I’ve tried twice before to complete one of James Elson’s races and both finished with a colossal bonk two thirds of the way in and a DNF. Granted, both attempts were for the North Downs Way 100, where in 2015 I attempted the distance only three weeks after my qualifying 50 mile race – not a recommended time frame for doubling distance – and in 2016 where I didn’t even commit to doing it until the week before, let alone train. Ahem. Perhaps it’s time to reevaluate my approach.
So my challenge for 2017 is to take a step back and focus on a more manageable task, relatively speaking. Not to underplay the difficulty of the Centurion races, but as soon as I got home from deepest darkest Kent for the second time and dumped all the uneaten food out of my race vest I decided to sign up for the 50 Mile Grand Slam in 2017: four races across the year along the South Downs, North Downs, Chilterns and Wendover Woods with the promise of an extra bit of bling for finishing all four. If I can train for and normalise a 50 mile race, I might have half a chance of getting past Holly Hill.
Getting as far as the finish of the first race would however take a dramatic change in circumstances. My running routine had ground almost to a halt in 2016, and my work schedule had gone from crazy to totally insane. You can’t train for a 50 mile race by getting your knickers in a twist every time you miss a run, especially when you miss more runs than you make. So, for physical and mental reasons, I decided to restart my daily mile run streak. If I wasn’t going to get the volume of training required to finish the races I at least wanted consistency, and a change in priorities.
So, what could I do to prepare if I couldn’t do the mileage? A busy bit of scheduling at the beginning of the year meant that I was working every other weekend, not to mention many early mornings and evenings, so unfortunately social runs with the Chasers would be out. Loops around the common would have to be enough practice of off-road running, and occasionally doing flat out mile loops around home would take the place of speedwork. Other than that I slotted runs in wherever they fitted with the day’s work – running to and from the tube station usually. It’s only a couple of miles but when it has to be done with a heavy backpack – work clothes and shoes, laptop, lunch, stuff I forgot to take out – it makes for good strength training. And it’s more reliable than the bus.
I also restarted my running diary, which made a lot more sense when there was something to write in it every day, to track my progress on both fronts and keep a count of my weekly mileage. Lining up a few marathons to get back into the rhythm of racing really helped give me something to look forward too as well, not to mention the fact that bought and paid for races were harder to justify missing when weekend work popped up. My fourth attempt at the Moonlight Challenge finally saw me finishing the fifth lap, and the confidence boost that gave me became a massive turning point in my training. If I can get that far I can hike the rest.
Two things drove me to the end of the race. One was the experience of finishing the distance – although that’s a double edged sword, because it brings a calculable standard and the temptation to beat it – and the other was my overall goal to finish the grand slam. When running one race the definition of failure is quitting one race; when running a series the definition of failure in any one is failure of all of them. From one perspective that’s added pressure, but from another it’s the removal of the possibility of voluntary DNF. That’s the mindset I took with me to the start line at Worthing, anyway.
The weather forecast was good. Let me rephrase: the weather forecast was good for sun worshippers, less so for ultra runners and ducks. Not for the first time I let my Mediterranean bombast get the better of me and refused the many offers of sun cream; I would pay for that decision later with peeling earlobes and sore shoulders. It was a comforting, homely warmth when we set off at nine in the morning; it was dehydration so bad my palms had stopped sweating by the time I even reached mile 15. Everything stopped sweating. But at the start of the race there was only hope, and the liberating feeling of carrying the barest minimum of items that will keep you alive for the next 50 miles. You know, like melty Snickers bars and a map I won’t use and two head torches on the sunniest day of the year and a lucky (HA HA) QPR cap.
The first aid station is just over 11 miles in, which should feel like a long old way to go without support but really doesn’t. I mean, you can spend a lot of time on the South Downs before getting tired of the scenery, and it helped that I was joined by good company too; in particular two runners from local clubs who knew the terrain and the area well, and spoke of it like someone in love. Perhaps the company was slightly too good; in all my chatting I hadn’t noticed how little I’d drunk of my litre of water, and quite contrary to my plans hadn’t emptied my bottles by the time we reached Botolphs. I had to scull them dry as we reached the aid station to justify refilling them. The sky was clear and cloudless, the air unmoving. The South Downs is, unlike the North Downs I’d spent so much time on, incredibly exposed. There is no tree cover to shield you from rain or rays. You take the rough with the smooth.
Shortly after the first aid station I fell in step with a wine master who had trained nearby and we spent a lot of time looking out for his college on the way to Saddlescombe. He reminded me of my friend Chris; chronologically the youngest in our group of hooligans but who, being more interested in the world than anyone I know, taught us how to identify Bordeaux by the vineyard and classify fish by most appropriate accompaniments, while delivering a history lesson to people almost twice his age. The wine master – also called Chris, also with excellent hair – had trained at Plumpton after deciding to trade his career in hospitality for a less lucrative but more sociable one in the wine trade, and ultrarunning was simply an extension of improving his quality of life. After staying the night before in my sister-in-law’s Art Deco seafront apartment in Brighton, drinking in the sea breeze with my bottle of locally brewed porter, I got the impression that people in Sussex know how to live a good life. It’s the sort of life I could get used to.
