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.
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.
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.
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.
It’s been a while since we last caught up. Happily, this time, I’ve actually managed to finish a few races – unlike during my radio silence around this time last year. Unhappily, the reason for my radio silence this time is a little less trivial than a couple of DNFs.
Could I say that life “got in the way”? I mean, I could, but it would be a little disingenuous to life to suggest that my responsibilities are to running above all else; a little beyond my efforts to prioritise running over the everyday, at least. This time, Life earned itself a capital L: family pulled rank. So, apart from a feeble cursory mile a day to maintain my run streak (an exercise which has barely anything to do with actual running these days), my run diary has had very little to show for itself.
Meanwhile I’ve hit something of a plateau, both in running terms and in life terms. I don’t get excited about anything any more, I just feel a bit numb. Not anymore, at the moment; it can’t last, I have to remember that. So I plan things to look forward to – we’re getting married in 9 months for Christ’s sake – because I want to feel the thrill of anticipation again. Plans can be made, but I no longer believe that they will really come to pass; I convince myself something will pop up and take precedence. So I’m not afraid of anything, either. I’m not afraid of failing to meet expectations because I have none. I just don’t care about anything enough to worry about being disappointed.
If Life hadn’t pulled rank on my race calendar I would still have passed August without a race – it was a conscious decision to “rest” and also there just weren’t enough weekends, as there often aren’t. March through July saw two fifty milers, two 50ks, and a trail marathon in 30 degrees of heat. I dragged myself through those, barely, and decided that I wanted to finish the third of the Centurion fifties feeling like I actually had enough in the tank for the fourth and final race. See, now I look back on it I realise that’s an ambitious race calendar for someone who is actually fit, never mind for a training regime that consists of “I might as well be running to the tube since the buses are so unreliable”. That’s two solid junk miles right there. More than once, I’ve done it in Toms espadrilles and holding my Kanken bag over my back to stop it from bouncing. It is transport, not training.
Should I keep finding challenges in the hope of regaining that spark, flinging muck at the wall until it sticks? Or should I hold back, take aim? Deciding to run the Farnham Pilgrim Half Marathon on a day’s notice was to aim what spinning round to take a blind shot in action movies is; and weirdly, just like in action movies, it only bloody worked. Knowing I’d done no long runs, knowing I’d barely even managed to run off road a week before the Chiltern Wonderland 50, I decided I either needed to stop running altogether (i.e. break my run streak) and hope that rest would give my legs half a chance of lasting the distance, or I needed to fire things up a bit, go for broke. So I posted a message with the Chasers to find out if anyone was doing a social trail run on the North Downs, and the answer came back that yes, twelve of them were, and also picking up a medal for it. The idea of running the full marathon was just a little too far-fetched, even for an emotional nihilist, so I plumped for the half and got back to the pub in time for lunch. I ran with my club, as part of my club; I was the slowest, as usual; I danced around the course like a loon, and I had a fucking good time.
It’s a beautiful course, a circular route around the Farnham end of the NDW taking in bridlepaths and connecting trails, scooting around ponds and through golf courses (as one often does in Surrey), and generally pissballing about in the woods. And very runnable too – between the need to shake my legs out and the need to get back to the pub I pushed myself fairly hard, finishing in a not-unrespectable 2:08, and I can’t say I really busted a lung either. There’s definitely no speed in my legs, which I know because trying to get them to turn over was like flipping tyres, but my heartrate never felt too taxed. It was just enough to fire me up for the CW50 in six days’ time. Definitely the right call not to go for the full, although every time I saw a 100 Marathon Club shirt FOMO gripped me like a fever.
The following week I kept up my daily run streak with the minimum mile a day, as I had been pretty much doing for weeks. The difference, I noted, was that where that mile usually ran between 9:30 and 10 minutes, sluggish and rhythmless, the miles in the week after Farnham suddenly threw up a couple of 8:15s and felt more joyful, more like a workout than I had had for a while. It helped being back on office hours rather than event hours too, so those runs occasionally happened at lunchtime instead of at the end of a strenuous working day on legs worn to a stump. Had the gamble paid off?
Come race morning, although there was still a dull ache gnawing at my muscles, there was something even more dangerous – a flicker of anticipation. I was more nervous at the start of this race than I think I’ve been for any other race ever, for the most part because finishing it meant keeping my hopes for the grand slam alive and that comes above all else this year, but I think partly because – for the first time in a long while – I actually cared about the result. The thirteen hour final cutoff limit (proportionally split across the checkpoints) would be hovering over me all day, but I would be focusing instead on two other times: eleven and twelve hour timings which I had worked out and written on my checkpoint plan. One would be a measure that I’m doing well (and more importantly, perhaps too well) and the other would be the more realistic boundary. If I’m too far ahead of the first one I know I’m beasting myself; if I slip behind the second I’ll have no hope when my legs finally give in and I have to hike. Those numbers would guide me through the day like a virtual pacer.
