 marathons or ultras I’m already signed up to this year is actually my A race, then do something sensible like advise which of the others to drop; almost certainly that drop-list would have included Moonlight. The problem is that all my races are A races to me, for one reason or another. I just really love running marathons and ultras. And in a completely unscientific spirit that really only serves to enable this obsession, I am convinced that I run best when I’ve run lots, in as varied and exciting a range of ways as I can. Moonlight is important because of the people who run it; London because it’s the road marathon I always wanted to do; NDW100 is obvious; Giants Head is a party; Jurassic Quarter is Cat’s birthday and a big club weekend; the list goes on. I’m reminded of when I was 9, and we were planning to move to Cyprus: my mum asked me which of my toys were my favourites because we couldn’t take everything. I came up with infallible reasoning for every single thing. I don’t buy shit I don’t like. EVERYTHING IS MY FAVOURITE.
So if I’m not willing to choose my favourite toy, I have to look after them all equally well. Moonlight was a wake up call, not least because my bum knee was pretty much the only thing that stood between me and the first female finisher. I can’t go for sub-3:30 but at least I can do myself proud, and it’s one of only two races Andy will attend so I’m buggered if I’m going to be a tourist – when he sees me pass I want him to see me running like I’m about to win it. I finally knuckle down to a program of gradually building up long slow miles again, supported by cross training on the bike (subtitled: if I don’t have to pay TfL to travel to work I’m winning twice), yoga and strength exercises, a serious effort to lose the winter weight. If I can’t be faster I may as well be stronger, lither, tougher. Is it lither, or more lithe? Whatever. I channelled Caballo Blanco – easy, light, smooth, fast.
On a whim, I signed up to the Wimbledon Half Marathon (not to be confused with the Wimbledon Common Half Marathon) at the beginning of April to test my roadworthiness. I had no idea what sort of time I was capable of (and as usual did absolutely no research on the course profile beforehand) but I figured I would start off at 8 minute miles and see how far I could go before I naturally slowed down. Despite the hills it was further than I thought; I ended up finishing in 1:47.53, not exactly a PB or the equivalent pace for a 3:30 marathon, but not a stretch either. The figures by themselves aren’t much of an indication of anything, but coming away from that feeling like I could run again with no pain was a boost.
Since Lucozade Sport is supplied on the course at London I thought I’d try running Wimbledon on that alone rather than carrying a fistful of gels (which didn’t entirely agree with me at Manchester last year anyway) and road tested my shoes and kit, all with success. The only failure, it turned out, was my ability to stay on my feet. At the end of the first lap I’m crossing the road via a traffic island, over one of the flattest bits of the course when suddenly I’m doing a Superman impression and gliding along the road on my front, and I have no idea why. Pride might come before a fall but a huge rush of adrenalin usually comes directly after it, so I picked myself and my bottle up almost in one movement and carried on before the pain kicked in. The runner behind me reassured me that if I’d stayed on the floor he’d have stopped my watch for me, which is basically the most charitable thing anyone’s ever said to me during a race. Next time round I looked for the trip wire, huge tree root or bear trap that must have been responsible for me going flying. Nothing there. Just the road markings. And as I went over them for the second time my toe brushed the edge and it clicked: I, a person who runs in hills and trails for fun, had tripped over paint.
As I’m sitting on the grass afterwards waiting for my massage, I inspect the wounds on my elbows, hips and knees. Pissing blood and covered in dirt; luckily the only thing that hurts is my pride. I’m a little concerned about the delayed effect of the impact on my poor patellas, although only time will tell for those poor buggers. But what struck me most of all was how quickly and thoroughly I shook off the fear of falling over. The fact is, it wasn’t anywhere near as bad as the tension gripping my whole body each time I’d been out for a run when I knew, deep down, that I wasn’t properly healed yet, that I was falling into a classic overtraining trap. And just like that, I felt as though I had begun to regain control of my body again.
OK, three weekends to go. Three weekends of balancing the desire to go straight back out and run ALL THE MILES with the memory of what it feels like not to be able to run even for a couple of days. It’s a pretty classic situation. As I read about other runners’ experiences with overuse injury a trend appears; those that listen to their body, give it a proper chance to recover, actually come back stronger. Whether that’s down to an increase in strength or some other physical improvement, heightened responses to the body’s signals that reduce the temptation to overtrain, a higher likelihood of practising effective conditioning work and “pre-hab”, or a consciousness of what happens if you don’t, is impossible to tell – you’d have to know their full medical background and training history. On top of which, there aren’t many people lining up to tell Runner’s World how running ruined their life. Still though, you get the idea.
Of course you can’t always tell someone how to avoid disaster; you have to let them experience it for themselves to be sure that the lesson really sticks, and hope they have a chance to recover. Have you ever tried to tell a kid not to jump off a wall because they’ll get hurt, only to find them them biting back tears a few minutes later because they found out the hard way that you were right? Sam Murphy‘s column on coming back from injury in May’s Runner’s World – worth a read if you’re in a similar position – references a quote by ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov: “The more injuries you get, the smarter you get”. Now that I know what it feels like not to be able to run I’m more attuned to the signals telling me I’m about to push it too far, that I’m playing chicken too close to the cliff edge.
Lesson learned – hopefully, just in time. I’ve finished the course, I’ve fudged the homework, I’ve scraped through the mocks and there’s no amount of cramming that will help now. The big test will come on the 24th April 2016.