Moonlight Challenge 2016 – third time lucky?

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Before I went into this race I had done – if you include each marathon length leg of multi-day events – 24 marathons or ultramarathons, most of which over the space of eighteen months. Not many of those are races I’ve done more than once; not a huge surprise considering the range of events available to the marathoner of 2016, but still an important point to me. I’m not, nor am ever likely to be, a racer in the sense of competing for a time, so returning to a course in search of a PB is pretty low on the criteria when looking for a race. As important figures as they are to athletics, Paula Radcliffe, Haile Gebreselassie and Mo Farah aren’t such heroes to me as the stoic, battle-scarred members of the 100 Marathon Club; the people who ran marathons for fun 30 years ago and who still run them every weekend. Gina Little is to me what rockstars are to teenage girls, although I’m pretty sure I’m never going to get my hands on a poster of her.

The Moonlight Challenge represents to me very much the kind of runner I think – I have discovered, over the last eighteen months – that I am. A lap race that will reward you with a time and a distance regardless of how much you do but never honours winners, this would be my third attempt at finishing all five laps. I originally found it when I was looking for an ultramarathon to complete before my thirtieth birthday, and relying entirely on timing and accessibility from my home without taking into account the course, its inherent challenges or the history behind it. I got to marathon distance on the last two attempts and called it quits there, and for the third time I’m coming back with the idea of finishing it. And still, this is one I think I will be doing over and over again, regardless of whether I ever do finish it.

The race – regular readers will know – consists of a 6.55 mile lap around two farms in north Kent, very close to the coast and a light year away from any public transport, run up to five times to make 33 miles in total. Father of ultrarunning (to me, anyway) Mike Inkster runs the event with help from friends, family, and the hardy souls from Thanet Roadrunners, and also hosts the 24 Hour Challenge and the 50 Mile Challenge on the same course. It’s difficult to explain what it is about this race that keeps drawing me back. It’s not breathtaking views necessarily, partly because it takes place overnight and partly because there’s only so much Kent countryside you can get excited about. The lap repeats are mentally challenging, but there aren’t any killer hills, suicidal terrain or obstacles to conquer on the course. You won’t get much kudos from your workmates because it’s not well known enough for them to be able to quantify what you’ve done, and even seasoned ultra and trail runners will wonder what’s so remarkable about  33 miles in the mud, in the dark, beside a motorway. For the third time now my vocabulary has fallen short of the descriptive powers needed to explain this race. I just know it’s the one I know will always be in my calendar, come what may.

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The first time I attempted it poor preparation, lack of experience or trail shoes (or fitness) and a total failure to appreciate its difficulty were what eventually did me in, four laps and a marathon distance in. It stood as only my second ever marathon, first ever trail or overnight run, and the first time I ever even saw gaiters (now a staple of my trail running kit). It was also a year of particularly bad flooding in the area and the mud was halfway up my calves in many places. During that six hours and forty five minutes I learned how important it was to have lugs on your shoes, how moving faster means less likelihood of sinking into the porridgey mud, how far you can subsist on just a fragment of human interaction (for which read: conversation is better than headphones) and how little that timing actually matters when you get down to it. I also learned that however many excuses you find for giving up, ultimately, the only force that made you give up was you.

The second time I was around a stone and a half lighter, much fitter and seven marathons more experienced. I had trail shoes, determination and thighs of steel; what I didn’t have, however, was a headtorch. After just two laps I bottled it, and was on the point of packing it in altogether when another runner kindly offered me their spare. Nonetheless the loaner torch only got me round two more laps of an uncharacteristically moonless night and thick fog, and my nerves overpowered my legs. If I ever wanted to finish all five laps I’d have to come back for another go.

So this was it – attempt number three. Supposed to be lucky, although I’m long past relying on good luck charms and superstition. It was me that chose to quit a race I was perfectly fit and able to complete, it was my brain that short circuited in the face of profound darkness and hallucinations, and it would be my brain and my body that would get me to the end when – not if, when – I eventually did. What’s more, I was more aware of my capability this time, and with such a small field there was a strong chance not just of my getting to the end, but getting there as first lady. All I had to do was all I ever do – float on.

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And then I told my body to try and follow a new, regulated training plan for the London Marathon in the hope of getting sub 3:30. Longer midweek runs, more roads, a new stressful job and less rest than I’ve ever subsisted on (with or without running in the equation). My awesome body, who just three months ago I was praising for its achievements at Druids and for the first time in thirty-one years showing a shred of appreciation for, my body was now cowed like an abused dog with its tail between its legs, accepting punishment from its odious master and still timidly wagging its tail in the hope of a pat instead of a wallop. Surprise surprise, two weeks before the race my right knee went boom and the training plan had to go in the bin.

So I’d dealt with my lack of fitness for the event, my psychological capacity, and now for the first time I was facing injury – a revolting list of excuses. There was no point in finding blame or beating myself up further though; I had to rest, give my legs as much TLC as I could afford and hope that they’d make it through. After all that, what a horribly ungrateful way to treat myself. I couldn’t even give the mangy old mutt a proper day off because of my work timetable, but I could at least treat it to a foam roller and a bath every now and again. The question was, would it be too little too late?

Uncharacteristically for me, the moment my knee went pop I let go of the anxiety about racing or winning and took a more fatalistic approach; I would crawl round the course if I had to, but anything I had no control over wasn’t worth worrying about. Then Andy reminded me of something else I relied on my right knee for, which is the two hour drive there and back. Ah. That would be a problem. I put it out of my mind to begin with, but the day drew closer and my knee showed no signs of loosening up. Stubbornly limping to the finish is one thing; driving into the central reservation of the M20 because my knee wouldn’t bend is quite another. And then 24 hours out my guardian angel swooped to the rescue in the form of Team Mum; at a loose end on a Saturday night, apparently quite happy to spend six hours sitting in a freezing cold barn in Kent, waiting to drive me home if my knee didn’t want to. What are mums for, eh?

So there we are, greeting the Challenge Hubs regulars and catching up over frozen fingers and hot coffee. It felt like a reunion, reminiscing on past challenges and filling in the gaps of the intervening year; we even bumped into one of Team Mum’s Petts Wood Runners clubmates Jerry, and took a moment to admire each other’s Dirty Girl gaiters. I was among familiars, in an environment that felt secure to me despite the Arctic winds and pitch blackness, and I couldn’t wait to get going. Then it hit me – this is why I come back to the same event every year. Bugger the result or the time; it’s more like a holiday camp than a race. OK, so the weather’s diabolical and there’s no running water and three layers still isn’t enough to ward off frostbite and you end up with either trenchfoot or blisters, but you also come back with stories, smiles, another bunch of people to look out for next year.

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In fact I was gossiping so much I almost forgot to get changed and marched out towards the start still wearing joggers and a puffer jacket. Which would have been a shame, considering the efforts I went to to make sure every single element of my outfit clashed. The first time I ran it I was in head to toe black and hoping to slink into the background, until I begrudgingly accepted a loan of Mum’s neon yellow waterproof. Now I knew the importance of being seen as well as being able to see – from a practical point of view I’d rather know passing trains, marshals and emergency services can spot me among the waist high rushes, but there’s also a huge psychological advantage to peacocking. Also, bright pink compression socks rock.

The first lap passed comfortably; not just I’m-psyching-out-the-opposition-by-pretending-to-be-comfortable, actually comfortable. Taking a nice steady pace my knee was happy, my brain was reassured by the double torch approach and my legs were raring to get out after nearly two months since my last marathon. Had I finally cracked it? I certainly wasn’t going to crack it by getting all cocky about it so I tootled along merrily, chatting to anyone who passed me and trying not to push it too hard. Six and a half miles later I pulled into the barn as the first lady to finish the first lap. Not want to lose momentum or the lovely little rhythm I’d found I made sure my number was taken, got my good luck hug from Team Mum and went straight back out. I felt absolutely in control.

Second time out and I still felt pretty comfy, possibly a little too much so: let’s not give up an easy lead simply through laziness, I thought. About halfway through I came across two members of Rebel Runners in their black and bright green vests, one of whom was the only other lady who seemed to be running in the same lap as me. Eager by now for a bit of company I chatted to her for a bit, and discovered that she had only recently begun running to raise money for charity after her son contracted leukaemia, and today would be her first ever ultra and only her third ever marathon. She had a choppy but efficient and very natural stride for someone who hadn’t been running long, and towards the end of the lap I actually began to struggle to keep up with her. Preferring the controlled approach and constantly wary of my knee I hung back, drawing into the barn only a minute or so after her. I was a little cautious of her speed and of losing position, but more than that I was actually disappointed to lose my conversation buddy.

Again I avoided seizing up by stopping only to pick up a handful of sweet treats – possibly they were fig rolls, although they could have been beer mats dipped in sugar for all I knew – went to get my good luck hug from Team Mum, and off- wait. Where was Team Mum? Not by our seats, or outside the barn by the car, or sitting at one of the picnic tables. I looked around frantically. I’m not superstitious by any stretch of the imagination, but I didn’t much like the idea of going out without my good luck hug. I turned to Julie at the registration desk to ask if she’d seen my mum – she’s as well known at Challenge Hub events now as I am, if not more so – and as she raised her head from the list of entrants to reply I spotted a familiar pair of specs and Cheshire Cat grin.

“Right. You’re working the desk now.”

“Yeah! Thought I’d help out.”

Of course you did.

During the third lap I kept an eye out for the Rebel Runners, assuming they’d be only a little ahead of me, but there was no sign. Bollocks, I thought, they must have stolen a march. Oh well, I’m not meant to be racing anyway. I plodded along carefully, humming along to myself and resisting the urge to take out the iPod. By now my legs were tiring slightly but not so much that my form was dropping – all I had to do was keep the steady pace up. Then, about halfway through, I felt an odd sensation in my right knee – not pain, there was no explosion and seizing up like last time. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it; it just felt as though my knee had started to drift away from the rest of my body, as of no longer attached but simply floating away in an ever widening orbit. A little further along the feeling had passed, but it was pretty ominous.