I ended up on the same train as King of Centurion Ilsuk Han, who is usually either running or volunteering their races but rarely misses them, and a gaggle of other runners who all seemed to know the route from Goring Station to the race HQ in the village hall. Ilsuk also helpfully pointed out that the train I (and most other competitors) had planned to get home wouldn’t actually be running, thanks to some last minute engineering works at Reading; someone mentioned two rail replacement buses to Maidenhead and I zoned right out. I didn’t have the energy to worry about how I was going to hobble home after folding my cramped legs into a bus seat for three hours; I just had to think about getting back to Goring in the first place.
Nonetheless Ilsuk represented, as he always does, a good omen. We met on my first attempt at the North Downs 100 and later discovered that we had friends in common through Fulham RC, and it seems that every time I run an ultra these days he’s there. He’s such a warm, friendly and knowledgeable man I can never help but be comforted to see him. He buzzed around the village hall introducing first timers to regular faces, gathering lone runners wandering around aimlessly and making sure everyone had a friend at the start line; and he does this every time. A real unsung hero of the ultrarunning community, he is a true representative of the spirit of our sport, not to mention a shit hot runner in his own right. Even so, he privately admitted that he was just as anxious as the rest of us, and when we lined up at the start he didn’t go off with the frontrunners, choosing instead to stay with the midpackers and the newbies. Whether that was an act of kindness or just his way of dealing with nerves I don’t know, but I for one started the race with excitement just outweighing fear, and set the tone for the rest of the run.
The route takes in one long loop around the Thames Path, the Chiltern Hills, the Ridgeway and explores the unmatchable countryside of Buckinghamshire, Oxfordshire and Berkshire. The Ridgeway is definitely up there for my favourite ever trail route and the added treat of the Thames made this race a big star on my calendar. The first ten miles to checkpoint one at Tokers Green flew by, partly because of the stunning views but also thanks to a runner named James I got chatting to, only to discover that we’d run much of this area together once already on the Druids Challenge two years ago (a race I’m gutted not to be running this year). Feeling much less leg-heavy than I have been recently we went hell for leather on every single downhill, of which there were plenty thanks to the undulating but runnable elevation. I could easily have passed on the snack table, but I knew that I needed to lay the foundations now for sustainable energy levels later, and crammed my pockets with chocolate chip cookies.
Downhills we were bossing together, but James was obviously fitter than me on the uphills and eventually he pulled away; it wasn’t worth overstretching myself to keep up with him at this stage with forty miles still to go, so I just pootled along at the steady pace I’d been maintaining so far. Predictably, I was way ahead of my eleven hour pace already – in fact we passed the checkpoint in 1:49, ranked 138 and 139 out of what would end up as 187 official finishers. In fact, if I’d sustained that pace I’d have been on for just over a nine hour finish – yeah, no. If I didn’t take the decision to dial back now my body would do it for me later, in much more dramatic fashion.
Before long I was caught up my a chap called Steve and we began running together. I don’t remember exactly what I said now, but I do remember hearing him chatting away to another runner behind me and as usual bigmouth struck again; I couldn’t resist butting into their conversation. It set the tone for the next forty miles – we spent the whole rest of the race together talking about everything under the sun. Steve was an ex-squaddie, ex-paratrooper, self-made businessman with a penchant for bloody silly races, and between Tokers Green and Bix he recounted the tale of his four attempts at the Lakeland 100: two successful, two not, considering a fifth go to settle the score once and for all. I’m telling you, that man knows the Lakeland 100 yard by yard, so if anyone’s planning to run it you need to look him up. As one would expect from a military man, his meticulous preparation included a week spent in the Lakes recceing every inch of the route in daylight and dusk. I really didn’t need the iPod.
We left Bix aid station together by which point I’d actually gained two places and he, having paced the first section somewhat more conservatively than me, was up nearly twenty. We were coming up against much more meaty hills than we had done so far, and even had to pause the conversation for power-hiking every now and again. But the course was just so stunning. For totally different reasons, I still can’t quite decide between this and the South Downs Way for a favourite so far – certainly the SDW50 was a better experience and the fastest finish so far, but if you want fairytale woodland and runnable rolling terrain I think Wessex might just edge out Sussex. Ask me again in a week.
Having got through a potted history of our running careers, the conversation turned to politics, economics, history, sociology, the EU referendum result (obviously) – and two people with more diametrically opposing views you would be hard pushed to find. The fascinating thing for me was that, although our positions were poles apart, our values tended to align. We spoke as two people who felt equally let down by the parties they supported, who sought the same reassurances from two different approaches, who feared the same threats and chose different weapons to combat them. It sounds like a mad thing to say but as much as I was enjoying the run I really enjoyed our discussion – we had, I like to think, a good honest respectful debate, a sharing of perspectives, a chance to find commonality, and ultimately the biggest thing we had in common was a love for endurance tests and the courage to be humbled. I rather think that if the referendum had been debated over the trails there would have been a lot less mudslinging. There you go, that’s my future campaign slogan: Less mudslinging, more mud.