Chris and I had been running at a comfortable pace that would have got us in around the ten hour mark and were hoping to sustain it until at least thirty miles in before stopping for a proper rest. A great plan, which got less great as the sun burned brighter, my water bottles got drier and my feet heavier. Eventually I had to slow down and let him go, knowing that trying to hurry to the next station was counter-productive; I might save a few minutes but kill myself in the effort. Get-there-itis had fucked me over enough times before, and if I was going to learn any lessons from past experience it had to be not to panic. Nevertheless, by the time I reached the halfway checkpoint at Housedean the heat was really taking its toll, and not just on me. Despite advice to the contrary I took a seat in the cool darkness of the barn and watched as runner after runner came in but very few left. Dehydration had knocked me sideways and I didn’t want to leave until it was under control.
OK, systems check. Muscles, fine actually. No pain, no soreness (thank you Altras), no blisters, not really tired even. I had the pre-sunburn feeling of warmth under my skin but otherwise no mechanical issues. Internally was a different story. Head, swimming. Stomach, not having any of it. Even the thought of food made me want to throw up and I still wasn’t ready to confront that possibility. Mouth, dry as an ashtray. Tailwind, gone. I took my time sipping a couple of cups of water before refilling both my bottles and nibbled pathetically on some fruit and a couple of cookies. When I set off on the road again the reusable cup in my mandatory kit turned out to be a bit of a lifesaver – my problem so far had mostly been to do with forgetting to drink when I needed it and holding an open cup in my hand was a good reminder to my gluey brain to keep sipping away. With that in one hand and some Marylands melting in the other I trudged away up the next climb.
All day I had been looking forward to the Southease aid station at mile 33: partly because it was a pleasing number, partly because I had promised myself I could call Andy there, and partly because it was the point where I had met Cat during her run in 2015 and I fell in love with the spot immediately. At the crossroads between the South Downs Way and the Ouse Valley Way, the YHA at Southease offers an adorable tearoom nestled between rolling hills in one direction and winding river in the other, and it’s a real travellers’ treat. It was my reward for sticking out the tough part. The break I had taken at Housedean made all the difference to my hydration, the midday haze was burning away as we approached late afternoon and I even managed to pee (I know, the glamour of ultrarunning). Still though, I couldn’t quite improve on mousey nibbles of food that weren’t giving me any significant calorific value. A few miles on I felt the wall looming again; it took a lot of will to overcome my gag reflex and force down a gel. But it kept me going. Who knew.
Knowing that there was a tricky bit of navigation around the Alfriston and Jevington aid stations I devoted my energies to staying on track and tried to take my mind off my churning stomach. The navigation function on my Suunto was a great peace of mind when I had no familiarity with the area – not that you can get lost for lack of signs because they’re bloody everywhere, but because the panic that sets in when you haven’t seen one for a few minutes is more likely to make you doubt your course and make stupid decisions – so I concentrated on that little arrow and almost nothing else.
By the time I reached the church at Alfriston low blood sugar had scrambled my mind as well as my belly; I lurched towards the volunteers panicking about the cutoffs, refusing to refill my water bottle or eat until they reassured me I was well within it. Of course, I’d confused the 13 hour finishing time limit with my own 11 hour target and got myself in a tizz over nothing. It was a bit of a wake up call, and I took another systems check on myself. Not good. Whatever was in my body wanted to leave it, one way or the other – the next minutes minutes was spent either hugging the toilet or pushing pieces of crisps into my mouth even though I’d forgotten how to chew. But once again that twenty minutes in the cool shelter of the church was worth so much more than the time I’d have saved if I hadn’t stopped. I didn’t exactly leave good as new, but I recovered enough to alternate between jogging until my stomach complained and hiking until my watch did.
Eventually my watch complained too much and the battery gave out just as I reached the final station at Jevington. Running the navigation function all day drained it much faster than the standard settings, and the one section I really needed the navigation for was the final stretch where there were no longer any SDW waymarks. But, I reasoned, I knew that there was only around four and a half miles left which should take about an hour, and James’ team hadn’t exactly skimped on the signage – I couldn’t go far wrong as long as I paid attention. I grabbed a handful of jelly babies and trotted off. The end was so close now. Always forward.
The final stretch into Eastbourne town centre was, as you’d expect, a lot of painful hard ground after spending so much time on the relative comfort of of South Downs chalk. I just kept visualising the circuit of the running track that would make up the final 400 metres of the 50 mile race; just as I had so many times before, I imagined powering round it as if it was the 10,000m final of the Olympics. Before I knew it I was right there, running like I’d forgotten the distance that was behind me, lifting my chin and raising my knees, pushing forward on and on until I got to the final bend. And then, I fucking went for it.
Jumping over the line with a war-cry earned me some funny looks, a handshake from James Elson and a medal from Mimi Anderson, but my biggest reward was the confidence that I now knew how to beat the bonk. I had gone to a bad place and I had come back out of it with patience, determination and a good talking to. Not with kit choices, nor salt pills or magic bullets – just willpower. The decision to finish and finish strong was mine, just as the decision to quit had been too.
Less than five hours’ sleep before I left for work at 5:45 the following morning for an onsite rig day – it’s the part of my job that usually kills me but that day I had a spring in my step and some hilarious dodgy tan lines from running in one direction all day, and I almost couldn’t wait to get to work. That one race gave me belief, gave me back my control, gave me a huge chunk of my life back. And it would only be a month until the next one.