I’ve seen hell

Maybe the title of this post is a tad over dramatic. Maybe it’s because I haven’t yet formulated properly how I feel about what I endured last weekend.

I completed my fourth ultra marathon. To date, it is the furthest distance I have ever ran, coming in at 64 miles (100km to those watching in black and white). I would usually enjoy these things, but this one…well, it was different. It wasn’t particularly hilly, just long. It follows the route of Britain’s oldest footpath – the Ridgeway. It runs from Berkshire to Wiltshire for nearly 90 miles, and we were to run 64 miles of those.

The day started at 3 am, after three hours sleep. My ultra buddy picked me up at 4 am and off we went. A farcical start meant we were delayed by an hour, starting at 8.30 am. The weather was warm, bright, dry and sunny. Despite the lack of sleep, I felt ok and was looking forward to the day ahead. The unfortunate thing about starting in a later wave is that you’re trying to run with the guys and girls who either intend to walk the whole thing or are splitting the run over two days of 50k each. Either way, there was a lot of weaving on unforgiving terrain and stop-starting.

In the past few weeks, some of my runs have been hindered by an aching pain just under my left bum cheek and thigh. I have concluded, in my totally professional opinion, that it’s my hamstring. Anyway, about 10km in to this 100km slog, guess what happened. The pain started. And it worsened. And worsened. It spread down my leg, into my foot and became a real problem, almost like a weakness. I got into the routine of stretching it at the pit stops, which were about every 12kms or so.

After pit stop two, some 32kms in, I had a rare moment where I nearly caved in. After leaving the pit stop, I passed a 32kms sign (they mark every, single, damn kilometre), and realising how uncomfortable I felt, how the hot midday sun was now beating down on me, how hard the chalk path surface was and realising I had 68kms still to go, I considered just knocking it on the head and going off for a sleep. I’m not sure where the resolve and resilience came from but I pushed on.

Just shy of the last pit stop before the half way mark, I caught up with a French guy called Antoine. We had a great walk mostly as I was knackered and he had twisted his ankle in an amusing incident at his aunt’s house. He has recently became a father, and being the same age as myself, it was easy to draw parallels with our lives. A truly animated, interesting, funny and endearing guy, we went our separate ways at the half way point and I didn’t see him again. For that hour or so, it was great to chat with someone like that, it helps distract you from the pain and the distance ahead. These events do hand you little gems like that that you end up cherishing more than any medal.

The first half was pretty hellish. The huge task ahead weighing me down, pushing hope away. The present very painful and completely unenjoyable. If there was a devil, he was behind me, driving me on by prodding me with his trident.

I decided I would attack the second half, so I took some pain relief at the half way point, had a quick wash, then hit the trail again, without eating, as I had enough on me to sustain me to the next pit stop. It’s so easy to hang around for an hour at base camp, but I was concious of my finishing time, so ten minutes was it, and I was on my way again.

The second half was as relentless as the first one. Some beautiful scenery though, especially as the sun was setting. The leg pain subsided, maybe due to the pain relief, or maybe because of the fact that everything was warmed up properly and stretchy. I found myself setting myself targets of covering 8km sections in an hour, then rewarding myself by texting replies to supportive friends and relatives. It seemed to work fine, and I even bypassed the last pit stop. With 10km to go, I had to get my head torch out to guide me. The chalk path in front of me looked an unbelievable bright white. The moon was up and in fact, without the torch, I could still see where I was running.

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As with most hellish experiences, hope gets dangled in front of you and then unceremoniously whipped away. Some mile or two away to the right I could see and hear the finish line, only to realise we were to be taken past it for a kilometre or two so we could pass through the Avebury stone circle. It was here that my GPS battery failed, thus losing all my data. That aside, I pushed on for the finish, becoming a two minute hero to the expectant crowds, ultimately waiting for more important people, then passing through the officials to receive the medal.

Once that’s done, you apologetically weave through people behind the finish line, then go back to being a nobody again. Unrecognised, despite the life changing experience you’ve just endured. Limp back to the car. Eat crisps and sleep. Wake up in the early dawn, thinking you’ve dreamt it all. Get home at 6 am feeling like you’ve crept in from a night out, but with something more than a hangover – the knowledge you’ve seen hell, ran through it, and survived to see another day.

 

Mission complete…for now

My journey into tabbing has been well covered in previous posts. Some five and a half years from being a runner and cyclist, I moved onto running with a backpack. It has helped shape who I am today and has allowed me to find strength and determination I never believed I possessed.

Also in other posts I have bored the socks off you with references to the Fan Dance. I will assume you are either (a) a regular reader and know what I’m talking about, or (b) intelligent enough to use a certain famous internet search engine (which now seems to be a verb) to find out more.

