Moonlight Challenge – fourth time’s the charm

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ask me again in four weeks.

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North Downs Way 100 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Me and Clare NDW100 capture

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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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 1

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In the run up to the Druids Challenge, I had plenty to think about.

With 84 miles to cover over three days, I would have to think about pacing myself to make sure I didn’t burn out. Then again, I was curious about my progress over the last couple of years, and I knew I was more suited to multi-day ultras than to long single stage races – should I go for it this time, find out how well I could place if I pushed myself? I compared what I expected my time to be with the previous year’s times, and it was certainly a lot better than the 19th place I managed at the Pilgrim’s Challenge back in February.

I had the terrain to think about too. With no experience whatsoever of the Ridgeway, all I had to go on was the elevation graph, photos of past races, the ubiquitous National Trust acorn markers and a route card. At least I had a fair idea of what the team at XNRG would have in store for us; there were bound to be hills, mud, chalk, rain rain and more rain. Best to assume the worst and enjoy the rest.

Then there was the exhaustion factor; besides running just over a marathon every day for three days over trails, I would have less than ideal resting conditions between stages. No warm bed in my familiar dark and quiet bedroom, no bath to soak my weary muscles in or long suffering boyfriend to wait on me hand and foot; instead of creature comforts I would have a cramped campbed on a gym floor with 150 other people. I learned my lesson from Pilgrims; the key was to finish as quickly as possible so as to nab myself a prime bit of real estate and get my phone and watch on charge before all the power points were taken. And finding somewhere to dry off wet kit was a challenge in itself.

What’s more I had been counting on having fellow Chaser Cat there too for moral support, but she had had to pull out after being sidelined with injury. It wasn’t exactly my comfort zone, being among lots of unfamiliar people who all seemed to know each other – I would have to pluck up the courage to talk to the other runners or face a very isolated three days.

I had all this and more to think about, but only one thing kept coming back to haunt me. My old nemesis: public transport at rush hour. With an 11am start in Tring, the only train that would get me there from Clapham Junction in time would be the same train for hundreds of commuters – hundred of angry commuters already crammed in like sardines and in no mood to let me on with my massive hiking backpack. Eighty four miles of trail would be a piece of piss in comparison.

I wasn’t wrong to worry. Despite getting to the platform a full ten minutes before the train was due, by the time the already heaving carriages pulled in I was pushed – physically pushed – aside and very nearly missed my only opportunity to get to the race start in time. I had to run the length of the platform with three days worth of kit swinging around on my shoulders until I found a door with a crack of space free, and leapt on just in time for it to pull away. I looked up, expecting to see faces full of hatred, then realised with relief that I had found the one carriage full of runners, all looking as traumatised as me.

Settling into my few square inches of standing room, I did a quick systems check and found I’d pulled a muscle in my back, just behind my ribcage and perfectly placed to make it difficult for me to breathe. Great. A runner standing next to me spotted the mixture of panic and pain in my grimace, and offered a sympathetic smile. This turned out to be Noushka, a scientist from Southampton who had won her place on Druids from volunteering on previous events and had already had to make two changes to even get this far. We chatted for the rest of the hour long journey, joining up with another runner called Laura who had also had a ballache of a morning getting to Tring from the south coast, and I had to concede that I’d had it pretty easy in comparison.

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By the time the shuttle bus picked us up at Tring to take us to race HQ I was buzzing, impatient to finally get on the road. We were taken to a farm to pick up race numbers, receive the briefing and drop off our packs, which were to be taken to the school in Watlington where the first day’s racing would end and day two would begin. Another series of shuttle buses took us as close to the trailhead as buses could get, but it fell to to race director Neil Thubron to walk us half a mile to Ivinghoe Beacon at the top of the hill for the race start. A steep downhill start that I couldn’t resist hammering for all I was worth, eyes blinded by tears and bitter cold, arms outstretched as I skidded down the chalky slopes. My kind of race start.

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One of the remarkable and brilliant things about XNRG races is their policy of no cutoff times – the team stay out until the last competitor is safely back in. Their races are open to long distance walkers covering the same route as the runners, but it means that they have staggered start times with walkers leaving first, mid pack runners an hour later and elites an hour after that. For the first day your start time is based on your projected finish time which you state when you sign up, but after that you are grouped by the previous day’s finish times: 9am for the first forty finishers, 8am for the next forty, 7am for everyone else. It’s a system that leaves no-one behind, as well as presumably the only way to make sure both the four hour finishers and the nine hour finishers got back in time for dinner.

