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.

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Druids Challenge 2017 – the other side of the aid station

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It’s my favourite event of the year. Well, no – Eurovision is my favourite of all events, but Druids is top as far as races go. It’s not even the running bit that makes it, although the Ridgeway trail traces my heart like my own veins; it’s the camping overnight in school halls, eating Anna’s mum’s homemade cake, drinking endless cups of instant coffee and sleeping on an army cot in the frozen depths of November that I can’t wait for. File it in the Venn diagram of “things that make me feel like a kid”/”things only trail runners do”/”happy things”.

I ran it in 2015 and 2016, but had to hold off this year due to the fourth Centurion Grand Slam, the Wendover Woods 50, being only two weeks later. Honestly I’m not sure what upset me more: missing Druids or missing out on the suicide challenge of doing both, just for lols. Nonetheless, paranoid that the slightest intervention would scupper my chances of finishing the grand slam (spoiler alert) I opted to wrap myself in cotton wool, and just volunteer instead. Easy peasy.

The race covers almost the entire Ridgeway National Trail over three days: 29 miles on Friday, 27 on Saturday and 28 on Sunday. I couldn’t get the time off on Friday for the first leg from Ivinghoe Beacon to the school at Watlington so I missed out on the first night’s camping as well; on the other hand it had been a big week at work and a solid night’s sleep in my own damn bed was more of a novelty than camping, so I banked it. Car packed, I drove up to my first post at checkpoint two at the crack of dawn on Saturday, ready for action.

Being a production manager by trade, I had printed out every last scrap of information I could find, calculated how long it would take me to get to the checkpoint, gave myself a good margin of error and then set off slightly earlier than that. The instructions told me I was needed at the checkpoint an hour in advance of the runner expected to pass first, and that was half past nine, so there I was, at 08:27 (including a detour for a coffee and a loo stop so as not to seem too eager). And I waited.

And I waited.

I could be relatively certain that I was in the right place – I mean it’s probably the most memorable checkpoint in the whole three days – and my satnav wasn’t disagreeing. But the checkpoint chief, Edward, was nowhere to be seen. Tussling with the fear of posting a stupid question on the group Whatsapp I tried sending messages to both Edward and to Rich the volunteer coordinator, with no luck and no signal. By half past nine I was vacillating between panic that a hundred hungry runners were about to overwhelm me and certainty that it must be me that was wrong; after all, there were at least three other people that were meant to be there and still weren’t. Just as I was about to get my trail shoes on and start running backwards along the route, wondering if the checkpoint had moved, a car drove down the muddy lane to the water’s edge that obviously had nothing to do with fishermen or dog walking.

Out of Edward’s modest estate car a whole checkpoint unfolded – I mean this is Mary Poppin’s carpet bag territory. Two fold out tables, four barrels full of water, eight or nine boxes of food and supplies (including the all-important hand sanitiser), the timing kits, the ubiquitous XNRG feather banner and various other bits of signage. Joined by fellow volunteer Laura and her son we set up as quickly as possible and started doing the clock arithmetic for when we expected the first person to pass, proving once and for all that my calculations were way out. I offered to tick off race numbers and make sure all the runners checked their wristbands against the timer, thinking at least I couldn’t get that wrong.

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As is customary for day 2 of the Druids, especially the second stretch along the Thames, it was soggy. I tried to wipe my phone screen on my trousers to dry it off enough to use, and all that happened was that my phone screen got a different kind of wet on it. My numbers sheet actually got soaked while we were setting up and had to be laid across the car’s heating vents to dry off before we even got started; by the time we were halfway through the field I was marking fat splodges on papier mache with a mashed felt tip, literally counting down the chart to get the right number. It was like playing bingo in wet clay.

Considering the job involved standing outside in the rain without shelter for a number of hours (including the bonus ones I awarded myself) the time passed surprisingly quickly. Having to concentrate on the path and catch the runners before they took off up the road was definitely harder than being the runner concentrating on the path, something I know from previous experience on that course. I’ve given up on enough of my own races to know how annoying it is to let yourself down, but the thought of letting down another runner was really nerve-wracking. Meanwhile, a lone fisherman who was surprised to find us pitched up on the bank before him settled in at the rivers edge with his wolf (he claimed it was a dog) and patiently waited for the fish that our neon coloured, mud-thumping, giggling and panting runners were presumably scaring away. We learned an awful lot about riverside politics between rowers and kayakers, longboaters and swimmers, like a live-action version of The Wind In The Willows.

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The runners came through in various states of undress and humour; most notably a first time ultrarunner who came in wearing just one shoe, having lost the other in the mud (which wasn’t surprising as they turned out to be three sizes too small for him in the first place); the man who found a neat solution to our lack of sandwiches (two jaffa cakes with a slice of cheddar in the middle); and Marie-Claude, a lady who stumbled into the aid station in a bin bag and floods of tears, having optimistically followed the weather forecast and not the basic tenet of Druids which is that day two is always wet. Bless her, she was miserable. Her waterproofs were, helpfully, in her bag back at base. Her ankles were weighed down with a pair of hand knitted leg warmers, by now waterlogged and hefty with mud, and she was pining for her sturdy walking boots. She sobbed uncontrollably as we helped her into a chair and out of the leg warmers, and Edward managed to produce both hot water and a hot chocolate sachet from nowhere. It seemed like she was destined to pull out.

Those of you that know XNRG’s multi-day challenges probably know regular face Elaine, often patiently hiking each leg in twice the time of the frontrunners and always with a smile and good humour. We knew to look out for her as the last person expected through, making Marie-Claude the second from last according to the scraps of my sheet. After a last minute bit of foot dressing by Dr Laura and the lend of a waterproof jacket, it seemed that all that Marie was short of was the will to carry on – she was in perfectly good health otherwise. We managed to convince her that if she kept going she would eventually have company from Elaine, and since there were no cut-offs she had nothing but time. To her credit as soon as she was up on her feet she got straight on with it – a lesson in the power of appropriate kit and a bit of positive thinking. We all sympathised with her low moment, but we all know those moments pass much faster than the disappointment of a DNF. Not long afterward came Elaine, as smiling and beatific as ever. We had a bit of a chat with her as she loaded up on jaffa cakes and some of Laura’s homemade flapjacks, and off went the last of our intrepid explorers.

My next shift was back at the school manning the tea and cake stand. Yeah I know, what a hardship. Handing out tea and cake to people 56 miles in to the Ridgeway is a very gratifying job anyway – I mean, nobody’s exactly turning their nose up at free cake – but to ultra geeks like me it’s also a front row seat to the best show on earth, watching the likes of Edwina Sutton and Justin Montague do what they do best and barely break sweat in the process. And because I’m my mother’s daughter I had great fun buzzing around like a busybody and forcing tea into chilly hands.

And then the hard work began.

While Susie Chan and Rory Coleman delivered their after-supper presentations, we had to clear the canteen and set up for breakfast the following morning, as well as keep the hot drinks and cake flowing and the jerrycans full of water. I sort of knew, from previous experience, that the job would involve making sure these vital things were available as long as everyone was awake, but I hadn’t quite appreciated just how much 300 runners and walkers could get through – I don’t think I stopped moving until past 11pm, an hour after lights out. Straight into event mode, I fell into my cot bed feeling wonderfully weary and stared at the ceiling for five hours, too buzzed to sleep.

My alarm went off at half 5 just as I’d started to drift off, and by the time I got to the canteen the early risers on the first wave were already tucking in. The walkers were due to start at 7am but would need to be on the shuttle bus by half 6 in order to be taken to the restart point, on the exposed top of East Hendred Down. The well-oiled machine that is XNRG splits up the runners into groups according to their finishing times from day 2, which is crucial in making sure that there are enough seats on the shuttle buses to get everyone to the top – and naturally, everyone bargains to go in the middle group. Once again I saw the wider context of my selfish runner’s needs; if 5 percent of the field ask to be the “one change” to the grouping, they’d need to hire a whole extra bus to accommodate. Considering that I’ve always felt very well looked after at XNRG’s races, I saw firsthand how it’s not abundance of resources but Anna and Neil’s military precision that fulfils our every need; at the same time, it’s clear to see how quickly what profits they do turn could be swallowed up for the want of a bit of forward planning.

By the time we’d seen all three groups breakfasted and on the buses – not to mention their luggage – I was already jumping into the car for my next job: manning station 2 at Hinton Parva, this time under the guidance of checkpoint chief Wendi. Even more wobbly than the soggy ground we set up on on Saturday, this time the table was on a thirty degree slope and the Haribo were in even more danger of flying away than of being snaffled. Following the classic Druid’s schedule, day 3 was a clear, crisp day, dry and bright but absolutely fucking freezing. FREEZING. So, almost as good weather to be standing out in for hours as incessant rain.

God it was fun though. Wendi, a stalwart of XNRG races, is like your friend’s hilarious mum who you sort of wish was your mum. We were messing around so much I only just got the signage and timing pad set up in time for the first runner through, and as the checkpoint is at the bottom of a long downward slope they were barrelling past us – I had to move up the hill to allow for reaction time, they were that fast. As was to be expected the field was more stretched out than yesterday, and by the time we got halfway through my toes (even in their two pairs of socks and thick boots) were already blocks of ice, and my writing basic caveman smudges through my heavy duty gloves.

There was an addition to the timing system this year: a tracker held by the runner at the back of the field which, in the absence of cutoffs, allowed us to see roughly how long we should stay open, avoiding the risk of closing up too early or hanging around for ages unnecessarily. It’s a fairly low tech system which relies on the last runner handing it to whomever they overtake; on the other hand, the tracker had been in the reliable hands of Elaine for days 1 and 2 so we weren’t too worried about losing it. In fact, we learned over the wireless (Whatsapp) that Elaine had company for the day: Marie-Claude, the girl who looked like she wasn’t going to drop out so much as drop dead the day before, had swapped her trail shoes for her hiking boots and every layer of clothing she had, and joined Elaine to enjoy the rest of the Ridgeway at a leisurely pace.