The sound of a familiar chatter distracted me from any knee-induced panic attacks; just over my right shoulder, trotting resolutely along, the Rebels. No wonder I couldn’t see them up ahead of me; apparently they’d taken an extended stop after the second lap to take a group photo and were just catching up. I kept up with them until the end of the third lap, the increased pace at the time shaking out the instability in my knee and we entered the barn together. Maybe the tortoise would beat the hare after all?

I took a bit of a break this time, ate a bit more sugar coated sugar, chatted to Team Mum and stretched out my thigh. I was over halfway through now and making good time – I didn’t want to ruin it for the sake of a few minutes. Even with my break I still left the barn well before the Rebels and plunged on for lap four, rejuvenated but wary. The first section of the lap was the only real mudbath, but as mudbaths go it was a doozy. The mud was sticky like clay and at the same time had the foot-sucking properties of custard. I could dip and dive through it quite happily with the enormous lugs on my Fellraisers, but it meant that the lugs remained clogged for the rest of lap since no amount of stamping would loosen them. It was so bad that one of the marshal’s cars had to be towed out with one of the tractors from the barn. But, it was perfect dodgy-knee ground.

Still way ahead of the Rebels I ploughed on, keeping as even a pace as I could manage and making the best of the fact that I didn’t need to stop. Of course it would be too good to be true. About a third of the way in my kneecap came out of orbit and fell to earth with a bang. Pain I can deal with, but as I persevered with it the joint grew stiffer and stiffer until I could barely bend it at all, and that’s kind of its main job while running. Fuck it. The last four miles had to be taken at a walk, and an increasingly slow one at that, as my body temperature dropped and squally showers closed in. Which is why you always carry an extra layer, even on a short lap.

I called Andy, looking for a bit of moral support but knowing what I’d actually get was the dose of common sense I’d need before I persuaded myself “t’is but a flesh wound” and limped on. Even so, the Rebels didn’t catch me up until about two miles to go but once they shot past me, only getting stronger by the step, I had to admit defeat. With the London Marathon only a couple of months away there was no point in hobbling around another six and half miles and inflicting further damage on the knee. I wasn’t even that angry about not finishing for the third time – I was still almost an hour ahead of the next lady to finish a marathon distance and would probably have finished five laps at the same time as the two Rebel Runners even if I’d walked the rest of the way. I just accepted my certificate with a time of 5:30 for 26.5 miles, and started planning for next year. And bless Team Mum, she didn’t even bat an eyelid.

Since then my fatalistic outlook has taken something of a blow; nearly a month on, and I’m still gingerly trotting a maximum of ten miles on hard ground before that orbit feeling comes back and I need to rest again. I’ve put on about half a stone too because my appetite isn’t quite in step with my decreased activity levels yet. This is the bit I don’t find it so easy to talk about. Recovering from injury – especially a less serious one like this, one that came from overuse and can only be cured by rest – you can learn about from any number of sports science books, blogs and personal accounts, copies of Runner’s World, or better still with help from a professional physio. The psychological effects however, though more commonly confronted now than they ever used to be, are complex, varied and unique. Cross-training, keeping in touch with clubmates and getting involved in a non-running capacity all help keep me feeling in touch; the problem is I’ve started to reject this friendly interaction simply because I’m so pissed off with myself, which turns to envy and self-loathing, which festers and chafes and frets away at my self-esteem – what’s more, without the streak to keep up I’m at a loss for motivation to run even if I wasn’t crocked. I mean, it’s such a dumbass way to get injured. Every running magazine I have has an article on how to avoid injury and every single one – Every. Single. One. – says don’t increase intensity and mileage at the same time, or do one or the other too quickly. Basically, trying too hard to take control brought back that most classic of neuroses; my fear of losing control.

So I’ve had nearly a month to chew it over – in other words, nearly a month to procrastinate, to put off writing up this report, to rest and eat instead of refuel – and finally I’ve worked out what to take away from the experience. Feeling in control is so much more than the sum of its parts. It’s less to do with keeping my calorific intake regulated by attuning myself to the sensations of hunger and fullness, and more to do with not caring so much about the numbers that I feel compelled to cheat them. It’s less to do with rigidly following a training plan come what may and more to do with trusting your physiological responses. It’s less about doing what you’re told you ought to and more about doing what you feel is right. Because none of this is news to me; I got this far by listening to my body and never put a foot wrong. My body, which never let me down before, still hasn’t.

On a more positive note, the experience also gave me the vocabulary to really explain why I come back to the Challenge Hub races time and time again. You could point to the fact that there’s often a small field and no pressure, to the reasonable priced entry, unique challenges and friendly faces, but above all the familiarity of them has become a form of meditation to me. No matter where I race or what my goal is, the Moonlight Challenge represents to me now a sort of reset button. I’m ready to stop worrying about being in control, and start being in control.

Mince Pi Challenge 2015

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I feel like half the races I enter these days are called challenges rather than races. I quite like that actually; since in my case I’m not actually racing against anyone else – in this case, it turned out to be literally true – the idea that I’m putting myself through a challenge or a test seems more appropriate. A challenge suggests a race against yourself, or against a version of yourself, rather than a head to head with another runner. Or, for instance, with a large pile of mince pies.

The Mince Pi Challenge is unfortunately not a challenge to eat as many mince pies as possible – didn’t stop me trying – but is actually a 3.14 (get it?) mile lap run up to 10 times around the trails of Guildford and the river Wey, crossing the North Downs Way trail and taking in some lovely runnable inclines plus one bastard steep, practically sheer 180 foot high sand dune. The start and finish point in Shalford Park gave runners the opportunity to decide to go for one more or call it quits at the end of each lap, and pick up much needed fuel in the form of Celebrations chocolates and mince pies. Rude not to. All we were missing was sherry.

We had taken a group of Chasers to the inaugural event the year before and dominated, getting fastest times for 5, 6, 7 and 10 laps – this time, we were back to defend our titles and hopefully pick up a few more on the way. Somewhere between trail running and cross country, the event lends itself well to team competition; at the same time, much like the Challenge Hub Moonlight Challenge and 50 Mile Challenge, there’s no obligation to aim for a specific distance so runners can finish as much or as little as they feel able to and still get an official time. There were many runners lining up for a single post-Christmas lap at pace, others looking for distance to test themselves on, many just there to enjoy a crisp winter’s day of running in the beautiful Surrey countryside.

The previous year I had only been able to fit in 4 laps before dashing off to a QPR game, but this year the race fell on a Sunday without a game and represented my December marathon in my marathon-a-month challenge, so I would have to do at least 9 laps to achieve that. I was actually aiming for 10, knowing that only a few people would even try it and for the satisfaction of finishing the whole course, but I knew I had to be prepared for the fact that my weary legs would only carry me so far, and that risking a DNF and ruining my own challenge was worse than playing it safe.

FullSizeRender (5)We started off in a group which quickly thinned out as those planning to run it hard took off. I tried to keep up with Cat and Lorraine for a while but I knew I wouldn’t be able to match them for pace even if I wasn’t going for the full distance, so I let them go ahead and trotted along. I remembered the sand dune in the middle from last time – with very little purchase and being so steep it really is a climb more than a walkable hill – but strangely I was actually looking forward to it even a few laps in. Somehow, it was much more satisfying to climb and psychologically less demanding than some of the more gradual slopes, since all you could do was dig in and go for it. Better still, once you reached the top you were greeted by the beautiful ruins of a medieval church, and a glorious vista across the Surrey hills. And then, my favourite thing – a downhill you need a parachute for, straight down to the river.

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The rest of the course takes in much of the riverside, needing some careful footing along the boggy embankments but underscored by the peaceful sway of the water, only occasionally broken by the swish of oars from the local rowing club. It’s also a popular route for Sunday morning dogwalkers, cyclists and kids trying out their new scooters, all friendly faces that were happy to share the morning with us. My legs were already pretty leaden by about halfway, but I plugged on, smile pinned to my face, enjoying the soundtrack of the countryside.

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Chasers trail queen Cat had the 10 lap title from last year as the only person to finish the whole course, but was coming back from a double whammy of injury and illness this time and wouldn’t be able to defend it. Most of the Chasers were going for 5, 6 or 7 laps and then planning to settle into the Weyside pub, which has a veranda looking out over the river about half a mile from the end of the lap, where they could cheer on other runners. Lorraine stayed back to cheer me through lap 4 even though she had finished almost an hour before but eventually had to get into the warm, and so being on my own for most of the race I didn’t really think too much about my time or my placing until after my stomach told me it was lunchtime.

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As I got to the end of lap 7 I asked the RD how many people were left running. Only four, it turned out – and of those, only me and one other were going for the full 10 laps, and I was just in front. Even though I was struggling by now, I had to power on and try not to be distracted by the temptation to race; another mince pie down the gullet and I pushed on. As I turned right to take up the trail again, I looked behind me and saw Melissa, the other 10 lap runner, gaining on me. By the middle of lap 8 she caught me up, passed me comfortably and took off like a rocket. She was still bright and smiley, gaining in strength and going for it. Happy as I was for her I couldn’t help but be a bit disappointed, until I remembered that I didn’t even know I was in front for 8 laps – today was a challenge, not a race, I reminded myself. Always forward.

Moving forward on the flat was getting hard enough now, let alone the climbs, that once I started lap 9 I realised I had to decide whether to continue with all 10 or call it a day. Melissa was so far in front of me by now that she ended up finishing all 10 laps before I finished my 9, so strong was her finish. Partly because I had to concede that I didn’t have it in me, partly because I was conscious of being the only person left on the course and partly (although I hate to admit it) because it meant I was technically the fastest person over 9 laps, I finished the last 3.14 miles with a leap over the finish line, flanked by Chasers and full of mince pies. Just over 28 miles in 05:46:52 is not going to win me any medals but there’s nothing quite like the challenge of a lap race, where there’s so much temptation to give in and only the reward of knowing you did your best.