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My ambitious start put me in good position in the pack, but I was going quicker than the 10mm pace I had planned while the going was good and aware that a nice big uphill was on its way. I couldn’t resist a good challenge. The strong position felt too good to give up without a fight, so I kept count of the women in front of me and made sure that everyone that passed me on the uphills were safely behind me by the bottom of the hill. I realised I was racing now, a new experience for me and a whole different way to approach running. No chatter, no music to zone out to. Game face.

Day one was the longest of the three but only by a smidge; 29 miles, compared with 27 on day two and 28 on day three. I was starting in the middle pack with Noushka and Laura among others, and the elite pack included Cat’s friend Sam, who I had met at Pilgrim’s. We had briefly bumped into each other at the race HQ and he joked about me saving him a spot at the school, although I was pretty certain that he’d beat me back even with an hour’s head start. Now of course I wanted to shrink that lead as much as possible.

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The first checkpoint that day didn’t come until mile 11 so I had to make sure I got some food into me long before then to avoid crashing. My bonk at the NDW100 and my issues with eating ever since played on my mind all weekend; normally I could slow down to reduce the effect of jostling on my stomach, but if I wanted to make a good time I would have to go slightly faster than was comfortable, which meant a higher likelihood of nausea. It would be a delicate balance to strike, and I am done with mid-race technicolour yawns thank you very much. But, I’d also learned my lesson after breaking my back on the Pilgrims Challenge carrying a four course meal in my race vest; the XNRG aid stations are well-stocked, varied and pretty kind to a wobbly stomach, so all I had with me were my ubiquitous Nutrigrain bars and some emergency gels and Shot Bloks. The evenings would be my chance to stock up on calories.

The terrain on the first day was relatively sheltered, mostly single track through woods and plenty of ups and downs like the Dorking section of the North Downs Way – I had a blast pushing myself on the twisty trail, and the light rain was nice and refreshing. There was nearly 5000 feet of total elevation gain over the twenty nine miles but the uphills were uphill enough to walk, which is a polite way of saying steep enough not to feel guilty about not running. The exact definition of that gradient changes for me by the day, but that day the balance was bang on. I didn’t get to do as much gossiping as I normally would, or as much touristy photo-taking for that matter, but I enjoyed the feeling of moving at speed knowing that it wouldn’t last too long.

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Because of the later start, the first day was the only day we were required to carry headtorches – the only piece of mandatory kit apart from a mobile phone – in case dusk fell before we made it to the school at Watlington. I pushed on through the next aid station but as the sun put on slippers and dressing gown and made for bed I started to flag. As charmed as my day had been, just when I needed a bit of a lift I came across two runners who I’d been passing and passed by all day: experienced ultra runner Ash and his friend Chris who had signed up on a dare after only ever having run a half marathon. We were all feeling the slump, counting down the last few miles just as we found the boggiest, most energy-sucking foot-grabbing custardy mud section of the whole course. Ash and I are both – how do I put this – compact in stature with less than eleven feet in height between us; Chris on the other hand was closer to eleven feet tall on his own, and none of us were built for dragging ourselves through bog. We’d made great time throughout the day but all we could do was walk at this point, so conversation turned to what it always does on trail races: life story, positive reinforcement, trying not to say fuck too much in front of strangers.

I had actually spoken to Ash earlier in the day when I thought I’d recognised him from a previous race – probably not the best way to reassure someone you’re not insane, asking if they’re absolutely sure they didn’t run the such-and-such bazillion miler recently – and seen Chris overtake me on hills a number of times, but it wasn’t until that last stretch that I realised they were running together, just at a much more even pace than me. Chris had been cajoled into taking up running in order to get fit and lose a couple of stone, which is achievement enough in itself, but I was even more impressed by the fact that he’d gone straight for a three day race over 84 miles for his first, bypassing your good old fashioned marathon like any normal person would. He had a very dry sense of humour – he had to have – compared with Ash’s forthrightness and the pair of them made a comedy double act that really cheered me up. They both tried to remain gentlemanly and refused to swear in front of me while I spewed every vile, graphic and unladylike bit of dockers’ vernacular I could think of as each footstep disappeared into the bog. There’s the twenty-first century for you.