The third day had really started to take its toll on people, and there were at least three dropouts at our station – injured knees and swollen feet scattered around the trail like the aftermath of a battlefield. As I ticked off each race number, either as they passed or were reported on Whatsapp as a dropout from checkpoint one, my runner bingo card became a tally of the most weary, pained and battered people I’d ever seen. Eventually we were down to a group of four colleagues who were hiking together, who passed through smiling as benignly as if they were on a Sunday stroll – actually I almost mistook them for dogwalkers, they were so laid back – and shortly afterwards, the cheerful grins of Marie-Claude and Elaine. I’ve often commented on Elaine’s particular brand of good-natured, matronly stamina, but together they were giggling like schoolgirls who’d snuck away from double Physics. In fact, they were having so much fun that their pace had increased fairly drastically since the first leg – drastically enough that their second wind later turned out to be enough to overtake the Sunday strollers. That’s the final ingredient in a successful ultramarathon – a pinch of childish fun. Because how else do you forget about the lows?

Having seen them safely off we packed up, and I drove back to base to clock my final shift of the weekend: being the Mrs Overall of HQ once again. I feel like I might have been given a slightly charmed rota since all I seemed to do was chat to runners and serve them coffee; but I reflected later than perhaps my impression of volunteering at a race involved a lot more hardship than I thought it would. Don’t get me wrong, it was still ten times tougher than running the bloody thing – and if I’ve heard a single piece of advice about ultras I feel qualified to pass on it’s that you should always smile at the checkpoint volunteers – but it was worth it to appreciate just how much effort goes into this very very complex operation designed to give a small bunch of nutters a good time. And it’s the tip of the iceberg – I turned up on the day and followed a rota and did what I was told. My professional experience tells me that months of preparation and negotiation went into getting the race permit and selling the places, securing the stopover venues, working out and then booking the logistics, sorting out the food and drink supplies, assembling and organising the volunteer team, reorganising them when people pulled out at late notice – never mind the details.

Only when I started for home, very nearly suppertime and all I’d eaten was thieved Haribo and cake, did I start to dive off the crest of adrenalin I’d been surfing all weekend. My lack of fitness and training sent me into a downward spiral at the beginning of this year that became so bad I couldn’t even bear to look at my running club’s social media posts, I was in such a grimy well of self pity. The idea of volunteering to keep in touch when you can’t run always seemed like a good one on paper, but I just couldn’t bear watching other people do the things I wanted to be doing; like watching the ex that broke your heart in a shiny new relationship. Druids was the one event that I felt would be worse to miss altogether than to be involved with in some way, and I’m so glad I got stuck in. It might not have been an entirely altruistic gesture, offering to volunteer just to cheer myself up, but I hope at least it was a mutually beneficial act. Like sharing a smile at the aid station, a good deed – however selfish the motive – cannot help but spread goodwill.

Still though… my Pilgrim’s entry went in the very next day. I’m gonna earn my cake this time.

Wendover Woods 50 – Centurion Grand Slam part 4

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I am a great advert for not following one’s own advice.

After a miserable year of non-running, not enough running, running poorly, running out of time to run, I started 2017 with the intention of maintaining a mile a day run streak and completing the Centurion 50 mile Grand Slam – four fifty milers staged throughout the year on the South and North Downs, the Chiltern Hills and Wendover Woods – to give a shot in the arm of my athletic career. What could go wrong?

My times on each race grew progressively slower, my recovery less and less effective and my training became what can most politely be described as sparse. The motive behind the run streak was primarily to readjust my life priorities around a job that often needs responsive, erratic hours and little hope of setting a routine; if I’m maintaining a run streak then I have to find at least ten minutes a day to myself in order to keep it going, and that ten minutes of much needed headspace. The logic was sound, to me at least, to lean on my addictive nature: I’m more likely to prioritise the integrity of the streak than my physical health, career, relationship, mental health. That logic proved to be as effective as taking morphine for a broken leg and continuing to run. It resolves the short term obstacle as the expense of the long term solution.

I miss my daily run, desperately. It had become a single junk mile per day dragging myself around the pavement in my area for the sake of the streak, it was less than useful in athletic terms. Nevertheless, I saw that mile the way an ex-pat misses sugary treats from home – more value to the soul than to the body. If he could get a truckload of Swizzel-Matlows shipped to Outer Mongolia he’d eat the lot in one sitting but it wouldn’t stave off hunger in the long run. The pleasure of those homely treats would last as long as the treats themselves, then immediately be replaced by nausea, rotten teeth and malnutrition.

I even tried other means of improving my fitness; this time experimenting with a low-carb diet and low-HR training method (Maffetone) which, for the brief period I sustained it, sustained me very well. The problem was that my lifestyle doesn’t exactly make finding carb-free food easy, and my commitment to the program had even less integrity than Kelly-Anne Conway’s commitment to the truth. Once again I am made out a fraud, espousing a philosophy I cannot myself live by.

So two days after Chiltern Wonderland I decided to break the streak. I realised I was suffering classic overtraining symptoms – I realised it many months ago, but accepted it only when the CW50 nearly hobbled me. Good old fashioned rest would be my one last hope to get through the fourth and toughest of the fifty mile grand slam series; most likely I am the only person surprised to discover that it worked. Almost.

So, having made more of the runs I could do with three or four 5+ mile runs a week instead of seven 1 mile runs, I barely ran at all for the two weeks prior to the race. It coincided with a bout of flu and two big weeks at work, building up to the biggest broadcast of the year, so the timing actually worked out quite well for me. I wasn’t exactly resting, but at least I wasn’t stressing out about finding that elusive ten minute window for a run round the block. And besides, I did a lot more managery pointing at things than being on my feet doing actual work things – all in the name of athletic improvement you understand. The flu bit was more of a concern, but by the Friday I was back to being able to sleep lying down and breathing through my nose sometimes. Win.

For only the second time ever, Andy was roped in to crew. There was a logistical reason for this – I couldn’t get there in time by public transport, and if I drove there I’d be unlikely to be able to drive back – but his support turned out to be so much more than just chauffeur. The format of the race – five 10 mile loops returning to the same start/finish point – meant that he could base himself at one place, be on hand to bring me food or extra kit, give a quick systems check at the end of each lap and chivvy me along. And spend the intervening three hours listening to podcasts in the car.

We lined up for lap one in the first few blinks of daylight – it was still dark when I picked up my bib number – and received our race briefing. Unlike previous Centurion race briefings I’ve heard James Elson deliver, this one consisted of about three sentences: the route is marked to the nth degree, you’re gonna see everything five times so if you don’t you’ve gone wrong, and take it slow. The 10 mile loop would have a net descent profile in the first half and a net ascent in the second, helpfully broken up by a checkpoint at mile 5.5, but either way you look at it there’s a lot of ups and downs. I’d printed myself a course profile and timings for the aid stations for a 12hr, 13hr, 14hr and 15hr average pace with the hope that I’d be hovering around 13hr pace to begin with and have enough buffer by the end. The original intention had been for me to carry this so I’d know where the climbs would be, but I realised that a) I’d learn pretty quickly where those climbs where and b) that sort of information might be more useful in Andy’s hands, who would read it and be able to work out how my pace, than mine, who would look at it and think “huh, some numbers”. Instead, I set my Suunto going and loaded up the WW50 gpx to follow.

On the basis of the pacing chart Andy told me I was due in to base no sooner than half past ten, or two and a half hours in. Any earlier and I’d be in trouble with him; too much later and I’d be in trouble with myself. Having been up since half 5 to drive me here he was already struggling to stay awake; he waited to wave me off then retired to a McDonalds he’d spotted about five miles back for a dirty breakfast. Far be it from me, An Athlete, to be jealous of a Maccy D’s breakfast, but damn that was a hard thing to hear as I set off down the muddy, near-freezing path.

For the first lap I tried to pay close attention to the course, the twists and turns especially, knowing those to be the easiest thing to miss in the dark, and didn’t get to do as much chatting as I’d have liked. I actually knew a fair few people there: Cat Simpson from Fulham RC was tipped for the win and her and Louise Ayling had both been out on Wednesday night headtorch runs; Awesome Tracey was somewhere in the pack, a double double Grand Slammer I’d met during CW50; and my lucky charm Ilsuk Han popped up at the halfway checkpoint as a volunteer.

As far as relying on my watch went the theory was sound, the practicality less so. I’ve been dicking around with my Suunto settings trying to get my watch to last for a whole 50 mile race, after it had run out of battery before the end of the first three; normally it’s fine, but the nav function is a bit of a power vampire. There is however an option to make the battery life last longer by reducing the accuracy of the signal: by picking up my location every 10 seconds instead of every second I figured I’d still get an accurate enough measurement (this finish wasn’t exactly going to be measured in fractions of a second) and hopefully have it running long enough to be able to use the average pace setting. Yes, that sounds foolproof.

Louise, who’d volunteered the race the previous year and was well briefed, mentioned that we would see the checkpoint two miles before we actually reached it thanks to a neat little detour loop. That kind of route info is really useful to know, relative measurements which can’t be tricked rather than saying that such and such aid station is at mile x. You don’t know if that mile marking is measured from the start or measured by an interval from the previous one, if your watch is on the ball or if it’s missed a chunk of signal, or if the volunteers are just trying to be optimistic. So after a fun little trundle through the woods, a couple of sharp ups and a lot of long steep downs (fuck I love those) I turned a left to see the checkpoint directly ahead by a line of trees, and a pink arrow pointing right up a steep slope. Goody gumdrops.

Even after having run it multiple times, I’m still not sure now if that ascent is the first big one on the course or if it’s just the first one that makes you swear. Especially as you’ve seen the urn boiling away and the plates of cookies and cheese sandwiches laid out, waiting for you, and then you’re forced to leave them behind because no reason. The climb starts gentle, gets progressively steeper, reaches the top and then presents you with another sharp upward tick. Then you scoot down to the bottom again, about 20 minutes after you saw the checkpoint. And that’s about a mile. We were directed off to the right again for another hands on knees hike up to the Go Ape climbing attraction, back down through a carpet of gorgeously soft pine needles, and round and round the garden until the checkpoint finally appeared. I checked my watch. 4.5 miles, nearly 16mm pace and around an hour and ten minutes passed.

Tits.

Worryingly, that’s lightly slower than I’d planned at this point even taking that one climb into account – I’ve only just got to the end of the “easy” half, and now I’ve got that and another mile to go, mostly uphill? This isn’t good. I mean I’ve taken it plenty easy and I’m still well within pace, but once I take exhaustion into account I’m going to go downhill fast. Wait, that’s the wrong phrase entirely. Uphill, slow. OK, don’t worry about that now. Already I was mentally comparing the image of the elevation profile with my experience and finding that it wasn’t as gruelling as I’d expected. Physically tough, certainly, but the sort of challenge I was really enjoying getting my teeth into. So I’d obviously got my calculations wrong – it was a 4.5 mile/5.5 mile split, not the other way around, and I’d need to pace the second half accordingly. Never mind, keep plugging on.