Which, in a funny sort of way, mirrored my own year-long challenge – not to win every single marathon I ran or even to improve my time, but to learn my limits and how much I could push them, and more importantly, when not to. I’d much rather be the sort of runner that can still grind out long distances with a soppy grin on my face when I’m seventy than go for broke in every race and trash my knees, and I’d much rather be eating mince pies and chocolates than energy gels along the way too. Stretching the definition of an athlete I might be, but you’ll never take away that memory of seeing my clubmates run across the line with me, the only remaining runner in a race that just 100 people started, which I entered just because the medal is shaped like a pie.

I have a feeling we’ll be back again next year.

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The Big Fat Run of the Year 2015

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I paused briefly on Barnes Bridge, halfway through a steady run on New Year’s Eve 2015, and looked east along the Thames on a bright, crisp and surprisingly mild day. The river was sparkling like a sapphire, mirroring the sky perfectly and leaving just a few treetops to pick out the horizon between them. I was halfway through my planned run for the day but very much at the end of a year-long streak challenge – a minimum of a mile a day, every day, for the whole of 2015. The iconic Thames Path had to be my final run of the year, no other option. All I had to do was bring it home.

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It’s not much of a streak compared with Ron Hill’s, but considering I’m not – nor am ever likely to be – a professional athlete it’s quite enough for me. Actually it was part of a double header challenge I set myself on a whim on New Year’s Eve 2014, desperate to avoid aspirational clichés in my New Year’s resolution and improve myself as a runner: I wanted to run at least a mile a day every calendar day, and run at least a marathon or ultramarathon every calendar month. No reason. Like the best things in life, there was no reason.

The challenge wouldn’t be in the running itself so much as in the balancing running with real life. Running a mile a day when I had 6am starts and 11pm finishes at work, or a football awayday, or a family do, or a cold, is the difference between dedication and failure. To be perfectly honest, upholding a streak became the easiest thing in the world for me because between the habit formed and the determination not to break it there was next to no possibility of failure. Upholding it and still having a partner, a job and friends to come back to; that was the tricky bit.

I’ve done some daft things to keep this streak going to be honest. Oddly enough, for someone who normally gets every seasonal bug going at least twice, I’ve only succumbed to a cold once and still ran through it – it was horrible like I can’t even describe, impossible to breathe and I damn near lost my balance and toppled over like a house of cards, but I managed it. That was at the beginning of December, and it was only then that I realised it was the first proper illness I’d had all year. I’d finally found the tipping point between bolstering my immune system with consistent exercise and hounding it to the point of extinction. All day benders for QPR awaydays and the Eurovision song contest were the closest I came to death and even they couldn’t defeat the streak. Also, it turns out running is to hangovers what St George is to large fire breathing reptiles. You’re welcome.

I’d decided in advance of the North Downs Way 100 that that would count as my having run during each calendar day, as I would cross midnight between the two days and certainly be running more than a mile during both (unless some sort of course record and miracle were on the cards). In the event, I DNF’d the race at around 66 miles. At half past eleven on the Saturday. Still in the same calendar day as when I’d started. Probably the slowest mile of my life was that Sunday morning after dropping the hire car back, shuffling stiffly along Tooting High Street and being overtaken by OAPs, mobility scooters and wildlife.

Then there was the day I very nearly didn’t manage it because of time pressures. Part of my new job is organising filming for trailers and marketing material, and a particularly high profile evening shoot in an art gallery at late notice meant a full day of running back and forth to pull everything together. At five o’clock I was following the designer around the fashion retailers of Long Acre, having missed both breakfast and lunch, and I still had not run. At six o’clock I was in Boots buying toiletries for a Hollywood actor (surreal is not the word), and at a quarter to eight I was sprinting around the gallery trying to find the cabs full of cast who had pulled up at the wrong entrance. As big as the gallery was, it would not count. I covered about eight miles on foot that day, but I still had not done my official mile. Finally, as I drove the van full of kit back to base at twenty to midnight, and then to its parking spot, I decided to do the only thing I could. In jeans, t-shirt and running shoes, I ran back to my office on the Southbank via a few little detours to make up the distance. With literally minutes to go, the streak remained intact. Andy did not find this as funny as I did and you are only the second person I’ve told about it. Actually, running in normal clothes was surprisingly liberating. The next time you think you’d go for a run but are put off by the faff of getting changed, or you can’t because your favourite sports bra is still in the wash, I’m here to tell you that’s a false economy. Just get out there in your jeans and bugger the kit.

Work may have been tough to juggle but injuries – touch wood, touch all the wood – were not a problem for me. I’m not going to claim it was the highest quality 365 days of running I’ve ever done and I’ve pretty much redefined the term “junk miles”; on the other hand, I’ve been careful to go as easy as possible on post-race days and to mix up the distance and pace as much as possible – 7 minute miles and 12 minute miles, 1 mile shuffles and 50 milers are all in there. And I’m a strong believer in the power of recovery runs; I’ve still never come back from a run feeling worse than when I went out, and I definitely bounce back from marathons faster than I ever used to. Well, maybe not bounce back; maybe more like lollop. I tend to use my holiday days on the races themselves and get straight back to work on the Monday, rather than give myself the extra rest, put it that way. As long as I can have a powernap on the train in I’m pretty much set.

So what happens now? I’m going to purposely break the streak, rather than try to continue it – let’s be clear, this is both absolutely the right thing to do lest it take over my life, and absolutely not my idea. I would happily keep it up for fifty years or die trying, but I appreciate that to my loved ones it doesn’t exactly read as much of an epitaph. And I can’t deny there have been days where I wish I didn’t have to do the run, although as I say I’ve never come back from one wishing I hadn’t. It’s made me appreciate the joy of running for running’s sake; it’s also left me panicking so much about the prospect of a single day not running after only one year as to provide clear proof (if proof were needed) that mine is not a personality that needs encouragement towards excess.

I think now that it’s time for me to concentrate on the quality of the running, as much as the quantity. The one mile runs were becoming such a drag – I’d barely have warmed up before loosening the laces on my shoes again. I’ve learned to listen to my body more; the flipside is, now I know that it’s telling me to give it a bit of a break, that the niggles that used to pop up and go away when they were told again aren’t being fobbed off so easily. Next year’s challenge is not so quantifiable or discrete; I simply want to be able to take the lessons I learned this year and put them to good use. Rest, focused training, more enjoyment and appreciation, a few more marathons towards my 100 Club goal, bag a few PBs. And this year I’m going to finish that fucking NDW100 on my hands and knees if I have to.

The long and the short of it is, if I can run a mile a day for a year, so can you. Happy New Year all you shufflers, striders, chasers, midpackers, sprinters, plodders and Sunday morning joggers. Love your run and love yourself.

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Enough waffle; here are the stats.

Monthly total miles:

January                184.3
February             201.0
March                  162.2
April                     175.4
May                      184.4
June                      153.9
July                       158.7
August                 194.0
September         138.8
October               131.3
November          208.9
December           154.0
TOTAL                2046.9

Average mileage             170.6
Highest mileage              November (including only 100 mile+ week)
Lowest mileage               October

Official Marathons completed (not counting DNFs and marathon+ distance training runs):

January – Pilgrim Challenge (66 miles over 2 days)
February – Moonlight Challenge (26.2 miles)
March – Larmer Tree Marathon
April – Brighton Marathon & Manchester Marathon (PB)
May – Richmond Park Marathon
June – Giants Head Marathon
July – 50 Mile Challenge (closer to 53)
August – Vanguard Way Marathon
September – New Forest Marathon
October – Yorkshire Marathon
November – Druids Challenge (84 miles over 3 days)
December – Mince Pi Challenge (28 miles)

Druids Challenge part 2

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Click here for part 1

The alarm is set for 6am but I don’t need it. I’ve woken up every couple of hours since the lights went off at 10pm – not because of discomfort this time, just my overactive mind swinging between vivid action-packed dreams and anxiety attacks. I have episodes of Spaced on my iPad to listen to (I know them so well I don’t need to watch) and they occupy my brain just long enough for me to fall asleep again, with the added benefit of my earphones blocking out the sound of snoring. But it’s not long before my thoughts bustle in and shake me awake, heart racing and ears pounding, and I have to start the whole cycle again.

The walkers and early start group are up and about around half past five – I try to stay under the covers until at least quarter to six but eventually give up and go for breakfast. There’s hot porridge and an array of cereals available, as well as leftover apple crumble from last night’s dessert; if you’ve never tried apple crumble for breakfast you’re missing out. I try porridge – usually a staple of mine for breakfast, lunch and afternoon snack – but for some reason can’t stomach it and am forced to switch to Weetabix and honey which I peck at like a bird. I scoop two spoonfuls of instant coffee into a paper cup and top up with water from the urn and plenty of milk. It’s not quite as good as Caffe Nero’s extra shot large skinny latte, but it’ll do.

Sam is still stubbornly cocooned in his sleeping bag when I get back to the main room, despite the fact that the lights are on and the majority of runners are shuffling about – I don’t know how he sleeps through it. The early starters are due to receive their briefing and be on their way. There’s still plenty of time before I need to be getting ready for the group two briefing but I know from experience how much longer it takes to do simple tasks the morning after a big run, so I’m not wasting any time. I move as if underwater: deliberately, gently supported by the atmosphere, unable to fall but not totally in control.

A quick systems check. I’m not aching anywhere, despite yesterday‘s hot pace. My muscles aren’t feeling too fatigued, my joints are fine, even the pain in my back from yesterday’s train journey has disappeared. Now I’ve had some breakfast and washed my face I’m more lucid, waking up as sun cracks through the clouds outside. For the first time, there’s no nervousness. Well, that’s not entirely true – there’s a little excitement, but no crippling stomach cramps or quickening heart at the thought of today’s task. Just eagerness to get on.

A hundred past versions of me ask how I’m going to run 27 miles of trail, how I’m going to keep up a good enough pace not to lose position, what about the wind and the rain and the mud and the hills, all that negative Nelly bullshit. Not this me. The me that lines up outside the school for the second day briefing can’t wait to get going.

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I decided to play day two with a little more caution: accept a drop in the standings but exercise damage limitation. I was aware that the majority of the runners will have taken it easy on day one, hoping to make up time on the relatively flat course today. If I’m honest, I much prefer proper steep hills – something I can march up and sprint down – compared with gentle rolling runnable hills that gradually suck energy without you noticing. But, well, you run the course you’re given not the one you wish you had. Tomorrow would be my day.