Having put the thorny issue of politics to bed we reached the Ibstone School aid station just before twenty six miles and spent a few minutes to refresh and reload. I was already struggling to get calories in but I force fed myself cookies and cola, and I had been steadily working on a bottle of Tailwind all day as well. All the aid stations so far offered Tailwind as well so I knew when I finished my bottle I’d be able to refill, and would more than likely be relying on it for the end of the race. Slightly stiffer than before, and having lost a handful of places, we carried on our way. By this time I was still within my eleven hour pace but by a smaller margin than before, and a margin that was shrinking by the mile. Still though, plenty in hand for a finish. As long as it didn’t all go wrong.
Steve had planned to meet his wife around mile thirty with a mysterious and hitherto untested smoothie concoction which would save or slay him. Oats, oat milk, fresh fruit, protein mix and chia seeds – it sounded bloody amazing. But having never tested it in anger before he had no idea if it would give him the boost he’d need for the last twenty miles or if he’d be in the bushes for the rest of the race. Only one way to find out.
He made a brief stop to pick up the drink while I carried on, making use of the momentum I had now that the pain in my feet had passed and simply become numbness. Pain? Ah. It wasn’t until this point that I realised I’d been running through pain for about ten miles already, such was the quality of the company and the distraction. Well, this would get interesting – pain doesn’t often feature for me, and it certainly doesn’t stop me as often as fitness, low blood sugar and temper tantrums do. When he caught up again I asked him about his war stories – the military ones rather than the running ones – and he obliged with some hilarious, some frankly terrifying and a fair few eye opening accounts of the life of a non-commissioned officer. Having heard that it wasn’t hard to imagine someone capable of finishing multiple 100-milers in the Lakes; the mental strength required to withstand the rigours of ultra-running being bread and butter to someone who has survived para-training.
We had slipped a few more places by the time we reached Swyncombe, and I really started to feel the distance by this point – a quick stretch on the cool grass and a moment taken to put on my waterproof jacket both turned out to be excellent decisions as the rain we’d been promised all day finally made an appearance. I had slipped past my eleven hour pace by this point, but still well within the cutoffs and about to hit Grims Ditch, one of my favourite trails ever. Another lady caught up with us at this point and started swapping 100 miler stories with Steve, which was a fascinating exchange to say the least – there really is no point in spending time with this amazing group of people if you can’t take the time to learn from them. I shut my trap (at least until the conversation turned to cars, which I couldn’t resist bowling into) and listened to them like I was listening to a podcast.
The final aid station would be at the other end of Grims Ditch and just over nine miles from the end. A long old stretch to finish on, but it did mean the last intermediate cutoff to worry about was cleared and we passed it with over three hours to go. A slow walk would have made it, but I really didn’t want to cut it that fine. Sadly, I wasn’t entirely in charge of that decision – my legs were screaming and I was doing my level best to tune them out. I succumbed to the chair, just for a few moments, and stared mournfully at the empty Tailwind barrel wondering why I hadn’t filled my bottle up earlier. Luckily the volunteers there had made up a batch of the best white bread butter and cheese sandwiches you’ve ever seen, and with some effort I chewed my way through a couple of them and washed them down with Coke. It was a bit awkward to swallow, and I noticed then just how dehydrated I’d become despite the inclement temperature. Next race I’m sticking a signpost at thirty miles saying “EAT NOW DAMMIT, YOU’LL THANK ME LATER”. As it turned out Steve’s smoothie had been an unqualified success, so much so that I’m tempted to try it myself on my next long run. Liquid calories that don’t taste too sweet are surely the way ahead.
We left the aid station still optimistic, and at the very fringes of daylight, a little bit smug about the fact that we hadn’t had to use our headtorches yet. Within a couple of miles however dusk fell – plummeted really, as it does in the woods – and I was cursing myself for not fishing out the torch when we stopped at the aid station. Talking was becoming increasingly difficult to me as one by one my various functions closed down. There’s almost no chance I’d have finished the race if it wasn’t for Steve; not only had he very kindly offered me a lift to Gatwick Airport on his way home, where I’d have a fighting chance of getting a train since the Reading line was down, but his tireless storytelling and patience dragged me through the deepening gloom. To say we were hiking now would be flattering the pace we kept up, but he insisted on staying with me instead of pushing on and getting the job done. I decided that I couldn’t reward his kindness with whinging so I kept my negative thoughts to myself and kept moving forward, mutely. You can’t complain about pain in front of a soldier.
The last couple of miles back to Goring were profoundly dark, and our torches were doing bugger all to cut through the blackness. We had been joined by one of Steve’s friends and a couple of other runners by this point, all moving in single file along the single track, all just looking for the streetlights and the end. When it finally arrived my feet and legs were burning – just half a mile of pavement to go, and it felt like walking fifty miles of hot coals. Unable to restrain myself any more I started audibly whimpering, choking down tears just to get to the end. We decided to cross the line together as a group of three – when it finally came it turned out to be the side door to the hall and we had to file in one at a time, but we were reunited on the other side. Twelve and a half hours, and we were done. I was dizzy, slurring, in agony, but relieved.
