Born again runner

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Sitting on the monument at the Trig point, legs dangling over the edge, I refresh the Centurion tracking page on my phone every couple of minutes. I can see the runners who have officially passed the Stepping Stones checkpoint, around 24 miles in to the North Downs Way 100 and a mile below us, and I’m counting them as they make it to the crest of Box Hill. I feel as though I am watching a procession of warriors, marching into battle, and I am in awe. When I grow up, this will be me.

Actually, it almost was, twice.

For the first time since Brighton Marathon in 2014 my running shoes gather dust on the shoe rack, seven bizarre weeks. For the first time since Brighton 2014, I actually feel no guilt for not running, although the effects of FOMO were far more crippling than a broken metatarsal. I go back in time, back to when I ran once, maybe twice a week, slightly laboured stride and happy to be under nine and a half minute miles. Back to when I looked forward to the day, far in the future, when I’d be able to cover more than a marathon. Back to when I believed it was possible because I didn’t know any better.

Now I’m armed with the double edged sword of knowing it IS possible… but knowing what you have to sacrifice to make it so. Knowing that I just have to put the hard yards in if I want to reach that goal – knowing that hard doesn’t begin to describe those yards – and knowing how impossibly far away that goal is right now.

In a weird, deja-vu way it’s kind of liberating.

Spool on a month and I’m pretty much over the broken foot (I read a New Scientist article about how pain is probably all in your head so that’s that sorted); I finally brace myself and step on the scales. Yes, definitely time to get back running, I think – it was time to get back running about ten pounds ago. But my body disagrees; first in the form of flu – actual influenza, not your sachet of Beechams and a good night’s sleep – chased down by a diagnosis of seasonal asthma. It’s like breathing through a snorkel. I make it into work a couple of times, gasping and sucking on my inhaler, and am unceremoniously sent back home again. I’ve missed more work in a month than I have ever missed in the eight years since I joined. And here I am now. Sulking.

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Oh Nemi, you get me… 

The hardest thing to get my head around was that I’m not used to feeling ill, so I refused to believe that I was ill to begin with – that was the extent of my empirical reasoning. Unsurprisingly, simply behaving as if I was perfectly healthy did not, in fact, make it so. I’m talking Theresa May levels of denial here. After three visits to my GP and another to a walk in centre, I was on the way home from work again, missing yet another big event, and as I phoned Andy to tell him I was on the way home again I broke down in tears – not because of my health, but because missing out on more of my life genuinely frightened me. And then I realised what I’ve really been fighting against: the loss of identity. I’m a runner who isn’t really running much. I’m a blogger who hasn’t got anything to blog about. I’m a production manager who’s not well enough to manage any productions. So without those identities, what the fuck am I?

Who

The contents of my brain, as captured by the talented Clever Fish Illustration

I’m an idiot, that’s what.

The first step has to be rest, proper proper rest. Not sitting down for ten straight minutes then deciding to hoover the house. Not going to sleep only to have anxiety dreams about everything I thought I’d do that day and didn’t. Not dragging 60% of my capacity into work to do a half assed job and come out having jeopardised my health for no real value. I hate not being useful, but right now I am the very definition of useless.

Then and only then can I take the second step of rebuilding. Or rather, recapturing the four years ago version of me which had drive but also humility, self awareness, and a long way to go. Except this time I get to add experience into the mix. Isn’t that the perfect situation to be in? Potential plus direction? Ambition plus self-awareness? That’s how I’m choosing to see it.

I remind myself of pretty much the second ever thing I vowed after I decided, halfway through my first marathon, that nothing but ultras would do for me. As soon as I heard it existed I wanted to run Western States 100, and I wanted to run it well – which meant I would need to comfortably finish a bog standard one before even getting on a plane to the West Coast, and not just because the entry requirements stipulate it. And then I wanted to run the Grand Union Canal. And then I wanted to further, longer, harder. And despite the lack of training – or inadequate training – I’ve logged in the last couple of years, despite the two failed attempts at the North Downs 100 and the ever rising tally of DNFs, I remember how much I want this.

This is what I think, back there on the top of the monument. I think, I want to be you. All you people dying in the heat, barely a quarter of the way through, with sleep demons and blisters and aches and nausea to look forward to, I would swap places with you in a heartbeat. I want my identity back.

So, get used to this born-again devotee evangelising about the wonders of ultra-running, carrying on like I invented it.

Maybe… after a nap.

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Salomon Trail Running Workshop

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Usually when I line up at the start of a trail race, I look like something out of the Salomon bargain basement catalogue. Shoes, race vest, belt pack, shorts, sunglasses, running jacket, bottles, knickers, all plastered with Salomon branding. So when our club offered places on a Salomon sponsored trail running workshop with a Salomon athlete, I was quite careful to moderate my outfit and not look like a total fangirl.

Since I reserve my Fellraisers for the claggiest of clag mud and mostly wear Altras in the summer, the Timps were the obvious choice for a hot dry day with enough texture underfoot to need some grip. In fact the only Salomon thing I ended up taking was my race vest and that has lasted me four years and counting; it is basically irreplaceable (jinx). Although when we got to the Box Hill car park we did get the chance to try out some of the new season light trail and racing shoes and the latest version of the S-Lab vest, which takes the existing awesome design and adds the only feature it was missing, front pockets for easy access food and maps. It was useful to have a chance to test kit – as much as my little duck feet love their Altras, I had harboured hopes of picking up some Salomon Sense Rides for road to trail and mixed terrain running, but my size 5.5s could barely fit into the size 7s on offer. I love my feet, but they’re really not shoe shaped.

Who’s Who

The group was made up of runners from both Clapham Chasers and Advent Running, and it was great to mix with another club in a sociable setting – especially one that like ours is based in the city but has a small core of trail fanatics. Our coach for the day was Matt Buck, a personal trainer, trail runner and Salomon sponsored athlete, and the plan was to learn a bit about trail running techniques, have a leisurely trot around the Downs and get lots and lots of photos. Matt had already run one session that morning before ours was due to start at lunchtime, and I caught up with the first lot of Chasers at the cafe – a short run but a surprisingly tough one, they said. I’ll be honest, when I heard the word “short” I pre-empted a bit of a sulk.

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Warmup

We started off by running half a mile through the more densely wooded areas where I got to chatting with one of Matt’s glamorous assistants for the day, a client of his and fellow trail runner called Neil, who was ostensibly there to help corral runners but mainly for the same reason we all were – because why not. Any excuse really, if I was in his position I’d volunteer for every damn opportunity to run up Box Hill. The shade of the trees was perfect, brushing the heat from our skin and lighting up the air with a warm green glow. Bliss.

Back to basics

We found a clearing where Matt talked a little about the importance of looking ahead, which is the first time I realised a) just how back to basics we were going to go today and b) just how much we needed to. The group being a fairly eclectic mix, I assumed that I would be one of the more experienced trail runners out there, and on paper I was – but apparently one with some awful bad habits and probably the most to learn. Looking ten paces in front and not straight down is not just harder than it sounds, it’s downright counter-intuitive to begin with. We were reminded many times to keep our heads up and that reminder rings in my ears to this day. Eventually though it became clear how valuable that was – not only for being able to see but being able to breathe too.

The other key bit of advice was about footwork – namely taking small steps and keeping high knees. Being as undisciplined a runner as it’s possible to be, I’ve only ever done knee drills as part of the team before cross country races and that’s because I’m terrified of defying the team captains. Retraining my knees to stay high became even more important once we got the hang of looking ahead, but it also had the pleasant side effect of making me feel lighter and faster as I ran. Which is sort of the point.

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Down we go

We then moved on to my favourite subject – downhill running. Another thing I basically considered myself to be god of, until I learned just how wrong I do it. I mean, wrong isn’t exactly bad, but the older I get the more my kamikaze technique (or lack of one) is likely to stitch me up – at least knowing how to do it correctly I can choose to be kamikaze, instead of being one by default. The key was taking small lights steps, landing on our toes and balls of our feet, and if that sounds like a mad thing to do going downhill, well, it felt it too. But it was surprisingly easy to get used to once I loosened my shoulders, and definitely less shredding on the old quads. We did three reps going down towards the junction with the lower trail, where a family of four tried to enjoy their picnic and pretended not to notice the 12 or so screeching lunatics barrelling towards them with no apparent control. Happy weekend guys.

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What goes down must come up

The final lesson was the one I was most looking forward to. We started by climbing partway up the smooth slope of Box Hill (no steps for us today) and the combination of the hill, the heat and my lack of fitness nearly knocked me out cold. Huddled in a rare spot of shade Matt reiterated the importance of high knees and good posture, even more crucial for uphill climbs than for level running, simply because being hunched over dramatically reduces lung capacity and can cause you to run out of breath sooner. Again it was common sense more than revelation, but to someone like me with ingrained bad habits it was easier said than done. Between photo ops we tried a couple of short burst runs up the rest of the hill, hopping from tree to tree to allow for rests in the shade.

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The most valuable technique I learned that day was to bounce on the balls of my feet going uphill just the same way as we had done downhill, and use the springiness of my legs rather than allowing heavy landings to drain my energy. It was tiring to begin with of course, but it made such a huge and immediate difference to my climbs. And to my state of mind, actually. You’d be surprised how much less gruelling a hill can look when you’re staring at the sky and not the ground. This was why he’d been so strict about looking ten paces ahead before, because you really can’t keep your head up if you don’t know where your feet are about to land. As I gasped for breath at the top all those lessons started to fall into place.

Home sweet home

We wound our way back to the car park via the trails less travelled, routes around the North Downs I didn’t even know were there let alone tried running on. Tiptoeing through the tree cover was glorious but bloody hell was I ready for a break – I’ve rarely got to the end of a run so thoroughly exhausted. Whether it was the terrain, the heat or the fact that we’d been outside for so long, if you’d asked me to say how far we’d run without looking at my watch I’d have guessed at least 10k. When we reached the viewpoint for our last photo op however, we had barely scraped three miles. Three miles?! How could three slow moving miles possibly be so hard? And how did Matt manage to do three or four of these sessions in a day?

Salomon workshop map

It was bloody worth it though. Worth it to learn real techniques from a real professional trail runner. Worth it to discover new ways to enjoy an old trail. Worth it to meet new friends, from a club with a lot in common with our own. Worth it to experience trail running as a new sport again. And just three days later I ran one of the easiest, most enjoyable and most satisfying marathons of my career, all thanks to the techniques we were taught that day.

The all-Salomon wardrobe will be back out soon…

Thanks to Neil Williams of Advent Running for all the photos, including the cover image – how he managed to get so many pictures while we ran is a miracle!

 

 

 

 

Pilgrims Challenge 2018

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Hello, old friend.

When I finished the North Downs Way 50 – just – back in May of last year, I swore the whole way round that I was DONE with the much-loved national trail which had been the backdrop for much of my trail running career. I’ve run this route so many times, in so many circumstances, and although I’d had my fair share of happy memories it had chewed me up so much that a return would be tantamount to masochism.

