As a writer I am all too familiar with the concept of sophomore blues or, as it is sometimes called, “that tricky second book.” It has been interesting to see just how much of that strangeness has trickled into my second year of running.
Last year, my wife and I took 9 months to go from being able to run for about a minute to taking on, and beating, the 100k Race to the Stones. This year has been tough. In large part the reasons are the same as those writers and musicians face. Everything, every ounce, has gone into making that first time a hit. The tank is empty. And, in the case of running, there just wasn’t time to refill it over the winter. We took our shoes off after the Snowdonia Marathon at the end of October, at which point the body refused to cooperate with anything till the end of January. So much for banking solid winter training. After that much of a shock the body just needed rest.
So, lining up at the start with the inevitable under-preparation, it was always going to be a tough one. What helped immensely was a fabulous time at Race to the King three weeks earlier. We’d only done one day but that had reminded us just how fabulous Threshold events are. They really are a slickly-oiled machine, but without an overly corporate feel. Food is copious, a great mix of unprocessed and the kind of junk you crave, there are full-trained medics everywhere all of whom get the foibles of ultra runners and will listen, treat you, and do everything they can to get you on your way. You feel in control of yourself, making your own choices and never having them made for you by people who don’t quite get the endurance mindset.
A further complicating factor this year was the cool summer. The one warm day I can remember we went for a 21k run on the course from Barbury Castle to Avebury and back, but unlike last year there has been no chance to get used to the heat, so when summer decided to get under way for real on Saturday, a *lot* of people suffered (race stats show a greater than 20% attrition rate, and I’d wager most of that was heat related).
So, the race itself. I’m not sure I’ve ever learned quite so much about myself as I did in the 25 and a half hours I was out on the course. The setting was as spectacular as I remembered it, the iconic corn field was as stunning as last year. There were the same queues to get through the kissing gates on the first section, and the stretch by the Thames was beautiful but sweltering. This year I had more suitable shoes – my Altra Olympus were sufficient to cope with the trails but protected my feet from both the tarmac sections through and around Goring and the endless flint-laden chalk – I wasn’t having to watch my every stride to make sure the soles of my feet weren’t shredded. As a result, a day after finishing I have a couple of small blisters and no pain in my feet at all.
Not everything went so well. It was clear by aid station 2 that fuelling was a problem. I very thirsty, and trying to take sips every 10 minutes while running so as not to overdo it, but I still ended up needing to drink so much I just couldn’t face food. It was a situation that continued through the entire race with the exception of base camp where the presence of endless quantities of milk meant I could get hydrated whilst also packing some calories. I’m sure the lack of fuel contributed to what happened later.
Early pace was steady and promising – pretty much on target for something between 18 and 20 hours, which would have been a nice consolidation after a tough winter following last year’s 19:42. But the absence of eating like I should was a ticking time bomb – my tally for the entire race duration: 4 quarters of an orange, 2 bananas, 1 packet of crisps, 1 cereal bar, 2 packs of sausage rolls, a cupasoup, 1 finger of fudge, and at basecamp half a bowl of pasta (compared to last year’s two bowls of pasta, bread and soup, and pudding gulped down in about 5 minutes). I’d struggle to get through a normal day on that – let alone a day and a half of burning 10,000 calories on top of base metabolic amount.
When I did get to base camp and went to text Ann that I’d arrived, I found a message saying she was in trouble. She was with medics at the previous aid station, utterly depleted with rapid heartbeat and wildly fluctuating temperatures. We did a lot of discussing of options but the long and the short of it was that she clearly had a virus, and to continue even to base camp would be stupid. I waited there for her while Threshold sent a car for her, making arrangements to get her back to the finish line where her drop bag with warm clothes and sleeping bag awaited. All the Threshold crew were amazing. So professional, so organised, and so willing to listen to you and let you take the lead on what was needed. Hats off to all of them. When Ann arrived I fetched her milk, and we discussed options (the staff were even prepared to let her overnight then start again in the morning but it was obvious that the only way to sort out the temperature and the heartrate was to get her back to the safety of the finishing area). Once we had established that the crew would get her to safety, and that if she was resting she would be OK (and on site with a qualified medical team) we agreed I should carry on and meet her at the end.
I set back out after 2 and a half hours at base camp, very disappointed for Ann but so so proud of her for getting through more than a marathon while on her sick bed!
There is something magical about heading out onto the second half of the race. It is the point where the event changes from being rather fun to something else entirely. As I headed out (no doubt refreshed by the unexpectedly long break) with one of my favourite inspiration tracks blaring from the speakers (confession time – Mumford & Sons’ I Will Wait), I felt the thrill of leaving civilisation behind for what I knew would be about 12 hours. If you’re my pace, setting out from base camp to run the race non-stop means that however warm and light it is when you leave, you know you are heading into the night. In itself that is a rather magical feeling. Add to that the kudos you get from all those staying at the camp overnight, and the crew who usher you back out, and it’s a very special feeling indeed.
It was fully dark by the time I hit the next aid station. Running at night is a truly wonderful thing – it’s just you, a tiny pool of light, and the inevitable moths. By this stage both distance, and the numbers camping who are safe in their sleeping bags, mean you will probably not see another person between aid stations (though when you arrive, their presence announced first by a blaze on the horizon, then the rumble of generators, you find yourself surrounded by 10, even 20 of your fellow athletes who will become your intermittent fellow travellers through these strange hours). For me night running has an added weirdness, because for some reason I can’t run with a head torch – I just can’t get it to cast any kind of shadow so I end up with no depth perception at all, so I strap my torch to my hand to give myself the best chance of avoiding a turned ankle.
