To insanity, and beyond!

As the torch light flickered, the woodland track ahead of me flickered too, in and out of the darkness. I looked down at the map. My thumb placed strategically where I was. All around me I could hear absolutely nothing. The occasional rustle, but no cars, no people, no running water, nothing. I knew I was in last place. Bringing up the rear, alone in the woods in the dark, trying to make checkpoint 4. “About 6 miles to go”,  I said to myself, already knowing I was slowly grinding to a halt on anything more than a slight uphill slope. Barely five minutes ago, I had stumbled up a practically vertical climb where I had to stop at the top and sit down. The only positive from that was looking down across the expanse of darkness below over to the twinkling lights of a nearby town, wondering who was still awake, who was looking up at the hill wondering what that light was, moving around. A hundred thoughts went through my mind. Why was I struggling? Was I failing? Just what would Jesus do?? I thought about my support team, loved ones, friends, the charity I was running for. I dug deep – seriously deep. Alas, however, at 12.55am, after 47 miles, I had to retire from the race.

I have never not finished a race, either as a runner, tabber or cyclist. It was therefore unfathomable to me that despite my best efforts, I’d not made it to half way. Here, I could list all the reasons and theories why. To some they would sound like excuses, to others, legitimate reasons. This isn’t an investigation, a witch hunt of sorts though, so I’m going to look at it from the other end, which luckily, many of my fans have.

My initial thoughts were that I had not even made it half way. In reality I had almost ran two very hilly marathons back-to-back. Now, this year has been very strange, and a lot has happened to me. One of the big things that has happened is that I have found a little support network in unconventional places, and not necessarily from people already in my life. The wave of support from all these people surprised me and saved my mind from visiting some iffy places. One such message of support came from Krister, the subject of a blog post whom I met on a previous ultra marathon. He had a similar experience attempting a 100-mile race where he had to retire. He started by congratulating me on not finishing. Interesting perspective. His view was that it showed I had pushed through and shown strength in doing so. I really hadn’t thought of it like that. Very refreshing. A vital thought process for us all. The first port of call for most is feelings of failure.

The other positive from this event was my on-the-day support. Two of my oldest school friends came to support me from the word go. A friend whom I’ve ran and cycled a lot with over the years and fellow ultra marathoner also surprised me at the second checkpoint. Biggest of all though was my partner and her kids. The biggest change of all this year has been meeting someone who, for some reason, loves me unconditionally. She’s never far away and just radiates support despite the fact that these events I do are a tad insane. When I was approaching checkpoint one, which was at the top of a pretty meaty hill, I was, as most of the time, thinking about her and the kids. Then, all of a sudden, her eldest daughter sprang into view and leapt and bounded down the hill towards me. The first thing I did was ask her to pinch me to check I was actually there and not unconscious under some hedge a few miles back. Once at the top, my two friends were there, and the youngest daughter. I started to jog, and passed a photographer. When the photos became available, one in particular summed up the day and my life nowadays. There I was, in focus, running. Behind me were four people and a dog, rooting for me, supporting me and wanting me to succeed. The only person missing was my partner, but naturally, she was at the feed station getting food ready for me. I can honestly say, as she and the kids stayed with me until my 1am retirement, I would not have made it that far without her.

It was at checkpoint one that the phrase that forms the title of this blog first appeared. The eldest girl remarked that the colours on my vest of the charity I was running for made me look like Buzz Lightyear. So, as I stood up, after thirteen miles, to attempt the next stretch in hot conditions, I exclaimed, “To insanity, and beyond!” Not exactly a million miles away from the truth.

102 not out. I hope.

When I was at school, I hated tests, unless it was a spelling test. The dreaded T word (which luckily, I could spell). Tests are funny things. They either prove to you and others that you know your stuff, and give you a feeling of confidence, or they highlight a gap in knowledge or a weakness, potentially setting you back, depending on your mind set. This weekend, I face an interesting test.

Despite my recent injury diagnosis (with the blessing of my sports therapist, whom I guess will profit from it anyway), I have decided to push on with my intention to run an ultra marathon. It’s not just any ultra marathon though. It’s been two years in the planning, and is probably the furthest distance I will ever run in one hit. At 102 miles (164 kilometres), it’s not a short stroll. With over 12,000 feet of elevation, it’s not easy.