As soon as I finished my volunteering stint on Druids at the end of November, the first thing I did was sign up for Pilgrims again. Glutton for punishment.

I first ran the Pilgrims Challenge in 2015 at the start of a year that became my most prolific and most successful so far. When I took to the start line of the 2-day, 66 mile event run by Extreme Energy it was the first time I’d run two back to back marathons, and the thing I was most worried about was how the overnight camping no-home-comforts bit would work. As it turned out, thanks to the incredible support of Neil Thubron and his team, I needn’t have given it a thought. Although I have learned the value of taking a couple of clip hangers for drying out a race vest overnight and a bundle of newspaper for stuffing shoes.

This time all I wanted to do was finish, however slowly. And I knew it would be slow. I believed in my adjusted expectations instead of still vaguely hoping a sub-6 hour finish could be on the cards. And thank goodness I did, because nothing about the terrain and conditions suggested optimism.

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My trouble with the North Downs Way, I realise, is that it’s just too familiar – it beats me because it knows me so well. It knows how to lure me into a false sense of security, how to make me believe that I can push through a runnable section and straightaway knock me down, how to use reverse psychology to its most brutal effect by tempting and then taunting me. I’ve mentioned before that this route – which I know so well, have run so many times – seems to distort and rearrange itself when I’m racing. Whole tracks pop up between hills that before I could have sworn were back to back.

And the worst parts of it aren’t the hills at all. You’d be surprised how much of the trail has little or no elevation change; the demon of it is that the ground yields so easily it’s like running through sand – well, sometimes it actually IS sand. So you beat yourself up for not being able to run the “fast” bits, and wear yourself out before the real test begins. All this is what makes it surprisingly effective training for the Marathon des Sables, which is exactly what many of the runners this weekend were preparing for.

My aim really was just to finish it – I’m not humblebragging here, genuinely I’d have been happy to get to the end, given how much fitness I’ve lost. I had taken for granted my ability to grind through these distances, having been successful at it in the past, that I’d actually forgotten how to suck it up and get to the end on the tougher races. And I’d started a worrying trend of DNFs that were close to outweighing the Fs. So, get to the end, by any means necessary. There would be a lot of hiking.

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I nabbed a fairly jammy parking spot close to race HQ (tent), swapped my bag for a number and a timing tag, and huddled up with the second wave of starters. It was so cold – find me a synonym for cold, somebody, that word is gonna get WORN OUT – that RD Neil decided to hold our briefing inside the tent, having braved the bitter chill on the first wave and nearly lost his loudhailer. There was a wonderful little touch when the owner of the farm we were on blew the horn to start the race then joined us as far as the first checkpoint; just before we started he told us how, nine years ago and no kind of runner, he watched the Pilgrims competitors leave the start line for the very first time and was motivated to give this running lark a go himself.

Normally I’m quite sociable on races like this, but I knew this weekend I could be out there on my own for a very long time; this would be more meditative than conversational. I loaded up the iPod shuffle with hours and hours of podcasts – I’m a bit obsessed with Astonishing Legends at the moment – and zoned out. That’s not to say I was planning to shut myself off from the experience; I just planned to be cautious, considering how naively I’ve been diving into races recently without any real respect for the challenge. Never take a race for granted.

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This last year has been like learning how to run all over again. This race was no different. I felt comfortable through the first checkpoint nearly 9 miles in, having passed the familiar ground of Guildford and the bridge over the River Wey (where on Centurion races you will usually find Allan and his bacon butty barge), but I’d be taking it really easy. It was a long old stretch to the next checkpoint at 19 miles which included the climb to St Martha’s Church and the sandy downhill after it, but as usual it was a glorious opportunity for aeroplane arms. I wasn’t pushing the pace, but I was still conscious of it, running on my own and in my own head for a change. Deja vu – this is almost exactly the runner I was when I attempted this race the first time three years ago, too nervous to engage with anyone else. Well, maybe two of her.

By the time I got to Denbies, around 20 miles, I was feeling perfectly capable of forward momentum but there wasn’t any kind of pace in my legs. That’s fine, I thought, just keep one foot in front of the other. The downhill towards the dual carriageway is usually where I open up a bit and scoot about like a kid, but this time I was on a leisurely old lady jog at best. Nonetheless with the eerie canopy of evergreen trees, the biting chill of the clear winter weather and the soundtrack of a horror story podcast, this leg of the journey scored 10/10 for atmosphere. In fact it came as a bit of a shock to pop out onto the relative banality of the dual carriageway before Box Hill.

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Being close to freezing for most of the previous week (month) there hadn’t been much rainfall, but I still figured they wouldn’t risk sending us across the Stepping Stones. Those things are my arch-nemesis, regardless of the season. I don’t care how deep the river is or how safe they are to stand on, I still get knocked sideways with vertigo when I step on them. But no – to my horror, I watched as the snake of runners in front of me skipped deftly across them instead of diverting left to the stone bridge. It took me a good five minutes to cross – first letting the people directly behind me pass first, knowing they wouldn’t want to be held up, then giving myself a ten count and a pep talk to jump onto each one, terrified that my feet would slip on take off or landing and I’d end up a pile of bones on the riverbed. Thankfully the runners around me were very sympathetic – outwardly at least – and I got across without incident. Of course, if I’d bothered checking the route card in advance I’d have known that we were actively requested not to use them anyway. Ahem.

As unlikely as it sounds, Box Hill is probably my favourite bit. Sure it’s slow, but it does at least give my muscles a chance to swap shifts and even that change of pace can make you feel fresh again – for a few steps anyway. By this point though I was sliding beyond 7 hour finishing pace and only getting slower; not that it mattered in the long run, but I started to pile up on food to prepare myself for the energy needed just to stay warm out there. That turned out to be one small win; I never exerted myself enough to be unable to eat, which made me realise just how low that threshold really is for me. Having spent so long wondering why I struggle with food, the penny finally dropped: the reason I’m no good at it is that I’ve not been training properly for it. And it turns out, when you eat you can run for longer…

Drifting away with the fourth episode of my podcast, I pretty much trotted through the rest of the NDW section, even Colley Hill and Reigate Hill which normally reduce me to swears and tears. And again, I noticed how much easier they felt when I wasn’t running on a deficit. When I thought about it afterwards, I realised that I’d been confusing my perceived effort with my perceived pace for years. Every time I’ve done this section I’ve assumed that slowing down “a bit” would be enough to cope – certainly on previous runs I’ve been more concerned with time than I was today – but this was the first time I’d slowed enough to see a real difference in my heart rate and it shocked me just how slow I had to go to bring it down. But it also shocked me to see how much better I felt when it was under a steady limit. I’m sure if I can bring this threshold up a bit I can do that hill – that series of three hills, actually – without being overcome by nausea, either through effort or inability to eat. Have my past mistakes really been as simple as that?

And having reached the fort, although I was puttering along like a steamboat, I was still moving consistently. My Strava data won’t show that since the data seems to have gone a bit haywire, but my watch readout shows an average pace of 14:42 minutes per mile, which is much better than I could have hoped for. I certainly didn’t have any bursts of speed to call on, but by the same token I wasn’t really getting out of shape. I negotiated the instructions for the diversion to our overnight stopoff, skipped across the timing mat, and that was that.

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My “efforts” that day had bagged me just over  seven and a half hour finish – an hour slower than the first year and with one less mile to cover thanks to a course change. It was comparatively slow, but since all I had to do was get to the end I managed that with effort to spare. No massage needed, a cursory bit of stretching, the main thing I had to concentrate on was warming up. I got into my duck onesie – something I’d often considered bringing but never had the courage to until Druids last year – and curled up with my podcasts.

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The next day my legs were… still fine. Still absolutely fine. I’d had a tiny bit of cramp overnight where my lackadaisical stretching routine had missed a spot, but other than that I could have believed we were still on day 1. So another thing to be thankful for – I might not be winning any prizes for speed at the moment, but I’m using the resources I have and right now that’s experience and momentum. I don’t think it’s complacent to readjust expectations and goals as long as you recognise it works both ways. But I still had another 32 miles to go, and I still didn’t want to take anything for granted.

The previous day I’d got through a series of episodes about Black Eyed Kids – a supernatural phenomenon about hollow eyed children who demand help from strangers and curse people who give in – so naturally I was seeing them in every tree knot and dark patch of woodland. I decided to go for some more historical than ethereal and started a series on the Nazi Bell, an alleged superweapon developed during WWII that could have changed the course of European history. Being confident in the route – because that’s never stitched me up before – I let myself drift off while I put my feet back on autopilot.

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The weather on the second day was colder but clearer, and there were breaks in the clouds for the sun to shine through every now and again. The engine was as sturdy as the day before, if a little lower on power. That didn’t matter – all it had to do was last the distance. Touch wood I still hadn’t had any real injuries or even niggles to worry about or nutrition to consider. In fact I still planned to drive home from Farnham, so there was no room for heroics.

That day was about juggling three things – my ability to use the foot pedals on the way home, my ability to stay warm enough to get there, and my ability to stay conscious. Only by keeping a light touch on the tiller would I keep all three in balance – trying too hard to manage one would only jeopardise the others. If I hurried too much to get out of the cold I would either risk a tumble or shut down my digestive system, and subsequently everything else. If I stopped to eat too much I’d take vital blood flow away from my muscles. And if I went too slow and too gingerly I’d likely freeze to death out there. Somehow, keeping all these things in mind kept me going.

It was a slow day though, for sure. Not leisurely, just slow. It wasn’t helped by the fact that my arrogance got the better of me once more and I took a wrong turning at Newlands Corner, an area I’ve been to more than any other on the NDW, forcing me to double back in the claggiest and heaviest mud on the whole route. As the day wore on I became more and more alone, watching first the elites pass me, then all the one dayers, then most of my start group. I think there might even have been a walker or two overtaking me by the end. But, I remembered, my ego wasn’t going to get me home today. My feet were, and they would do it on their own terms.

As the farm at Farnham drew into sight I called on my sprint finish… and found it wasn’t there. In fact, having hiked more than half the day I still had to walk quite a bit of the last 100 metres. But neither that nor the total absence of other people could stop me from belting over the line. I must have been one of the last people home, but I’ve rarely been happier to finish a race. Eight hours, forty seven minutes and change – nearly two hours slower than 2015.

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What I took away from this race though wasn’t a result but a fresh start, a new perspective. After spending the last three years trying to help new runners I realised I was one of them again. There’s no point comparing myself to the person who finished 16 marathons or ultras in a year, the person who ran a 3:41 marathon or the person who came third in her first ever 50. Right now, I’m a person who takes two weeks to recover from a late finish at work, who sleeps up to ten hours a day and still aches in every single muscle. That said, I’m also someone with experience of running ultras, and if I’ve learned anything it’s that low points never stay low, You always bounce back eventually.

You just have to believe that you can.