It was pissing down when the walkers set off at 7am, but by the time we left the school gates at 8am the promised downpour seemed to have taken a tea break and a bright grey sky looked down on us. I stayed towards the front of the pack as we left the school gates again and ran up the high street on our way back to the Ridgeway trail, but resolved to stick to ten minute miles. Another Chaser, Chris, joined the pack to do day two and ran with me for the first half mile, before gunning it to finish seventh overall for that stage. Gradually more and more of the women passed me but I counted them all through and kept in touch. The first section was sharp ups and downs through sheltered singletrack before dropping down to the flat riverside path, and this would be my playground.

Then, only nine miles in, a minor disaster – while I was enjoying hammering down a short hill, I felt a familiar needle working its way between my ribs and knew I had a stitch coming on. Damnit. Within moments I was buckled over and forced to breathe only in short shallow breaths. No more downhill hammering for me – and no enjoying the payoff of seven miles of climbing either. Bastard bloody *gasp* stupid little bah bah *gasp* bah stitch *gasp* bastard… I chuntered on for a good couple of miles, watching runner after runner overtake me. It was so irritating to be humbled by something as pathetic as a stitch that I tried running through it, which obviously made the stitch fight back and strangle my diaphragm even more. Conceding defeat, I walked it off and picked up the pace again just in time for the track to open out onto the Thames.

Race Director and Extreme Energy‘s head honcho Neil Thubron had warned us that the middle third felt like it went on forever; despite being the lowest, flattest point of the whole Ridgeway, it was boggy, exposed and straight. As if to further illustrate his point, the storm finished its tea break and clocked back in with a vengeance – winds coming from three directions, rain like bullets, visibility so bad even Lewis Hamilton wouldn’t drive through it. I actually had to pull the hood of my waterproof over my lucky QPR cap to stop it from being lifted off my head, despite having my hair pulled through it to anchor it, and I still had to keep my eyes on my feet to avoid going into the drink. The conditions were pretty miserable. But then I remembered something else Neil said – once you reach the second aid station you were at the end of that section, about to turn back into the woods and away from the exposed riverbank. So now there were two reasons to dream about the familiar white gazebo and trestle tables full of snacks.

The new me was still in charge at this point – unlike old Jaz, I wasn’t too bothered about the storm really, except for the fact that the wind literally took me off my feet a few times and I had to fight to stay vertical. I was a bit disappointed to miss the beautiful views of the Thames, the houseboats and the gorgeous villages of North Stoke, South Stoke and Goring and there was absolutely no chance of getting my phone out for photos. Still though, I was here to run the race I signed up for, and I was running the same race as everyone else. In the words of Dory, just keep swimming.

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Photo courtesy of Extreme Energy

Coming into the second aid station at Goring was like entering a different universe – as suddenly as it had arrived, the storm let up and I even managed to pick up some salted pretzels without them disintegrating in my hands. The stitch long gone, my muscles were still fresh and enjoying the runout. This last stretch would be slightly different though; unlike the morning’s funfair-esque ups and downs miles 17 through 27 would be a pretty much gradual and constant ascent all the way to the finish. It was dig in and climb time.

I knew that the stopover between days two and three was at a leisure centre – a few miles off the trail, so we would be bussed to the gym in waves after finishing the stage, stay overnight then be bussed back in the morning to resume. I heard lots of stories from seasoned Druiders – temperamental showers, long queues, free sauna but cold gym – but the only thing that stuck with me were the words “swimming pool”. We would have run of the centre, including use of the swimming pool, and all I could focus on was being able to squeeze in a gentle few laps at the end of the day. I can only just swim – in fact, it wasn’t until a couple of years ago that Andy showed me the difference between staying afloat with doggy paddle and actually propelling myself forward in the water – but I wasn’t exactly planning on racing anyone. I just wanted to be submerged in water that hadn’t come from the sky or a puddle in the ground, and give my muscles a break. If it sounds like a weird thing to crave after spending two days running through rain, then call me a weirdo.

September’s New Forest Marathon was the first time I had run a marathon without my earphones in, and I didn’t explode then so it must have been safe. I realised, halfway through day two of Druids, that I hadn’t had them in all weekend, and more than that I wasn’t missing them either. I hadn’t even had anyone to chat to, apart from brief snatches of conversation as me and the other ladies passed each other. My soundtrack was my thoughts, interspersed with Modest Mouse’s Float On which Andy had been playing in the car on Friday morning during the ten minute drive to Clapham Junction station. It was surprisingly liberating, allowing my thoughts to play out underscored by the steady rhythm and anthemic lyrics of the song. Another small victory for me, weaning myself off of music and the need to distract myself from running; finally, I was actually enjoying the moment itself, storm and all. I was alone with my thoughts and for the first time, not tortured by them. I always try to smile when I see marshals or people at aid stations, but this weekend it wasn’t an effort to smile at all.

I passed two remarkable challengers as I started plodding methodically up the hill; one was Mal Smith, a regular at Challenge Hub races who I had seen at both the Moonlight Challenge and 50 Mile challenge this year, wearing a harness and dragging Tommy the Tyre behind him. That’s right; he and his companion Alfredo would complete the 84 miles while each pulling a tractor tire behind them, up hills, through bog and over stiles, to raise money for Age UK. Every day I saw them I waved and smiled, and every day I got a wave and a smile back, despite the combined thirty hours they would spend out on the course, three times as long as the eventual winner. It’s a good reminder not to be ungracious however crap you feel during a race.

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Lifted by a second wind – both figurative and literal – I reached the final checkpoint feeling upbeat and singing tunelessly along to Float On (or at least, the only bit of the song I could actually remember). The final section would be relatively short but it would be all uphill, fighting a sidewind as we now turned a sharp right heading north west. I could either smile or growl my way up it, and I knew what I’d rather see on the race photos. Still struggling to eat, I grabbed a fistful of sour Haribo to get me to the finish and thought about a dip in that swimming pool when I got back to base.

The last couple of miles were tough – unsteady ground and on an upward curve, as well as exposed and windy – but I powered up towards the white XNRG flags that seemed never to get closer until the very last minute. I crossed the line ten minutes quicker than the first day, although having run two fewer miles it was a drop in pace overall. Still though, I felt strong and with plenty in reserve for the final day. The ambulance at the top was ostensibly there for anyone suffering from exposure, but more importantly served tea and coffee for those waiting for a lift to the leisure centre – as far as I’m concerned a hot cup of coffee should be a staple in any first aid kit. It was one of the best cups of instant I’ve ever had in my life.

Sam had finished only a little over an hour ahead of me again, and had nabbed us two spots on the gym floor where I set up my campbed and quickly changed for a swim. I managed to get about ten seconds of tepid water to wash the worst of the dirt off me and skipped to the pool only to discover that it was closed for a little boy’s birthday party. The mums were plainly not impressed to find a lot of muddy runners in the communal (read: open) showers, and the runners, although not particularly shy around each other, felt a bit awkward bumping into the birthday boy in their birthday suits. I get the impression neither party was expecting the other to be there, or at least both thought they had booked the centre to the exclusion of all others. I tried to get something approaching a shower without embarrassing myself and went for a massage while I waited for the pool to reopen, trying not to be too grumpy cat about it and feeling a little bit sorry for the boy.

Apparently the mums weren’t overjoyed to find the massage team stationed upstairs outside the sauna either, and complained about the indecent display of oily limbs and groaning runners, but there wasn’t much anybody was prepared to do about that – without those daily 15 minute rubs, there’s almost no way I would have been able to carry on. Eventually the little boy and his very unorthodox birthday party took their leave and immediately I was back in my swimming costume and plunging into the now uncomfortably cold water. It took my breath away for a minute, but it was absolutely worth the wait. Six laps later I emerged feeling like someone had stuck my head on a brand new body, just in time for dinner.

In one final kick to the balls, the caterers were told they couldn’t cook in the space that had been set up for them so they prepared sausage pasta, potatoes and salad, and four different kinds of pudding in the van and schlepped the whole lot up to the makeshift canteen. It all felt a little bit wartime but if I’m honest, it made the whole experience even more fun, and the XNRG team never failed to deliver on any of their promises, not a single one. That evening there were two speakers lined up: Rory Coleman, who had supported Sir Ranulph Fiennes during the 2015 Marathon des Sables and who had himself completed the race 12 times; and previous winner of Druids (and all round loveliest man ever) Nathan Montague, talking about his win at the Kalahari Desert Marathon. I wasn’t too bothered about the MdS but I wanted to hear from Nathan – unfortunately, a change to the running order meant I got there too late to hear him speak so retired to my campbed with Chrissie Wellington’s biography for a bit of inspiration and put my feet up.

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I’m more convinced than ever that multi-day races are the one for me, but one of the best things about the weekend (despite my being nervous about talking to strangers) was actually the isolated, shut-away from normal society side effect of spending three days with other running geeks. That’s not a very marketable way of explaining it, but I can’t quite find the words that celebrate how much fun it was to sleep on cold floors with 150 snoring runners for three days, talking about stage splits and recounting old races. I got to indulge myself without feeling guilty about boring my friends, and I got it out of my system long before I got home. It’s an experience I would highly recommend, especially in the safe hands of Neil and his team, and I can see now the intrigue of the MdS. Still though, you’re not getting me out in the desert for any amount of money. Mud every day for me please.

So that was day two, the hump day, the toughest course. I had only slipped one place to ninth in the overall standings, and a top ten finish was still within reach. All I had to do was the same thing all over again. I do like a routine.

Click here for part 3

Druids Challenge part 1

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In the run up to the Druids Challenge, I had plenty to think about.

With 84 miles to cover over three days, I would have to think about pacing myself to make sure I didn’t burn out. Then again, I was curious about my progress over the last couple of years, and I knew I was more suited to multi-day ultras than to long single stage races – should I go for it this time, find out how well I could place if I pushed myself? I compared what I expected my time to be with the previous year’s times, and it was certainly a lot better than the 19th place I managed at the Pilgrim’s Challenge back in February.