Ilsuk was still in the village hall doing the rounds, despite having finish a couple of hours earlier, while I forced down some coffee and tried to sit. While we recovered we saw the last few finishers stumble including two guys who finished just inside the cutoff and at least two that, heartbreakingly, didn’t. To struggle that far knowing that you wouldn’t even get the medal is a special kind of tough. I came to enough to force down a sausage in a roll – it took a good half hour to do so – and settled into the warm of the car, suddenly overwhelmed by gratitude. And then, horror. I still had Wendover Woods to do to complete the grand slam, and that was so hard the cutoff was two hours longer. Is that a good thing, or a bad thing?
Thanks to Steve’s hospitality I was home within a couple of hours and out the next day for my one mile hobble around the block to shake out my legs and keep up my streak. But come Monday morning – a heavy day at work which started with me carrying my own staging around because my crew had been accidentally cancelled – the hobble became something much worse. Somehow, despite my legs taking the brunt of the battery, I had actually pulled muscles all across my chest and ribcage and breathing became a serious issue. Like, I could talk or breathe but not do both issue. All day on my feet with a trailer shoot I hoped I would just shake it out, but by the time I got home I knew for certain there was no chance of me running. Pain in general has never stopped me before, but chest pains, that’ll do it. The streak, and my heart, were broken.
So I relinquished it in the hope that I might still save another, much longer lasting streak – I’ve run every Ealing Half Marathon since it started in 2012 and I have no intention of giving that up so easily. My one day off turned into two days, and having booked off the Wednesday as lieu time I finally got a chance to catch up on some rest (and a load of Air Crash Investigation). When Sunday came around I felt, though not entirely in shape for a road half marathon, like I had a chance of not embarrassing myself, and like I had at least enough breath to finish. Proudly wearing my QPR shirt I settled in in front of the 1:50 pacers, hoping to stay in front of them but prepared to let them go. I resolved to enjoy the atmosphere, return every high five and every shout of “YOU RRRRSSS!”, smile all the way round, remember that I do this for fun. And bloody hell, it was.
I actually managed to keep the pace up for a good ten miles before my body refused to respond to the command to push harder. It was painful, but I could run through it – i just couldn’t turn my legs over any faster. The real turning point however came just after mile eleven; just as I tried to give another burst of energy, my chest cramped up like an imploding star. I could barely breathe. I kept running, but I let my pace ease up until the cramp passed. That’s it – you don’t dick around with chest pains. The pacers finally overtook me and I let myself glide to the end, saving my last bit of energy for a leap over the line – there wasn’t even enough to sprint. As I landed, almost knocking over guest commentator Susie Chan in the process, I smiled. I had done it in 1:51 and change, and only five minutes out from my all time PB (a time set with at least half a stone less weight).
Embarrassing as my CW50 time was, I have to concede that it’s a lot better than I deserve having invested so little time in running recently. This shouldn’t be about pity or excuses or self-flagellation, but equally I want to recognise that a little anticipation goes a long way. Either I’ve become complacent or I’ve stopped caring altogether; either way I must be able to do something about it. Perhaps right now running can’t take priority over everything else; it could still take priority over 90% of everything else. Perhaps I’m not fit enough to enjoy a fifty mile trail race at the moment; I have two months to change that. And if I don’t, I’ll have thrown away all the hard work that brought me this far. Perhaps I underestimate what I can do, setting myself unwieldy and contradictory targets, because I don’t want to admit there’s such a thing as an unattainable target.
Perhaps I’ve forgotten this is meant to be fun.
It’s taken almost two years but I’ve finally begun to admit to myself, I might be suffering from Exhaustion with a capital E. Not just I’m tired today, or I need a lie in. I am an onion peeling layers of fatigue, as each layer rots and turns black it falls off and reveals another layer of eye-watering, sour smelling, profound exhaustion. All the layers are nearly gone. Soon there won’t be anything left.
Common sense would suggest that the last thing I should be doing is another marathon, but the truth is that running is the only thing that keeps my mind from crumbling apart like wet cake. I have managed to maintain my mile a day streak throughout 2017 so far, and the promise of at least ten minutes a day to myself has mentally maintained me. A marathon is a bit different though, especially a trail marathon in thirty degrees of heat. And yet, I couldn’t wait to get going.
Running in the heat is something of a monkey on my back; two attempts at the North Downs in August have ended in failure, not to mention countless training runs cut short and a history of suffering heatstroke. So when I noticed the weather forecast in the days up to the race creeping ever closer to the thirties, I actually looked forward to an opportunity to finally shake that monkey. Every time I have found a weakness I’ve worked to turn it into a strength: first mud, then nerves, then hills. Nutrition and heat remain to be cracked. So, I thought, let’s get cracking.
Cat and I arrived at Kingsclere stables which served as the race HQ, and immediately set up camp in the shade of a car. Having Cat there made a huge difference for the run-up at least, although contrary to her very gracious “no really, I’ll be very slow” I knew we wouldn’t be running together. She eyed up a few regular friendly rivals, sought out the only source of water (both our bottles already dry) and settled in at the front of the field. I looked ahead to the huge hands and feet climb a mile in and decided I wasn’t sparing a bead of sweat before lunchtime.