Runner after runner passed us on the last mile stretch, just as the light was fading and our legs protesting, demanding recompense for the first twenty eight miles. After we turned off the trail and onto paved ground leading up to the school Chris asked us how far we had left at pretty much hundred yard intervals, and Ash and I doled out information scrap by scrap, partly for his sanity, partly for ours. Less than a quarter of a mile from the end, on the final road that would lead us to the school gates I saw Cat’s friend Sam and leading lady Maree pass us, both having started in the elite start an hour after us. It meant we hadn’t lost that much ground if the front runners were finishing around an hour ahead of us and it gave me a burst for the finish line. Ash, Chris and I crossed together, the three of us holding hands, and piled into the school hall for soup, rolls, coffee and cake.

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Our stopover that night was at a school, where we had taken over the assembly hall and gym for sleeping quarters, both sets of showers and changing rooms, and the main hall for a canteen. It wasn’t the most glamourous of locations but Neil and the Extreme Energy team treated us all like stars; as ever tireless, cheerful and with a solution to everything. They had even put down a tarp to leave our muddy shoes on, left bundles of newspaper to stuff inside them overnight, and set up a board with day one standings and information for the following day including elevation, weather report and photos of past races. I set up my pop up camp bed – probably my biggest triumph of the whole weekend, not having to sleep on the cold floor – next to Sam (and more importantly, a power point), and queued up for the best/worst shower of my life. It’s hard to describe how much I appreciated that anaemic dribble of lukewarm water which cut out every ten seconds.

Ash, Chris and I had finished 41st, 42nd and 43rd respectively on day one, which meant we had just missed the first 40 cutoff for the elite start the following day – pretty much the perfect balance between getting the earlier start we knew we’d need the next day and being back in time to grab a good sleeping spot. After the day one standings were confirmed I was shocked to discover that I was eighth lady – how the hell did I manage that? – and suddenly my curiosity became determination. Being top ten felt good, I thought, I’d quite like to hold on to this. As Neil pointed out though, the second day was still to come; despite being the shortest and flattest it was invariably the toughest day, hitting at the point before your body has quite acknowledged that you’re carrying on whether it likes it or not and after the reserves of day one energy have been used up. It would also be a lot more exposed than the first day, especially the stretch along the Thames, and the kind cooling drizzle of day one was due to become torrential rain and winds on Saturday. Not to mention the fact that it would finish on a long slow uphill.

All details, of course. Now I had found my real game face.

Click here for part 2

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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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…

50 Mile Challenge 2014

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Almost as soon as I’d yanked off my running shoes at the end of the Brighton Marathon this year, I was looking up my next race. There wasn’t much point in looking around though. I already knew which one I wanted to tackle next.

Back in February I had entered the Moonlight Challenge, a race of up to five laps each measuring a quarter of a marathon, on a farm in Kent, in the middle of the night. Race is a misnomer actually; it’s called a challenge, because that’s exactly what it is. Finishers get a medal and a certificate regardless of the distance they complete, and there’s no award for coming first. I had both massively underestimated and missed the point of the challenge at the time, entering it in the hope of finishing my first ultramarathon before my 30th birthday in March but being forced to call it a day after the fourth muddy lap took the last scrap of energy out of my tired legs. It wasn’t until a couple of weeks after that I began to appreciate this fantastic event for what it was, and to stop measuring success by dates and times. I had any number of excuses handy for why I hadn’t finished the fifth lap, but they never gave me anywhere near as much freedom as just getting on with it would have done.

So here I was again in the middle of July, with a double or quits challenge to complete eight laps this time. The 50 Mile Challenge is actually a double marathon or 52.4 miles, with a very generous thirteen and a half hours cutoff point for the final lap, and is run on the same course starting at 6am instead of 6pm. As usual, I had barely done any training thanks to work commitments – both a full time job and a freelance project that nearly killed me – and the day before travelling to the race I would be flying back from a holiday in Menorca and hoping that there weren’t any Icelandic volcanoes planning a surprise eruption. Details, details.

Team Mum and I stayed in a Travelodge a twenty minute drive away and test drove the route to the starting line the day before so that I could pick up my race number. Good job too – driving there just five months beforehand did not prevent us from getting lost again and nearly throwing the satnav out of the window. Nor, unfortunately, did it mean we made it on time the next morning for the 5:45am briefing. In fact, we drove up just in time to see the rocket set off for the start at 6am, me in the wrong shoes and still changing them as the other runners set off. All captured for posterity on the DVD of the event, including a soundbite of legendary organiser Mike Inkster telling me not to look so scared. Not an auspicious start.