I had the terrain to think about too. With no experience whatsoever of the Ridgeway, all I had to go on was the elevation graph, photos of past races, the ubiquitous National Trust acorn markers and a route card. At least I had a fair idea of what the team at XNRG would have in store for us; there were bound to be hills, mud, chalk, rain rain and more rain. Best to assume the worst and enjoy the rest.

Then there was the exhaustion factor; besides running just over a marathon every day for three days over trails, I would have less than ideal resting conditions between stages. No warm bed in my familiar dark and quiet bedroom, no bath to soak my weary muscles in or long suffering boyfriend to wait on me hand and foot; instead of creature comforts I would have a cramped campbed on a gym floor with 150 other people. I learned my lesson from Pilgrims; the key was to finish as quickly as possible so as to nab myself a prime bit of real estate and get my phone and watch on charge before all the power points were taken. And finding somewhere to dry off wet kit was a challenge in itself.

What’s more I had been counting on having fellow Chaser Cat there too for moral support, but she had had to pull out after being sidelined with injury. It wasn’t exactly my comfort zone, being among lots of unfamiliar people who all seemed to know each other – I would have to pluck up the courage to talk to the other runners or face a very isolated three days.

I had all this and more to think about, but only one thing kept coming back to haunt me. My old nemesis: public transport at rush hour. With an 11am start in Tring, the only train that would get me there from Clapham Junction in time would be the same train for hundreds of commuters – hundred of angry commuters already crammed in like sardines and in no mood to let me on with my massive hiking backpack. Eighty four miles of trail would be a piece of piss in comparison.

I wasn’t wrong to worry. Despite getting to the platform a full ten minutes before the train was due, by the time the already heaving carriages pulled in I was pushed – physically pushed – aside and very nearly missed my only opportunity to get to the race start in time. I had to run the length of the platform with three days worth of kit swinging around on my shoulders until I found a door with a crack of space free, and leapt on just in time for it to pull away. I looked up, expecting to see faces full of hatred, then realised with relief that I had found the one carriage full of runners, all looking as traumatised as me.

Settling into my few square inches of standing room, I did a quick systems check and found I’d pulled a muscle in my back, just behind my ribcage and perfectly placed to make it difficult for me to breathe. Great. A runner standing next to me spotted the mixture of panic and pain in my grimace, and offered a sympathetic smile. This turned out to be Noushka, a scientist from Southampton who had won her place on Druids from volunteering on previous events and had already had to make two changes to even get this far. We chatted for the rest of the hour long journey, joining up with another runner called Laura who had also had a ballache of a morning getting to Tring from the south coast, and I had to concede that I’d had it pretty easy in comparison.

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By the time the shuttle bus picked us up at Tring to take us to race HQ I was buzzing, impatient to finally get on the road. We were taken to a farm to pick up race numbers, receive the briefing and drop off our packs, which were to be taken to the school in Watlington where the first day’s racing would end and day two would begin. Another series of shuttle buses took us as close to the trailhead as buses could get, but it fell to to race director Neil Thubron to walk us half a mile to Ivinghoe Beacon at the top of the hill for the race start. A steep downhill start that I couldn’t resist hammering for all I was worth, eyes blinded by tears and bitter cold, arms outstretched as I skidded down the chalky slopes. My kind of race start.

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One of the remarkable and brilliant things about XNRG races is their policy of no cutoff times – the team stay out until the last competitor is safely back in. Their races are open to long distance walkers covering the same route as the runners, but it means that they have staggered start times with walkers leaving first, mid pack runners an hour later and elites an hour after that. For the first day your start time is based on your projected finish time which you state when you sign up, but after that you are grouped by the previous day’s finish times: 9am for the first forty finishers, 8am for the next forty, 7am for everyone else. It’s a system that leaves no-one behind, as well as presumably the only way to make sure both the four hour finishers and the nine hour finishers got back in time for dinner.

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My ambitious start put me in good position in the pack, but I was going quicker than the 10mm pace I had planned while the going was good and aware that a nice big uphill was on its way. I couldn’t resist a good challenge. The strong position felt too good to give up without a fight, so I kept count of the women in front of me and made sure that everyone that passed me on the uphills were safely behind me by the bottom of the hill. I realised I was racing now, a new experience for me and a whole different way to approach running. No chatter, no music to zone out to. Game face.

Day one was the longest of the three but only by a smidge; 29 miles, compared with 27 on day two and 28 on day three. I was starting in the middle pack with Noushka and Laura among others, and the elite pack included Cat’s friend Sam, who I had met at Pilgrim’s. We had briefly bumped into each other at the race HQ and he joked about me saving him a spot at the school, although I was pretty certain that he’d beat me back even with an hour’s head start. Now of course I wanted to shrink that lead as much as possible.

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The first checkpoint that day didn’t come until mile 11 so I had to make sure I got some food into me long before then to avoid crashing. My bonk at the NDW100 and my issues with eating ever since played on my mind all weekend; normally I could slow down to reduce the effect of jostling on my stomach, but if I wanted to make a good time I would have to go slightly faster than was comfortable, which meant a higher likelihood of nausea. It would be a delicate balance to strike, and I am done with mid-race technicolour yawns thank you very much. But, I’d also learned my lesson after breaking my back on the Pilgrims Challenge carrying a four course meal in my race vest; the XNRG aid stations are well-stocked, varied and pretty kind to a wobbly stomach, so all I had with me were my ubiquitous Nutrigrain bars and some emergency gels and Shot Bloks. The evenings would be my chance to stock up on calories.

The terrain on the first day was relatively sheltered, mostly single track through woods and plenty of ups and downs like the Dorking section of the North Downs Way – I had a blast pushing myself on the twisty trail, and the light rain was nice and refreshing. There was nearly 5000 feet of total elevation gain over the twenty nine miles but the uphills were uphill enough to walk, which is a polite way of saying steep enough not to feel guilty about not running. The exact definition of that gradient changes for me by the day, but that day the balance was bang on. I didn’t get to do as much gossiping as I normally would, or as much touristy photo-taking for that matter, but I enjoyed the feeling of moving at speed knowing that it wouldn’t last too long.

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Because of the later start, the first day was the only day we were required to carry headtorches – the only piece of mandatory kit apart from a mobile phone – in case dusk fell before we made it to the school at Watlington. I pushed on through the next aid station but as the sun put on slippers and dressing gown and made for bed I started to flag. As charmed as my day had been, just when I needed a bit of a lift I came across two runners who I’d been passing and passed by all day: experienced ultra runner Ash and his friend Chris who had signed up on a dare after only ever having run a half marathon. We were all feeling the slump, counting down the last few miles just as we found the boggiest, most energy-sucking foot-grabbing custardy mud section of the whole course. Ash and I are both – how do I put this – compact in stature with less than eleven feet in height between us; Chris on the other hand was closer to eleven feet tall on his own, and none of us were built for dragging ourselves through bog. We’d made great time throughout the day but all we could do was walk at this point, so conversation turned to what it always does on trail races: life story, positive reinforcement, trying not to say fuck too much in front of strangers.

I had actually spoken to Ash earlier in the day when I thought I’d recognised him from a previous race – probably not the best way to reassure someone you’re not insane, asking if they’re absolutely sure they didn’t run the such-and-such bazillion miler recently – and seen Chris overtake me on hills a number of times, but it wasn’t until that last stretch that I realised they were running together, just at a much more even pace than me. Chris had been cajoled into taking up running in order to get fit and lose a couple of stone, which is achievement enough in itself, but I was even more impressed by the fact that he’d gone straight for a three day race over 84 miles for his first, bypassing your good old fashioned marathon like any normal person would. He had a very dry sense of humour – he had to have – compared with Ash’s forthrightness and the pair of them made a comedy double act that really cheered me up. They both tried to remain gentlemanly and refused to swear in front of me while I spewed every vile, graphic and unladylike bit of dockers’ vernacular I could think of as each footstep disappeared into the bog. There’s the twenty-first century for you.

Runner after runner passed us on the last mile stretch, just as the light was fading and our legs protesting, demanding recompense for the first twenty eight miles. After we turned off the trail and onto paved ground leading up to the school Chris asked us how far we had left at pretty much hundred yard intervals, and Ash and I doled out information scrap by scrap, partly for his sanity, partly for ours. Less than a quarter of a mile from the end, on the final road that would lead us to the school gates I saw Cat’s friend Sam and leading lady Maree pass us, both having started in the elite start an hour after us. It meant we hadn’t lost that much ground if the front runners were finishing around an hour ahead of us and it gave me a burst for the finish line. Ash, Chris and I crossed together, the three of us holding hands, and piled into the school hall for soup, rolls, coffee and cake.

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Our stopover that night was at a school, where we had taken over the assembly hall and gym for sleeping quarters, both sets of showers and changing rooms, and the main hall for a canteen. It wasn’t the most glamourous of locations but Neil and the Extreme Energy team treated us all like stars; as ever tireless, cheerful and with a solution to everything. They had even put down a tarp to leave our muddy shoes on, left bundles of newspaper to stuff inside them overnight, and set up a board with day one standings and information for the following day including elevation, weather report and photos of past races. I set up my pop up camp bed – probably my biggest triumph of the whole weekend, not having to sleep on the cold floor – next to Sam (and more importantly, a power point), and queued up for the best/worst shower of my life. It’s hard to describe how much I appreciated that anaemic dribble of lukewarm water which cut out every ten seconds.

Ash, Chris and I had finished 41st, 42nd and 43rd respectively on day one, which meant we had just missed the first 40 cutoff for the elite start the following day – pretty much the perfect balance between getting the earlier start we knew we’d need the next day and being back in time to grab a good sleeping spot. After the day one standings were confirmed I was shocked to discover that I was eighth lady – how the hell did I manage that? – and suddenly my curiosity became determination. Being top ten felt good, I thought, I’d quite like to hold on to this. As Neil pointed out though, the second day was still to come; despite being the shortest and flattest it was invariably the toughest day, hitting at the point before your body has quite acknowledged that you’re carrying on whether it likes it or not and after the reserves of day one energy have been used up. It would also be a lot more exposed than the first day, especially the stretch along the Thames, and the kind cooling drizzle of day one was due to become torrential rain and winds on Saturday. Not to mention the fact that it would finish on a long slow uphill.