There were a few clues to how unprepared I was for the race, if I’m honest. The car park was around half a mile away from the race start, and I didn’t realise until we got to our patch in the shade that I’d left my peaked Buff in my car – no way I would get through today without it. The jog there and back to retrieve it would be a nice warmup, so off I trotted. Nope. My legs were two rumbling logs of nope. Heavy, rhythmless, slow, obviously nowhere near recovered from the North Downs 50. Today would be a challenge in management of reserves, in making the best of what I had available to me.
So once Cat tore off up the hill like a gazelle I settled in to a nice steady trudge. I had chosen to go with a small belt for nutrition and a handheld bottle for water so that I would remember to drink regularly. I’d nicked a last minute blob of sunscreen from Cat, whose packing skills are somewhat less minimalist than mine (read: prepared) and that and the trek to retrieve the peaked Buff both turned out to be good moves – even my Mediterranean skin wasn’t up to the hours of exposure in dry heat. There’s a saying I used to hear a lot in Cyprus: “Only mad dogs and Englishmen go out in the midday sun.” Add ultra runners to that and you’re grand.
That first hill was brutal, and it wiped me out for a good four or five miles despite limiting my effort levels, but it was at least useful in keeping the early pace down to something sensible. Having decided so early on that today was a survival race I didn’t even bother looking at my watch. I couldn’t remember where the aid stations were anyway, so there was no value in counting down miles until the next water refill. I’d just have to manage fluids as cleverly as possible and fill up at every opportunity. As it turned out, the official aid stations were bolstered by countless unofficial ones, as the good people of Hampshire turned up to various points along the course with car boots full of water, squash, fruit wedges and Haribo.
The marathon route took in a roughly square loop of the picturesque Hampshire countryside starting and ending in Kingsclere, dipping into the boundaries of Basingstoke, Overton, Whitchurch and Litchfield. Only a year old, the race is organised by Basingstoke and Mid Hants AC who are understandably proud of the area and seem to have gone to great lengths to show us the many trails and footpaths running through the countryside like veins. As such, I treated it more like a social hike than a race. I had had the race recommended to me by a few Chasers who had run the inaugural race last year, and raved about the relaxed and friendly organisation and the utterly not-relaxing elevation – catnip to someone like me. Even as I struggled to keep moving I had to agree – I wasn’t breaking any records but it was such a beautiful day there was no question of complaint.
To my surprise, I reached the halfway point in less than two and a half hours. It was the first time I’d really looked at my watch, having assumed that I was going at a snail’s pace, and I had to tap it a couple of times to make sure it wasn’t going doolally. That hadn’t felt as bad as I expected – but had I overcooked it already? The blistering sun wasn’t showing any signs of letting up, and although I wasn’t suffering in the heat I already had dry skin and a face full of salt. I hadn’t been eating much at all, apart from salty Hula Hoops and gels, but oddly enough that wasn’t bothering me either. I decided it was one of those things you just have to bank and carry on. Since getting past the first big hill my legs had been killed, gone through rigor mortis and come out the other side a pair of zombies. At least they could move again. Time to make hay while the sun shines.
The local residents were absolute legends, I have to admit. As the race wore on the official looking water and food stations were becoming increasingly outnumbered by people dispensing water and Jucee squash from the back of SUVs, children sitting out the fronts of their houses with tubs of sweeties, mums offering plates of orange slices, and even one family who turned the hose on anyone who ventured near enough. They absolutely made that race, especially as every time I thought we were dipping back into the wilderness we found another little country cul-de-sac or cottage full of people eager to help us out. Credit goes to both to the natural hospitality of Hampshire, and I think to the club for cultivating such a good reputation in the local area.
After my optimism at the halfway point everything suddenly went downhill. Or, I should say, uphill – I don’t remember feeling this at the time, but looking back at my GPS data I notice that the elevation cruelly maintains a gradual downhill to the halfway point, then climbs consistently all the way to the end. All I remember is my legs feeling increasingly more tired, my shoulders slumping further forward, the nutrition belt rubbing against my lower back as my posture got worse. Hindsight being a wonderful thing, I now know why this was happening; at the time I took it as a further symptom of my chronic fatigue and decided that I absolutely, definitely needed a protracted period of rest. The trick of the elevation might have done me a favour, because without that perception I might have chugged on for months to come, in deep denial about my health and clinging to any fragment of an excuse for poor performances. As it was, the race gave me the biggest wake up call I’ve ever had.
By the time I had six miles to go I was barely walking. Time was slipping through my hands and my pace was grinding almost to a halt. I knew that Cat would have long since finished and had to send a few emergency messages to her to let her know a) I was still alive and b) her lift home might be a long while coming yet. She sent back encouragements in caps lock, and an update on the race result – an incredible fourth lady finish and V40 trophy considering she wasn’t really racing it. That was enough to shake my legs out a bit – I still couldn’t move them very fast but there was not and had never been any question of stopping or quitting. It hardly seemed right to leave her waiting for long.