In a funny sort of way though it was the perfect start. I’ve said before the reason I love these sorts of events is the lack of fanfare and buildup, and to all intents and purposes I could have been setting off on a Sunday training run, except I was in a farm in Kent – and I keep saying Kent and not being more specific because I still don’t know where exactly in Kent we were. So off we plodded, me more ploddy than most as I spent two full minutes trying to get signal on my Garmin to record the first lap. Even the bloody Garmin didn’t know where we were.

The course was exactly the same as it was back in February, with the one distinct difference that it wasn’t a bog. Nonetheless prepared for the worst and wary of weather reports forecasting a storm, I had my new trail shoes on – last time I’d learned the hard way that the only way to get a foothold in the boggiest parts was with some sort of foot armour. It was a risky move as I had only run in them once, for just half an hour, but I had my foam soled Gel-Lyte 33s on standby in case the bog never appeared. The trail shoes were stiffer and heavier than I was used to, but while I was taking it easy in the early laps they handled the terrain just fine.

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I remembered how I’d kept my head down last time missing out on both the scenery and the social interaction, and how utterly miserable it had made me. This time I made sure I left out the earphones for a bit and chatted to some of the other runners, and immediately the decision paid off. The first two laps passed in no time at all, thanks to the marvellous Gil: a veteran member of the 100 Marathon Club approaching his six hundredth marathon or ultra distance. We talked about all sorts – tips on quick but nourishing meals (particularly ones you can do in one pan), the best websites for shoes, the best events, the best books. His attitude absolutely changed me; I told him about my experience in February and how I’d like to have gone quicker in Brighton, and he told me that negative experiences are just opportunities to learn, and the most important thing is to enjoy it. It’s really all about joy.

We finished the first half marathon at a steady, almost metronomic pace, under perfect running conditions – warm but breezy, cloudy but not too muggy. Mum had been planning to walk one of the laps with me, so she joined me for the third lap when I could slow down a bit to preserve energy for later. We kept up with Gil’s metronomic pace for a while but eventually let him take off while we enjoyed the scenery.

Soon enough though it became obvious I’d hung onto the trail shoes for a lap too many. With the weather showing no signs of the storm that had been forecast and the ground only getting harder, I could feel blisters forming all over my toes and became desperate to get back to base to change. It was too much for mum though, still injured and not yet able to walk so far without a break, and although she patiently and stoically put up with my impatient grumbling about getting back I could tell she was in pain too. Eventually I had to take the damn things off altogether and do the last mile in just my socks. The rough gravel burned the soles of my feet for a bit, and the chronic pain of blisters rubbing became the acute pain of stones cutting into my skin, but I actually found this much easier to deal with. Plus, running without shoes was surprisingly liberating and had an immediate effect on my posture. Not sure if a cross country run was the best time to try barefoot running though.

Finally back to base my mum collapsed into the car, I quickly changed into my lightweight shoes and petulantly tore off the waterproof jacket that had been tied around my waist so far, annoying me. My muscles were cooling down and I was eager to get out and run again, so I barely even took the time to eat a Nutrigrain bar before shooting off. Back along the road I shot, hoping to get the pistons firing and make up lost time. Guess what happened next?

It turns out that wicking fabric is great for removing moisture from the body, but it has a saturation point. My shorts found their saturation point about two hundred yards into the next lap, when no sooner had I taken off my waterproof shoes and jacket the storm clouds finally made good on their promise and it started bucketing down. I weighed up whether or not to go back for my jacket, but I figured I was already wet anyway, and going backwards not halfway into the challenge would psychologically crush me. Still though, this wasn’t rain. This was Noah’s Ark territory. And with the ground unable to drink it up quickly enough, ankle deep standing water was everywhere within minutes.

I remembered how badly I reacted to the mud and waterlogging the last time and felt much more zen about it this time. There was bugger all I could do about it, and at least it washed the salt from my skin. I kept my pace up to avoid getting a chill, although half an hour later it was still pouring down with no sign of letting up. On top of this, I was wearing low rising sock liners instead of ankle socks so every bit of grit and mud was getting right inside them, causing more friction on my burgeoning blisters. Now I understood why Mike always wears gaiters. They went straight on the shopping list for next time.