North Downs Way 50 – Centurion Grand Slam part 2

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For someone who values the sociable nature of ultrarunning and never fails to make friends on the trails, there’s something very appealing about staying on my own the night before a race. I often stay in a random little pub or B&B if I can, find the nearest Italian restaurant/supplier of obscene quantities of carbs and red wine, tuck myself away in a corner with a book and just be. I love it. It’s worth being apart from my fish and my budgies and my Andy and our castle, much as I hate to leave them, for the meditative solitude of the pointless traveller. Bonus points if there’s no signal or wi-fi.

Having started three ultras from beautiful Farnham I’m well-acquainted with its charms, and so apparently were many of the other North Downs Way 50 competitors. So when I finally got my arse into gear to book my pre-race accommodation, obviously all the nearby hotels were full or obscenely expensive. Fair enough. Good opportunity to get even further away for some peace and quiet and grumpy time, where the options were plentiful and much cheaper, even including the cab to Farnham. I ended up with a B&B in nearby Ash, The Lion Brewery, which turned out to be a pub and music venue as well, and almost literally the only thing in Ash Parish apart from cottages. Doom Bar on tap, copper pans on the walls, fried egg sandwich waiting for me at 6:15 the next morning. Yep, this’ll do.

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The route for the Centurion North Downs 50 is the first half of the 100 mile version, starting at the head of the trail in Farnham and following it as far as Knockholt; having attempted that twice before I was pretty confident about my knowledge of the route. Probably a little too confident – let’s be honest, any amount of confidence before an ultra is too much confidence. As with the 100, we started at St Polycarps School for the race briefing and registration, in a hall that smelled of floor varnish and sugar paper; I felt like I was nine years old again. Just like nine year olds we walked in a crocodile formation down to the start, comparing packed lunches and buzzing with excitement.

As usual, I had pretty good company for the run. A lot of familiar faces from previous Centurion races, almost half the field prospective grand slammers. And a little bit of glamour thrown in – the perennially sunny Susie Chan was running with broadcaster and keen long distance runner Sophie Raworth, taking on the distance for the first time. Sydnee Watlow (half Chaser and half Fulham Runner) and her clubmate Henri were also running in what would be their first 50 mile race, as well as Lovely Sam (stalwart of XNRG races) aiming for an improvement on last year’s eight and a half hours. Sam started at the business end of the pack, obviously, but I ran with Sydnee and Henri at a steady ten minute mile pace for as long as I could hang on – at least while we had the runnable and friendly North West Surrey terrain.

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I hadn’t seen much of Sydnee since last August when she volunteered to pace me in the later stages of the 100, but since I quit at mile 66 we never got the chance for a good old gossip. We more than made up for it over the first three hours, enjoying a sociable pace and the perfect running conditions: dry but not hot, overcast but not muggy, bright but not blistering. Henri stayed just a few paces ahead of us all the way like a bodyguard. The first checkpoint at Puttenham around mile 7 passed in the blink of an eye, and shortly afterwards Sydnee’s dad popped up at the bottom of St Martha’s for a check in and a bit of gratuitous photo taking. What else are parents for, eh?

Before long we reached the River Wye at Guildford and the legendary bacon butty barge, manned (obviously) by two chaps in inflatable sumo suits. Never mind not being able to eat on the run – these cold bacon butties saved my life last August and there was no way we could pass without grabbing some, even if it meant walking briefly while we digested them. Sydnee even suggested that we take photos of ourselves with the butties… just as I was retrieving the plastic wrap from halfway down my throat, having inhaled mine. Ahem. I mean as food tourism opportunities go this is up there with wagyu beef and caviar, but I’ve either got time to eat or Instagram, not both. I did manage to get a snap of the barge as we marched away with our swag though. Maybe I could just go back for one more…

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Newlands Corner was the next station; by this point Sydnee had had a couple of impromptu comfort breaks where I’d preferred to hold off for the relative luxury of the café facilities so I took a few minutes to refresh before taking off again. It turned out there was another Chaser, Alice, who was also tackling her first 50 miler that day and we bumped into each other (almost literally) in the ladies, happy to see even more friendly faces. Perhaps it was to do with the fact that I was running with three people new to the distance but there was an air of caution, or perhaps patience, and so instead of my usual MO of smash and grab I took my time filling up water bottles, getting fruit and cookies (now I know that’s the only thing I can keep down during a race). Actually I might have been dawdling a little too much; when I was done Sydnee and Henri were raring to go to avoid seizing up so off we took.

Almost immediately, a leaden feeling settled into my legs. It didn’t feel like cramp or muscles getting cold – this was a very definite “are we done yet” feeling. Ah. I mean, I wasn’t expecting to break any records since once again (load up the broken record) I was in between two insanely busy periods of work and running on fumes to begin with, but 16 miles isn’t quite where I’d expected to flag. Alice had stayed back at the aid station for a few moments and Sydnee and Henri were on a roll so I let them go and trotted on for a bit on my own; a blessing in disguise as it also gave my stomach time to settle. The pointless traveller was on another pilgrimage to nowhere.

I was being super conscious of salts and hydration after the fiasco that was the South Downs 50 five weeks before – not that I needed to be so vigilant since it wasn’t anywhere near as hot or exposed, but it paid off. Besides the bacon butty I’d also crammed the Lion Brewery’s fried egg sandwich down about half an hour before the race start which in turn was chasing half a packet of peanut cookies, so I was slightly uncomfortable but in no immediate danger of bonking. Look at that, a lesson learned. It also meant that I could more confidently rely on the aid station food and carry as little as possible, another huge improvement on the last two attempts at this course when every extra gram seems to have double gravity on the hill climbs.

Alice caught up with me somewhere around Ranmore Common and we ran together for a little while – perfect timing really, I was starting to feel sociable again and missed the company that had made those first few miles fly. She was a fascinating person to talk to and not as new to the club as I had originally assumed, just to trail running; I was reminded of just how many Chasers there are marauding around the south west of London that I haven’t got to know yet. A couple of years ago we had a solid little group of social trail runners but that generation – myself very much included – either seemed to have moved away or moved on. I can’t tell you how important those people were in shaping my athletic career, such as it is, but more crucially in helping me build my confidence. These last few months I’d cut myself off from the club, pleading a busy work schedule for not being at training but also avoiding contact on Facebook because I felt like I just couldn’t keep up; the idea of logging in just to see how much fun everyone was having depressed me, and knowing what a shitty attitude that was made me feel even worse. I love sharing my friends’ achievements; it’s not competition that made me feel inadequate, more my lack of involvement. Enough selfish moping; it was time for me to pay it forward and start being more involved in the club again. The more that newcomers like Alice are given the support to take on a challenge of this magnitude with such grace as she did, the stronger our sport becomes and the further away those unbreakable boundaries are pushed. Before long she was also too fast for my lumpy legs and took off into the distance, on the way to smashing her first 50 miler with a sub-11 hour finish.

Everyone tackling the North Downs for the first time speaks of Box Hill with fear; I had actually been looking forward to it all day. Familiarity helps, knowing that once you’ve got past it there aren’t all that many lungbusters to go helps, warming up to it by freewheeling down past the Denbies vineyards definitely helps, and the hug from Lorraine – into whom I nearly crashed at the bottom of the Denbies estate, as I launched myself into her arms with a war cry – was like having rockets strapped to my arse. The Stepping Stones aid station is positioned at the foot of Box Hill so that runners can grab a boost of energy before the climb; it’s also a good opportunity to use a new set of muscles and refresh the calves and ankles that have been taking a pounding on the road leading downhill from the vineyard. My stomach was surprisingly fine, I’d been getting through a good amount of water and a sip or two of Tailwind, and I was letting my mind wander free as I ran alone, giving the grey matter a bit of exercise too. But my legs were far from happy. They weren’t particularly stiff, nor in pain apart from a slight niggle in my right IT band exacerbated by the relentless camber. They were just dog tired. I wasn’t worried about the hill since all I had to do was grind it out, but I was worried about what would come after it. Namely, another marathon over undulating terrain with little opportunity to get into a rhythm. This was going to be a slog.

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A couple of young families out for a hike – by which I mean two three-year-olds and a granddad with a babe in arms – overtook me on the climb up the Box Hill steps, but even if I’d had the motivation to speed up there was nothing in the tank. I took my time and enjoyed the perfect weather conditions – by now there was gorgeous late spring sunshine making the leaves above us glow. At the second incline after the peak I realised I would need some help, especially with Reigate Hill on the way as well, and kept an eye out for a good sturdy stick. There were lots of fallen trees and hundreds of willowy switches or stumpy branches, but nothing that would quite do the job. It would need to be long enough to be able to lean on, strong enough to take my weight and light enough not to be a burden. As I scanned the side of the track looking for this perfect stick two runners passed me wielding proper collapsible walking poles, as if to taunt me. I’ve resisted trying walking poles partly because simplicity is important to me when I’m running – after all, I like this sport specifically because it needs minimal kit – and partly because I’ve nearly lost an eye to them before, and I don’t want to cause a nuisance. But the more I run, or rather the older I get, the more I see the advantages to using them. I watched the two runners pass me with ease, advancing up the hill as if it had an escalator.

Just as I dropped my gaze back to the floor in despair I spotted something that looked like it might be perfect, if only it wasn’t part of a tree. I nudged it with my foot, then began to unearth it. My perfect stick was stuck in a bit of mulch but otherwise totally loose, and exactly what I was looking for. It even had a little notch from an old branch at exactly the right height for holding it, as if designed to take the crook of my thumb. If I’d hand carved the thing I could hardly have improved it. Stick in my right hand, I dug into the ground on every fourth step and immediately felt the benefit in my quads. This was much easier. By the time I was at the top my stick had my eternal gratitude and a name. Meet Woody.

As I always do, I reached the top of the incline bracing myself for Bastard Reigate Hill directly afterwards, and finding more single track winding for miles through the glade. I don’t know why but every time I somehow forget that there’s a three mile stretch between Box and Reigate and so what is meant to be a lovely runnable little section is spent worrying about the hands and knees crawl coming up, conserving energy for it instead of making up time. When we’re out on a social run or training it’s one of my favourite bits. When I’m racing through it – this would be the fifth time I’d covered it in a race – it is my Achilles heel. The irony is that bracing yourself for three miles is slightly more exhausting than just running. As I grumbled my way through the wood a couple of ladies drew level with me, admired Woody, my white sleeves and my wild hair, and told me I looked like Gandalf. In retrospect I missed a damn good opportunity to shout YOU SHALL NOT PASS but that might have been taking it a bit too far.

Part of my obsession with Bastard Reigate Hill is that no-one ever talks about it but is a proper bona fide bastard of a hill. I mean, it’s cruel and relentless and twisty and really fucking steep, and it has a convex profile so you can’t see the top until you’re actually on it. I’m not exaggerating here. As soon as we started the race I just wanted that bit to be over and done with, so naturally, it took a lifetime and a half to get there. But once we were there, the climb itself seemed to pass in only a minute or two. Was this what I’d been bitching about for miles? Either my memory was trolling me again or Woody was making a massive difference – Jesus, I really need to give walking poles more of a chance. I even had time and energy to appreciate the carpet of bluebells that seemed to personify the North Downs in spring. Once at the top it’s a short trot to the next aid station, and I knew this one would offer another toilet stop and a cracking view as well as the usual treats. Just like that, my legs started to come back to me.