I knew that we would have at least three pretty monster hills towards the end of the second half, and sure enough I was back on my knees hiking up what seemed like a sheer cliff face. Not too bad underfoot now, but I suspected it would get a lot slippier before the day was out and it had been churned up a few times. Still the climb itself, though slow, was pretty satisfying. Next up came a really beastly climb, even steeper and slippier than the last, but again I paced myself through it (and tried not to look down) and within about ten minutes I was at the top. But the final one was the real killer. Short, sharp, nowhere near as vicious as the first two and it even had handrails. Sounds easy, right? Wrong. My legs were spent by this point. It was like death by a thousand papercuts. I’ve never used a handrail so vigorously nor been so convinced that it would pull out of the ground like a rotten weed in my hand.

When we reached the top I overheard another runner called Wendy, a friendly and cheerful voice who had for some reason chosen this to be her first ever fifty mile race, mention that we had just over a mile to go. I checked my watch. It still said 7.5 miles, and only two hours in. What’s going on? But sure enough, a few moments later we passed her support crew cheering on from the peak of the final climb and they confirmed that there was less than a mile to go. We passed through a gate and ran a perfectly flat gravel loop circumnavigating the field where the base and car park were situated, and just two hours and seventeen minutes later I was waving frantically at Andy, simultaneously surprised and pleased to see that he’d been optimistic enough to get to the tent early.

As usual, I’m not sure how I missed the obvious signs but my watch was way off. Showing just under eight and a half miles at the end of the lap, and therefore calculating the pace according to the time (which was correct) I’d been under the impression I still had another mile and a half to go and was behind my ideal pace. Instead, what happened was that I averaged 13.5 minute miles for the first lap – it also meant I wasn’t wrong about the position of the halfway checkpoint either, it was at 5.5. Another lesson in trusting your maths over your tech. I paused briefly to get an update on the frontrunners, three bites of Mars bar and a handful of cookies. Even with the time cushion there was no time to sit though, my bladder having finally kicked into gear, so I stopped for a loo break and switched off my obviously useless watch. From now on I’d rely on Andy and the only two timing points I needed to hit each lap.

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I’d made a point of chatting with people when they happened to run at my pace but not trying to keep up with anyone for company – I know that I’m much faster than a lot of people on the downhills thanks to my devil-may-care style and quads of granite, but almost as slow going uphill as the wildlife. At least for the first couple of laps my pace would have to be exactly that – my pace – and the final lap or two would be trudgeville for most of the field anyway. However I did find myself falling in step with Tracey Watson, on aggregate at least; we were at the same pace on the flat but when we came to a downhill I passed her and when we went back uphill again she overtook me with ease. Tracey is a legend among Centurion runners already, as she was going for the 2017 double grand slam – that’s right, the final race of eight that year to complete both the 100 mile and 50 mile grand slam – but the more remarkable thing is that this was her second year of doing so. Let me explain: last year was only the first ever run of the Wendover Woods 50 and the first time there had been four races of both distances, and therefore only the first time one could even complete the double grand slam, if one was mad enough to try. Tracey was going for the finish today to become the only person to do this in two consecutive years, or to put it another way, at all. Needless to say, if she finished today her plan was to go for a triple double in 2018. She seemed like a person whose advice was worth listening to.

And her advice was usually “get a wriggle on”. In fact, towards the end of the race I found myself saying that exact phrase, imagining her beside me. I grilled her about the double grand slam and what her training looked like – a pretty consistent habit of 40 mile weeks – and about how to keep eating towards the end of a 100, which is basically to keep forcing food down until you can’t, then carry on anyway. The single most important piece of advice, though, especially from someone on race 16 in the most devilish streak in Britain, was never to take a finish for granted. I was surprised when I first heard her say this, but it really resonated with me when I reflected on our conversation later that night. Me with my relatively feeble experience of ultrarunning had very much been taking the finish for granted. It’s not just in the paltry training, or the lack of practice fuelling mid-run, or the flippancy with which I treat my health. I was running these races like the person who ran her first 50 two and a half years ago – someone in the right state of mind, well trained, healthy and about a stone lighter – not the person I am now. Just like my first two attempts at the NDW100 I hadn’t paid the respect it deserved whatsoever.

The other very key bit of advice she gave me – another bit of advice I didn’t reflect on until it was too late – was this: “This race is more like the first seventy-five miles of the North Downs Way than any other fifty.” How that echoes in my head now.

Lap two was a lot tougher than lap one; proportionally much more tough than it should have been I mean. Perhaps it was the ground underfoot, which was frozen solid when we first passed but already churned up like butter; perhaps it was the fact that halfway through the lap the lead man, a Kenyan runner who had never seen frost before who was running his first ever 50 miler, effortlessly lapped me halfway through his third; perhaps it was the mental effort you find yourself making not to think of the phrase “not even halfway”. Actually none of those are true: certainly the Kenyan runner was one of the most graceful and beautiful sights I’ve ever seen, and it’s hard not to be inspired by someone so skilled at what they do. I quite liked the ground getting softer, even though I managed to turn the same ankle three times on one lap. I suppose the second lap was the first time it felt real.

Lap two took a more reasonable 2:44 including my loo stop at the start. When I passed through base after twenty miles I found that Andy had bagged me a chair – I’m not sure if that’s in the rules – and gratefully took a cup of coffee which I’d texted ahead for, and a couple of cheese sandwiches. For a man not fond of running, discomfort or being away from wifi for more then ten minutes, Andy turned out to be bloody marvellous at crewing. He talked me through the pacing times I needed for the next lap, checked my responses, made sure I’d eaten and drunk and sent me back out without a moment’s faff. It made me up my game. I’m so flippant about these things usually, chatting and having fun and not really paying attention, that being reminded of his own investment in the event embarrassed me a little. Definitely no more messing around after this – if he can hang around for fifteen hours I need to make his time worth it. Off I went again.

When people have asked my why I do ultras, I’ve given a range of answers usually designed to deflect the question because the real answer is none of your business. There is one answer which approaches truth however, and it’s that I believe that to achieve something you don’t just do it once and put it to bed, you normalise it. The Grand Slam this year was to prove to myself (and a little bit, to Andy) that fifty miles was a distance I could break the back of and still have enough to spare – in doing so I’d prove that I can try the hundred mile distance again. If I can make 50 miles normal, 100 doesn’t sound so far fetched, right? What I missed was that, with a challenge of this magnitude, being unfazed by it is different than not taking it seriously. I realised that all this time I’d been scraping through my coursework hoping to get a pass on the exam, instead of getting my head down and studying like my life depended on it. And this race, of all four, was really not the one to busk.

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I caught up with Tracey again for a bit on lap three, and noticed that in the previous lap the two ‘halves’ had been pretty much the same time despite the first half being a mile longer, due to the elevation. Good to know – so I could judge my times accordingly. Andy had told me I should be leaving for lap four at around 4pm, so however much earlier than that I got in would go towards getting some food down me. Already food had totally lost its taste for me and I was actively forcing myself to get anything down, but for the first time I wasn’t worried. That morning I’d briefed Andy that a tired and hypoglycaemic Jaz, afraid of the waves of nausea brought on by the thought of food, would trick him and lie about having eaten before and that he would need to force feed me. I know this from past experience, and what’s weirder is that I know I’m doing it but the imperative to avoid throwing up overrules all logic. That said, I wasn’t going to spend another four hours of racing without food or water wondering why I couldn’t move. Andy needed to see me doing OK, but he also needed to make sure I stayed on track.

The first half of lap three passed in an hour and a half, so my times were getting slower but at least it was gradually and consistently. I got a final hug from Ilsuk since he was about to finish his shift, and forced down some Maryland cookies and water as I started the hike up out of the checkpoint. Tracey had pointed out that there were some segments in the second half which had names on Strava, and they were actually signposted on the course – every time I passed them I meant to get photos and every time I forgot. That first climb turned out to be called The Snake, and I’ll let you guess the reason why. Shortly after that we came across Gnarking Around – “It’s a cross between narked and fucking around,” said Tracey – and the final climb with the handrail had a similarly witty name, but I kept forgetting it so simply thought of it as Handrail to Heaven.

Wendy and I passed each other a few times, usually with me catching her on the downhills and her catching me on the ups. I had been prepared for the third lap to be the toughest mentally, but I discovered that the more familiar I became with the course the stronger I felt about it. I looked forward to the known obstacles rather than dreading them – it’s the piddling about on the forgettable flats that make me think I’m going to die in purgatory. Having pushed through the marathon mark my legs found their rhythm and I went into autopilot. I even became (whisper it) quietly optimistic. In fact, on more than one occasion my enthusiastic barrelling down even the more technical and slippery descents earned me a “Well done!” from other runners on my lap who thought I was lapping them; runners who were later confused to find me wombling up the next ascent at slightly less than the pace of an elderly sloth. But I knew my strengths and I knew how to play to them.

The only issue at this point was that my new Altra Timps (bought for their cushioning) weren’t helping. That was weird, especially for Altras; I have little wide-toed narrow-heeled duck feet from a childhood spent barefoot and usually have to go up a size just to fit width-wise, so when I discovered Altra’s toe-shaped toe-boxes and zero-drop I said I’d never look back. The clown shoe Lone Peaks had been doing just fine for me until now, but in my panic I decided I needed something with a chunkier base to help me along on this race. For some reason however Altra decided to shape the Timps like a bloody Jimmy Choo stiletto, all pointy at the front, so they’d started to bash my toes on the downhills. Even wearing them for a few training runs I’d started to notice a pinch, but hoped that was just them wearing in and decided to start with them anyway. Enough of this vanity. I warned Andy I’d be switching to the trusty Lone Peaks for lap four.

The other thing I thought I might need, but really hoped I wouldn’t, was my asthma inhaler. I’d never suffered anything like it until last year when I had to go to A&E with problems breathing during a particularly nasty freelance job and had to be put on Salbutamol to manage it. It was a good few months until my breathing returned to normal, and ever since then the slightest hint of cold has gone straight to my chest and I’ve had to dust the bloody thing off again. I’d managed to avoid the summer cold season, but lo and behold the week before the race I got hit with a respiratory ton of bricks and I’d been relying on the inhaler to the point of almost emptying it. I secretly brought it with me, not telling Andy it was in the bag until I was about to start in case he used it as an excuse to dissuade me from racing. The first couple of laps hadn’t been a problem at all, but as the air got colder and my unfit uphill panting got more pronounced, I knew I’d need to keep it handy.