It will be a huge test, mentally and physically. I fully expect my injury to give me grief pretty early on, so I’ll need to deal with that and push through. As mentioned, it’s also my monthly mile tally in one 24 hour blast. 

This race in particular has been on my mind for two years. I can’t recall if I heard about it and just decided to go for it like I do, more often than not, or if I accidentally stumbled upon it. Either way, when I attempted to enter it, it was apparent that I needed to qualify, to prove I could go at least half the distance. Because of this, I began running ultra marathons, and thus discovered a lot about myself. I ran two in the first year, but allowed myself to talk myself out of entering the big one in the final two miles. My reason being, the way I felt then, after 53 miles, would I have the credentials to run another 50 on top of that? The echo chamber of my mind returned a unanimous no. So I had to start again.

One thing I did differently this year was entering the race before I ran my second ultra. That way, it was on my mind throughout the run, and talking myself out of it was not an option.

This week has been last bits of preparation. Marking up maps (the run is self navigated), looking at kit, reducing it down, looking at the route, working out pacing, ETAs at checkpoints – all exciting stuff. It’s also looking like I might have some support along the route, which believe me, on something like this, is a huge boost.  I also decided to run for a mental health charity, so it’s not just myself I’m running for.

I’m trying not to see this as the end of a chapter as I feel in many respects my ultra marathon days are numbered (one smaller one next year potentially), it just means a shift in goals again. It’s been a huge year, and I’ve achieved so much that I’m immensely proud of yet can scarcely believe still.

Thank you for reading my blog. Below are some links that you may be interested to read.

See you on the other side.

https://www.cwmt.org.uk/

https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/philwells-century

 

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.

nor

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.

 

Pain is your only certainty

After last weekend’s excesses I had a reasonably laid back on this weekend. That phrase had so many different meanings in my twenties.

Anyway, the training focus now shifts towards the Fan Dance in about 7 weeks and the ultra marathon following that the weekend after. As luck would have it, a mate of mine whom I met at our local ParkRun, almost read my mind and messaged me to see if I’d be interested in doing some longer runs on Saturday mornings before ParkRun, which is what I was intending to do anyway. So after a night on the tiles on Friday night after work, I met him at 7.30 am and off we trotted at a fairly pleasant pace, able to chat the whole way. By the time we did the ParkRun however, dead legs had set in and despite my assurances to concerned friends overtaking me that I was taking it easy, I couldn’t have actually ran faster if there was an escaped leopard chasing me. I would have been breakfast. Still, it was really enjoyable to run along chatting to people instead of flying along like it’s the Olympics.

The run home for both of us was fairly hilarious as we both literally ground to a halt. Still, it’s good for me not to tire my legs too much ahead of the weekend.

My very good school friend whom I mentioned last week completed an incredible 100 mile (actually 104 mile!) cycle ride at the weekend, and finished in a very respectable time. The face to face conversation we had briefly at my ultra the other week revealed she was concerned that the broom wagon would get her! This obviously wasn’t the case. I think the size of her achievement might not sink in for a while. Despite her doubts, and my years of endurance training, I am actually only 25 minutes faster across that distance, so she has a hell of a lot to be proud of. I hope it is now the catalyst to start a journey of self-discovery and personal achievement that I started out on years ago, cutting any doubt down to size and instilling a kind of quiet confidence that you know what your limits are and what you’re capable of. So many people are afraid to find out.

As I carried out hill sprints and circuits in the woods near my house yesterday morning, I was very aware of the motto on my t-shirt: Pain is your only certainty.

This makes or breaks people. Time find out which.

Krister’s Secret Sauce and the mysterious clicking sound

On Saturday morning, after a week slogging it around the Brecon Beacons, I found myself at 7 am on the starting line of my first ultra marathon of the year. In the past couple of weeks I have raised concerns about my lack of training for this event, not helped by it being brought forward a week, squashing any hope of a recovery week.

So Friday was spent unpacking everything from the mountain escapades and repacking for overnight camping at the race HQ as well as for the run itself. Once there, dinner was made, as well as chatting to the other camper, a guy named Jonny who was doing one of the shorter distances (a mere 31 miles).

rrem

After a humble speech, and rapturous applause, the race field set off. The field quickly spread out and I found myself behind a guy, who awkwardly held every gate for me. Fortunately, I’d had too many coffees and had to stop for relief and he plodded off ahead. I eventually did catch him up again shortly before the first checkpoint, overtook him, and pulled away.