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Meanwhile though my watch was having another tantrum – usually so reliable, for some reason the signal between Denbies and Merstham seems to be just a bit too sketchy to sustain accurate measurement and it read at least a mile and a half behind where I knew we were. Oh well, back to the good old fashioned mental arithmetic method. After making sure my number had been registered at the checkpoint I took my time to have a good old stretch and cool down on the grass, as well as stock up on watermelon and cookies and go to the loo; needing the loo twice in one race is definitely unprecedented for me, so despite my lethargy my hydration was obviously still on track. When I finally got going though I knew that there wasn’t anything left in the tank and consigned myself to a nineteen mile death march to the finish. My crap maths told me that even a walking pace would get me to the finish within the cutoffs as long as I didn’t dawdle and the occasional trot would afford the me luxury of pausing at checkpoints, so that would be my tactic from now on. Andy got his usual whinging phonecall while I hobbled off down the track and I gritted my teeth for the finish.

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We weren’t finished yet though, not by a long way. The familiar scoreboard of the Merstham Cricket Club popped up shortly afterwards to mark 33 miles in followed by a beautiful little church and a good mile of flat runnable tarmac on the way. Not for me though – every few paces I tried to run became agonising shuffles that eventually devolved to a walk again. I couldn’t run up hills, I couldn’t run on the flat, I couldn’t go fast downhill because my thighs were shredded. I just had to accept the suffering and trust the maths, and hope to quell the panic that was rising. The Caterham aid station at mile 38 (or mile 36 according to my Suunto) was a welcome opportunity to sit and stretch again, admiring yet more stunning views over the valley and get my nerves under control. The next stop would be mile 43, the other side of a long exposed stretch across Oxted Downs and a bitch of a climb up Botley Hill both of which have knocked me for six in the past. I was struggling just to keep moving forward by this point – if I could only get past the aid station the only cutoff I’d be chasing would be the finish time and I could pretty much hike the rest after then.

If I’ve learned anything running ultras it’s that suffering is temporary but failure is permanent. And this had become a suffer-fest like I’ve never experienced. Woody and I had gritted our teeth through the last agonisingly slow five miles, and finding a smiley face at the top of Botley Hill tipped me over the edge – for the first time in a long time I burst into tears. The lovely volunteer who was registering runners’ numbers was kind enough to ask me if I needed sympathy or just a minute to get over it, and even this little gesture, the last opportunity for me to regain my dignity, sent me into floods of tears again. I looked back down the hill I’d just climbed, to remind myself that I’d done it now – another milestone passed. The amazing food offerings – including homemade rocky road – tantalised my mind but turned my stomach. There wouldn’t be enough in the tank for me to run the last 7 miles but I could walk it in two hours and be within the cutoffs, and the calories I had on board would just about last that far. All I had to do was keep moving.

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Once we passed across the border from Surrey to Kent the landscape changed from woodland to jungle, and the terrain from hills to ruts and vicious cambers. The well tilled farmland creates ankle threatening channels wide enough for half a foot, like running through a half pipe, and the other foot is forced to land on the raised ground beside it. I persisted with a lopsided little hobble as long as I could but my left hip started to scream and I was forced back to a hike. This meant the farmlands seemed to go on forever – even more foreverer than they do when I run them. The race had become an exercise in extreme patience. I would get to the end in time now even if I crawled, but the key would be continuing to move – any amount of moving would be faster than stopping. Every now and again I forgot that I wasn’t aiming for 11 hours any more, did my mental calculations, had a bit of a panic, then remembered I was aiming for 13 now. Oddly enough the same thing happened to me at the South Downs Way 50, except then I had the excuse of a bonk. Now I was just knucking fackered.

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Another lady caught up with me as I trudged through the first of many cowfields; she didn’t have a GPS watch, just a normal timepiece, and asked how much further  I thought we had to go. I gave up following the mileage on my watch but was pretty sure that we’d only have three or four farms to get through and then we’d be done. She kept me company for those three or four farms, but when we got to the end of the fourth one and saw only miles and miles of farmland in front of us she realised I was not a reliable source of course information and ran on ahead. The next couple of miles, and that’s all it could have been, felt like Groundhog Day. The fields just kept coming. Did I misremember? I’m sure the last time I ran this the turnoff for Knockholt was after this gate. Problem was, they all looked the fucking same. Every new field inspired a new stream of expletives and a fresh temper tantrum, another feeble attempt to trot and another defeat.

Woody really came into his own here. He turned out to be the perfect weight for carrying while I ran as well as the perfect support pole for my death march. I started to worry about what would happen to him at the end – I would HAVE to take him home, I’d get him onto the train somehow and walk from the station instead of getting a lift in the car. He was too important to leave behind, more important than a comfortable journey home. I know it sounds silly to become attached to a bit of stick, but he’d stuck with me through more of the race than anyone else. As I worked feverishly through the logistics of getting my stick home, I realised that I had finally found the last gate out of the last field and directions to the finish line. Woody, you bloody genius.

Gripping him in my right hand I freewheeled down the road which would eventually double back to the village hall – only then did I realise the reason the last couple of miles seemed so unfamiliar is because they were. In the 100 you turn off the NDW about a mile and a half from Knockholt Pound and divert through a number of roads to enter from the west, and leave the aid station moving in the same direction. We had continued to run along the trail north of the road and gone past it before turning off to reach the finish, which presumably accounts for the extra mileage needed to make it a proper 50. It also means, however, that having run DOWNHILL to the road you then have to run back up again to get to the arch in the land behind the hall – probably a few feet of uphill, but a cruel final twist in a slog of a race. As I turned onto the road I saw Sydnee, who despite having finished over an hour earlier had waited for me to show me the way to the finish. The very last drop of effort in me spent climbing the hill to the finish arch, I managed as much of a leap over the finish line as my leaden legs would manage and fell to the floor, cuddling Woody and sobbing.

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I’d spent almost an hour planning my logistics so as to make sure Woody would come home with me; then, when Sydnee and her dad offered me a lift almost all the way I realised it would be both rude and unspeakably stupid to refuse just so I could keep my stick. I did spend a long time thinking it over though – Knockholt station is just over a mile away to walk, three trains to get me home then another mile from Mitcham, not impossible… Eventually though I had to concede that Woody was not coming home with me so I gave him a kiss and left him by the side of the finish area, hoping that he would be able to help another runner one day. Of all the emotional struggled I went through that day, parting with Woody was absolutely the worst. But, I thought on the drive home, I had a real live human being who had put her own comfort and recovery in jeopardy (again) to see me home safe. Once more Sydnee had come to my rescue, thinking nothing of it after smashing her first ever 50 miler in under 11 hours, and I couldn’t even think of the words to tell her how grateful I was. This is the spirit of trail runners and this is the thing I miss most of all when I can’t run.

It’s taken a while to recover from this race, in comparison with the South Downs – nearly a month on I still have a niggle in my right leg that probably needs medical attention, and a constant need for sleep. I’ll take that though, trade in a niggle free life just to get to the end. I still think of that day – mostly lonely, painful, and frustrating – with fondness because I finished it; if anything it means more to have gone through hell to get to the end than it would have if I’d had a textbook race and come out clean as a whistle. I’ve found a new depth that I can go to and still come back from. What a dangerous thing to know.

On reflection, and after browsing the comments on the Centurion Facebook page, I realise that I massively underestimated the race. Being familiar with it gave me confidence, but I neglected to confront just how tough a course it is; whichever way you look at it, it chewed me up and spit me out. Once again I have to admit I wasn’t fit enough for it, nor rested enough, and that’s something that needs to change before the next two in autumn. I know now what the consequences of ill preparation feel like, and that simply trading in preparation for lower expectations is not a long term strategy. I think I’d quite like to get a bit better at this running lark and not just scramble to the finish every time.

Baby steps.

Cover photo (C) Dan Milton – thank you for allowing me to use it and for not making me look like a mess…

North Downs Way 100 2016

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Apparently when I was about 4 years old I wanted to be a midwife. I have no recollection of this; I have many vivid memories of early childhood but my ambitions to help bring more humans into the world is both at odds with my temperament and completely missing from my memory bank. Still, Wendimum insists it was true, inspired to some extent by the arrival of my little sister. What I do remember, quite clearly, is realising my limited capacity for human compassion when a few years later Leyla, Dad and I were watching a film on TV with a scene where a man driving with his dog in a beautiful classic car go off the edge of a cliff. My sister cried for “the poor man!” I only had sympathy for the dog and my dad shed actual tears for the wasteful loss of an original MG Roadster. Welcome to our family.

Things I definitely have wanted to be include Jayne Torvill (I was the absolute nuts at ice skating until we moved to a country that couldn’t power a household freezer let alone a rink), a crime scene investigator, Rainbow Brite, a soldier, a jazz singer, a comedian, and the skateboarding kid from The Crow. Then half a year before my 30th birthday I discovered that I wanted to be an ultrarunner, and that was that. I wanted to run the Western States 100 miler, and I’d work up to it while on the way to my hundredth marathon. I’d just keep running as many ultras as I could by way of training and eventually either have my name pulled from the hat or beg them until they got bored of me. Around 1am on Sunday 7th August 2016, I gave up on that ambition. I admitted to myself that hundred milers were probably not for me, and it felt kind of liberating.

Never say never and all – if I die without ever finishing a hundred miler I will die with regrets – but as pacer Katherine and I trudged through the woods to Holly Hill, barely scraping inside the cut off, I actually stopped wanting to finish the race. My desire to curl up in a foetal position, to stop the nausea pounding through my head, massively outweighed the pride I knew I’d feel if I got to the end or the frustration if I didn’t. Déjà vu – same point that I quit last year, same issues with eating and hydration, same relentless sun beating down all day. Spoiler alert – I surrendered.

I didn’t start off so negatively – in fact, despite my lack of training and poor lead up I was actually pretty confident about the race, much more so than last year. Not being able to think about it turned out to be the perfect antidote to my usual pre-race nerves. I had been working on a big freelance job as well as my main full time job since May, and to say it went badly was an understatement; averaging 3 hours sleep a night I ended up in A&E with a chest infection and nearly had a nervous breakdown. A few weeks out I emailed Cat to say that I didn’t think I should do the race – I couldn’t run at all, I was exhausted, gasping for breath like a 60-a-day smoker and the scant few hours I did sleep were punctuated by anxiety dreams. The only thing that persuaded me not to throw the towel in was her faith in me (and her refusing to let me pull out). And besides, the 6th August was ages away yet. Sort of.