It wasn’t all gloom though – for the first time, I realised how much I had developed as a runner mentally, rather than physically. The old Jaz was sobbing and shouting obscenities about mud and bemoaning a lack of preparation; the new Jaz was taking it on the chin and enjoying the cool water, laughing about the conditions with the other runners and the marshals, recognising that it would eventually let up and even if it didn’t it wouldn’t matter. I think that’s my own manifestation of the wall – the feeling that it’s always going to be this bad forever and ever and why bother. Experience teaches you actually it won’t always be this bad, and you’ll feel like a bit of a dick later for having moaned so much. I thought about Gil’s words of wisdom, hoped that I would bump into him again and plugged on.

At this stage I did crack out the iPod Shuffle, which I’d loaded with an audiobook of Jack Kerouac’s On The Road. It turned out to be the perfect choice: romantic tales of vagabonds crossing America with nothing but a canvas kit bag and a brass neck, of sunshine and heat and dust and haze. I can see why it inspired legendary ultra runner Jenn Shelton and it carried me through laps four and five.

Eventually the rain did let up, and almost as if it had never come at all the clouds parted to reveal beaming sun to dry me off; even my cotton vest which was so saturated I could have wrung about a pint of water out of it. I got back to base after lap four to find my mum fully recovered and back to her bubbly self, having made friends with the wife and daughters of another runner. She’d also had a costume change into pink trousers and glittery flipflops and they’d set up chairs, tables and refreshments under a gazebo like a makeshift living room. What a bloody legend.

At this pit stop I cleaned and powdered my feet and changed into fresh (ankle high) socks – not much I could do about my trainers still being damp, but it was better than nothing and immediately put a spring back in my step. I also changed into my QPR shirt and took the waterproof out with me this time. Not taking chances again.

Although my mental strength was holding out, my body had started to creak by the fifth lap and I had to take a few breaks to stretch my hamstrings and hips. It was definitely half and half running and walking now. To quote Zapp Brannigan, the spirit is willing but the flesh is spongy and bruised.

Every now and again though I would bump into Mike Inkster running the other way round the course, checking up on the competitors and offering words of support. Mike is absolutely key to the spirit of the challenge, taking care as he does to get to know the runners and their own personal challenges so you feel like you’re always being looked after. I was gutted to hear this is his last challenge; logistical problems and sheer exhaustion after running them for fourteen years mean he can’t do it any more. There is a rumour that it may be taken on by the Thanet Road Runners who also man Jellybaby Corner, but for the moment I had to decide whether or not I could afford not to try the full fifty miles if it did turn out to be the last one.

Lap five was tough – I was glowing with the thought of finally being an ultra runner but my muscles were packing up. The team at Jellybaby corner were egging me on to finish all eight laps but as I rounded off the fifth I knew I’d need a bit of a rest before considering the sixth. Still though, I had always told myself six would be the minimum and so after 15 minutes in mum’s temporary lounge to eat a banana and put my feet up I made for the start again. Mike always says that when you think you’ve had enough you always have one more lap in you, and as usual he’s not wrong.

As she did back in February, mum came out with me for the first couple of hundred yards of the last lap. I almost persuaded her to do the whole thing, but she was still recovering from the effects of lap three and thinking about a three hour drive home via my house afterwards, so she let me go at the entrance to the farm.

I to’d and fro’d about whether I should try for the full distance, but just over halfway through lap six I knew this would have to be my last. It took me an hour and 40 minutes to complete 6.55 miles on the last lap – and that includes running the last three miles when I knew I was nearly home and that with a bit of effort I could get in under ten hours. A little bit of good natured heckling from the team at Jellybaby Corner – whose good humour and boundless patience became a highlight to look forward to each lap – set me off for the final mile and a half stretch on road. I didn’t have my Garmin on GPS mode, just timer, as I knew the battery wouldn’t last otherwise, but a few mental calculations helped me keep my pace steady and I finally sprinted through the finishing area at 9 hours and 58 minutes.

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A little part of me still thought about finishing the last two laps, even if I crawled them, but by then I knew that I’d come here to do what I needed to and I couldn’t make my mum hang around for another 3 and a half hours. I got my certificate and medal from the support team, cheered in a few more finishers, and collapsed into the front seat of mum’s little Corsa.

I’d finally done it. I was an ultramarathoner. But this was in no way the end of the challenge for me – all it did was unlock the door to a world I really belong to. Apart from when I got my 10k PB three years ago (which I’ve barely come near since) I’ve never got quite so much joy out of running as I do ultra running. Just to know the experience of the run is half the achievement, that nobody cares what time you do or when you place as long as you’re happy, that if you fell you would always be picked up again: all this convinced me that this is what I was designed to do. So my hamstrings and creaky knees had better get used to it.