All details, of course. Now I had found my real game face.

Click here for part 2

Yorkshire Marathon 2015

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The best laid plans of mice and men and women (who don’t plan their races properly)…

Compared with the under-the-radar New Forest Marathon, Yorkshire has been my focus since I crapped out on the North Downs; being the last road marathon of the year, it was my last chance to consolidate a sub-4 (or ideally, a sub-3:45) time in 2015. In fact, it’s been in my diary longer than most other races, have been booked back in January. A fact which I only understood the significance of when I went to find my starting pen, then remembered that my expected finish time back in January was a lot more conservative than it is now. Note to self: next time, punch just a little bit above your weight.

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Somehow I’ve avoided serious injury so far this year (touch wood, touch ALL the wood) and managed to strike the balance between keeping up my daily run streak while varying the effort, as a concession to my body’s need for rest. It is beginning to fall apart at the seams though, I can feel it. Like a well loved teddy bear, the stuffing is beginning to sprout from the joints, the covering is threadbare, the once sturdy posture is stooped and folded. I am cajoling it towards the finish line on 1st January 2016, when I will have run at least 1 mile per day for 365 consecutive days and at least 1 marathon per calendar month – or at least, that’s the plan. Between my body and the finish line stands the three-day Druid’s Challenge and the CTS Ultra in Dorset. I’m going to need extra stitches to keep all that stuffing in.

Then again, in many ways I was looking at Yorkshire in the same light as I saw Manchester back in April – again I would be toeing the start line less than fully rested, again I could be looking at anything between a PB and a bang average time, again I would be relying on northern hubris to give me a boost without succumbing to crowd-phobia along the way. I had a restlessly excited night’s sleep fuelled by more red wine, tiramisu and pasta than is really sensible for one person to consume, and set out the next morning while the sky was still gunmetal grey.

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It was nice to be able to stretch my legs on the half hour walk from city centre hotel to race village, set in the impressive and picturesque University of York campus. The registration, baggage drop and starting pens were at far ends from each other necessitating a good old trek from one to the next, but since I made sure I was there nearly two hours early I could stroll about at leisure, taking photos of ducks and exploring the many bridges and waterways on site. It was an inspiring venue for a marathon start and must be a wonderful environment to study in.

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When I had done all the procrastinating, Instagramming and Twittering I could reasonably do, I handed in my bag and walked back up to the starting pens along University Road. As they slowly filled I kept an eye out for the pacers and their flags, looking for 3:45; the pens looked to have been in order of expected finish time, but weren’t marked with anything other than a pen number. I saw the 4:00 pacer tuck into the back of the pen I had been assigned to, then realised my mistake – of course I hadn’t thought I’d be doing this kind of time when I booked up at the beginning of the year, so 3:45 was way ahead of me, about halfway up the pen in front. There was no possibility of jumping pens that I could see, with marshals posted at each one and staggered start times between them, so I shuffled to the very front of mine and hoped that I could make my way forward when the race started. Because everyone knows the best way to start a marathon is by sprinting.

I don’t know what possessed me to obsess over following a pacer when I have £200’s worth of GPS watch AND a pacing band on my wrist – especially when following a pacer only really works if you start at the same time – but obsess I did, using the first mile to carve my way through the field in pursuit of the bobbing flag. And so I missed pretty much the only stretch of the race with views worth looking out for; York Minster, the walls of the city, the winding river and friendly throng all melted by as I puffed and panted my way through the first couple of miles four minutes too fast for the ideal pace. On the plus side, my hot start went towards me breaking my 10k record. Never say I don’t do things by halves.

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Having circled the city, the course took us on a dead straight line due north east, up Stockton Lane towards a right hand turn at the 7m point. Leaving York Minster behind meant that the rest of the route would be pretty much A-roads and country lanes, with regular as clockwork water stations every three miles. Good old Yorkshire obliged with perfect weather – clear and crisp to begin with, making way for sunshine later in the day. I was still feeling strong as I passed both the 10k and 20k timing mats, but I’ve got to know my body well over the last couple of years and I knew that my over-exuberance in the first half would come back to bite me. Holding on to a comfortable rhythm for as long as possible I allowed my average pace to slide gradually, first past 8:00, then 8:15, drifting second by second towards the eight and a half minute per mile marker that I would need to hit to get under 3:45 once more.

As predicted, the first I felt of a leaden drag in my feet was around halfway as we made the first of two switchbacks at Stamford Bridge. I allowed my pace to slacken slightly, hoping to recoup some of the energy I’d expended at the beginning and went for another salted caramel Gu to give me that extra oomph. As well as water every third mile there were also iPro energy drinks on offer at miles 6, 12 and 18 but having not been able to find that brand to try it out beforehand I didn’t want to risk drinking any in case it turned me into a pumpkin or something. Since then I’ve seen the bloody stuff advertised everywhere, obviously. Such is the law of sod.

By around mile 18 I knew I would have to let 3:45 go and try for sub 4 instead, and as soon as I made that decision I crashed headlong into The Wall. Hips seized up, legs rooted themselves to the ground, stomach started simultaneously refusing any input and grumbling loudly enough for the wildlife to hear. Facing that old familiar demon – whether to eat and risk throwing up or not eat and pass out – I flashed back to the North Downs and decided it was time to grow the hell up and force down another gel. If it didn’t actually make me go faster, it certainly seemed to stem the hunger pangs and nausea. I could have really done with a bit of Kendal mint cake to be honest. Or for that matter, a pie and a pint. I would finish the race, but I’d be walking more than running from here on in.

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Pace and elevation

The support was lovely and encouraging when it appeared, but the crowds were few and far between, and for the first time I found myself wishing there was more people about. I was vaguely aware of Andy tracking me on the app, thinking that he would have seen my optimistic 10k and 20k splits and must have been wondering what the hell happened. In the hope of a boost I shuffled through playlists trying to find something cheerful, but the running playlist seemed to be mocking me and my old skool 90s dance album sounded a bit like a tryhard at a party, throwing their arms around and forcing everyone to have fun. And it really wasn’t the day for Haruki Murakami.

My slowest mile was the run up to the 24 marker at Osbaldwick, but I managed to pick up for the last couple of miles and was back up and running (sort of) as we made our way towards the 40k mat. By now there were more crowds, singing and music and barbecues and children holding out their hands for a high five; I’d lost my sense of humour a long way back, but at least I knew now that the sooner I got a move on the sooner I’d see University Road and the finish line again. I just wanted it to be over and done with.

It was’t a triumphant finish, or an enjoyable one, but when I crossed the line well inside the four hour mark I realised what a petulant dick I’d been. Any finish is a finish to celebrate, and I had to remember how privileged I am to be able to run at all. The good people of Yorkshire soon sorted out my sulk though, and I was quietly thankful to be walking all the way across the campus once more. So many happy and proud faces around me, glowing in the autumn sun, brandishing medals and finishers’ t-shirts and swapping stories. With a couple of hours before my train home was due, I stretched out on the grass for a while to let the atmosphere sink in. The bank was covered with people sprawled out like the fallout of a runner hand grenade, two little boys dancing between them and spraying crisps and juice everywhere. It was hard to stay grumpy for long.

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I’m happy to be done with road marathons for the meantime; even as I write this I’m watching the Channel 4 broadcast of the race highlights and feeling the itch, but I know the itch will still be there in April and I’ll be in much better shape for having taken a break from the tarmac. As I watch there’s a touch of jealousy for all those past versions of runners, myself included, starting the race once more as if given a second chance to do it. Maybe this time I won’t race off at the start and wear myself out? Oh no, it doesn’t work like that.

So what have I learned? When you get that chance, treat it with respect. Trust your training, trust your body, trust the stupidly expensive watch you bought so you wouldn’t NEED a pacer. Most of all, trust yourself. You know what you’re doing.

With Druids and CTS Dorset still to come though, do I?

Giant’s Head Marathon 2015

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It’s June, and I’m halfway through my challenge to run at least a marathon a month. So far my race booking frenzy has taken me back and forth along the trails of the North Downs, the north coast of Kent, the plains of Wiltshire, the beaches of Sussex, the streets of Manchester and the Royal Parks of London. And there I am, a scorching Friday afternoon on Glastonbury weekend, sitting in my car on the M3 and moving absolutely nowhere while my temperature gauge screams for mercy. I look at the interminable line of motionless traffic and switch off my engine until another two feet open up for me to crawl into.

To be fair it was my decision to put the costs of all the potential train fares into a secondhand Peugeot 206, and my poor planning that failed to take into account just how many people would be trying to escape westwards for the weekend, so I have only myself to blame. At least I’m in a car, my car, not one I have to return by 10pm, and not on the perennially packed Exeter train with basically all of London, sitting on someone else’s suitcase (or possibly child). But five hours of sitting in the same position with no way of stretching my legs is not ideal preparation for a hilly, rocky marathon.

The good people at the Gamekeeper didn’t bat an eyelid when a) I turned up three minutes before the 9pm cut off for checking in and when b) I asked if I could go for a cheeky ten minute run before tucking into my lasagne and salad, apple crumble and custard and goblet of sauv blanc, long after the kitchen had closed. The owner looked on in awe, or perhaps disgust, for the full three minutes it took me to finish, and nervously asked if I wanted any more wine as if expecting me to swallow him whole too. Just one more waffer thin mint, Mr Creosote…

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The next morning I nursed my poor car along the A37 to the parking site just outside Sydling St Nicholas (“in Dorset, near France” according to White Star Running’s excellent race instructions), thankful for the clear signage and straightforward route. I had booked to do Giants Head on the strength of the Larmer Tree Marathon back in March, a rural race with beautiful views, well stocked aid stations and a fantastic sense of humour, and I already knew I wouldn’t be disappointed as I walked down to the race HQ at the village hall.