The Friday before was due to be a big day for Andy and me: the day we moved into our first house. It was meant to be the smoothest transaction possible, given that we had no chain and the owner wanted to be out by the 30th of July. Utilities were arranged, van men booked, belongings packed up, goldfish in a Tupperware – we were all systems go. Then Monday of that week our solicitors told us not to get too excited about completion happening that quickly, perhaps a 60% chance of success. Tuesday we were downgraded to almost certainly not, Wednesday was unpack your bags, you’re never moving house again. But don’t worry, the 6th August looked like a safer bet. Balls.

As our optimism about moving before Christmas/doomsday drained away faster than England’s hopes in a major football tournament I had to put all thoughts of the race out of my mind. Certainly I hadn’t had optimal training opportunities for it, and nothing to suggest that the blood sugar issues that knocked me out last time were any better – I wanted to be there anyway though, if only to crew for Cat and generally offer cake and abuse. Friday 30th came with no possibility of moving within the month, and since we’d booked the day off anyway I called up Cat and arranged to go for a trot around Richmond Park to cheer up. It was so good to catch up with her after being AWOL from the Chasers for the last two months that it was almost as a side note that I casually said I’d be free on the 6th now – immediately the words left my mouth she put the call out on the Chasers Facebook page, and within two days I had 8 offers to pace and crew and a hotel room by the start. No turning back now.

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6th August. We’re shuffling about in the main hall of St Polycarp’s School again, half past five on the Saturday morning. We’re taking advantage of the loos (actual toilets, luxury), rearranging our race vests, scanning the room for familiar faces. We’re writing inspirational messages on our arms in marker pen. Cat’s say “zebra” – zebras being famously chill animals – and “CYP” for “choose your perspective”. Mine are less philosophical – my right arm bears the legend SALT! and the left hand EAT! because I need reminding of both of those things constantly. We’re both hoping to become centurions by the end of the day. As we march towards the starting line a few yards on from the monument, we’re both yawning.

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And that’s how it starts, very little fanfare. I stick with Cat for less than half a mile before letting her streak off ahead of me, reasoning that there’ll be plenty of people to chat to. My strategy is clear: manage energy. Eat early, eat little, eat often; take it easy to begin with, use the first few miles as a warm up and don’t bother running any of the hills. I set myself the target of eating around 100 calories (half a sausage roll, a gel, a handful of nuts) every half hour and taking a Saltstick capsule every hour on the hour, which is nice and easy to remember. In theory.

Being so familiar with the route now the first aid station came and went without my really being aware of it, and I started to warm up nicely. The temperature was high but not unbearable, and the lovely thing about the North Downs is that so much of it is sheltered you don’t tend to suffer too much exposure. Or at least, not before 9am you don’t. So I kept on track with my plan to drip feed myself, already feeling my stomach muscles tighten up after last night’s feast turned my waistline into something Friar Tuck would have been proud of. I judged by time rather than distance, partly because I knew my pace would vary so much in the course of the day and partly because I knew I’d need food before I got hungry, and time is a much more consistent way of measuring that.

By the time I got to Guildford I was starting to feel a rumble in my belly and the half hour interval coming up, and right on cue the bacon boat came to my rescue – a group of supporters on a narrowboat on the River Wey, moored against the trail where it leads to the bridge, offering a huge pile of cold bacon sandwiches prepared with a choice of either red sauce or brown sauce. As someone who usually likes their bacon scorching hot and burned almost to a crisp, I seriously cannot describe how good that thing tasted – I considered turning around and going back for more and the extra miles would absolutely have been worth it. It ticked the boxes for food, salt and sense of humour and I purred through the next few miles.

Three hundred runners stretch out surprisingly quickly – especially over 103 miles – and I found myself either alone or running with people not much in the mood for talking. I weaved through the familiar narrow tracks between Guildford and Dorking in my own little world, and really only looked up as we passed through the Denbies estate, the rows of vines unfurling beneath us seemingly for miles. It’s one of my favourite stretches of the North Downs – there’s just something about being on a road high up above the vineyard, a steep drop to your right like the edge of a cliff, perfectly angled to catch the warmth of the sun, that makes me feel more like I’m in the middle of the Meditteranean than Surrey. And if I could design a gradient that’s perfectly pitched for a enjoyable downhill freewheel going one way and a good climbable incline the other, it would be that hill.

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I crossed the A24 via the subway and turned back into the woods to the 24 mile aid station just before Box Hill, pausing for some amazing homemade cake and a stretch. Despite its reputation Box Hill is probably my second favourite part of the Downs – I’d much rather a good beefy climb you can really dig your heels into than a deceptive shallow incline you feel like you should run sapping your energy – and it’s also a good psychological break in the route. Once you’re past that, you’re past the worst of the climbing until night falls at least. The next point for me to look forward to would be the Reigate Hill checkpoint seven miles on, not least because my pacer for the last twenty miles, Lorraine, was volunteering there giving me a good excuse to power through the climb as quickly as possible.

By this time the sun was really starting to beat down. I was concentrating on my half hourly intake of salt sticks and food- wait, is that right? No, it’s just food every half hour and saltstick every hour, unless the food itself was salty. Come on Jaz – only a marathon in and already getting confused. Hold on, I must be more than a marathon by now. My watch was insisting on 25 miles but I’d definitely come more than a mile since the last aid station. Ah, I know what’s happened – I’ve got it on a less accurate setting so that it’ll last long enough to get me to the end, and it’s losing a few yards on every mile. I would have to check it at each aid station where I knew what the official distance was and remember to add on however many miles it was telling me if I wanted to know how far I’d come. Right, another bit of mental recalibration to do. I’m sure this’ll end well.

By the time I gave my number to the Reigate marshals at mile 31 my water bottles were bone dry and my watch was telling me I had gone 28.5 miles, and it took me a good few moments to do the maths. I sprinted over to the gazebo and gave Lorraine a big sweaty hug, ready to join the swarms of runners spread out over the grass like dead flies, but her smile immediately gave me a second wind. I was tempted to carry right on but forced myself to take a pause and a stretch, and to drink plenty of water before refilling and setting off. By this point eating was pretty low on the list of stuff I wanted to do but I knew I needed the calories, so I compromised on the heavy and hard to eat things by grabbing fistfuls of fruit as well. Watermelon and satsuma segments and pieces of banana, hell yes. Running is the rock and roll of the 21st Century.

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The next stop would be Caterham, the viewpoint another beautiful spot, with a trip through pretty Merstham on the way. Another 7 mile stretch that seemed to last for ages; there were a few hills thrown in which made time pass quickly but which also needed more calories than I was interested in taking on.Once I got to the aid station I took another pause to stretch, cool my feet off a bit and force down some food. I’d kept up my half hourly intake on the way but the amount I could eat each time was getting less and less and I took on more fruit to try to keep the nausea at bay. The next stop would be at 43 miles, on the back of another big climb, and this one wouldn’t be as much fun as Box Hill. Knowing it was coming up helped, but not by much.

As it turned out the climb was nothing compared with the half mile stretch before it. I remembered a little too late that Oxted Downs, where the Vanguard Way bisects the North Downs and the woods become overgrown farmland, are exposed and unforgiving, and as I tiptoed along the narrow singletrack I could feel my blood pressure pounding in my ears. It was so hot – not lovely Mediterranean warm, HOT. It can’t have been that long a track but it felt like it lasted forever. By the time I passed the gate to go back into the shade of the trees my head was already spinning. Just in time for the climb through the Titsey Plantation. I didn’t even have the energy to giggle at “Titsey”.

Remembering it from last year – and its many false endings – I patiently trudged upwards knowing that the 43 mile aid station would be at the top, and a chance to pause in the shade. Only seven relatively flat miles to the halfway point at Knockholt, which I mentally calculated as around an hour and a half of travel, meaning I’d only need to eat twice along the way. Yeah, maths. I grabbed a peanut butter and jam sandwich for the road and walked while I ate to save on time. This particular section includes the crossover from Surrey to Kent, where the terrain segues from woodland to farmland and goodbye tree coverage. It’s exactly when you want to come across knee-high vegetation you have you lift your feet over, a perfect time to need to look extra hard for fingerposts hidden in hedges, the ideal point to play “Find the Hidden Tractor Ruts With Your Ankles”. I don’t know if it’s coming across, but I hate this section. And with all this grumpiness to concentrate on, guess how many times I remembered to eat and drink?

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My maths failed me even more than my memory here – it took nearly two hours to make it to Knockholt including the diversion off the trail along Main Road. As I was whimpering about the pain in my feet every time they hit the tarmac and wishing for trails again, I found myself ambushed by the friendly grin of James, Cat’s other half, who gave me a hug and a boost and pointed down the road. “It’s just there, you’re so close now – Clare and Adam are there!” In my temper, I’d almost forgotten Clare would be pacing me between miles 50 and 60 and her flatmate Adam (ultra fanatic and adventure racer, a man who ran the MdS and called it “fun”) was waiting outside the village hall with his iPhone in his hand. I found a few scraps of energy to sprint up to the door and throw myself into Clare’s arm’s as Adam took photos – nope, not photos, a live video to Facebook. He asked met to say something and I literally couldn’t think of any words that weren’t wears. And you don’t swear in front of Clare. So I grinned.

Me and Clare NDW100 capture

I’d been keeping my eye on the “Toilet – y/n” column of my tracker each time I came up to an aid station expecting to need it constantly, but there just wasn’t anything there. In hindsight this should have been a warning that dehydration was already setting in but at the time my logic functions just weren’t doing what they were meant to; I mean, not laughing at rude place names should have been a warning sign in itself. So by the time I got to the Village Hall at Knockholt we were talking more syrup than juice. Adam allowed me a loo stop (although he had to send Clare in to check on me), found me some plain pasta (it took me three goes to explain that I wanted just pasta, no sauce), then told me to get going as soon as possible. I haggled myself a 25 minute break, planning to leave at 7pm, on the assumption that would be plenty of time to change and swap my drop bag over. At two minutes to, I still didn’t have my shoes back on and I’d forced down less than a handful of pasta. Valiantly lying through my teeth I insisted that I’d been eating every half hour and I was fine to get going. Lovely Lady Clare, the properest lady I know, had the good grace to humour my blatant lies and agree to a walk/trot for the first mile until we warmed up.

It didn’t take long for me to realise that there wasn’t enough in the tank for running, so we walked and gossiped. Physically I was falling apart but mentally Clare was a massive boost to me, happy to chat and gently remind me to eat every half hour as instructed. We worked out that I could walk and still make it in time so that would be my strategy until I found the strength in my legs to run again. Clare is one of those people who doesn’t have the vocabulary for negative sentiments and even when I moaned and complained like a petulant child she responded with patience and kindness. The ten miles to Wrotham would easily take three hours at this rate but Katherine would be waiting to take over, and Andy had promised to visit me there too so there was good reason to get there as soon as possible. I chewed on a pack of Doritos for a good hour (there is almost nothing on earth that would stop me eating Doritos) and Clare gave me an apple from her pack which I eked out for another hour, just about keeping my calorie deficit within manageable levels.Then, as if timed with the fall of dusk, I bonked hard in the final mile and a half to the checkpoint. Whatever I had been subsisting on up to that point ran out, and my stomach turned. I knew I needed to eat but I couldn’t face the thought of vomiting; knowing I had had the opportunity to avoid this feeling and been too afraid to take it made me feel even worse. There followed a mile and a half of me whingeing, sobbing, bitching about the road never ending, generally behaving like a toddler. Poor Clare.