It was the kilometre or so before the first aid station out of base camp that I had my first real mental battle. I was overwhelmed with worry whether Ann had got safely to the finish, racked with guilt, and 90% sure that I was going to pull out to make sure she was OK. When I got there, the first thing I did was get the crew to ring base camp and check up. It took an hour to get an affirmative, all the time a mix of worry and relief that I had a valid reason to pull out and avoid the hardship ahead vying with each other. It was an incredible relief to hear she was OK, and now safe and sound and where she needed to be, but I was also aware I had just been stripped of my excuse for pulling out. I headed out of aid station 6 both physically and emotionally drained. Fortunately the next section was short and straightforward, but that was the last time anything about the race would feel anywhere near normal.
The level of solitude you experience running at night in the country will always start to play tricks with your mind. The regular thump thump of your backpack does nothing to lessen that. Nor the strange things the shadows from your torch do – because you are striding not driving smoothly, shadows dance and jerk, they move like small animals and it is almost impossible to avoid performing a tired-footed tarantella to avoid treading on what you imagine are poor unsuspecting shrews scurrying for their lives that turn out to be nothing but seed heads of grass. But not all the weirdness is imaginary. The 70 kilometre marker was set up, in the middle of nowhere, on the side of a Winnebago that was lit up like a Christmas tree playing drum and bass – this at well past midnight.
The section between aid stations 7 and 8 is one of the most hateful sections of race I know. Not only is it relentlessly hilly, there’s a really long stretch up a main road that crosses the M4, followed by a diversion into a field, the exit from which is so steep there was an unexpected member of race crew there to lift you out of it!
The section that followed I knew was tough – not only was there more road but there was a relentless hill back up to Barbury Castle at the end. Heading out, I was struggling to remember the basics of putting one foot in front of the other. By now it was nearly dawn and I was tired. Not the kind of tired I get after a long day at work but the kind of tired where even my internal monologue wouldn’t put two words together coherently. Where the concentration to focus on where your feet were being placed on rutted ground guided only by a torch that was now veering about because I couldn’t hold it still was not just failing but in danger of being sent back to repeat the year. As the course crossed another busy road, there was a lovely security guard who earned my eternal gratitude by offering me 10 minutes in his chair, then broke the news that it was 6.1 kilometres till the next aid station. The part of my lizard brain that was still functioning new that this was a kilometre more than the marker at the previous aid station had announced, and something that trivial nearly destroyed me. I’ve always shaken my head reading accounts of ultra runners getting distraught for going a mile off course – if you’re going that far what difference does it make? The answer is that when your brain has told itself to prepare for precisely this long then even a metre feels as though it is the last straw that will make you fail.
Even sitting down hadn’t really refreshed me. My engine was running on its last few fumes. Then, on the streets through Ogbourne St George, I found myself for the first time with company. At first, I thought the red light I saw ahead was from a lamp on a fellow runner’s backpack. Then I realised it was actually coming from the eye of a dog. And the dog was with someone, who was dressed all in white. For a moment I was terrified, convinced I was about to be attacked, then I realised the person was holding a second dog cradled against its shoulder – he was kindly keeping his dogs under control while I passed. I was about to say thank you when I realised this was no ordinary person but a monk. I was wondering where the nearest monastery was when he disappeared. Fortunately I was just about in control of my faculties to know that the Phantom Friar of Ogbourne St George was, in fact, a hallucination (of course, if this was an urban legend or one of my books, I’d get home, google “monk Ogbourne St George” and find that an escaped serial killer had fled dressed in white robes). But I was equally sur such lucidity wouldn’t last. It was time, I knew, to call it a day before I ended up veering off course to help an imaginary monk find his dog and ended up goodness knows where, comatose in a remote ditch.
It was disappointing to be so close, but the decision to pull out felt like such a relief, especially as I knew how hard the last section was.
But for some reason as I stumbled deliriously into aid station 9 the words that came out of my mouth weren’t “I’m done” but “Do you have a tent I can sleep I for an hour – I’ve just been hallucinating and I think it might be a good idea to clear my head before I set off.” “I think you’re right,” said a lovely medic, and the crew showed me to a tent, zipped me up, and promised to wake me in an hour if I wasn’t up. This is one of the thing’s that’s so special about ultramarathons that sets them apart from even the most hardcore marathon. You can have these truly violent lows, but because everything happens at the sporting equivalent of geological time, you can almost always do something to come through them. And subconsciously I’d figured the time was there, what possible harm could it do to rest up before I pulled out, and maybe, just maybe, it’d get me through. And, an hour later, as I stirred about 6 teaspoonfuls of coffee into a paste, the medic came up and asked me, very simply, “where are you?” “I’m at aid station 9,” I said, confused, until I realised what he was doing. “Excellent,“ he said, adding, “My next question was going to be who’s the prime minister” to which I responded, “I haven’t seen the news for over a day, it could be anyone,” eliciting a response of “which is the right answer.”
And with veterinary doses of caffeine inside me, I texted Ann to say I was on the final stretch and was underway. I took it very easily but now, with daylight firmly set in, nothing was going to demoralise me, not even the dreaded loop back, which sees athletes pass the finish line and be sent off in the opposite direction to the Avebury Stones before heading back. The only real difficulty between there and the end was some severe white-out on some of the baked chalk, which made depth perception as hard as it can be by the light of a head torch, and 2 hours 29 minutes after setting out I had a medal round my neck, was reunited with Ann who was much rested and full of tales of the wonders of night time at the finish area, changed into clothes that were ever so slightly less rank, and curled up in the corner of the finish barn wondering, as much as my nearly blank mind would wonder, if that had really happened.
Bring on 2017!