Moonlight Challenge 2016 – third time lucky?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Right. You’re working the desk now.”

“Yeah! Thought I’d help out.”

Of course you did.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Druids Challenge part 2

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Click here for part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Photo courtesy of Extreme Energy

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for part 3

50 Mile Challenge 2015

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When I tackled the 50 Mile Challenge last year, it was my second attempt at completing an ultramarathon. I met a man who revived my love of running by teaching me to share the experience with your fellow runners, I discovered that rain won’t melt you, and that it’s always handy to keep a change of shoes, and why Jack Kerouac was such an inspiration to Jenn Shelton. And I made it round 39.3 triumphant miles of the course before throwing in the (very muddy) towel. I hadn’t run further than that in one go since.

Last year, mum and I had stayed in a Travelodge about 20 mins drive away from the race start, being as it is in the middle of nowhere, but when we drove down on the Saturday evening to register and pick up my race pack spotted a couple of tents and sleeping bags and realised just what a trick we’d missed. This time we came prepared for a campfire and a sing song, and it was absolutely the right decision; even more so when we discovered there was space in the dry, cosy barn for us to pitch our tents rather than the rocky ground outside. We planned down to the last detail, each of us with specific responsibilities to make sure we had dinner, entertainment and lodgings covered between us. Mum was in charge of cooking implements. She brought wine, but forgot cutlery. I knew then it would be an awesome evening.

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It was comforting enough to know I’d be right there for the 6am start the next morning, but it also meant we got to have a good old chat and a game of cards with the other campers: Julie and Derren, both of whom are regular fixtures at Challenge Hub races; Mal, who was attempting to do the whole race dragging a tire behind him; and Emma, who had come all the way from Staffordshire for her first ultramarathon. We cooked up a huge pot of cheese and broccoli pasta on mum’s portable stove, which we ate with some scavenged plastic spoon and a bit of twig, then taught everyone how to play Shithead, fuelled by mum’s interminable supply of chocolate nuts and raisins, before retiring to the pitch darkness of our tents. Camping has never been high on my list of things that are fun, but for a low key race in a low key setting it was the perfect preparation. And at least it wasn’t a fucking Travelodge.

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Sleeping in a pitch black barn, on a quick build campbed (bought after discovering how cold sleeping on the floor is during the Pilgrim’s Challenge), ended up being one of the best night’s sleep I’ve ever had pre-race. I’ve got to the point now where I just give up any hope of sleeping the night before either through nerves or circumstance, but I honestly couldn’t have got a more satisfying forty winks if I’d been sleeping on clouds and happy thoughts. And so obviously I was in a hideously good mood come 5am the following morning; and for once, on time.

Lovely Mike Inkster gave his legendary pre-race speech as we shuffled around excitably, starting with the phrase “Don’t worry about the distance,” which is pretty much the best piece of advice any ultrarunner will ever get, and off we went. I fell in step with Emma and another lady called Gillian, all three of us doing our first 50 miler, and we promised to stay together for as long as possible to make sure each of us got to the end.

One of the things I love most about ultra running – especially Challenge Hub races – is just how sociable it is. It’s a huge part of the reason why I go back to these races time and time again; these races that make no sense, that push your muscles to melting point and turn your feet to pools of mush, and yet leave me musing on the mental challenges more than the physical, worrying about how I will keep my mind from fraying long after I stopped caring about the effect of fifty miles on my body. I learned in past races how much easier it is to have someone else to run with, and how important it is to switch off the iPod just when you’d think you need it most. It definitely helps when the people you are running with happen to be among the most inspirational people you will ever meet, and it’s not coincidence that the people you meet during ultras often are.