The pace was, naturally, starting to slow a little by this point, and I got into base when I was supposed to instead of way ahead of the mark. Including the previous pitstop, which again counted in this lap timing, I took 2:53 to complete it – just nine minutes longer than last time. Eating was not exactly easy but I was still managing, and the cup of coffee came up trumps again. Andy bullied me into three cheese and Dorito sandwiches but I had to barter to be allowed to leave with one in my hand, since swallowing all three in one wasn’t happening and I might as well be moving while I eat. Apart from the eating bit, I felt great. I really felt in control. I was almost actively enjoying the race. I got into the checkpoint at five minutes to four, and left it just before ten past – probably too long for a pitstop but I had the time in hand and Andy was wary of my food-avoiding tricks. I got my start-of-lap kiss and my pep talk, switched on the now essential headlamp, and wandered off with a sandwich in my hand like a lost kid on a school trip. And without the inhaler.

As soon as I set off I realised I needed both the inhaler and the loo, but it was just too late for me to turn back to base. Luckily there were public toilets at the cafe about a mile along the course which were still open and I gave myself that mile to hike and eat and catch my breath. The sandwich was going down pretty slowly though; nothing wrong with the food itself, just that my jaw had forgotten how to work. OK, not a tragedy. I took plenty of slugs of water with each mouthful, knowing how easy it is to dehydrate even on a freezing day in late November. As I passed the Gruffalo the second lady passed me; I knew from reports that Cat Simpson was in first place but I had only seen her at the end of my second lap, which coincided with the end of her third, and had somehow missed her lapping me again. It’s just another of the things I like about lap racing, that you see the frontrunners sometimes multiple times and feel the rush of wind as they glide effortlessly past you.

My second loo break (a first for me, I think) seemed to help settle my stomach and reassured me that I wasn’t dehydrating, so I let my legs take over for the downhill first half. By this time we were in the dark, and a pretty profound one at that, since we were often under the cover of trees, so I took extra care with my steps and directions. I was still feeling OK, if a little disappointed that my stomach was already turning, but nowhere near short of calories yet. The first three and a half miles passed without comment and I started trudging up the ascent that would take me up to Go Ape and back down to the checkpoint. It was slow going, but I was still within time.

The eating strategy had become cheese sandwiches at checkpoints and cookies while I walked, keeping a pile stuffed into my pocket. By now I was also sipping at my bottle of Tailwind as the cookies became more and more difficult to chew, and topping up my water bottle at both stops, meaning that I knew I’d have to finish it between stops. It seemed to be working, at least until halfway through that lap. On the climb out of the halfway checkpoint though I started to feel what I can only describe as seasick. Even taking the limited light from my torch into account, the line of the trail in front of me was definitely moving. No time to worry about that though; I’d slowed up quite a lot on this lap already and was slightly over the hour and a half for the first half that I’d hoped to maintain. I pushed on to the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, a long slow descent that leads to the foot of the Snake, trying to keep my balance and not trip over any Gruffalos.

The Snake climb was, surprisingly, a relief from the wobbly horizon – probably because it gave me something to fix on. It was still hard work but a quick systems check told me that my feet were fine – loads better for the change of shoes – my energy levels were fine, even though I was taking a good twenty minutes to chew on a cookie, and my head was still in the game. But my inner ear, that wasn’t at all. The issues with balance were causing motion sickness which meant I had to walk the flats to stop my head spinning, and obviously that meant eating was a struggle. Where had this come from?

When I started to scramble up Gnarking Around for the fourth time, an ascent so steep that if you’re five foot three or less you can be on your hands and knees and still upright, the motion sickness had got much worse. I tried going up backwards which sort of worked for a bit, but in the dark I didn’t trust myself not to stick my ankle in a tree root and go arse backwards straight to the bottom. So, back to the front. The pool of light from my torch had a wobbly halo around it which wasn’t helping, and I even experimented with going without it. Nope. That course in the dark is not a place for experimentation. The end of that lap was a serious struggle. When I reached the gate after the Handrail to Heaven I started lolloping along in what I presumably thought was a sprint, but was must have looked like a drunk donkey missing a leg.

Even so, I was back at base at a quarter past 7, really only three hours and five minutes after leaving. I had a good margin for the final lap – not quite the four hours I was hoping for, but I hadn’t slowed as much as I’d thought. I couldn’t afford to stop for long but I could at least take a few minutes to try to sort my head out. As soon as I passed the timing mat I fell into Andy’s arms, almost knocking over the cup of coffee he held out to me, and told him we had a problem. Straight into business mode he got me into a chair – one he told me I wasn’t allowed to spend long in – and got down to a systems check.

“Andy, I can’t see properly. Everything’s wobbly.”

He did a Knowing face.

“No, it’s not lack of calories. I’m perfectly lucid. I just can’t keep my balance.”

After having to collect me from failed ultra attempts in the middle of nowhere twice before, I was desperate for Andy not to see me in a state. And I wasn’t really in a state, or at least not in the sort of state we’d feared I would be in. This was a totally different situation. He seemed to get it straightaway and to his credit, instead of trying to persuade me to drop out as I thought he would, he ran through the stats and the time I had and started coaxing me back to my feet via a bowl of minestrone soup.  The soup was lovely but I could barely focus on getting the spoon to my mouth, and by the time I’d succeeded at that a few times my body temperature dropped dramatically. I needed to get moving.

We walked the few steps out of the tent and towards the stile for lap 5, and immediately I was floored again. I’ve had vertigo before, and this felt like a really monster version of that. Actually, I’ve always had a tough time judging depths and height – it’s why I can afford to be so daredevil on the downhills I think. I can’t work out what’s underneath my feet so I let my feet work it out, and touch wood they’ve never been wrong. This time though they didn’t have a chance. My inner ear wasn’t having any of it. Andy got me back into a chair next to a gorgeous ball of wool which later turned out to be a Labradoodle named Molly and we mooned over her while pretending that I wasn’t about to pull out.

But I knew I couldn’t go on. I wanted that Grand Slam dinnerplate medal so desperately, I’d have walked over hot coals for it; but this wasn’t something I felt I could push through, especially not if I wasn’t going to see anyone for another hour and a half or more. There wasn’t any problem with fatigue or pain or energy or any of those things. I felt awful for Andy who had given up his day to wait in a freezing field for me, who was willing me on, but I couldn’t risk trying to run when every step made me feel like the wrong end of a bottle of Jager. I handed my number in.

The truth was that there are no excuses; I simply wasn’t equal to this race. And I wasn’t angry about it. I hadn’t really trained enough, in hindsight I probably wasn’t fully recovered from the flu, and I wasn’t willing to risk my safety for my pride. It’s a shame that I couldn’t finish it and that I had to forfeit the Grand Slam in the process, but that’s really all it was in the end: a shame. Not a crushing disappointment, not a deep, self-pitying malaise. What I felt, as we drove home that night, was pride. Pride in our little team, which went further towards getting me to the end than I could alone. Pride in Andy for putting aside his misgivings to give me the best possible support, even pushing me to get the finish when I knew he wanted to take me home and be done with it all. Pride in all those who managed to make that final lap, against the odds. Pride in the tireless and incredibly kind Centurion volunteers who make this pro job look like a walk in the park. This little sport of ours is esoteric to say the best, but the people it attracts are all, in a word, superb – something even Andy was able to appreciate. I was proud of the ultrarunning community, even if I couldn’t be part of it this time.

And what’s more, I loved EVERYTHING about this race. I LOVED IT. The format, the people, the hills – yes, the hills – the weather was perfect, the time of year is ideal, the distance is still my favourite and the scenery and terrain was just unspeakably beautiful. I would do this race a hundred times and even if I never finished it I’d still be happy. It’s brutal, but it’s so worth the pain. I’m resisting the temptation to sign up for any more races until I’ve thought long and hard about what I can realistically do next year – but this and Druids (somehow, even though they’re a fortnight apart) are top of the list so far.

My vertigo/disorientation/seasickness/whatever you want to call it didn’t fully lift until Wednesday of that week – the drive home was made that much more exciting by my pointing out hallucinations like bends in the road that didn’t exist, phantom lorries driving towards us and a person walking along the central reservation without hi-viz. I feel like my preparation for these races has been like a game of whack-a-mole: just as I sort one problem another one pops up and I’m back to square one. Another way of looking at that is, I suppose, experience. I might not have made it this time but I feel that much more equipped to work out where I went wrong and do something about it. But most of all I finally feel like I’m moving in the right direction.

I’ve just got a long way to go yet.

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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…

Moonlight Challenge – fourth time’s the charm

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You can look at endurance sports in one of two ways:

“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”

“The definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.”

I mean, I’ve had a QPR season ticket for the last 8 years, so perhaps a bent for hopeless endurance sports was inevitable.

Here I am then on my fourth outing at the Moonlight Challenge aiming for the elusive fifth lap. Regular readers will remember attempt number one, where I foolishly aimed to nab my first ultra marathon finish on only my second ever long distance race and ended up humbled by the mud; attempt two where I basically chickened out; when number three was stymied by a knee injury I knew I would be back again this year.

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I would be, but two very important people would not. Wendimum, who had been such a regular supporter at Challenge Hub races that she probably qualified for a green number, had moved to The North where the weather comes from; and Mike Inkster, godfather of daft races, had finally handed the Challenge Hub reins over to Traviss and Rachel of Saxons Vikings Normans. The three challenges would now form part of their incredibly prolific portfolio of races, and all I’d heard about SVN was glowing reports. I mean, seriously-are-they-bribing-you glowing reports. Generous goody bags, medals so big and ornate you could pave a driveway with them, cake and beer a staple of every race. I was curious to see if they would do this historic event justice or if the spirit of the Challenge Hub races would simply be lost for ever.

Being Kent-based, the regular faces at SVN were many of the same ones that I knew from Challenge Hub and So Let’s Go Running, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar ground. What became very clear very quickly was that although I was one of a handful of regulars the new RDs would bring a huge field to this relatively tiny race, with many 100 Marathon Club members and wannabes keen to try a rare “new” course. What was also clear is that nobody ever does just one SVN race. This is a community built around the idea that a) literally anyone can finish a marathon – which is true – and b) one marathon is never enough, and nor is a hundred. It’s like the Challenge Hub ethos on acid.