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We kicked off with a race briefing that included the obligatory parish notices – follow the signs, don’t leave litter around, if you see a bull run the other way – a round of applause for all those completing their first, 99th and 100th marathons, and a cops and robbers themed wedding proposal (she said yes). The atmosphere was like that of an egg and spoon race at the village fete; relaxed, friendly, daft, fun. A lady on a horse sounded a bugle and we were off.

In my time-honoured tradition of diving in head first and waiting to see what the race holds in store rather than actually planning a strategy, I attacked the first hill for all of about ten feet, assuming the course would be gently undulating like Larmer Tree, before looking up to see all the other runners already walking. I was still relatively close to the front of the pack too, keen to get a good position on the narrow single track. And then I remembered that very good piece of trail running advice: if you can’t see the top of the hill, walk it. There wasn’t much running to be done after that.

Even knowing that I’d need to reserve my energy and my quads for what would be a tough old day, I couldn’t resist bombing the downhills, arms flailing about like kite lines. My watch told me my second mile was around seven and a half minutes, so I shook it and looked again; it insisted, definitely seven and a half, normally my 5k pace. I had been going so fast I missed the opportunity to get a photo of the naked farmer ringing his cowbell as we passed through the field, and that decided it for me – if the threat of crashing wasn’t enough to rein me in, the fear that no-one would believe my race report without evidence was.

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I can see why it’s been voted Best Marathon; not because it’s easy, or fast, or full of gimmicks like DJs and paint and barbed wire and fire pits. The heart wants what it wants, and White Star Running understand that with their slogan Keep Running Rural; this of one of nature’s very own obstacle races. The terrain is relentless, alternating between rocks and scree and waist high reeds and triffid-esque vegetation, none of that soft Surrey chalk or grass to cushion your landing. There’s no zoning out; the race demands your full concentration all the way round. I watched with awe the people skipping along in Luna sandals and flat road shoes; minimal contact with the ground was definitely the right idea, but my little legs just don’t lift high enough. I shuffled along and tried not to break a toe.

Not to mention the elevation profile, up and down like Pinocchio’s lie detector results. When I looked back at the race data afterwards I was trying to work out why I couldn’t remember any flat bits, and found that the simple answer was there weren’t any. I think I’m glad I didn’t know that going into the race; on the other hand, it might have been as well for me to be more cautious at the beginning. But bloody hell was it fun.

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Despite the unseasonable heat the aid stations were perfectly spaced out and I never found myself wanting for water or food. In fact I didn’t really need my bottle or waist pack and both returned almost as full as they left. It’s a small point, but a key one, that the stations weren’t just well placed but full of variety, with a basic stock of key items and a different selections of treats at each one, so there wasn’t much danger of growing sick of jelly beans or sausage rolls or never wanting to see a piece of Soreen again. I would never recommend going into a race without your own provisions, but you could have run this empty handed without any problems. In fact I was in danger of grossly exceeding my calorie limit for the day.

I had been listening to an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road, on and off, being as I am in a phase of reading adventure and travel books for the inspiration to just keep moving. I didn’t want to be plugged in for the whole race but for the sections that just needed a head down and charge attitude it was useful to be able to imagine myself on the desolate open highways, just trying to get from A to B, without the luxury of aid stations and signposts or a medal at the end. One chap ran past me and asked what I was listening to, and I told him. He was a bit disappointed; he told me he was listening to his own personal radio station which consisted of whatever songs came into his head, and when he got bored of them he would ask someone what they were listening to and ‘play’ that instead, like the world’s most low-tech iPod shuffle. Presumably not interested in beat poets as much as groovy beats, he danced off singing Boogie Wonderland. It’s that kind of race.

But as we finally saw the Giant himself appearing over the hill, the low-tech approach revealed its value. Like the tourist that I am I paused at the side of the road a few times to try and get a photo of him, but a 30ft chalk cock is harder to photograph than you’d imagine. Eventually I admitted defeat, said goodbye to him and ploughed on. The race he gave his name to was not quite done yet.

I started to pay for my early enthusiasm just after halfway, having taken a half mile detour around mile ten with about a hundred other runners, and I felt the pressure of two stressful jobs, overtraining and very little sleep weighing heavy on my aching, cramped muscles. Should I be feeling this exhausted with the same distance to go again, and the “killer hill” apparently still to come? Can I actually finish? I brushed the worries aside – I hadn’t been expecting miracles from this race, I wasn’t fully fit, and the whole point was that the hours on my feet (not to mention the hours on the trails) are all part of my NDW100 training. What could be better preparation for pushing my body through extremes of exhaustion than experiencing nearly extremes of exhaustion? Just as long as I still had enough left in the tank for the drive home…

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Luckily the Lovestation at mile 20 appeared just in time, stocked with essentials such as water, biscuits and sweets, plus local cider, pink champagne and fresh strawberries. A first in my experience, they also had piles of freshly shorn sheep’s wool which one runner took advantage of for a quick powernap, and a gorgeous sheepdog looking for someone to play catch with him and his favourite rock. I played a few rounds before remembering I was in a race, and had to leave him sulking behind me, but it was just enough to recharge me for the final push. On went the Cardiacs, and my game face.

I say final push, but the final push just kept on pushing and pushing and pushing. I had calculated a half mile extra for our detour and I know better than to expect a trail marathon to be 26.2 miles exactly, but as the Garmin passed 27 yet another steep climb appeared in front of me with no obvious ending in sight, and I realised I’d spent my turbocharger too soon. I tried not to get upset about it, to be fatalistic and just enjoy the course, but I could smell the lotion of the post-race masseurs, taste the homemade cakes and tea waiting at the end, and I just wanted to be there.

And almost as if out of nowhere, there it was. As we tipped back down that final hill the village green emerged with the finishers’ arch and the marquees and hundreds of people licking up enormous melting Mr Whippys. I charged towards the finish line and leapt over the timing mat, and I was done. And I finally got to see the chalk giant in all his glory, engraved on the medal and emblazoned on our finisher’s t-shirt and headscarf.

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The masseur who called me up asked me if I had any problem areas I wanted her to work on, and I winced and pointed with embarrassment at my hips. Can you even massage hips without risking prosecution? But somehow she managed it, with dignity and patience and I can only assume black magic.

The whole shebang is really more of a festival than a race. The good ladies of the local WI prepared hot meals for the runners both on the Friday night before and the Saturday night after the race, and you can camp both nights and take advantage of the barbecue, bar (“How long is the bar open until?” “Until it runs out!”) and barn dance. Almost everyone I spoke to asked me if I was staying on Saturday night and when I said I was driving straight back they looked utterly baffled, and I began to think I’d made a huge mistake in not making the most of the weekend. In fact, I began to wonder if the race was just a sidebar to the main event. Naked farmers notwithstanding.

UK’s number one marathon?  I can definitely see that. The effort that Andy and all at team White Star Running put into it would make that the case regardless of the course itself. It’s no walk in the Royal Parks, but you come away feeling like you earned that medal and then some. And when all is said and done, there’s a mini Glastonbury waiting to greet you at the end. Except you don’t have to put up with Kanye fucking West. Magic.

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Brighton Marathon 2015 – Wendimoo’s side of the story

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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!”

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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

Runaway bridezilla

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Oh no. I’ve become what I always insisted I would never be. I’ve become a bridezilla.

I can’t stop talking about it; even when I try to change the subject, inevitably the discussion swerves back in that direction. It’s all about the outfit, the logistics, what we’re going to eat, what music to play, making sure everyone turns up on time and hoping someone will get a few decent photos. Everything has to go perfectly since I’m not planning to do it more than once – although, you never know. I’m already boring everyone stiff talking about it, and the event’s not until August.

There’s no wedding involved though, I hate weddings. No, I’m talking about a 100 mile race.

If you know me, you know my Evernote lists. Those things run my life; my main job to-do lists, my freelance job to-do lists, blog notes, race prep lists, holiday plans, they all go straight into little lists with pleasingly tickable tickboxes next to them. The list for the North Downs Way 100 gets a tweak every couple of days or so, and even when there isn’t anything to tweak I just gaze at it adoringly, as if looking at it is going to bring me closer to August. Like a bride-to-be poring over a mood board, magazines full of dresses and table settings, invitation samples and menus. Seriously, how do I still have friends?

Some of those patient, long-suffering friends actually have significant life events of their own to talk about, would you believe. You know, actual weddings, babies, mortgages and the like. And there’s me, able to tell you the date of any major trail or ultra race off the top of my head but completely stumped when to comes to my friend’s child’s birthday.

“It’s July, right? Or June? A summer month.”

“It was February, Jaz. You missed it.”

So I was a little reticent to follow Cat’s advice and put up a post asking for race pacers on the Chasers Facebook page; it’s a bit look-at-me, I thought, not to mention presumptuous to hope that anyone would give up their time to pace me. And by giving up their time, I don’t mean spending a sunny Sunday afternoon trolling around in the countryside. I can only have pacers after the 50 mile mark, which will take around 12 hours for me to reach, which means any potential support crew having to make their way to Nowheresville, Kent around suppertime and stick with me through the wee hours while I dribble on, sleep deprived and crotchety and demanding entertainment like a toddler on a sugar comedown.

Of course, I’d reckoned without the completely awesome and slightly barmy Chasers trail club. While I was toing and froing about whether or not to ask for help, they were already looking up crew access points and learning Queen songs to sing to keep my spirits up. A hundred miles is a pretty long way to run, and they understood that I would need help even if I was too proud or too nervous to ask for it, just like any friend would do. In retrospect, it’s a bit daft of me to worry about geeking out over a run with a load of running geeks. Not to mention the fact that the whole reason we know each other is our mutual interest in running really fucking long distances. 

I suppose the mistake I’d made was worrying about why my non-running friends would care about my running activities, any more than I care about what flowers are going in someone’s bridal bouquet or what consistency the crap their toddler did this morning was or how much fun they had at some hipster bar last night. Facebook has made every moment so public, everyone’s life is like a glossy magazine advert now. Yeah, sure it’s irritating to scroll through a news feed full of “LOOK HOW EXCITING MY LIFE IS!” but even though I try to keep my fanfaring to a minimum I’m as guilty of it as anyone. And yet, it’s not like anyone’s ever told me to shove my medal photos up my arse, not that I’d blame them if they did.