The volunteers at the last water station told me there was one more climb before a long downhill to the end, which was true, but also underplayed all the little bumps and divots in the ground that my legs didn’t even have the energy to lift themselves over. Finally though I turned into a wooded area and found something like an amusement park slide to take me back down the Kingsclere stables, the finish line visible in the distance. And for a brief moment, I got all excited like a five year old. Then I got a stitch.
That was the slowest, hobbliest downhill I think I’ve ever done, taking ginger little steps and tucking myself away every time someone came past at normal speed. I had been in good spirits for the rest of the race, but this really annoyed me – downhill mentalism is my thing and now I wasn’t allowed to enjoy it. I felt dehydration clobber me like a sack of bricks as well – I’d been sculling water at every opportunity but there was nothing left in the bottle at this stage. At the bottom of the hill was a flat stretch across the field to get back to the start/finish line, and I have to confess I walked most of it – I just couldn’t move any faster. Such a beautiful course, and here I was running the most anticlimactic race finish I think I’ve ever done.
My perseverance paid off though, and eventually the last couple of hundred metres came into view. Cat ran back to get me over the line, and I couldn’t resist having a go at a sprint finish – although given that she kept up with me in flipflops I can’t flatter myself that it was much of a sprint. But I made it – I leapt over the line, curled up on the floor, and laughed. Five hours and thirty eight minutes later, the legs that weren’t even strong enough to start still got me to the finish.
Oddly enough, I wasn’t the least bit sore – presumably because I hadn’t been doing any strenuous work, just moving very slowly – so all I needed was my commemorative pint pot (filled twice over with fresh water) and a Cornetto to get me back on my feet and ready to drive home. As we stretched out on the grass briefly the sun was still beating down, even stronger than before, and if I hadn’t been covered in salt and bruises from my waist pack I could easily have fooled myself into believing I was on holiday. Far from being a challenge, I genuinely enjoyed running in the heat; although if I’d been trying for any kind of time it would have killed me. Still though, I’m pretty sure I’ll be back to nab a better time (not to mention beast that downhill).
But not before a good long rest.
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.
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.
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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Cover photo (C) Dan Milton – thank you for allowing me to use it and for not making me look like a mess…
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.
You can look at endurance sports in one of two ways:
“If at first you don’t succeed, try, try, try again.”
“The definition of insanity is to repeat the same action and expect a different outcome.”
I mean, I’ve had a QPR season ticket for the last 8 years, so perhaps a bent for hopeless endurance sports was inevitable.
Here I am then on my fourth outing at the Moonlight Challenge aiming for the elusive fifth lap. Regular readers will remember attempt number one, where I foolishly aimed to nab my first ultra marathon finish on only my second ever long distance race and ended up humbled by the mud; attempt two where I basically chickened out; when number three was stymied by a knee injury I knew I would be back again this year.
I would be, but two very important people would not. Wendimum, who had been such a regular supporter at Challenge Hub races that she probably qualified for a green number, had moved to The North where the weather comes from; and Mike Inkster, godfather of daft races, had finally handed the Challenge Hub reins over to Traviss and Rachel of Saxons Vikings Normans. The three challenges would now form part of their incredibly prolific portfolio of races, and all I’d heard about SVN was glowing reports. I mean, seriously-are-they-bribing-you glowing reports. Generous goody bags, medals so big and ornate you could pave a driveway with them, cake and beer a staple of every race. I was curious to see if they would do this historic event justice or if the spirit of the Challenge Hub races would simply be lost for ever.
Being Kent-based, the regular faces at SVN were many of the same ones that I knew from Challenge Hub and So Let’s Go Running, so it wasn’t totally unfamiliar ground. What became very clear very quickly was that although I was one of a handful of regulars the new RDs would bring a huge field to this relatively tiny race, with many 100 Marathon Club members and wannabes keen to try a rare “new” course. What was also clear is that nobody ever does just one SVN race. This is a community built around the idea that a) literally anyone can finish a marathon – which is true – and b) one marathon is never enough, and nor is a hundred. It’s like the Challenge Hub ethos on acid.
There were a few tweaks to the race, which loyalty insisted I should HATE but practicality forced me to appreciate. Change number one was that the race would start at 4pm, not 6pm, and more importantly that it would be moved forward by 4 weeks so that it fell on the somewhat milder March full moon night, not a bitterly cold and foggy February one. Change number two was the format; instead of a multi-lap race with a limit of five, it would now be an eight-hour race with complete laps counted towards the total, as many as you could finish so long as the final one started before 10:30pm. I hadn’t any other reason to be optimistic about the race given my appalling preparation and my extra stone in weight, but I did cling to the little luxuries these changes afforded.