There were a few tweaks to the race, which loyalty insisted I should HATE but practicality forced me to appreciate. Change number one was that the race would start at 4pm, not 6pm, and more importantly that it would be moved forward by 4 weeks so that it fell on the somewhat milder March full moon night, not a bitterly cold and foggy February one. Change number two was the format; instead of a multi-lap race with a limit of five, it would now be an eight-hour race with complete laps counted towards the total, as many as you could finish so long as the final one started before 10:30pm. I hadn’t any other reason to be optimistic about the race given my appalling preparation and my extra stone in weight, but I did cling to the little luxuries these changes afforded.

The biggest luxury, especially given that Wendimum wouldn’t be there, was to have Andy crewing for me. Let’s be clear; Andy is not a runner. He does not find running as exciting as I do. He certainly does not consider the idea of sitting in a barn on a cold Saturday night, with no wi-fi or electricity, for eight full hours sandwiched by a two hour drive there and back, fun. I had to put on my most pathetic face to persuade him to do it. If I was to have any chance of nabbing the fifth lap I would need not to be worrying about driving home on tired legs or finding my food and drinks at each pitstop. At least we found a huge John Deere tractor to use as a base, and Andy got his fill of machinery porn for the day as we set up our camping chairs in front of it.

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Mooching about the start and half-heartedly stretching, I caught snippets of overheard conversations. The usual run-geekery and gossip, then I heard the word “elevation”. Three very serious looking chaps were discussing whether it counted as basically flat or the fact that the bridge over the motorway, which you cross twice per lap, cumulatively contributed to a lot of climbing. I held my tongue, but it was tough. I wanted desperately to jump in and tell them, elevation is not the challenge on this race. There are humps, but if you look back at your Strava when you finish the profile will look flat as a pancake. There’s a bit of mud, but any relatively experienced runner will be well prepared for that – and anyway, everyone here seemed to be wearing Hoka Stinsons and you can’t really be sure where the foot begins and the lugs end with those things. The repetitive nature of the laps aren’t anywhere near as bad a you’d think either; actually I’ve grown to love the rhythmic nature and comforting familiarity of lap format races. No, the challenge is far more insidious than that.

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Judging the flatness of this race is like measuring fractals. Is that flat ground? Sure. No, wait, look closer. Is that a rut? Try again. A rut IN a rut? Getting warmer. This is a farm on the coast, my friend. That’s right – the ground for at least half of each lap has been rained on, churned, dried out, flooded, churned again, dried again, over and over until there isn’t a square foot that isn’t made up of peaks and troughs which are in turn made up of smaller peaks and troughs that redefine infinity. Good luck finding somewhere to land your feet. I’m guessing this is why the race always used to be run in the rainy season.

No time to worry about it now though. Part of my tactics for persuading Andy to come with me was to promise that we could listen to the QPR game on the radio – that turned out to be an optimistic gamble as pointless run-up coverage of the pointless Six F**king Nations filled the airwaves so I left him to grind his teeth in peace while I checked the first section of terrain. I was wearing my comfy zero-drop Altras in the car intending to change into my Salomon Fellraisers for the race itself, but the ground was much harder tham normal and the Fellraisers’ lugs would have shredded my feet looking for mud to bite into. Not having trained much in the zero-drop shoes was presumably an Achilles disaster waiting to happen, but I didn’t have much choice.

On the plus side, Mike made an appearance after all – dressed for once in smart clothes and boots instead of running shoes and jungle shorts, he had a cameo appearance as the race starter. I was so pleased to see him I nearly knocked him over with my hug. An auspicious start, but unless you’ve run a cumulative 200 miles (or more) around one of his fiendishly difficult courses you can’t appreciate the love I have for Mike, who has become the godfather of ultrarunning to me. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, isn’t it? Either way, another good omen for the race ahead.

There wasn’t the usual rocket going off for the start (“the man who was meant to bring it forgot”) but there we were, pretty much bang on 4pm, set loose on the trails of two of Kent’s muddiest coastal farms. The loop is made of (as Traviss perfectly described it) a dumbbell, where one loop is on Brook Farm, the furthest point of which is also the start/finish, the other is Bell Isle Farm, and the crossover is the bridge over the A299. Brook Farm is definitely the marshier of the two and includes the tricky little ridge of holy-crap-what-IS-that-we’re-running-on, which I am informed is only 400 metres long but can assure you is closer to about twenty miles. It’s ankle-turning central round there, and there are no prizes for finishing it first. So, although I held off walking until the fourth lap, I did take that section at a trot rather than a canter.

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The first lap went smoothly, a good opportunity for regulars to reacquaint themselves with the route in the light and for newbies to learn it, for although it’s signposted Brook Farm in particular has a fair few turns that are easy to get wrong. By the second I was a little bored of being a Focused Runner, and tried to chat to a couple of people, and by a happy coincidence bumped into Jimi Hendricks (real name) from the Rebel Runners. I had run this same race with Jimi and Paula for a fair chunk last year, when both were on their third or fourth ever marathon. In the intervening year Jimi, with the help of SVN, had become a marathon running machine and had completed something like 70 more, well on his way to the 100. These are people who absolutely share my ethos for running, and the more I spoke to Jimi the more I learned about the work that SVN do effectively operating their running community as a feeder system for the 100 Marathon Club.

The belief that anyone can finish a marathon or ultra and in fact all those people can easily go on to finish a thousand more if they want to is underpinned by the practice of stripping back the things in races you probably don’t need (chip timing, baggage pens, disco music and coordinated warmups) and focusing instead on the things you do need (logistical support, sense of humour, a fuck ton of food and a pint of beer at the end). By running many of their races as timed events rather than distance ones, the stress of hitting cutoffs or getting drop bags to the right place is eliminated immediately. Of 91 finishers, 22 completed 5 or more laps in the allotted time to bag themselves an ultra (including one man, Alix Ramsier, who made it to 52.8 miles to take the longest distance by a full 2 laps); a further 49 completed a marathon. And the other 20? They all got their finishing time, their medal and their goody bag too. No DNFs, no timeouts. I’ve been listening to the Ultra Runner Podcast obsessively and host Eric Schranz raised this point just recently – if you’re running your first ultra, a fixed time event as opposed to a fixed distance one is definitely the way to go. I’ve got to hand it to SVN, they’ve got this COVERED.

Back to the race. Among the marathon finishers are two people without whom I’m not sure I’d have finished, certainly not with a smile on my face anyway. Simon Lewis and I did a little dance of face-in-a-strange-place “Do I know you?” until we worked out that no, we had not met at previous Challenge Hub Races, no, there was no Kent connection; Simon is in fact another Clapham Chaser and co-Event Director of Tooting Common parkrun. How we found each other all the way out here…  I knew Simon’s face and I knew his name from the weekly club results roundup, but I’d never put the two together before. I’d also never realised there was another Chaser who subscribed to the more is more ethos for race finishes, and who was also well on the way to the 100 Club shirt. We ran half of the second lap together, just as the sun packed itself off to bed, playing chicken with our headtorches. Simon’s finish got him to marathon number 72 and his goal – which I have no doubt he will smash – is to hit the hundred before the end of December. I felt like I was in good company.

About halfway through the third lap, after I’d steamed ahead of Simon with a rare and foolhardy burst of energy, I realised I was back to running a boring loop on my own again and there weren’t even any views to enjoy. Well, there’s the sodium glare of the A299, but it’s hardly anything to write home about. And just as I started grumbling away to myself I came across another lone runner similarly wondering why the hell we were staring at a main road. Claire turned out to be more excellent company for what was becoming the slog part of the race. A lifelong film buff, she remains the first person I’ve ever met who does now for a living what she wanted to do when she was a little girl: a graphic designer that makes film posters. We chatted easily for a lap and a half, a good eleven miles that I barely noticed passing.  In that irreverent way that you do when you meet someone you click with, we discussed GI issues on the run, favourite ways to fuel (both having recently dicovered Tailwind), why do romcom posters always have black and red Arial font on a white background, and Kiera Knightley. It turned out that she’d read my blog before (poor woman) and we shared URLs before we parted at the end of lap four.

I was genuinely gutted to lose Claire for the final lap but she had already pretty much made my race. She forced me to slow a little and walk the occasional inclines, which I’m usually loathe to do but always always regret later on, and I’m positive that that gave me the energy to make it through the final lap. Before I started Andy and I did a little mental calculation and worked out that by giving it a bit of welly I could actually be done with this lap in about hour and a quarter and make the six and a half hour watershed for starting the last one, but it would be a bit stupid to rush and risk injury. Plus, Andy really did not want to be there for another hour and a half. No, I would learn the lessons that Claire had taught me and take it easy for this lap. And since I’d be on my own I put my headphones in for the first time to listen to an interview with my hard-work hero, Jamie Mackie, on the QPR podcast. And off I went.

The zero-drop shoes were, surprisingly, a dream. Given the hardness of the ground and the lack 0f practice running in them I really expected to crash out with an Achilles nightmare (2016 had been that sort of year) but my calves, knees and feet were absolutely fine. I mean, slightly sore in the way that legs that have run a marathon tend to be, but not the sort of sore that actually stops you; in fact I felt as strong as I had in the second lap. Perhaps Altra are onto something here – why the hell are they so hard to find in the UK? I did a bit of shoegazing and saw a ton of Hokas, some Salomons, the occasional Inov-8 (I tried some of those again last week and they’re definitely dolls’ shoes, not made for duck feet like mine) but definitely no other Altras.

The Focused Runner approach actually seemed to be working for me and I kept a steady and not disrespectable pace up for three quarters of the lap before I became conscious of myself ramping up. Then I came across the windmill which marks the final straight, about half a mile of road which goes a bit up and then lots down, and I bloody went for it. The balls of my feet burned, my glutes started firing, my arms pumping as if I was on the Mall at the end of the London Marathon. It hurt, but it hurt good. A hop and a skip through the open barn door and I rang the bell to say I was done – 9 seconds after the final lap cutoff. Worth it. And the goody bag was, true to form, unspeakably good…

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Andy had to concede it wasn’t the worst time he’d ever had, and I think he finally understood what I see in this daft sport when he met the other characters that make it what it is. For my part I don’t think I’ve ever finished a race that strongly, and it gave me a huge boost for the Centurion 50 Mile Grand Slam – something which, with the first race only four weeks away, I was terrified about. After a dismal year of injury upon exhaustion on top of weight gain added to laziness this race really hit my reset buttons  – and obviously the first thing I did when I got home was sign up for the first random SVN race that wasn’t aleady sold out (August). Traviss and Rachel have done a fantastic job of keeping the Challenge Hub spirit alive and I’m sure Mike is relieved to know his races are in good hands. Me, I’m just glad to have my mojo back. God I’ve missed this.