Because that’s what being a friend is all about, isn’t it? It doesn’t mean expecting them to care as much about your shit as you do; it’s about celebrating anything that is important in each other’s lives. What that thing is, whether it’s a significant event or an everyday moment, it’s not been posted to show off, or because people think you want to know about it; it’s been posted because they want to share their happiness with you, regardless of the source of that happiness. And it’s a privilege to know someone who wants to share their happiness with you, whether it’s “Look how many shots I drank!” or “Look how many miles I ran!”. Or, occasionally, both. 

So, yeah, I’m a bridezilla. I’ll try to keep my squee moments within the confines of decency, or at the very least, restrict my running geekery to my running geek friends, but every now and again you might see a photo of an outfit or an update about a cake tasting session. Humour me, mute my posts if you need to. Accept my apologies in advance. It’ll all be over in August. And then I’ll try to be a less shit friend. 

Moonlight Challenge 2015 – round 2

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Hello darkness my old friend…

I first attempted the Moonlight Challenge last year, and at the time it was to be my first attempt at running an ultramarathon, my first attempt at running a trail race and only my second ever race longer than a half. Looking back on it now, it was an ambitious gambit at best. At the time I had fixated on the idea of running an ultra before my 30th birthday without giving proper consideration to the challenge and I was disappointed that I had to call it quits after four laps, despite it being a marathon distance. Looking back on it now, at the shin deep bog, the low visibility, the mental challenge of running laps and the total lack of appropriate kit, I’m really proud that I got as far as I did. But last year, it felt like a failure.

So, I figured some good had to come of it. Muddy terrain was horrible, so I would make it my friend. I spent the last year reinventing myself as a trail queen, and rediscovered a love for running that I was in danger of losing. I entered the 50 Mile Challenge on the same course just five months later – this time the full distance was eight laps or a double marathon, starting at 6am instead of 6pm with the added benefit of daylight and firmer ground – and this time I called it quits after six laps, shredded and sore but jubilant. There was a rumour that it could be the last time this race was run, so I decided that as long as it was on I would keep trying until I could finish it.

After the 50 Mile Challenge – what was technically my first ultra, since I got a time and a medal for the laps finished – I got the bug. By the time the Moonlight Challenge rolled around again in February 2015, I had done the Royal Parks 50k, the Salisbury 5-4-3-2-1 50k and the Pilgrim Challenge (66 miles over two days) and had all but set up home on the North Downs with my sexy bastard Salomon Fellraisers. I packed up a Zipcar for attempt number two and set off for the A2. It was time.

If I’ve learned anything in the last two years, it’s that less kit means fewer distractions. Honestly, planning for a race is half the fun for me. I lay out everything I need, then set about weeding out anything I can do without. Start with the mandatory kit if there is one, then only add to it if you absolutely have to; if one piece of kit can do two jobs, so much the better. The one thing I couldn’t do without this time though was a headtorch; clue’s in the name. So, guess what I left at work?

It’s fine, I thought. Wickes is just round the corner, I’ll nip round and pick a new one up. They had one option available to me. I’m pretty sure I made one of these in primary school with a 9v battery, a half inch bulb and a load of Sellotape.

Moonlight Challenge 2015 4

It was too late to worry about it though; battling through gale force winds down the old familiar North Kent route I stuck on some summery ska punk and tried to settle my nerves. On the last two Challenge Hub races I had had Team Mum backing me up, playing chauffeur, race crew, nutritionist and pacer, but this time I was on my own – and, it turns out, not all that good at following a satnav – with the thought at the back of my mind that after running thirty three miles I would need to conserve energy for the two hour drive home.

The route had changed slightly, now sharing about half the figure of eight course of the old route but taking that loop in the opposite direction, so it felt as good as brand new. The HQ and checkpoint for each lap had moved too, now based in the relative shelter of a barn complete with sodium lamps and a heater that looked like a rocket. Which was lucky, because if last year’s theme had been torrential rain then this year’s was gale force winds. I set myself up a chair in the barn, with my nutrition and spare kit laid out ready for the end of each lap, and retreated to the relative warmth of my car for as long as possible. And watched nervously as the tanker parked next to my tiny Corsa swayed and lurched in the wind.

Moonlight Challenge 2015 3

Just thirty six runners were on the entry list; there must have been more people among the organisers and support than actual runners. I’ve said before that one of the reasons I like the Challenge Hub races is their very low key nature, but those thirty six names are testament to just how tough these challenges are. Running off-road quarter-marathon loops on the Kent coast, in the middle of the night in February, is not for the faint hearted. I looked through the list of names to see if I recognised any of them, but the one name I was thrilled to see was Mike Inkster’s; not among the runners, and not officially running Challenge Hub any more, but the figurehead of the operation nonetheless. He remembered me – and less surprisingly he remembered my mum – and would be out on the course later on doing his rounds in the opposite direction.

We started with the typical lack of fanfare; in fact, we very nearly didn’t even get the traditional Challenge Hub starting rocket at all, with winds so strong that the fuse wouldn’t ignite. Ten or so runners huddled round it to provide shelter while Mike wrestled with a series of unsuccessful lighters until finally it took, when we all realised we were crowded around a live rocket and now would be a good time to back the hell away. It’s a novel way to get people running.

The first lap started in daylight, just; with the new route cutting across a lot more open field and fewer obvious trails to follow, I made a conscious effort to remember every twist and turn while at the same time enjoying a good old natter. The group was fairly tight-knit to begin with, but eventually it opened out a bit, and I was reduced to lighting my own way instead of following the brighter headlamps of people more organised and sensible than me. About halfway through lap 2, it all went a bit wrong. The crappy little glow of my primary school science project head lamp had no chance of penetrating the gloom, and with such thick cloud cover the Moonlight Challenge was not lit and boasted no visible moon, as last year’s had. I took a long detour looking for a turning point that turned out to be hiding at the top of a small hill, and even once I was relatively certain of being back on track there was nobody around to follow. Thirty years old, and I found myself genuinely afraid of the dark. I decided that the end of that lap would be the end of the race for me.

When I got back to HQ the second time, I went straight up to the table waving my white flag. I was gutted to have to call it quits not even halfway through the challenge, especially as I still felt strong and well capable of the distance, but I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face out there, let alone the route markings or the treacherous dips and troughs in the terrain; basically, I bottled it. Of course, the organisers were having none of it. When I explained why I was giving up one chap immediately dived into his bag to find his spare Petzl so that I could continue. I didn’t catch your name, but whoever you are thank you. You would have been well within your right to disqualify me altogether, never mind give me your own torch and send me on my way. That was that then. No excuses now.

It was definitely easier with a proper light source, but the night was still thick with fog and the ubiquitous Kent coast drizzle had finally decided to make an appearance and add to the visibility issues, so my progress was sluggish. I was frustrated with my pace, necessarily slow to avoid taking a tumble, and I was getting thoroughly disorientated. The beam bobbed about in front of my face, lighting a spot in front of me like the view through a pinhole camera but casting everything else into pitch blackness by contrast. If you’ve ever played Super Mario World, and got to the level where the world is in darkness except for a small bubble around Mario showing only his position and the step immediately in front of him, you’ll know what I mean. I tried switching it off and allowing my eyes to accustom to the dark. That was a terrible idea. Either way I was beginning to hallucinate.

The point of doing this race again was twofold for me; one, I didn’t want to leave it unfinished, and two, being signed up for a 100 miler in the summer which will take more than 24 hours I needed to get some practice running in the dark. On balance, I’m glad I got to experience running in pitch black beforehand and not be confronting it halfway through a race with plenty enough going on to challenge me, but I’ve honestly never been so frightened. Stepping out of my comfort zone, pushing my limits, testing myself; I’m all over that. But on that night I plodded through the woods thinking to myself “This isn’t fun. I am not enjoying myself at all.”

About halfway through lap four, on yet another long stretch with nobody else around, I saw a figure coming towards me. Or rather, I saw the beam of a torch coming towards me, and inferred the presence of a man behind it. I shit myself. I was alone, in the dark, miles from safety. If this guy didn’t want me here there was pretty much nothing I could do about it. The approaching figure seemed to be growing behind the glow of his torch, growing far faster and larger than the effect of perspective should have suggested, until he was maybe seven or eight feet tall. I kept my pace steady but started to veer a little off to one side to avoid him. He veered too, right into my path, all the while growing taller and bigger. Shit shit shit.

“Jaz. Are you OK?”

It wasn’t a murderous giant. It was lovely lovely Mike Inkster. And a lot of shadow.

The last two times I’ve run one of Mike’s challenges he has popped up out of nowhere with words of encouragement, urged us to do one more lap with a smile, gently but firmly insisted that we could finish. This time though he looked nervous. I admitted I was struggling with the dark and he immediately told me to finish up the lap and call it quits if I had to, that it had been a torrid night for a lot of runners. That in itself was a shock for me; if even Mike thought it was a bad night then I felt absolutely no shame in giving up. I finished my lap and accepted my certificate for 26.8 miles completed.

It may sound complacent, but it felt right to finish there. There’s hard work that is fun and rewarding, there are extremes you push yourself to because you know that the returns far outweigh any mental and physical expenditure. That night was not fun though, not by a long shot. There were no returns to be gained from going out there for another lap and scaring myself shitless, nor was there any value in toughing it out when I had a two hour drive home in front of me. I knew that I would have to come back for another go of the Moonlight Challenge. I know now that I will keep coming back until I finish it.

Moonlight Challenge 2015 2

The one small compensation was that I managed to take over an hour off my time for the same distance last year: 5:39 from 6:45. According to Mike the new route was slightly longer, much rougher underfoot and much hillier than last year’s, but I didn’t notice any of that at the time. Only one woman finished the full 33.1 miles, and of the four women to finish four laps I was the fastest by four minutes, which is a pleasing bit of number symmetry. In the Moonlight Challenge the numbers don’t really matter though, and there’s no prize for coming first anyway. Just like last year, I was reminded that they’re called challenges and not races for a reason.

You know me. I can’t resist a good challenge.