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Emma, a petite and cheerful young lady from Lichfield with nothing more high tech than her club vest and a pair of basic running shoes, was relatively new to running. She told us how she loved taking herself off for long runs with no idea of how far she was planning to go; just to keep going until she knew she was done. In fact, she couldn’t even say for certain how far her longest run had been prior to the 50 Mile Challenge, although it must have been in the region of thirty or so miles. Her kit was the barest minimum of what it needed to be, and her soundtrack was her thoughts. At the beginning she asked to run with us in order to make sure she kept her speed under control as she had no idea how to pace herself, but within a couple of laps it became obvious she had nothing to worry about, as she left us in the dust. All I saw of her from that point on was a beaming smile as we crossed over halfway through my lap 6 and her lap 7, a genuine smile which came from the bottom of her boots. She is someone to whom running is the most natural thing in the world.

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Photo courtesy of Challenge Hub

My companion for the rest of the way was equally inspirational, but the polar opposite in technical terms. Gillian, also on her first 50 miler, was a 3.15 marathoner and wife of an ex-competitive triathlete, and she was a lady with a plan and a super-disciplined crew to back it up. Her husband, sister-in-law and brother-in-law were all on hand at roughly the halfway point of the course with an SUV stocked full of different kinds of food, plus a portable fridge freezer for cold drinks and ice pops and probably the kitchen sink too, and they even paced sections of the lap towards the end of the race. Having been her husband’s crew for years, she knew how to put them to good use and he, being an elite athlete, knew exactly what was needed before even we did. Crewing at that level is practically an art form.

I was prepared for the fact that we’d see all four seasons over the course of the next twelve hours, and we didn’t get much more than a couple of laps in before the heavens opened and the waterproofs came out. It didn’t matter really; it helped soften the sunbeaten ground, washed the sweat from my skin and the mud from my legs, and kept my body temperature under control for just a little longer than I had any right to hope. The rest of the day was forecast to be very hot with odd bursts of showers, which is actually quite a nice way to spend a whole day outdoors; just as you get sick of one extreme the other steps in with a reprieve. It wasn’t quite so nice for the supporters though and my poor Team Mum went from arctic survivalist to jungle explorer with a costume change and a different kind of drink at the end of each lap. Mike Inkster joked that he was considering changing the name to the Lobster Challenge: “First we drench you, then we boil you!”

I knew it was suicide to spend too much time comparing each stage of the race with how I felt last year – it’s suicide to compare how you feel at any one time with how you felt ten seconds ago – but every now and again a systems check told me I was still on course to finish and finish strong, which is all I needed to do, and maybe even keep in touch with Gillian until the end. The race was my qualifier for the North Downs Way 100, which would take place just three weeks later and on the other side of a high profile project at work. I’m pretty sure that when the NDW100 organisers stipulated all runners needed to have finished at least a 50 mile race before being allowed to compete they had something less ambitious than three weeks to double mileage in mind, but I couldn’t think about that. All I had to think about was getting to the end. And the best way to do that was not to think about it.

Chatting to Gillian, I’m even more certain in retrospect, got me through the race. I didn’t have time to register niggles or allow doubt to creep in or grow impatient or grumpy. We inadvertently started to mark parts of the course, finding bits we liked and bits we didn’t and breaking each lap down to manageable chunks. It was an unexpected advantage to lap racing, normally a form of psychological torture, and because we were chatting so much we even came across sections we didn’t recognise, despite having run them four or five times already. I liked going past the mummy swan with her nest of cygnets who hissed at us every time we ran by, and Gillian looked forward to the house with the windmill, partly because it signified the home stretch and partly because windmills are bloody cool. And obviously, we both looked forward to seeing her crew and their amazing stock of chilled goodies at the halfway point.