The thing that frightened me most after the thought of vomiting was the thought of Andy seeing me in a state. Let’s be clear; Andy does not agree with me doing hundred milers. To be fair, his experience of them consists of rescuing me from deepest darkest Kent in the middle of the night because I’m too shredded even to speak properly, and I know he gets worried when he sees me looking like shite. We had originally agreed that he shouldn’t come at all because of the likelihood of me looking like crap and needing to get on with it regardless, but at the last moment I bottled it and asked him to pop by at an early checkpoint so I’d get the chance to see him while I was still fresh. He had plans during the day so opted to come to Wrotham instead, and double up as a lift home for Clare at the end of her stint. So he saw exactly what I didn’t want him to – me in a mess.

I was bundled into a chair when I got to Wrotham with Clare, Andy, Adam and Katherine all on hand to give me stuff. Adam, experienced in ultra running and knowing exactly how to break through a bonk, was buzzing around to keep me alert and forcing me to drink coffee. The combination of different voices and instructions only served to confuse me more, and I knew I wasn’t far from having to throw the towel in. The three runners were all keen to gee me up and get me to the next station before I was allowed to make a decision, but all I could see what Andy’s concerned face out of the corner of my eye. I avoided looking at him, pretended I wasn’t aware of his stare, but I knew whatever he was looking at wasn’t pretty. I didn’t notice how much my body temperature had fallen until I nearly dropped the cup of coffee in my right hand because it was shaking so much, so I put my extra layer on and tried to deflect probing questions from a medic who had come over to check on me. With now four voices telling me to man up and get on with it versus Andy’s one telling me I should quit, I forced myself out of the chair and back onto the trail with Katherine, reasoning at least that it would be quieter on the road, But I knew I was already spent. I quietly asked Andy to come to the next CP at Holly Hill in case I couldn’t get any further. That pretty much made the decision for me.

Having got moving again I did feel less cold and less grumpy, but still couldn’t get any food into my mouth. I probably couldn’t have planned my company better though – compared with Clare, Katherine’s approach was much more pragmatism and much less patience, and it’s exactly what I needed to keep going. I didn’t have the energy to lift my legs for running but we marched and chatted, and found ourselves in philosophical mood – I think at one point I was trying to define happiness, I can’t remember why. Something to do with Doritos probably. For her part she convinced me that we would be eaten by badgers or kidnapped by crazy people preying on vulnerable runners, both of which seemed pretty feasbile at the time.

Katherine couldn’t really understand why anyone would want to put themselves through a 100 miler, which sort of made me wonder why I had. Until that morning, I just wanted to be able to say I’d finished one; before that I’d wanted to do a qualifier to get into Western States one day. But Western States was a long way away even if I could finish this first – I was meant to be buying a house, not spending all my money on a trip halfway around the world – and so far my experience of 100 milers wasn’t even what Cat would call fun type 2; if your only reason for doing something is to be able to say you’ve done it, it’s very eas to lose the motivation to continue. Instead, it was making me confront a fear I have avoided confronting for fifteen years, and rather than deal with it properly I’d looked for diversions and tricks to get around the issue. Fitness wasn’t an issue really, even though I was a good half a stone heavier than I’d like to have been. Hydration probably had a bigger part to play than I’d like to admit but even that is fixable. I was generally injury-free; and I’d got through much worse pain than this before, and I’ve still yet to experience blisters or black toenails when running. Basically I’d been trying to conquer my fear of being sick by undertaking a huge challenge, one guaranteed side effect of which was being sick. Back to the drawing board on both of those, I think.

As we passed through Trosley County Park a runner and his pacer overtook us blithely ambling along, and said something to Katherine about getting me to Holly Hill before 1am. I’d stopped looking at my aid station tracker a long way back, and it turned out that we’d been going so slowly we were in danger of missing the cutoff for it, something which made sense when I realised they were the last runners I’d seen for hours. Even if we ran we’d be cutting it fine, and the final ascent to the CP would be a hands and knees scramble. I knew the game was up then, although to be fair the cutoff time was just the final nail in a very secure coffin. Unlike last year I wasn’t upset about pulling out, I wasn’t looking for excuses or blame, I just knew I’d had enough. When we finally made it to Holly Hill the lights were going off, the gazebo about to be packed away, and the marshals ready for bed. And there was Nelly and Andy.

There wasn’t any point in deflecting from the truth: I made a conscious decision that I would rather fail to finish than throw up, and followed it through. Until I could resolve that there wouldn’t be much point in trying to do 100 miles again. Andy concurred by forbidding me ever to try one again and we set about maing arrangements for Katherine to get back to her car and for third and fourth pacers Sydnee and Lorraine to get to theirs. I felt awful for making them come all the way to the middle of nowhere for no reason, but they were incredibly graceful about it – if there was ever a mark of just how awesome Chaser support can be that was it. We had to drive them to the 80 mile checkpoint at Detling, and by pure coincidence bumped into Cat there – she was going strong, still looking as fresh as when she’d started and downing a Thermos of tomato soup before James paced her to the end. Her resilience and her pure nails toughness made me realise I was so far away from being ready for the challenge that I stopped comparing myself to the other runners. This is a race that deserves the utmost respect, and to give it anything less is flirting with danger.

It’s an odd thing to do, endurance sport. There comes a point where the sport itself is a bit irrelevant and the endurance part becomes the real sport.In the last few weeks I’ve thought a lot about why I do it, and the fact remains that I love the challenge of endurance and I still find peace in running long distances. I have somewhat regretted my statement never to try another hundred, thinking perhaps that I should go for something in cooler season instead. Andy remains steadfast in his refusal to let me do another 100 though, so I suppose I have a much bigger challenge on my hands just in getting to the starting line. Either way, there’s no chance of me attempting this again without being 100% certain of my fitness and confident in my preparation – and most importantly, without confronting the big, vomity elephant in the room.

Talking to Alex, another 100 miler veteran, put into perspective just how silly a thing it is to be afraid of. “The thing is Jaz, it happens to everyone in a 1oo mile race. You just have to get on with it because you need to eat.” He’s right – being sick isn’t significant in the context of a race. Pulling out to avoid nausea is like pulling out because you’re afraid of getting a blister, or because you don’t like the taste of electrolyte drinks. Unavoidable and fundamentally unimportant parts of the ultrarunning experience.

At least, that’s what I have to convince myself if I’m ever going to get further than 66 miles. If I’m going to do it, I have to make the decision not to be afraid and there’s nothing more to it than that. That’s 100 milers in a nutshell, isn’t it?

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North Downs Way 100 2015

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On the right day, in the right circumstances, 100 miles is nothing and yet 10 miles is the longest distance in the world.

An ex boss once gave me a piece of advice that didn’t quite sit right with me: “Never admit you don’t know what you’re doing; just wing it and pretend to be confident.” That’s not an unusual piece of advice to be fair, certainly not to anyone with ambition. I disagree with it though; I think ambition is defined by more than just bullshitting your way out of any situation, I think it’s judging your limits and then pushing as far beyond them as you can bear. Then having a bit of a rest and a slice of cake. Kind of like interval training.

Needless to say I didn’t take the career advice at face value, but I did carry on pushing myself out of my comfort zone, responding to setbacks with my usual cheerful candour, and never pretending I had something in control when I didn’t; sometimes, painfully obviously so. It’s not a tactic that always pans out well, and consequently I’m not scaling the great career heights that some of my contemporaries are, but I know that when I do succeed I’ll have done it on my own terms.

I know that my approach to management tends to put people on the back foot; they’re not expecting candour, they’re expecting absolute control. My job usually means coordinating a number of total strangers from different trades, none of which I excel in myself, to make sure an artistic vision is achieved on time, on budget, as safely as possible and exactly as designed. Many experienced production managers I know would agree with that piece of advice, because much of the job is PR rather than technicianship, and because no matter how good you are at your job you won’t get much chance to do it if the artistic team doesn’t have full confidence in you. You never say “I don’t know”; you say “I’ll find out” or “Yes, definitely.” That’s just the way it is.

It doesn’t stop me taking on challenges, mind you; I just don’t go into those challenges acting as though nothing could go wrong. On the contrary, I spend every waking minute thinking four or five steps ahead at every possibility, planning for the worst and hoping for the best, and every sleeping minute having horrific anxiety dreams. It’s a tiring, arse-backwards and entirely inefficient way to conduct my business, but I get it done. And, I now realise, it’s how I’ve conducted my running career so far as well.

It is the approach that lined up my calendar for July and August 2015 thus:

Sunday 19th July: Run 50 Mile Challenge; at closer to fifty-three, fourteen miles longer than any continuous run I’ve ever done before. Also my qualifying race for the NDW100, as rules state you must have completed a 50 miler before being allowed to compete.

Monday 20th July – Saturday 1st August: Thirteen straight days of work, each starting at 8am and finishing anywhere between 7pm and 1am the next day. Usually a fair bit of shouting. Not always me.

Sunday 2nd August: Run Vanguard Way Marathon, persuaded to sign up at the eleventh hour because no reason. Being out in the sunshine on my one day off from a dark room seemed like a good idea at the time.

Monday 3rd – Thursday 6th August: Back to work on normal hours. Possibly including a very messy press night party and a lot of espresso martinis.

Friday 7th August: Oh shit oh shit oh shit pack bags…

And so I found myself in Farnham, back at the same hotel Cat and I had stayed in for the Pilgrim’s Challenge, eating the same calzone at the same Pizza Express, and trying not to think about the alarm set for 4am on Saturday 8th August.

Becky and Russell, two other Chasers who were also preparing for their first 100 miler, were staying in the same hotel and I caught up with them as I left registration. We had fellow Chasers poised to join us at the 50 mile checkpoint and pace the rest of the way; for me that would be Alex (Albro) who gave up a Less Than Jake ticket to come and who had been learning songs to sing to me and keep me company. Solid gold.

I met Becky and Russell in the reception at 4.45am the next morning, ready for the mile long stomp to the race HQ. We were a vibrant, sparkling bundle of positive energy and happy thoughts- no, sorry, I couldn’t even finish that sentence. We were not that. We were three very bleary-eyed people, slightly mushy of brain and furry of tongue, and always on the lookout for a loo. So, average runners on raceday morning.

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This was not the first attempt at a group selfie…

I’ll be honest, I wasn’t at all worried about the distance at this stage. I thought I was prepared, deep in the darkest recesses of my mind, for the possibility that I wouldn’t finish it, but as a thing I couldn’t affect in advance it was right down at the bottom of the list of things I was worried about. I was worried about the warm weather forecast, about the fact that I’d got it into my head to try for a 24 hour finish even though I knew that was a stupid idea, about hallucinating in the dark and about getting lost in Kent. But not about the distance. Just break it down to the chunks between checkpoints, and eat like a horse after a hunger strike.