Ask me again in four weeks.

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Woldingham to Wimbledon

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Last year was a great year of running for me. I maintained a daily mile streak, and at least one official marathon each calendar month (16 in total). PBs fell all over the shop, and every time I did better than I thought it gave me the confidence to try harder. This year, not so much. It was bound to be a slightly fallow year in comparison, but (to continue the agricultural metaphor) whereas grass can still grow through paving stones running results don’t happen without actually running. And running has really not happened.

As I lined up for my second attempt at the North Downs 100 in August, having been unable to run a number of training races I was hoping to because of work commitments, I realised that I hadn’t finished an official marathon or even added a medal of any kind to my collection since London in April. Not that that’s such a long time between races, but for someone used to being the Mr T of running medals it gnawed at me. As it turned out, the North Downs Way 100 didn’t result in an official finish either so I headed towards the end of August feeling slightly less fabulous than I’d like to, not to mention heavier and less graceful than ever, and I missed the trail miles. So, I scanned teh interwebs for something nearby, low key, muddy and fun, and found the inaugural Woldingham Marathon. In three days’ time.

The route is a two lap loop which covers a couple of hills from the North Downs Way, and helpfully diverts to the one massive hill on the Vanguard Way where the two bisect in the middle too, before looping back to the start/finish in Woldingham School. The diversion up Oxted Downs is really only there to make up miles and offer physical and psychological torture, since all you do when you get to the top is go straight back down again and carry on along the rest of the route (also uphill), and this particularly simplistic brand of sadism is half the fun. Plus, it means the route is shaped kind of like a bum, cleft and all, and who doesn’t like tracing rude pictures with their runs?

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It was exactly what I needed. I arrived at the school vaguely entertaining ideas of a four and a half hour finish, then recognised the area, and quickly downshifted my expectations through five hours, five and a half hours and not looking at the time at all. And then I bumped into fellow Chaser Alex Visram who, in preparation for the Ultra Trail Mount Fuji (the Japanese UTMB, so even madder) had signed up for what he delicately called a “training run”. We bought on the day entries, drank coffee and caught up with a few familiar faces, then fifty or so runners (and one dog) doing either the one-lap half marathon or the two-lap full took off with the bang of the starters pistol (an unexpected bonus to the organisers who seemed as surprised as we did to hear it).

Alex and I started off together but it became painfully obvious that he was running well within his easy pace. He was kind enough to keep me company for a good half lap though, including up to the top of Oxted Downs and back down again, coaching me through my recent running woes all the way. Alex is one of the Clapham Chasers’ ultra kings and full of good advice on how to get through a race, although as one might expect from a seasoned ultrarunner his advice is pretty no-nonsense. I told him about my issues with nausea and fear of sickness through the North Downs 100, and his response didn’t pull any punches. “Jaz, if you want to run 100 miles somewhere along the way you have to accept that being sick is part of it. You can’t be put off by stuff like that. It’s like saying you don’t want to run long distances because you’re afraid of getting blisters.” It was sort of brutal and sort of liberating at the same time, hearing that. It reinforced a perspective that I viewed for the first time just a few weeks before – my ability to finish a 100 miler is a matter of choice. Either I want it enough that I’ll get over the unpleasant details, or I don’t want it enough. That’s all there is to it.

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As we neared Titsey Hill he spied a regular rival a few paces ahead, and decided that as he wasn’t going for the win today he at least wanted to finish ahead of this guy, and off he went – zoom. There was actual dust at his heels, and this was a rainy day. This same stretch had been torture to me just three weekends before, an exposed plain by the side of the M25 with a singletrack barely wide enough for two feet, which under the height of summer sun seems to take forever to cover. Today it was a totally different story – refreshing, slightly treacherous but in a fun way, a flat stretch providing temporary relief from the climb-them-don’t-walk-them hills. As I made my way into the clearing by the Titsey Plantation I fell into step with a gentleman who was no more eager to run uphill than me, and we chatted to distract ourselves from the task.

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Geoff – a colourblind surgeon, and veteran runner who was preparing for his first ultra in September after having run his first marathon in 1981 – was a fascinating companion, and we were well on our way back to the start/finish point before I noticed how much time had passed. It felt quite a lot like a social trail run, rather than a race; at least, I was treating it that way. I needed to rediscover the love of running itself, and dissociate the fear of failure from the act of the exercise. Focusing on the more social part of the activity sort of hit my reset button.

We talked at length about his career as a reconstructive surgeon, and I asked all manner of daft questions:
“Does being colourblind affect your work, when you’re doing intricate things like veins and arteries?”
“Well no, arteries and veins are different sizes anyway…” *looks at me as if I’m retarded* “What’s the worst job you ever had to do?”
“Skin grafts on burned children.” *awkward silence*
As time passed we realised each of us were dragging the other person along by turns, and that overall we were pretty much bob on the same pace, so as we climbed Titsey Hill the second time we agreed to finish together come what may.

As we passed the water station the final time with three miles to go, the volunteers told me I was currently fourth lady. It was the first time I’d really considered our positions in the context of the race. Gentleman Geoff urged me to push on, but since there wasn’t anyone behind us for miles and (I reasoned) there were probably only five women in the race anyway I preferred to stick with the plan to finish together hand in hand, and that’s exactly what we did. A watershed moment in the year that running forgot, I bagged a medal, a friend and a race that I enjoyed all the way through. I just can’t get bored of tootling around the Surrey hills and chatting and eating biscuits – and the silly thing is, I already know that abstract achievements like this drive me more than calculable results ever have. Not to mention ticking off another marathon on the list to 100; another huge moment, considering the last time I’d officially done that was April. I’d started to wrestle back control.

So Woldingham was almost as impulsive a marathon as it’s possible to get, but it was absolutely worth it. On the other hand, the Suunto Run Wimbledon marathon had been on the cards since July when I was drawn in by a Facebook advert for the inaugural race. The race was four squiggly laps around the common, offering 10k, half marathon, solo marathon and relay marathon options. Nearby and low-key, mostly offroad (I assumed), sponsored by my favourite brand of running watch, something about free marshmallows. Yep, sign me up.

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It would also be a good opportunity to get out the headtorch; the race was due to start at 4pm on the Saturday meaning that the second half would be run after dusk, under cover of trees which blocked out what little moonlight broke through the clouds, in effectively pitch darkness. I’m a bit of a wimp when it comes to running on little or no sleep but I do love a race in the dark, especially one that starts late and necessitates an afternoon nap. And that’s pretty much all I knew about it until the Wednesday before. Once again, my failure to do race research would define my experience.

As I warmed up in the start/finish area in a clearing near the Windmill, I bumped into another Chaser trail regular Igor, who was returning to running with a stab at the half marathon after a busy year creating new human beings. Sticking with the theme of “this is a social run with a medal, not a race” we covered the first two laps together in a comfortable but not easy 2:05, chatting the whole way through about life, the universe and everything. As someone who grew up in the Soviet Union, moved to the US and there became a citizen before settling in the UK, Igor is a fascinating person to talk to/interrogate with daft questions; we covered Brexit, global economics, parenthood, the two hour marathon, America optimism vs Russian cynicism and why Turkish people are so charmingly blunt, all with the help of natural daylight. After the second lap I waved Igor on his way, downed a gel and set up my torch for the remainder of the race, as dusk was threatening to descend at a moment’s notice. And then I realised I needed the loo.

As if someone had switched the lights off we were plunged into darkness for lap three, apart from the half mile or so around the A3 subway lit by sodium lamps (frankly, I preferred the darkness) and it became more important than ever to watch where my feet were going. Igor and I had both had a couple of near misses even when the light was good, so there was no need for heroics; then again, the pressure was growing in my bladder with at least an hour to the next possible loo stop so I didn’t exactly want to dawdle. Being a lap race it was difficult to tell where in the field I was (although I assumed it must be a way towards the back) and the 10k and half marathon runners were mostly finished by this point. With the exception of a girl from the 100 Marathon Club who I caught up with a couple of times then gave up trying to follow, I found myself basically on my own.

When I got to the end of lap three I was flagging a little, having pretty much run 20 miles on one gel, and I passed the timing mat around 3:20. Not great, but not a disaster. I pulled over to ask one of the marshals if I could use the loo without being disqualified and she stared at me with horror. While I wondered if I’d broken some sort of running etiquette by asking to use the loo, she composed herself enough to ask if I had another lap to go.

“Yeah, this is my third. One more to go.”
“Well… you can use the loo, but the cutoff is four hours. Are you going to be finished by then?”

It took me a moment to a) process that she was asking if I’d finish the RACE within four hours not the toilet trip and b) that she was asking if I would finish a 6.5 mile lap, in the dark, in the woods, in under 40 mins. I admitted that I would not. “So, will I be allowed to finish?”

She had to go and find the race director to get confirmation that I’d be allowed to continue while I waited for an agonising 5 minutes, during which I was even too afraid to leave the timing area for the loo in case I’d missed another crucial rule. How did I miss that the cutoff for the race was 4 hours? I definitely didn’t remember seeing it before I’d signed up, as even Optimistic Jaz wouldn’t be that reckless, and I racked my memory for a clue in the race day instructions I’d read before coming out. I remembered (and a little bit ignored) the headphones rule, I remembered deciphering the squiggly map, I remembered that there was no food or gel on offer but that there would be water… then I vaguely remembered a comment about being done in 8 hours so the organisers could go to the pub and thinking how generous that was. Bit of mental arithmetic followed: 4pm plus 8 hours does not equal being able to go to the pub. In retrospect, I reasoned, perhaps the rule was actually “finish by 8pm”. Ah.