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Photo courtesy of Challenge Hub

Having been a runner and cyclist for many years Gillian was clearly in excellent shape with radiant complexion and obvious reserves of mental and physical strength, and to me, that’s the definition of beauty. A working mother of two, she is a role model for women everywhere as far as I can see; not in a “How does she do it all?” Sarah Jessica Parker sort of way, all ostentatious modesty and thinly veiled bullshit, but a clear example of how to balance the needs of a family with the needs of an individual – or rather, how fulfilling the needs of the individual can be crucial to the wellbeing of the family. And yet, she told me stories of her experience as a working mother and athlete which horrified me; being attacked by other (female) athletes for competing in races while pregnant, and then being ostracised by other new mothers for running to and from baby yoga to keep fit, all against a background of conflicting, often plainly erroneous medical advice. Why are we so terrified by the idea of new and expectant mothers indulging in exercise, especially when a sedentary lifestyle carries just as many hazards with a far higher likelihood? The horror stories did nothing for my faith in humanity, but bloody hell did they make the laps fly by. And they reaffirmed to me that truly extraordinary people are simply people who make the extraordinary ordinary.

And speaking of inspirational people, a Challenge Hub race wouldn’t be complete without Team Mum there to back me up. Lap races are a special kind of tough not least because every time you get to the end you have to start again, but having her there to push food into my hands, record my splits, make a general fuss and give me my lap end hug made it feel like I was simply starting a new race each time, without giving her a logistical headache. And as is customary, she did her Wonderwoman costume change for lap six and joined me and Gillian for the 6.6 mile loop, despite it being her furthest run since Brighton Marathon by a long way, and with a smile plastered to her face all the way round.

Well, most of the way round. Towards the end of the lap she started to flag, and with a mile to go I knew I had to push on while I still had the momentum in my legs. I didn’t want to leave her behind but I was still feeling too fresh to slow down and walk, and I knew that once I did my legs would turn to treacle. She was struggling, pausing for a break after every few steps, getting frustrated and resisting my attempts to keep moving. Asking her to keep up wasn’t fair, and having been on the other side I knew how crap it feels to be pushing just above your comfort pace on such a long run. Then again, I also know mum, because I know myself, and just like me I know that she can do anything she puts her mind to, but force her to do anything and it’s fuck you society. Lo and behold, when I reached the HQ a mile later she was less than half a minute behind me. Because mum can do anything she puts her mind to, and because fuck you society. I love her so much.

I had planned to give myself something to look forward to each lap after halfway for a little psychological boost. 5 was a change of shoes, 6 was mum pacing, 7 was a fresh vest, 8 I was hoping would be a reward in itself. Then I felt the dreaded bonk crash into me like a wave on Reculver beach, on the crossover between lap 7 and lap 8. For the first time I started to feel hotspots forming on my toes and had to change my socks to avoid blistering, but it was almost too late. Gillian was feeling strong and needed to carry on, but her brother in law kindly stayed behind to pace me for the final lap and off we plodded, watching Gillian and her husband put more and more distance between us. I was a little disappointed not to be able to keep up, but so happy to see Gillian with her game face on, going for the strong finish she deserved. I knew I couldn’t catch her now, and Emma was long gone, so I had to content myself with third lady and remember what I came here for in the first place. All I had to do was finish, and I would do it crawling if I had to.

It was a long lap, and a slow one. We chatted about football (he was a Leicester fan), and when I didn’t have the energy to run or even speak we trudged patiently on. Despite chat being the force that drove me through the first seven laps, his patient and quiet demeanour was probably the perfect company for that last six miles, when my energy had run out and all I wanted to do was finish. Finally we passed the windmill for the last time and rounded the corner to the farm, where the end of the lap fiendishly required runners to go past the exit and the shortcut to the barn, circumnavigate the outhouses and turn back to reach the checkpoint. I did this last little loop on my own, the better to enjoy the rush down the slope and crash into Team Mum’s arms at the end. I had done it. 53 – or something like it – miles in 10 hours 43 minutes.

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Emma – looking a bit hot but otherwise much the same as she did at the start – had clinched the first lady spot by miles, finishing in just over nine hours pretty much as I was coming in for my final lap. Gillian was about twenty minutes ahead of me, and she and her team were there waiting to cheer me in at the end. We hadn’t managed to stay together until the end, but we’d certainly kept each other going. Only thirty five runners finished any distance, and of those just twenty four completed all eight laps. Emma had her name engraved on the winners’ shield but as is customary in Challenge Hub challenges there’s no prize on offer, no difference between coming first or last. You’re all in it for the same reason. And I’ll be back there next year for the same reason.