The biggest luxury, especially given that Wendimum wouldn’t be there, was to have Andy crewing for me. Let’s be clear; Andy is not a runner. He does not find running as exciting as I do. He certainly does not consider the idea of sitting in a barn on a cold Saturday night, with no wi-fi or electricity, for eight full hours sandwiched by a two hour drive there and back, fun. I had to put on my most pathetic face to persuade him to do it. If I was to have any chance of nabbing the fifth lap I would need not to be worrying about driving home on tired legs or finding my food and drinks at each pitstop. At least we found a huge John Deere tractor to use as a base, and Andy got his fill of machinery porn for the day as we set up our camping chairs in front of it.
Mooching about the start and half-heartedly stretching, I caught snippets of overheard conversations. The usual run-geekery and gossip, then I heard the word “elevation”. Three very serious looking chaps were discussing whether it counted as basically flat or the fact that the bridge over the motorway, which you cross twice per lap, cumulatively contributed to a lot of climbing. I held my tongue, but it was tough. I wanted desperately to jump in and tell them, elevation is not the challenge on this race. There are humps, but if you look back at your Strava when you finish the profile will look flat as a pancake. There’s a bit of mud, but any relatively experienced runner will be well prepared for that – and anyway, everyone here seemed to be wearing Hoka Stinsons and you can’t really be sure where the foot begins and the lugs end with those things. The repetitive nature of the laps aren’t anywhere near as bad a you’d think either; actually I’ve grown to love the rhythmic nature and comforting familiarity of lap format races. No, the challenge is far more insidious than that.
Judging the flatness of this race is like measuring fractals. Is that flat ground? Sure. No, wait, look closer. Is that a rut? Try again. A rut IN a rut? Getting warmer. This is a farm on the coast, my friend. That’s right – the ground for at least half of each lap has been rained on, churned, dried out, flooded, churned again, dried again, over and over until there isn’t a square foot that isn’t made up of peaks and troughs which are in turn made up of smaller peaks and troughs that redefine infinity. Good luck finding somewhere to land your feet. I’m guessing this is why the race always used to be run in the rainy season.
No time to worry about it now though. Part of my tactics for persuading Andy to come with me was to promise that we could listen to the QPR game on the radio – that turned out to be an optimistic gamble as pointless run-up coverage of the pointless Six F**king Nations filled the airwaves so I left him to grind his teeth in peace while I checked the first section of terrain. I was wearing my comfy zero-drop Altras in the car intending to change into my Salomon Fellraisers for the race itself, but the ground was much harder tham normal and the Fellraisers’ lugs would have shredded my feet looking for mud to bite into. Not having trained much in the zero-drop shoes was presumably an Achilles disaster waiting to happen, but I didn’t have much choice.
On the plus side, Mike made an appearance after all – dressed for once in smart clothes and boots instead of running shoes and jungle shorts, he had a cameo appearance as the race starter. I was so pleased to see him I nearly knocked him over with my hug. An auspicious start, but unless you’ve run a cumulative 200 miles (or more) around one of his fiendishly difficult courses you can’t appreciate the love I have for Mike, who has become the godfather of ultrarunning to me. That’s Stockholm Syndrome, isn’t it? Either way, another good omen for the race ahead.
There wasn’t the usual rocket going off for the start (“the man who was meant to bring it forgot”) but there we were, pretty much bang on 4pm, set loose on the trails of two of Kent’s muddiest coastal farms. The loop is made of (as Traviss perfectly described it) a dumbbell, where one loop is on Brook Farm, the furthest point of which is also the start/finish, the other is Bell Isle Farm, and the crossover is the bridge over the A299. Brook Farm is definitely the marshier of the two and includes the tricky little ridge of holy-crap-what-IS-that-we’re-running-on, which I am informed is only 400 metres long but can assure you is closer to about twenty miles. It’s ankle-turning central round there, and there are no prizes for finishing it first. So, although I held off walking until the fourth lap, I did take that section at a trot rather than a canter.
The first lap went smoothly, a good opportunity for regulars to reacquaint themselves with the route in the light and for newbies to learn it, for although it’s signposted Brook Farm in particular has a fair few turns that are easy to get wrong. By the second I was a little bored of being a Focused Runner, and tried to chat to a couple of people, and by a happy coincidence bumped into Jimi Hendricks (real name) from the Rebel Runners. I had run this same race with Jimi and Paula for a fair chunk last year, when both were on their third or fourth ever marathon. In the intervening year Jimi, with the help of SVN, had become a marathon running machine and had completed something like 70 more, well on his way to the 100. These are people who absolutely share my ethos for running, and the more I spoke to Jimi the more I learned about the work that SVN do effectively operating their running community as a feeder system for the 100 Marathon Club.
The belief that anyone can finish a marathon or ultra and in fact all those people can easily go on to finish a thousand more if they want to is underpinned by the practice of stripping back the things in races you probably don’t need (chip timing, baggage pens, disco music and coordinated warmups) and focusing instead on the things you do need (logistical support, sense of humour, a fuck ton of food and a pint of beer at the end). By running many of their races as timed events rather than distance ones, the stress of hitting cutoffs or getting drop bags to the right place is eliminated immediately. Of 91 finishers, 22 completed 5 or more laps in the allotted time to bag themselves an ultra (including one man, Alix Ramsier, who made it to 52.8 miles to take the longest distance by a full 2 laps); a further 49 completed a marathon. And the other 20? They all got their finishing time, their medal and their goody bag too. No DNFs, no timeouts. I’ve been listening to the Ultra Runner Podcast obsessively and host Eric Schranz raised this point just recently – if you’re running your first ultra, a fixed time event as opposed to a fixed distance one is definitely the way to go. I’ve got to hand it to SVN, they’ve got this COVERED.