Eventually I got a reassurance that I could continue and officially finish, but there would be no medical assistance and no marshals. Not a problem to me, a seasoned night-time runner and part-time Womble, but it got me to thinking how you could expect the last finisher to finish within four hours; and moreover why wouldn’t you advertise that more before you even take anyone’s money? Four hours is pretty punchy for an off-road marathon, half of which is in the dark; although arguably only by today’s standards. I thought about veteran Chaser Rob who started running marathons in the early 80s when he admitted to often coming plum last despite finishing in under three and a half hours. I didn’t really have the right to get angry at the organisers, I told myself, when I hadn’t even read the instructions properly. I even considered pulling out halfway through the final lap so as not to make anyone hang around too long, but eventually decided the best I could do would be to finish what I’d started.

Dragging myself through the inevitable 20 mile crash (one Gu gel and three Shot Bloks in, I now realise it was also the least well fuelled marathon I’d ever run) I tried to push as hard as my legs would allow while still maintaining some control. I switched from audiobook to upbeat ska punk (thank God for the staple Less Than Jake playlist) and ploughed on, with absolutely no other runners, no marshals, no people at all in sight. Even if I didn’t officially finish and get my bling, it would be important to me to overcome my doubts and finish, to prove to that negative voice in my head that it didn’t rule me. I skipped along to the blaring music through the eastern edge of the common, over ground that forms part of the Wimbledon parkrun lap, enjoying the familiarity and pretending it was a summer Saturday morning. And then everything was suddenly black and silence.

Where am I? You’re face down in the soil on Wimbledon Common.
Why do my hands hurt? Uh, you Supermanned it. Covered a good 6 feet gliding along the floor. Probably.
How? A tree root, I imagine. What else? Dickhead.
Holy fuck why can’t I hear anything am I deaf- No, you’re not. You landed on your iPod shuffle and paused it. Also you bruised your hip landing on the iPod. But check the iPod first.
My knees are screaming they’re going to fall off. No, they’re not. But they’re pretty bruised too.

I picked myself up and tested the weight on my fragile joints; adrenalin coursed through me so I couldn’t really feel what was damaged and what wasn’t, and that seemed like good enough reason to coast on it while it lasted, so I restarted my music and carried on running. My right hand in particular was pretty badly cut – two gouges caused by hitting a piece of branch on the floor had been stuffed with soil from the momentum of my fall, and nothing I could do would get it out. There wasn’t any help except at the end, so the end was where I needed to get. I laughed at myself remembering the last fall I’d had was another Superman slide along Wimbledon Common, a quarter of a mile up the trail, running the Wimbledon Half Marathon earlier this year. I’m nothing if not consistent.

The adrenalin did its thing – I ploughed on at something slightly faster than walking pace, crossed the finish line to a one-man reception who handed me my medal (yay!), my marshmallows (double yay!) and a sympathetic smile. I thanked him and asked if there were many more people to come. “No dear. Just you.” And that was how I got my first ever last finisher. All those times I freaked out about being the last person on the course when I first started running in 2012; I couldn’t help but giggle. Having done it, it was actually sort of liberating.

When Chasers’ results guru Graham Sutherland posted up his weekly roundup on Monday evening it was the first time I’d even considered my race position (except for being, you know, DEAD LAST), so I was pretty surprised to discover that I was aso technically second lady. That’s right – the 100 Marathon Club girl that I had been trying to keep up with was the only other girl doing the full marathon. This lofty accolade was confirmed a couple of weeks later when I went to the Post Office to pick up what I thought was a parcel of bedding, and discovered instead an amazing 25l running backpack/drybag and a handful of Buffs as my second lady prize. I’ve never got a podium position before either, so getting both that and the wooden spoon in the same race deserves a prize of its own, I think. And I suppose, in finally regaining my sense of humour, I did. Which is the best possible prize I could have picked up.

On reflection, I got to the end of 2015 feeling a little tired but overall pretty fit, and like a much better person than I used to be; not so many temper tantrums or panic attacks, with a more positive perspective in general. The new job and the tiredness (and the partner increasingly worried that I’d joined some sort of exercise cult) persuaded me that I needed to dial back a little and recharge this year, whereupon the first thing that happened was a classic overuse injury, my first ever. Was this the delayed effect of last year’s exertions or was it because I’d stopped doing daily exercise that had previously helped ward off niggles and promoted faster recovery? In February, I’d have been easily persuaded that it was the former; now, the latter seems unquestionably true, especially corroborated by other daily run streak runners I know. Because it’s what I want to believe. I want to believe that running a mile or more every day and a marathon every month is good for me physically, because psychologically it turned my life around. That part isn’t in question at all for me, as anyone who knows me knows what a grumpy cow I’ve been this year. Running every day makes me happy. Or at least, it makes me hate the world and everyone in it marginally less.

On a slightly more sophisticated level, I have to acknowledge that happiness also comes from a sense of achievement where success is measured against expectation. All year I’ve had my expectations set somewhere between where they were last November when I was in much better shape, and the moon; no wonder that I was struggling to reach any of the targets I’d set and have been consequently feeling deflated. In my mind I was prepared or the fact that this year would be a bit of a plateau and hadn’t planned to go for any big goals or expect the leaps and strides I had last year – treating the whole year more like a rest and recovery period, I suppose – but in my heart I was still persuading myself that I should go for a 3:35 marathon and finish a 103 mile trail race on a month of no rest. A perfect recipe for unhappiness.

So how do I get happy? Trusting in my year out, making the rest and recovery work for me not the other way round, making decisions by looking at what I want to achieve not from FOMO are all good starts. The sense of humour, that’s the clincher. This shit is meant to be FUN. In the spirit of which (don’t laugh) I’ve decided to focus on the Centurion 50 milers next year before even considering upgrading to a 100 again – although, because I’m a borderline compulsive, I’m going for the four race grand slam (obviously) – and I’ve asked for help this time too. My early New Year’s Resolution will simply be to give myself a realistic target and trust in the awesome support network that the Chasers offers. After “eat more cake” that’s about as easy a resolution to keep as there is.

I mean, I love running. We all do. Otherwise, what the hell are we doing here?

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London Marathon 2016

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Nothing can prepare you for it. There are no words to describe the crushing blows of sound coming from the crowds, the pressing mass of bodies moving around you, pushing you always forward, though the twenty six mile tunnel lined by impenetrable, unscalable walls. Even if you wanted to bail out you couldn’t. The only way out is at the end. So, get to the end.

I don’t have a great track record with crowds. I’m definitely better than I used to be, better than when I wrote about zombies, but given the choice between open trails and thronged city streets… well, the road shoes aren’t getting much wear. So why am I doing this? In the days after the race I’m amused by how many people – even those who know me and how many marathons or ultras I’ve done before – want to hear all about it, much more than my previous races, as if it’s a league apart from any other marathon in difficulty or involvement. It’s just another road marathon, in theory. Except it’s not; it’s a national event, a city-wide gala, the zenith of many running careers. Despite the ever-lengthening odds of your average Joe actually getting a place on the starting line London is often either their first or last marathon (or both). Especially to someone living in London, it’s a tangible, real thing, not just a thing that happens somewhere else and well done. On a year that will celebrate the millionth finisher, how many Londoners have either run it or know someone who has? Just for one day, they’re all a little bit of a celebrity.

And there I am, as far away from a natural celebrity as it’s possible to be.

About a week before clubmate Cat admitted she was planning to take it easy at London because she was targeting a podium finish at the Pembrokeshire CTS Marathon the following weekend (as you do), and luckily for me her easy pace is my balls out PB pace, so I had myself a companion. We ran to ExCel on the Friday to traipse around the expo and buy tat we didn’t need, and to talk tactics. Broadly speaking, ‘tactics’ involved me wavering between 3:45 for another good for age qualifier and trying to persuade myself maybe I could do 3:30 after all, followed by Cat firmly and sensibly insisting that a) she can’t afford to do that and b) I probably can’t either. So, I picked up a 3:40 pacing band, then a 3:35 one for good luck as well, then my body weight in Clif products. I’d been marauding around looking for a pair of pink running shorts (because it’s the only obscene colour I don’t own) and maintaining that I’d NEVER wear tights or capri pants for running; meanwhile, half an hour later, there I am carrying away one pair of grey patterned capri pants and zero shorts or pink things. Cat would have her work cut out for her.

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Despite there being another huge Chaser turnout I travelled to Maze Hill alone on Sunday morning intending to meet Cat and the others there. It wasn’t so much me being unsociable, although I do like a bit of alone time before a race; I just like to get to the race start two hours in advance, partly to be prepared but mostly to avoid the busy trains. By 8am I was mooching around the Green Start, trying not to bump into Kelly Holmes while glued to my phone looking for a message from Cat; fast forward an hour and a half, and as the announcer made increasingly hysterical pleas for the runners to drop off their bags there was still no sign of her or any of the Chasers. I had to hand my bag in, phone and all, and hope we’d spot each other at the starting pens. Literally minutes before we were due to line up the familiar blue and green stripes flashed by and I found Cat, Korkoi, Kate and Shermayne haggling with the marshals at the pens, hoping to be allowed to start together. Panic over. For now.

Which pen should I be in anyway – what was I realistically aiming for? Only the night before the expo I discovered that my result in Manchester 2015, the result that gave me the Good For Age entry to London in the first place, was now null and void thanks to a man with a dodgy measuring wheel. It was irritating enough to have put so much work in, got my qualifying time for two Londons and then have it taken away; I can’t imagine how infuriating it must be to those who got a significant result, a podium or a PB to retire on. Up to that point I had been realistic about how well a winter of no speed training and a stone gained in weight could actually prepare me; now of course I would have to try and requalify if I ever wanted to run London again. I can’t raise £2000 for a charity place and the ballot entry odds aren’t even as good as the lottery any more. So, do I accept this is probably my first and last opportunity to run London and just enjoy it, knowing that I’ve much bigger fish to fry between now and September? Or do I go for suicide pace and bugger the consequences?

In retrospect, I massively underestimated just how busy it was going to be; not helped by the fact that we were in the relatively quiet Green Start, and not actually catching up with the crowds until a few miles in. We crossed the line – Cat in her usual gentle forefoot trot, me skipping along with Andrew W.K. party moves – only a minute or so after 10am and filtered through the peaceful streets of Greenwich, jostling and being jostled as you do at the beginning of a race. It made me uneasy as it usually does, but I kept telling myself it’d be fine when we crowds thinned out. To Cat’s credit, every time I said so out loud she corrected me – “Jaz, this is London, it’s not going to get any less busy” – and yet somehow I managed to gloss over this crucial piece of advice every time… until, that is, we merged with the other two start pens. As we came down the slope to river’s edge around Charlton a tidal wave of runners met us from one side and the volume of people more than doubled in an instant. It looked like the scene in the Lion King where Simba sees his father crushed by a stampede of wildebeests. I’m not going to get too crude about it, but I’m pretty sure this was around the time my nausea kicked in.