A few miles later, on a beautiful descent down to the River, there was a field of yellow rapeseed crops, with our path cutting through it. On this path I could see two small heads meandering through it. It would have made a fantastic photograph, their blue kit contrasting the yellow, epitomising the beauty of the region and why we get up so bloody early and do this to ourselves.

I had prepared to spend the entire 46 mile course alone, mainly by creating a playlist on my phone for when it got tough, and different techniques to push through when I had to. Such is life and these events that I did catch up with the two guys that I had seen previously in the yellow field, and after running as a trio, three became two. As luck would have it, the two of us were very similar in outlook, humour, pace and temperament. He was a Swedish guy called Krister, though at first I thought he was a Londoner! In all we ran about 20 odd miles together, well over half the race. We talked at length about life, our different cultures, humour, Vikings and cracked a few jokes, usually around our respective nationalities. We created an ultra marathon mantra to ourselves which went something like this:

If you can’t run, there’s always walking. If you can’t walk, there’s always crawling. If you can’t crawl, there’s always Uber!

Two things amused me the most in the final few miles that we were together. The first was a bottle he kept sipping from, which contained his magic sauce. Now, I know what was in it, but I believe it is Krister’s right to secrecy so I won’t reveal the recipe. I should add that there’s nothing illegal in it! It was the sauce (ha ha) of humour that kept me going through some tough climbs, along with trying to work out what this strange clicking sound was. I first heard it, and thought it was me. Or something in my bag, or something in Krister’s bag. It sounded like two pebbles being trapped together. I didn’t say anything until at one point Krister turned and said, “What’s that noise?!” and he worked out it was in fact his shoes. It was like running to a metronome!

It was about 5 miles from the finish that I had to let Krister continue alone, as just of a farm track, sat on the grass with her dog, was a longstanding school friend, who despite being in contact with on social media many times a week, I haven’t seen face to face since we left school in 1998. I often think that your friends will tell you what they think you want to hear, but the best friends you have tell you like it is, and this rang true on Saturday. I mentioned that I had in fact stopped sweating, probably due to dehydration, and quick as you like, my friend looked at my face and neck and said, “Yeah, you’re really crusty, mate!”. After twenty years, five minutes in and those are amongst her first words! It made me laugh all the way to the finish. Really great to see her and humbling to have support.

Eventually I crossed the finish in a time one hour and a quarter faster than last year, finishing seventh in the process. On the back of the success of my midweek test march test march, this gave me more confidence, and has pushed me to begin to consider much bigger goals for the next two years.

Lone Wolf

It has suddenly occurred to me that we are already in April and in less than a month I’ll be running in my first ultra marathon of the year. Since the last ultra I completed last June, my training went through a distinct change, when after years of just running miles after miles, I deliberately built in recovery runs to my weekly plan. For any non-runners (or non-obsessed runners I should say), recovery runs are typically deliberately slow runs designed to help the legs recover from big efforts, but better than just resting. Easy miles. With these recovery runs, I quickly reaped the benefits. In two consecutive weekends I smashed both my half marathon personal best as well as my 5k too. Since then however, the training switched to Bergen runs on Sundays for a while, and mixed runs during the week. The Bergen runs have slipped this year, but more importantly, I haven’t been doing the long distance runs in preparation for the ultras.

With this in mind on Sunday, I headed down to my local hills and ran a section of the upcoming ultra. It could have gone better, but could have gone much worse. Lately the struggle has been state of mind. It’s not often I’m so honest about my present feelings, but lately I have faced a struggle where everything feels like it’s dragging me down, turning a pressure screw. So it’s not easy to get up and go and do a trail run that I once enjoyed, when your mind is a pretty dark place and coping is like an ultra marathon in itself. It just becomes so hard to enjoy things. I think my close friends don’t know how to deal with me because I’m the clown of the group, the one dishing out the sought after advice and support, so it’s difficult for them to see me struggle, so therefore I don’t turn to them. It’s just me and the road (or trails).

I’m thankful for the outdoors. I’m thankful for the ability to run. In a month when I’m at the start line, I know I will be focused solely on the task in hand, though my thoughts will wander. I know I will be out there supporting other runners, but not asking for any from others. Funny how my running style reflects my life style.