It took a couple of miles over singletrack before the pack started to thin out; a blessing in disguise really, as it meant that I could stay with Becky and Russell for a bit longer and not be tempted to go too fast. It couldn’t last though; Becky was bouncing up the hills like an ibex even as everyone else was already taking the opportunity for a walk break, and Russell’s seven league strides were too much for me to keep up with so I let them go on and tried to resist the temptation to race. Besides, half the fun is finding new people to make friends with.

And so, the familiar stretch from Guildford through Box Hill and on to Merstham was given a whole new complexion through my chats with a runner called Ilsuk Han, a calm and kindly Centurion regular doing his second 100 miler and first North Downs Way. We had the same average pace for much of that section, but with his steady rhythm and my uphill plods and downhill cartwheels we crossed over here and there and mostly only stayed together on the flats. His running stories were encouraging and the Box Hill/Denbies rollercoaster passed almost without notice, compared with the vessel bursting effort on the same stretch back in February; although, to be fair, it’s a lot easier when the ground is solid rather than porridgey, glutinous mud. I think – I hope – my docker’s vernacular made him laugh more than it did blush, and I hope he knows that his patience and kindness made twenty miles feel like two. I’ve proselytised before about the inspiration I find in the strangers I run with, and I’m grateful for the stories I’m able to collect along the way.

So it was a shame that I eventually had to let him go too – he was on course for a comfortable sub-24 which he absolutely nailed, and I had started to feel time slip away from that target – and find a new stretch of trail to make friends with. The iPod stayed in my pocket, and my soundtrack was my thoughts. The first time I felt any sort of discomfort was the Caterham aid station, but a pause and a change of socks sorted that right out. It occurred to me that it was a little early to be feeling tight muscles and tired legs, but then I had enough experience under my belt to know that discomfort and pain comes in waves not a linear progression, and before long the niggles were shaken out and I was back into a happy rhythm.

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From that point on the route recces I had done started to pay for themselves; unbelievably, given my track record, I didn’t get lost once. The section that hands over from Surrey to Kent is notable by the beautifully carved signpost, farmlands, and sudden absence of obvious signage (or, more accurately, sudden profligate overgrowth of the trees covering the fingerposts) but I found the familiar twists and turns with relative ease. By this stage I was doing my “old lady trot” as Katherine would put it, keeping a steady turnover with minimal impact, and taking tactical walk breaks any time I approached cows and baby cows, which was lots. I love animals, including cows, but being a thing that moves fast and is usually brightly coloured I’m very careful not to startle them and cause a stampede. A metric ton of stupid hurtling towards me would be a bollocks way to DNF.

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The last few miles to Knockholt and the fifty-mile mark – the point where I could pick up some hot food, my pacer Alex and a change of shoes – seemed to take hours. ACTUAL hours. It was a section I had tested part of (except for the detour to the aid station which represented the only variation from the official North Downs Way) so I should have known exactly how long it was, but being full of handovers from field to identical field I found myself expecting to be at the end about twelve times over, and without my Garmin on to tell me my mileage my sense of scale was all out of whack. I’m sure it can’t have been as bad as I thought it was, but it made me realise how crucial the recces had been for me from a psychological rather than physical point of view. Finally, finding the road to the aid station and seeing Team Chasers hanging over the rail hoping to catch sight of me, I put on a sprint and basically dived into the hall.

me at 50 miles

When I got there Becky had very recently left, but Russell was still slumped in a chair despite having reached the checkpoint an hour earlier. He looked peaky, and had had a little nap already, notwithstanding the efforts of pacer Frankie and the exuberant marshal cajoling all the runners to get moving as soon as possible. Whether it was simply relief at reaching the aid station, joy at seeing my friends again or the prospect of hot food and cold shoes, I felt as strong as I’d felt all day, if not stronger. I charged up my phone with the block I left in my drop bag, changed into my QPR top and topped up with Lucozade. Between the marshal, the fear of cramping up and the desire to bloody finish, I wanted to get out of the door as soon as possible and on the way.

While I was sorting myself out Albro brought me a plate of cheesy pasta and bolognese; delicious, as far as my ruined tastebuds could tell, and the perfect antidote to energy bars. Or so I thought. In retrospect, taking a rest at the one aid station with a roof and facilities would have been the sensible long term plan, not to mention letting my dinner go down before getting back on the road. Bloody hell, my mum taught me to do that when I was two years old. And yet, at thirty one I somehow forgot that most basic piece of dietary advice, and jumped straight back on the road. And immediately suffered what Runners World delicately calls “gastric distress”.

I’m not going to get obscene on you here; “distress” is very much the operative word. The simple (obvious) mistake of failing to wait for my dinner to go down resulted in excruciating pain and nausea like I’ve never experienced. In retrospect, I’m pretty sure I’d have been fine had I waited fifteen more minutes at Knockholt, but not doing so meant an agonizingly slow ten miles to the next checkpoint, stopping every now and again to suppress the urge to throw up or pass out. Maybe throwing up would have sorted me out – it’s certainly not unknown for ultrarunners to metaphorically wake up after a technicolour yawn – but in my delirium I was terrified of the prospect of vomiting and resisted it with all my strength, to the detriment of my ability to run. The ten mile stretch to the next checkpoint took three hours.

Three hours, during which time I didn’t eat a single thing and barely managed to keep down even Lucozade. I know that pacers know what they’re letting themselves in for, but even so it must have been a miserable three hours for Albro and yet he kept a brave face and a bouncy step all the way, singing songs with me and patiently waiting for me to pick myself up every time I doubled over. How had I gone from strong and sprightly to barely able to move in such a short distance? I think my inability to rationalise it crushed me as much as the physical effect did. No blisters, no muscle or joint problems, no sunstroke, no broken bones. I just ran out of gas.

The worst of it was, I didn’t really understand what had happened to me until the Wrotham checkpoint by which time it was too late to recover. I tried vainly to send down a few pieces of fruit and half a cup of coffee, which picked me up enough for the next stretch; at just five and a half miles, I couldn’t not have a go. But it was too little, too late. I savoured the fruit and the milky coffee – even more so as the aid station’s portable stove caught fire just minutes after Alex brought me my cup and put paid to anyone else’s intentions on a hot drink – but their calories were spent before I reached the end of the road.

Maybe it was psychosomatic; maybe I just needed to give myself a talking to. We’d only just hit sundown, a watershed I hadn’t been looking forward to, but the fear of darkness was as nothing to me as my desire to rip out my stomach and be done with the troublesome bloody thing. I could manage five and half miles on my hands and knees, I told myself, and being mostly hill and scrub I pretty much had to. Albro kept my spirits up and my mind sharp by asking me riddles; I remember really clearly one being about a man in darkness which for some reason scared the crap out of me, and it was one of the few that totally stumped me. At least the views, lit by only a headtorch and a hint of moonlight, were unforgettable. I don’t think a photo can really do justice to how stunning the M25, enveloped by countryside, really looked that night.

I have no memory of approaching the checkpoint at Holly Hill; I do remember flumping into a fold out chair underneath a gazebo, allowing Albro to put a cup of coffee into my shaking hands, and realising then that I simply had nothing left to give. I bargained with myself for a bit: if I sit down for five or ten minutes I might feel better, then I can make a decision; if another runner comes in looking worse than me and still carries on then I have to as well; if I get Albro’s next riddle right… It was all bullshit though, I knew that. The next aid station was another ten miles away; had it been five or six again I told myself I would have tried to limp on, but deep down I knew there was no fuel in the tank. It’s a really demoralising way to crash out. No heroic injury to battle against, no disaster or calamity or defining moment to cling on to. It didn’t feel like hitting a brick wall; more like falling into warm marshmallow, sinking further and further and eventually suffocating to death.

Apparently I was slurring like a drunk and hypoglycaemic, although I remember being pretty lucid, which I hope was at least funny to watch. I gave my number to the marshal and waved my white flag… and then I had to do the really heartwrenching bit, forcing Andy out of our warm bed in the middle of the night to make the hour and a half drive and pick us up. The nausea and pain had started to abate by this stage, so we waited patiently (Albro) and miserably (me) for our lift, watching the other runners pass through the checkpoint. I wasn’t the only dropout at that station – by the end of the race there was around a forty percent DNF rate overall, which was both sort of comforting and incredibly depressing – so the kindly nurse had his hands full. After over an hour of waiting, during which time I’d been huddled up in my foil blanket and dry spare clothes (as prescribed by the mandatory checklist, thank fuck) the vague feeling of tiredness and gluey mouth gave way to a wave of intense nausea, nausea like being in a lurching taxi after five Jagerbombs, a spinning head and a loss of control in all my limbs. Everything went black. This was the moment I’d been dreading, fighting for nearly six hours. I’m terrified of being sick; I can’t deal with it at all, much less when there’s nothing there to be sick with. I started to panic, crawled over to one side – what I thought was one side, until the nurse caught me and steered me towards some bushes – and collapsed. Two cups of coffee and some bits of apple. And as if the last six hours hadn’t happened, I was absolutely fine again.

I started to pick up physically, but all that did was make me feel even more stupid for not allowing myself to be sick earlier and getting it over and done with, so I could eat and carry on. Albro was keeping up with the reports on Russell, who was also struggling to eat but after a tactical chunder kept himself going on sugary tea. Eventually he was able to overtake Becky and make his sub-24 hour target; an astonishing enough achievement for someone on their first 100 miler, never mind following that up with a 36 mile navigation race in the Lake District three weeks later. Becky herself had slowed down but ploughed doggedly on and completed in 28 hours, her sunny smile breaking through the morning fog. I was so happy for both of them, and at the same time completely crushed that I couldn’t share that triumph.

The drive home, the few hours’ sleep, the drive all the way to Wye and back the next day to pick up my finish line bag, all were conducted in a self-pitying, graceless torpor. All I could hear in my head was the voice of the marshal asking if I was sure about pulling out, telling me how much worse I’d feel if I didn’t try and carry on. It wasn’t even about feeling physically bad; it was feeling as though I’d let Alex and Andy down, two people who gave up their weekends to support me only for me to give up two-thirds of the way in, and as though I’d let the Chasers down, registering a DNF against the club’s otherwise stellar reputation. And then the car broke down.

I’m writing this four weeks on, and I still haven’t fully pulled myself together. Going out for social runs with Chasers and with other running friends is tough, because being reminded not just of the race but of running in general feels like being reminded of my failure. I force myself out of the door because indulging in Eeyore-y moping is both counter-productive and utterly selfish. Not to mention a kick in the teeth to anyone who would give their right leg to be able to run sixty six miles, as I was sharply reminded by my non-runner mates when I rebuffed their congratulations. They’re right; I am behaving like a petulant dickbag. I will snap out of it eventually. I will appreciate what I achieved; technically a distance PB, a pretty respectable 50 mile split, nearly two and a half marathons back to back. It’s not the achievement I set out to get, but as Mick Jagger once said, you don’t always get what you want.