Like the country mice visiting the town mice Cat and I lifted our chins as gracefully as we could, thinking about the trails and pretending we weren’t inches away from other people’s sweat. We chatted about the weather, about other people, about the finer points of existence – we might as well have been two old ladies taking afternoon tea at the Penrith Tea Rooms. The crowd was carrying us along at slightly above our target pace but if we didn’t want to cause a pile-up there wasn’t much we could do about it; there was no moving out to one side or slowing down and allowing others to pass. Every time someone brushed my arm it made me bristle a shudder a little more though, and it was getting pretty difficult to hide. Every half a mile or so we’d both look at our watches, cheerfully announce we were going too fast and should probably slow down, then carry on regardless. Some serious classic British stiff upper lip denial going on.

I had started the race with half a bottle of Lucozade in my hand intending to throw it somewhere convenient within a mile – at Bermondsey I’m still clinging to it like a Linus blanket when I hear my name called off to the left. We’d just settled into a comfortable stride in a relatively quiet stretch, and perfect timing it was too; fellow QPR fan Cez was waving frantically while Loft For Words’ Neil, positioned a little further along with his ubiquitous camera, was snapping away. I’ve spent a lot of Saturdays in the pub with Neil and his camera and I’m always impressed by how he manages to catch a perfect moment. It wasn’t so much that I hadn’t been enjoying myself before, but I felt such a rush of relief to see them both it was impossible to hide and his lens picked up the very instant a grin blossomed across my already sweaty, salty face. There was the boost to get me to Tower Bridge.

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(C) Neil Dejyothin 2016 – http://www.neildejyothin.com

Cat warned me that Tower Bridge can be a particularly emotional moment; I wasn’t that convinced to be honest, especially as I run across it quite a lot in my usual Friday lunchtime loop around work. As lovely a sight as it is it’s also normally a nasty congestion point, trying to weave through the narrow walkways past people with no haste and no idea where they are, and I can’t really settle down until I’m past it. Today it was a whole different place altogether. Today we were running along the road, the two narrow walkways crammed with spectators screaming and raising a right ruckus around us. The sound swelled and burst through those iconic tower supports, washing over us and pouring into the tide of the Thames below, and for the first (although not last) time I burst into tears. Ah. So this is what everyone was trying to tell me about.

OK, so yeah. That redefines special. I can’t say I enjoyed it, but I’ve certainly never felt anything like it.  And it set a tone for much of the next four or five miles – the route flanked by two walls of noise, surging and rushing over us. Cat ran slightly ahead of me through the Isle of Dogs and Poplar, which suited me absolutely fine. I couldn’t concentrate on where I was putting my feet or the path ahead of me – I just had to follow her ankles and not look up at all the people. Every half a mile or so the overwhelming noise would hit me again and knock me literally breathless; I would clamp my hands over my ears and catch my breath in sobs until it passed. At least twice I actually blacked out briefly, and when the cloud cleared from my eyes I found myself back in a relatively quiet stretch with no recollection of how we got there. And absolutely no way out except forward.

I had arranged for Andy and his family to be stationed along this stretch just after Tower Bridge as it meant that I would see them twice when the route doubled back. It was a great idea in theory, even though I knew it would be a popular spot for exactly this reason, but as usual I had underestimated just how busy it was and therefore how hard it would be to spot them. I ran for a good three miles, scanning the crowd for a glimpse of him or the QPR flag he said he’d be waving, and being horribly antisocial to Cat all the while. Every step I took without seeing him thumped me in the chest. Maybe he’s a bit further down… maybe he couldn’t find a spot there.. maybe they misunderstood… maybe not. It’s silly really, since he’s never at my races, but this one was the one he’d always said he’d be there for, and the one time I knew I’d really need to see him. Eventually, I had to concede defeat and hope we’d catch each other on the return journey. Cat reassured me that he must have been there, he would have seen me – it’s just that I couldn’t see him in the crowd. I knew it was true, but it didn’t make me feel much better. If I had been monitoring my heartrate I’m sure it would have registered such dramatic peaks and troughs as to make an ECG look like a seismograph.

As industrial East London unfolded and everything started looking like the road to the ExCel centre, another familiar sight appeared. Katherine French, stalwart of the road marathon and secret trail fanatic was just a few yards ahead accompanied by her pacer Chris. Aiming for a safe Boston Qualifier time of around 3:30, Katherine and Chris had passed us a long way back as the three groups merged way back in Woolwich and Katherine had the look of a determined lady; by now though she was struggling, stopping to walk and looking downcast. It broke my heart to see her in trouble – I wanted to stop and run with her for a bit, but she had one of the best pacers money (or rather, love and wine) could buy with her already and the last thing she would have wanted was more fuss. Seeing someone else that I admire so much having a crap time just added to the feeling that this just wasn’t fun. I missed the mud and the jelly babies and even though they were right there with me, I missed my friends.

By this point we’re deep in DLR territory and approaching three quarters of the way through. I kept telling myself that next time we passed a fuel station I would pick up a gel or a Lucozade, but by mile 20 I hadn’t managed to do either, whether because I simply couldn’t get to the edge of the pack to reach or because I was afraid of getting tripped up. My stomach was starting to cramp, looking for calories to process which I hadn’t been able to take on, and although I wasn’t feeling tired or sluggish at all I could feel my body crying at me to slow down until the nausea passed. I persisted with the logic that the quicker I went the sooner I’d get to a quiet fuel station, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary. We were a good couple of miles past the last gel station before I realised I had missed my last chance. Time had to go out of the window now.

As we approached Shadwell on the return journey I kept my eyes peeled for Andy – surely I couldn’t miss him twice? I was starting to panic now, although I don’t know why I’d suddenly decided that seeing Andy for a brief moment was more likely to get me to the end than having the patient, tireless and graceful Cat by my side the entire time had been. Cat who never once complained about my being distant and unsociable, about the burden of my reliance on her, about the fact that our pace had started to slow and our muscles in danger of cooling. She was a rock all the way through, but she had her own race to think about a week later. She let me drift off to the side of the pack while I scanned every face in the crowd looking for Andy, and when I finally found him there was a brief shriek, a little jump, and then we were past and they long behind us, on the way to the finish. That little boost I had been looking for came and went almost without a chance to register, and the nausea that had been held at bay by the distraction of searching for him came back with a vengeance. After another mile I told her to go on without me. There was no chance of me making my time now, and no point in her risking injury.

The pressure relieved somewhat I trotted along under the underpass, by Blackfriars bridge and along the Embankment where I had run hundreds of times before. Every time I do this route with work I imagine being on the road, running the last few miles to the finish at the Mall; now I was on the other side, wishing I was back on the pavement. I was doing the classic juggling act: walking as much as I could to avoid being sick until the encouragement from onlookers embarrassed me enough to try and trot again, then slowing back down to a walk when I was safely past. I didn’t care about time any more, and I knew I’d still be able to take away the fact that I’d finally finished my first London. I had the support of my club and my family and I had my health, and that was that. It’s not meant to be easy, but as everyone had tried to tell me it does remind you of the goodwill of strangers – never mind my fear of crowds it’s not as if they were malicious or threatening mobs, just a lot of people who had all given up their day to tell total strangers that they believed in them. That’s why it’s different from other marathons, I suppose. Maybe, twitchy little misanthrope that I am, it’s just not for me.

No longer worrying about time I tried to help a couple of other runners who had slowed down, but who looked like they still had a final push left within them – it didn’t seem fair to be overtaking anyone at this stage when I had given up so long ago. The final mile leading to the Mall was a reflective one, but an awesome spectacle nonetheless. This bit I wouldn’t give up for the world – with one last burst of energy I leapt hurdle style over the finish line, stumbled into the marshals holding out medals, and burst into tears. While I waited for my chest to loosen up and my breathing to settle I turned around to watch the finishers behind me coming through, hoping to see Katherine and Chris among them. Those waves of triumph and pain coming through the final arch are what defines any marathon, and it was worth scanning all those faces to pick Katherine out. Seeing her finish represented to me a symbol of strength, of someone who regularly sets themselves standards so high that most people would baulk at attempting let alone be disappointed not to reach them. They came through a few minutes later, both looking calm and composed in comparison to my snot and sobs, and we exchanged sweaty hugs. I was done. We were done.

My mum had been hoping to catch me at the end after her volunteering shift but couldn’t get through the crowds in time, so I met Andy and his family at the meeting point and we went straight back to Earlsfield. Running for nearly four hours on no calories had taken its toll on my complexion and apparently I was looking grey and slurring, a real poster girl for the virtues of exercise, so we hobbled off to a local pub for a full Sunday lunch which I barely touched, although a couple of virgin coladas went down a treat. If that had been the only evidence of the effect of a marathon on the human body I wouldn’t have blamed them for never wanting to try it for themselves but just a couple of weeks later Andy’s sister Emma was asking my advice on shoes and how to train for the Brighton half and parkrun and all sorts. That’s exactly what I’d hope someone would take away from my grey pallor and limp and hypoglycaemia and shivers. It’s fun, but it’s not what you think I mean by fun. And everybody should try it.

It’s not the sort of fun that’s fun while you’re having it, transient fun that exists while it’s happening and disappears into the ether as soon as it’s finished, an unsatisfying and impermanent sort of fun. Cat calls it fun type 2: the afterburn of fun; fun that is had not at the time necessarily but after the hard work and stress has been experienced, and which lasts for weeks afterwards, in the form of memories and a sense of achievement and a change in your outlook. I’ve still never quite managed to articulate the answer to the question “why do you do this” but that’s fairly close. And, you know, the goody bags and the bling make up for it all.

I can tell you probably don’t believe me. I wouldn’t either. All I can say is, try it for yourself and see.

Funky graphs and stats below (I couldn’t resist):

London Marathon 2016 - finish infographic 4London Marathon 2016 - finish infographic 5London Marathon 2016 - finish infographic 6London Marathon 2016 - finish infographic London Marathon 2016 - finish infographic 3   London Marathon 2016 - finish infographic 2

PS: If you like reading, or running, or reading about running, then you should follow Katherine’s blog girlrunningcrazy.com – winner of Best Running Blog at the Trespass Blog Awards 2015. Hell yes.