Anyway, after five years and two attempts, I was back in the Brecon Beacons on Friday night to register for my third attempt on Saturday. With many things going on in my life this year, my relevant Fan Dance training was practically zero compared to the previous attempts. I had two reasons to be quietly positive though. Firstly, I bought a better pair of boots last year and they were proving to be a winner. Secondly, at the end of April, I did a solo Fan Dance exercise and did it within the four hour time window, but with a slightly lighter backpack (19kgs).

Registration is an interesting arena. Mixtures of quiet competitors, mean looking ones, terrified ones, and worst of all, in my opinion, loud cocky ones. In the middle of it are the Directing Staff, giving out instructions, and organising everything in precise military fashion. One key thing is to listen carefully. Even then, you can go wrong.

The other purpose of registration is to get your Bergen weighed, checked and tagged. I got mine out of my car, weighed it with my trusty luggage scales and it came in at 16.5kgs, which is half a kilo over, which I can live with. So over to the weighing tent I go. Put it on theirs and it’s underweight. Shock. They weigh it in pounds, so it turned out it was a pound and a half under. So, back to the car to find some dead weight to go in it. I was tempted to nick a stone off a wall nearby, fully intending to replace it later, but thought better of it and used my rubber mallet instead. Back to the tent and who should be at the scales, but my Fan Dance nemesis. He remembered me from the Paras 10 in May and we had a pleasant chat. The bag was bang on. Relaxation time. It did make me think though that if my scales are wrong, my 19kg practice Fan Dance could have easily been 18kgs perhaps. Making me wonder if I could really do it in under four hours with 22kgs.

The campsite was fairly lively, which was great, but not when your alarm is set for 5 am. So, in with the earphones and off to sleep I went, and frustratingly woke up at 4.40. So I got up and started boiling water for breakfast. All admin sorted, and got to the start at 6.15.

rrem

In a world of people getting offended by things, the race brief was not for the easily offended. A very frank, to the point speech about giving it your all and to politely start at the back if you weren’t going to go hard. I had no intention of bring intimidated and made my way to the front. The rapid march started just after 7 am and off we set. Finding myself in touch with the front runners and rapidly overtaking other marchers. Being careful not to blow out in the first two, and arguably most brutal, miles. Over the summit and down Jacob’s Ladder, I could see very little in front of me in terms of competition. Within one hour and forty minutes I was at the halfway point, refilling my water carrier and hitting the trail home. It’s always a great feeling knowing that you’re over half way. I set myself a seemingly unrealistic target of reaching the summit, some four miles away, within one hour of the half way. This four miles including the Roman Road, predominantly uphill and the infamous and punishingly brutal Jacob’s Ladder. I knew it was near impossible but I needed something to aim for. As unbelievable as it sounds, my right hand touched the very last rock to scramble over at the top of the ladder only one hour and ten minutes from the half way point. At that moment I realised my dream was possible. Just two miles down the mountain lay the red telephone box and the culmination of five years’ training, thought and possible obsession. I began to think how bittersweet it felt. On one hand, my dream of completing the march in four hours before I’m 40 very much assured, barring any disasters, yet on the other, the void of having potentially no dreams or further aspirations to motivate me coming up.

So it was head down, brain off, legs striding down the hill to finish in three hours and thirty-five minutes. To be told I was 9th overall and my time was elite, was very humbling, and the emotion of surprise support at the finish line made the experience even more special.

rrem

Four days later, I’m still struggling to take it in. Today at lunchtime, I entered the next big target so the motivation continues. The Fan Dance still has a huge draw for me and I will definitely return in some capacity either supporting or competing. Self belief going through the roof, it’s hard not to wonder what else I’m made of.

The revenant

According to rumours, I’ve ran off into the mountains to live alone in a tent, explaining the radio silence for a few weeks. As much as I wish that was the truth, unfortunately for you and I, it is not.

While the events of the last few weeks are an in-depth blog subject by themselves, they are not for disclosure here, so I’ll spare you the boredom.

The main push to get motivated to write a post this week is that this coming weekend is the Fan Dance that I have written about and referenced many times. The prep leading up to it has not been brilliant to be perfectly honest. No specific training since the Paras 10 at the end of May, and the running has suffered too of late. But it’s too late now to change the course of fate. The only advantage I can see is that my legs will be sufficiently rested going into the event, especially after the ultra marathon at the beginning of May.

So for the third time in three attempts, I go into the Fan Dance facing adversity with plenty of personal stuff on my mind, some good, some bad. I’m definitely going to draw on the good and the bad for motivation throughout, and leave the bad stuff on the mountain. It can keep it, and the next rainfall can wash it out to sea.