I read a quote recently that goes “Success is measured by the difference between your goal and your performance.” By that metric, I have every right to be all maudlin and emo about my DNF. Then again, I have to confront the fact that either my goals were unrealistic or my performance was well below standard. One way or the other, there’s no chance of me redeeming myself without accepting my shortfalls and examining how to address them, applying the effort to do so and preparing myself for setbacks. In other words, I’ve been a hypocrite. I took on a challenge with my fake confidence and shit-eating grin and expected to brazen my way out of it. Doubling mileage in just three weeks? Trying to run 100 miles right after two straight weeks of no sleep? Sure, they’re excuses, but I should know better than that. I’m not superhuman.

Not yet, anyway. North Downs Way 100, I’ll be back for you next year.

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Pilgrim Challenge – part 1

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What would I even have to write on these race reports if I didn’t have public transport to grumble about? Not even a 2 day, 66 mile trail event through the most stunning scenery inside the M25 could upstage my hatred of public transport.

I’ve made my peace with the preparation stage of races. If you can get hold of your nutritionally perfect pre race meal, or do your yoga routine exactly 9 hours and 17 minutes before the race starts, or sleep in your own portable oxygen tent, then good for you; but if you have any sort of life you probably have to take what you’re given and hope it doesn’t give you the shits. You might be lucky enough to have a car and be able to drive to bumfuck nowhere, and you might even find parking there, but if not – and you still insist on traipsing around the woods in the depths of winter – you might have to brave the train.

A few weeks out from the Pilgrim Challenge I looked up trains to Farnham and saw that there was a direct train from my home station, and I would be just about safe to make the pre-race briefing at 8.30 on the Saturday morning. Lovely jubbly. Then it was New Year, which South West Trains celebrated with a prolonged series of engineering works closing the line down every weekend until further notice. Suddenly the options were narrowed down to a) leave at 5am and still be late or b) go the night before. Which means a Friday night commuter train. Which means everyone hates you and wishes you dead.

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After a hectic week at work and a last minute five-thirty-on-a-Friday job, I jumped on the train as soon as it was announced to find a spot where me and my enormous hiking pack would be slightly less in the way. No baggage racks that would take it, no standing gaps to speak of. The train started to fill up with grumpy, tired, weekending commuters, and I mentally wrote my obituary.

Thankfully a Kind Man came to my rescue by shunting the pack into a gap between seats that I would have had no chance at reaching. He warned me that the 18:55 gets pretty full at least as far as Woking, with a slightly feral demeanour and a war vet twitch in one eye, and retreated to a safe distance. Just in time for an Important Man to bustle in, spend fully ten minutes arranging his newspapers then take the seat next to me, and half of mine with it. I clearly needn’t have worried.

All’s well that ends well, as someone said once, and within an hour I was settled into my hotel in Farnham with fellow Chaser and trail club leader Cat, making excited squeaky noises and covering the room with random bits of running kit. Staying over the night before definitely turned out to be the right call – despite me waking up in the morning to what sounded like my pet budgies and then feeling a bit homesick when I realised it wasn’t them – when we peered out of the window to a blanket of powdery white snow.

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We were picked up from Farnham station by the Extreme Energy fun bus and shuttled straight to the starting line, the first sign of just how well we would be looked after over the weekend. Two marquees set up next to the starting pen were the first point of call for runners to pick up their race numbers, electronic tags and cups of hot coffee before leaving it to the last possible minute to brave the freezing weather outside, and I mean freezing. Buffs, double gloves, gaiters, long tights, layers upon layers of clothing, still everyone shivered violently as we waited for the off. I had stuck stubbornly with my short shorts (they’ve never let me down yet) and faced hypothermia with defiance.

To start the race we would beating a path through settling snow and cutting across private farmland before picking up the North Downs Way. I played a game with myself where I tried to keep Cat in view for as long as possible, which I lost almost as soon as we crossed the road. And then remembered she is Superwoman, and I am not, and I was meant to be pacing myself for thirty three steady but treacherous trail miles. Twice.

Thinking about the enormity of the challenge lying ahead is a dangerous move – not that the distance particularly freaks me out, but even my slightly warped brain has trouble processing what to do with sixty plus miles ahead of me. Instead I broke it down into chunks between checkpoints, each of them a separate and manageable 6-10 mile race, knowing that at the end there’d be opportunity for a rest and time to stuff my pockets with salted pretzels, peanut butter sandwiches and sausage rolls. Funnily enough though, every now and again I felt like if I stopped I could never get going again, but as soon as I’d hit a checkpoint and stuffed my mush I’d be raring to go as if back at the beginning of the race, almost without pausing for breath. Somehow, just having something to look forward to gave me the energy to push on. Especially as that something was food.

Quite happy to drift off into my own little world for a while and enjoy the scenery, I suddenly realised this was my first snow all winter, living as I do in tropical south west London. I couldn’t help but grin. As I’ve said before, ultra running keeps giving me more and more reasons to indulge my inner child: tearing down hills, eating peanut butter and jelly babies and drinking orange squash, getting covered in mud without feeling guilty, and now snow. There’s your fountain of youth.

And under the snow, cheekily hidden beneath the crisp crust, there lay icy puddles and mud.

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I’ve had a fair few run ins with mud in my running career so far – looking back through my blog posts I found the one on Bromley 10k in January last year and my first attempt at the Moonlight Challenge six weeks afterwards, and I was reminded of that totally hopeless Atreyu-in-the-bog impression and my abject failure to cope. Something about the way it was pulling my feet down, like running in double gravity, just destroyed me mentally. But I’ve put myself through a lot of mud in the last twelve months and made it my friend – the mud along the North Downs Way more than any other – and I even found myself feeling stronger for attacking the boggiest sections and occasionally skipping past other runners. I also remembered the lesson that I learned on the Moonlight Challenge: the faster you go across mud the less you come in contact with it. In other words, get a bloody move on and stop whinging.

The other big challenge I decided to tackle in a completely different way: with a total of 66 miles and just under 6000 feet of elevation to cover, there was no point in wasting my energy running up every hill, and there were plenty of the buggers. Sure, I jogged over the first few undulations feeling smug, but I knew as soon as I hit Guildford that effort saving mode would be the key, all the while putting out of mind the impending climb up Box Hill around mile 21. My trusty tactic of running hills to effort – trudge up, tear down – was as successful as I could have hoped. Successful, in that I didn’t collapse in a heap when faced with the first of 268 stairs.

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As thoughtful as it was of someone to build steps for climbing Box Hill, I had to placate my grumbling quads with the thought that at least I’d be going down them tomorrow, which is basically my favourite thing of all things ever. That being said I don’t think it was the elevation that I struggled with so much as the succession of false endings. Only a few more steps to go, then I’m at the top of the hill. What’s this, round the corner? Oh look, more bastard steps. Plainly I cannot count to 268.

Actually, it wasn’t even climbing Box Hill that brought me closest to a nervous breakdown that weekend. Did you know that when you get to the top of Box Hill there’s another little hill just beyond it? Can’t be more than a quarter of a mile long, but it’s almost as high, with a gradient like a painter’s ladder. A band of hikers coming the other way cheerfully informed me I was nearly at the top, as I literally crawled up on all fours. Quite possibly I spat at them.

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But once you reach the top, all there is to do is go back down again. At least, figuratively and literally, going downhill is what it felt like. My Garmin disagrees; according to him we had another fair old climb, not to mention 11 more miles to run, but I have absolutely no recollection of this. At some point there would have been the old faithful downhill at Denbies wine estate – a particular favourite spot, can’t imagine why – looking out over glorious acres of vines all dusted with snow like icing sugar on a Yule log. Despite my hazy memory I remember that image vividly, and I remember thinking that I should take a photo and then deciding not to stop and lose momentum, and that the mental image was strong enough I’d never need a photo to remember it. Flawless logic for an exhausted, frozen, mileage-addled brain.

A brain that was to thoroughly let me down, just a couple of miles from the end. I’d veered off course a few times but not in any way that I couldn’t recover from, usually because other runners who weren’t too stupid to read directions would call me back or point me in the right direction. The North Downs Way is pretty easy to follow when you’re out on the downs proper; contrary to what you’d think, those parts were the easiest to navigate. But as soon as it crossed civilisation of any kind – crossing a road, going through a private estate, coinciding with a footpath – I would be stymied by sign blindness and suddenly unable to navigate a road going in only one direction.

Which is exactly how I managed to follow the signs leading us out of the Gatton Park School grounds not back onto the North Downs Way, but instead onto a tiny country road with a 50mph speed limit and not quite enough room for two cars and a pedestrian to pass. This is not a problem for the cars. It IS a problem for the pedestrian.

Looking back up the road I suddenly noticed I’d been running alone along a dwindling grass verge, following some orange arrows from another race, for a good fifteen minutes. Given that going back the way I came would mean a) going uphill and b) more miles on feet that were already numb with cold, I decided to sprint to the relatively safety of the other end of the road where I could ring the race director and beg for directions, thereby admitting that I’m a massive numpty. Neil was so graceful, kind and patient while working out where I was and how to get me back on track, I was torn between wanting to find and thank him when I got back to base and avoiding owning up to being the prat who ran a mile and a half down a high road.

So far, and yet so close. My little detour meant I’d had to give up on the vague target of six and a half hours, but since I’d managed to get lost just as we were due to turn into Merstham I was only a few winding streets away from the end. Rejoining the Pilgrim Challenge runners in the village I realised that because of the lack of other runners on the high road I’d been assuming I was dead last, rather than noticing I was just in the wrong place, which is why I plugged on in the wrong direction for so long. Of course I wasn’t last. Sprinting up to the finish line at the doors of the school after six hours and thirty seven minutes I found a fair few pairs of muddy trail shoes lined up, but over half the field still out in the freezing cold.

The challenge welcomes walkers as well as runners, so long after I’d had my nice hot shower, eaten a nourishing pasta dinner and tucked myself up in my sleeping bag with my compression socks and book there were three brave, hardy souls still out on the Downs. They eventually finished the first day in just over thirteen hours, having started an hour earlier than most of the runners and due to start again at 7am the next morning. Let me be clear: these are remarkable, awesome people. Any chump can run as fast as possible to get to a nice warm sleeping bag at the end. Staying out in the freezing weather, open to the elements and the pitch darkness, knowing there’s maybe five hours of sleep between finishing this leg and starting it all over again, is an unfathomable kind of tough.

So that was me done for day 1. A bit sore, not quite as sociable as I’d hoped to be that evening and rueing my lack of camp bed on the hard gym floor, but I was halfway there. Now all I had to do was the same thing all over again, in reverse. Even as I fell asleep, I couldn’t bloody wait to wake up again.

Click here for day 2…