I forget sometimes that what I’ve achieved over the last couple of years is actually a bit extraordinary. I think of myself as someone with reasonable standards, but I still take for granted the leaps and bounds I’ve made in my running career – in distance, speed and general fitness – since I was that chubby girl who couldn’t quite make a quarter of a mile without pausing for breath. That was four years and three stone ago. My overwhelming feeling as I crossed the finish line of the 50 Mile Challenge this year was not so much pride at finishing, but pleasure at feeling relatively strong at the end of it – maybe not like I could run another fifty miles straightaway, but at least not afraid of another hundred in three weeks time.  Maybe I got cocky. Maybe that was my downfall…

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Giant’s Head Marathon 2015

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Larmer Tree Marathon

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In my quest to run at least one marathon every month this year, March (not traditionally a marathon rich month) threw up only a few options that appealed to me. Some were too far away, some clashed with other events, but one stood out; being on a rare free Sunday, set in one of my favourite parts of southern Britain, promising a view of some real live peacocks and run by the same organisers who do the legendary Giants Head Marathon. And when the email came through with the race instructions for the Larmer Tree Marathon, I knew I’d chosen wisely.

Never before have instructions made me laugh so hard that I sprayed my PC screen with coffee. Under Weather was the comment “We won’t be cancelling the race if there’s inclement weather. We will be sitting in the warm by a fully stocked bar.” Under FAQs: “Q: Is there a Costa Coffee or a Starbucks nearby? A: No, this is the countryside.” “Q: Do I have to enjoy myself? A: Yes, it’s the law.” And my personal favourite, “Q: What time does the bar shut? A: When we all go home.” A race with its own bar. White Star Running sound like my kind of people.

After various last minute dropouts, team Clapham Chasers consisted of me and Robert H taking rooms at an inn a few miles away from the race HQ in Larmer Tree Gardens, and Karina and Rob staying with family nearby. Poor Robert had not only been kind enough to wait until late afternoon on the Saturday so I could make 75 minutes of Crystal Palace v QPR before driving down to Wiltshire – what a waste of 75 minutes that was – but he also had to hang around for me after the race as I was the only Chaser mad enough to do the full marathon distance, with the other three sensibly plumping for the half. I made it up to him by forcing him to do a cheesy grin photo by the Start/Finish line. Pretty sure that helped.

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All three courses – full marathon, half and 20 miles – plotted a route around the beautiful Rushmore Estate, and as race director Andy proudly announced at the briefing, the starting line straddles the counties of Wiltshire and Dorset. We picked up our numbers from the main café in the centre of Larmer Tree Gardens, where there was also a stall selling fresh pastries, tea and coffee and another for merchandise. The same room would be converted into a food court later on with lasagne, macaroni cheese, burgers, pizza, salad and all kinds of hot food being served. I was looking forward to seeing that room almost as much as I was the peacocks.

We started off by following a path around the grounds that led us downhill and across a road towards the main trail. I settled into a nice easy rhythm early on, enjoying the slope and using it to find myself a good position in the throng of runners. This is fun, I thought. What a nice way to start a marathon, I thought. Then I heard a lady nearby say “I’m not looking forward to coming up this hill at the end,” and the penny dropped. The finish line is the reverse of the start, which meant we would be finishing on an uphill climb. Ah well. Worry about that in 26 miles’ time.

With my partner Andy’s parents living in Salisbury we find ourselves in and around Wiltshire quite a lot, and I have a great affinity with the area. Whether it’s the pagan influence, the beautiful countryside or just the fact that I’m either running or eating good food whenever I’m there, I always feel right at home. This race was no different; I had a dopey grin on my face most of the time. Added to this, the ground conditions were perfect – a nice mixture of cushioning on top and firm ground underneath, with neither boggy mud nor slippery chalk to contend with – and the weather held out with a cool calm air temperature and no wind or rain to speak of. As one would expect in such a mystical area, it was as though all the planets has aligned. I settled into a rhythm and zoned out.

