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.