Back to the race. Among the marathon finishers are two people without whom I’m not sure I’d have finished, certainly not with a smile on my face anyway. Simon Lewis and I did a little dance of face-in-a-strange-place “Do I know you?” until we worked out that no, we had not met at previous Challenge Hub Races, no, there was no Kent connection; Simon is in fact another Clapham Chaser and co-Event Director of Tooting Common parkrun. How we found each other all the way out here… I knew Simon’s face and I knew his name from the weekly club results roundup, but I’d never put the two together before. I’d also never realised there was another Chaser who subscribed to the more is more ethos for race finishes, and who was also well on the way to the 100 Club shirt. We ran half of the second lap together, just as the sun packed itself off to bed, playing chicken with our headtorches. Simon’s finish got him to marathon number 72 and his goal – which I have no doubt he will smash – is to hit the hundred before the end of December. I felt like I was in good company.
About halfway through the third lap, after I’d steamed ahead of Simon with a rare and foolhardy burst of energy, I realised I was back to running a boring loop on my own again and there weren’t even any views to enjoy. Well, there’s the sodium glare of the A299, but it’s hardly anything to write home about. And just as I started grumbling away to myself I came across another lone runner similarly wondering why the hell we were staring at a main road. Claire turned out to be more excellent company for what was becoming the slog part of the race. A lifelong film buff, she remains the first person I’ve ever met who does now for a living what she wanted to do when she was a little girl: a graphic designer that makes film posters. We chatted easily for a lap and a half, a good eleven miles that I barely noticed passing. In that irreverent way that you do when you meet someone you click with, we discussed GI issues on the run, favourite ways to fuel (both having recently dicovered Tailwind), why do romcom posters always have black and red Arial font on a white background, and Kiera Knightley. It turned out that she’d read my blog before (poor woman) and we shared URLs before we parted at the end of lap four.
I was genuinely gutted to lose Claire for the final lap but she had already pretty much made my race. She forced me to slow a little and walk the occasional inclines, which I’m usually loathe to do but always always regret later on, and I’m positive that that gave me the energy to make it through the final lap. Before I started Andy and I did a little mental calculation and worked out that by giving it a bit of welly I could actually be done with this lap in about hour and a quarter and make the six and a half hour watershed for starting the last one, but it would be a bit stupid to rush and risk injury. Plus, Andy really did not want to be there for another hour and a half. No, I would learn the lessons that Claire had taught me and take it easy for this lap. And since I’d be on my own I put my headphones in for the first time to listen to an interview with my hard-work hero, Jamie Mackie, on the QPR podcast. And off I went.
The zero-drop shoes were, surprisingly, a dream. Given the hardness of the ground and the lack 0f practice running in them I really expected to crash out with an Achilles nightmare (2016 had been that sort of year) but my calves, knees and feet were absolutely fine. I mean, slightly sore in the way that legs that have run a marathon tend to be, but not the sort of sore that actually stops you; in fact I felt as strong as I had in the second lap. Perhaps Altra are onto something here – why the hell are they so hard to find in the UK? I did a bit of shoegazing and saw a ton of Hokas, some Salomons, the occasional Inov-8 (I tried some of those again last week and they’re definitely dolls’ shoes, not made for duck feet like mine) but definitely no other Altras.
The Focused Runner approach actually seemed to be working for me and I kept a steady and not disrespectable pace up for three quarters of the lap before I became conscious of myself ramping up. Then I came across the windmill which marks the final straight, about half a mile of road which goes a bit up and then lots down, and I bloody went for it. The balls of my feet burned, my glutes started firing, my arms pumping as if I was on the Mall at the end of the London Marathon. It hurt, but it hurt good. A hop and a skip through the open barn door and I rang the bell to say I was done – 9 seconds after the final lap cutoff. Worth it. And the goody bag was, true to form, unspeakably good…
Andy had to concede it wasn’t the worst time he’d ever had, and I think he finally understood what I see in this daft sport when he met the other characters that make it what it is. For my part I don’t think I’ve ever finished a race that strongly, and it gave me a huge boost for the Centurion 50 Mile Grand Slam – something which, with the first race only four weeks away, I was terrified about. After a dismal year of injury upon exhaustion on top of weight gain added to laziness this race really hit my reset buttons – and obviously the first thing I did when I got home was sign up for the first random SVN race that wasn’t aleady sold out (August). Traviss and Rachel have done a fantastic job of keeping the Challenge Hub spirit alive and I’m sure Mike is relieved to know his races are in good hands. Me, I’m just glad to have my mojo back. God I’ve missed this.
Ask me again in four weeks.