At the beginning of the race, not really knowing what to expect but sticking with my trusty walk up/run down tactic for hills, I had estimated around a five hour finishing time. I didn’t care particularly, to be honest; still winding down from a busy winter and preparing for the North Downs 100, I just wanted to get some steady miles under my belt. As usual though, when I’m not stressing about my time I seem to fly. At the halfway point I was just within two and a quarter hours, and still feeling pretty strong. I had no idea what terrain was ahead of me though – other than the climb at the end – and couldn’t be sure that the second half wasn’t all uphill or through bog or under water or something ridiculous. So I put all thoughts of a four and a half hour finish out of mind and listened to my audiobook. Stephen Fry, reading one of his own novels. I’ve never felt so English in all my life.

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There are a generous number of water and aid stations along the route, but the most important one is the Lovestation at mile 20. I came tearing down another gentle incline to find a marquee sheltering two trestles full of home baked food, a couple of chairs for runners to pause and rest, and a man in a kilt – Uncle Kev, apparently – waiting at the bottom to catch all the runners and give them a big sporrony hug. I think I was laughing too hard to answer when he asked me how I was doing, and he nearly didn’t let me carry on. Uncle Kev’s role is more than mirth and mischief; the point of the Lovestation is to do a health check on the runners as they come through and make sure no-one is suffering too badly to continue. And, you know, hugs.

Whether it was the hug or the whole bag of jelly snakes I’d eaten, or whether I’d just managed to pace myself properly for a change, I left the Lovestation feeling stronger than ever; just in time to hit Tollard Park and Tollard Green, the boggiest and most uneven stretch of the whole course. It’s a bit cruel plotting such tricky terrain in the last five miles of a marathon, but all those miles along the North Downs finally paid off and me and my gorgeous Salomon Fellraisers fairly danced through it. I felt effortless, my pace quick and my feet light, and I must have overtaken a good twenty people in the final 5k. All that hippy one-with-nature tranquillity went right out of the window. The audiobook was swapped for Gold Dust. Game face.

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As we crossed the road and reached the hill up to Larmer Tree Gardens at the end, I dug in for the climb. It was longer than I remembered from the start, and I paced myself by chanting “don’t go faster, slow down less, don’t go faster, slow down less,” all the way to the top. I turned onto the final straight, seeing the clock pass four hours and thirty minutes but knowing I’d been at the back of the pack and would still just be on for sub 4:30. I hadn’t cared about times at all until I crossed that road, but as soon as I saw the clock I couldn’t resist. A sprint finish, and I just about made it.

I wobbled into the café to find Robert, who hadn’t been expecting me for another half an hour, and claimed a steaming hot plate of mac and cheese. I was just in time for the awards too, and to pick up prizes for Karina and Rob who had both placed second in the half marathon. And just as I packed up my things to hobble back to the car, I remembered one last very important errand. He refused to do his tail display despite my pleading, but I did at least manage to get a photo of him strutting around, being ostentatiously disinterested.

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Robert and I talked a lot about running on the journey back – surprise surprise – and it was fascinating to hear about his career and how the standards have changed so much over the years. He told me that he was plum last in his first marathon, and his time that day still beat mine at the Larmer Tree by over half an hour. I know I’m never going to be a fast runner, but being so much more confident over rough terrain now my trail marathon times are fast catching up with my road times, even though I’m not speeding up overall. It really helps being around such quality runners in the Chasers, even though it can be a bit intimidating at times, because you can’t help but be carried along. More and more I appreciate the importance of being part of such a fabulous a running club, to share my highs and support me in my lows, and to know there’s always someone willing to offer advice or a lift or a hug. Sporron optional.

Pilgrim Challenge – part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click here for day 2…