After the disappointment of Brighton Marathon, and in spite of the fact that I can’t mentally keep my sh*t together for 26.2 miles, I sensibly decided that I wanted to do something even more challenging – I wanted to run further, I wanted to run harder, I wanted to run trails.
I pitched the idea to Rob assuming (and no doubt partially hoping) he would say no. He didn’t. For some inexplicable reason he seemed quite excited! He’s always enjoyed the trails. So, given the whole craziness was originally my idea, there wasn’t really any way I could back out without getting ripped to shreds in that good-humoured and adoring way we do to one another surrounding just about any physical activity.
Hence, at 9am last Saturday, here we are at Richmond Park. The start of London (half way!) to Brighton.
I was feeling slightly apprehensive (Read: riddled with anxiety) surrounded by the red Action Challenge signs, and having spotted a number of the yellow and pink fluorescent route arrows on the way from the station. These familiar symbols brought back delightful memories of the 2 Action Challenge events I’d participated in before: The 2017 South Coast Challenge (walk) which I dropped out of at 69km, and the 2016 100km Thames Path Challenge (walk) which forced me to push beyond all conceivable limits to complete. Suffice to say, Action Challenge events are no joke.
It was however, great to see Kieron (who was doing 100k) at the start, to have a chat, do the warm up and start off together, helping to alleviate some of those nerves
We started out running a slow, steady pace. Approximately 10.30 minute miles. By 5km I was already baking hot! I should mention it was an absolute bloody scorcher of a day, (of course, it was!) with temperatures reaching 27 while we were on route.
The first rest station came at 12km. The rest stations were brilliant (we probably spent an hour or so at them over the course of the day) and were equipped with just about anything you could possibly require – from fruit and healthy snacks, to crisps, pick n mix, water, fruit squash, energy drink, energy gels, blister plasters, sun cream, first aid, and of course, portaloos.
Despite having what I considered to be a large breakfast ( x2 bowls of porridge, chocolate chip muffin, and a banana) I was already starting to feel empty – so I made the clearly well-thought out decision to stuff another banana and several fistfuls of greasy crisps – that I had never before consumed mid-run – down my throat in quick succession.
What happened next? Well, surprise surprise, I got a stitch!! (And felt pretty sick.)
Despite the temperature we managed to keep running until 22 or so kms. At which point, the heat rather overwhelmed me. As did the hills, which appeared suddenly, and the rather dull route through roads lined with houses on both sides. It all felt somewhat relentless. Suffice to say, I was not having fun.
Between 22km – 25km I struggled (and whined and complained) a lot. Mentally for me, I’m noticing a pattern – be it in a 5km or an ultra marathon, my lowest point comes just before half way. Psychologically, it feels to me, the worst place to be.
I was still feeling pretty low by the time we arrived at the 25km rest point – Hot, tired, hungry, thirsty and still not even half way. Having learnt my lesson from the previous rest stop, I stuck to a more rehearsed combo of bananas and energy gels for the rest of the day. I also realised that I’d (stupidly) been wearing my hydration belt too high up, so it had been pressing on my stomach contributing to the sickness factor.
The third quarter. Courtesy of the scorching heat, things had started to get pretty unbearable earlier than I’d thought they would. Which, you know…wasn’t great. This section started off fairly positively though – At this point you were running a lot more through fields and forest areas. It was a more like I’d imagine the ultra to be. The enormity of what we were undertaking suddenly started to sink in. “Woohoo!!!” Slowly, slowly, I was coming to believe in myself again. There I was. I was doing it. I was running my first ultra.
The real high, the whole way through, but in particular throughout the second half, was the psychological boost of overtaking walkers. At this point we had (or at least so we thought) given up all hope of a decent time, and had adopted a run/walk approach. However, rather hilariously, whenever we said “excuse me” or “sorry!” to a group of walkers and went in for the overtake they’d literally leap out of our way: “Well done!!” “Runners coming through!!” “Congratulations!!” “Wow!!” Feeling like modern day heroes, we disappeared around the next corner and promptly slowed to a walk again.
At some point between the 2nd and 3rd rest stop at 40k, it all started to get hard. Really bloody hard. Feeling completely empty, sick, sore, achey, and still with 16km to go, type of hard. “This is awful!” “This is really awful!” “This is SOOO hard!” “Never again!” “What am I doing here!” “UGH!!” – Comments Rob and I started to band about between ourselves.
After 42km, we were in unchartered territory; the furthest we’d ever run. And let me tell you, if I thought 25k – 40k felt bad, 50k – 56k felt unreal. We ran/walked from 40-50 km by taking turns to pick out an object in the distance “We’ll run until that tree.” “Ok good…we’ll now walk until that car.” By 50k I don’t think either of us had anything left to give. Sub 9 hours, was still on. But, at this point, we just didn’t care. Plus, I think we’d both assumed we’d be far quicker than we were but had again seriously underestimated the challenge (story of our lives!)
Suffice to say 50-56km was more of a walk/run than a run/walk. But I did just about manage some kind of trot over the finish line. At the end of Action Challenge events they always plant a glass of Prosecco in your hand which make me simultaneously laugh/cry because there is literally never a time I feel less like Prosecco, or anything I feel less like than Prosecco at that time!
Crossing the finish line felt incredibly surreal. I think I was both too tired and too shocked to properly process it. Catching up with Kieron and Jon in the marquee, I felt a lump in my throat, and found myself choking back a few tears.
It felt strange. Different to a road marathon, where photographic evidence shows I tend to finish fist-pumping the air thrilled by my own achievements! This time I just felt…Tired. Empty. Drained. No doubt I was and I deserved to be all 3. To cross that finish line, on that day, in that time, I’d given it my all. As I collapsed in to a plastic chair, I literally had nothing left to give.
I think Rob and I were both incredibly surprised to learn that out of the 137 people who completed the 56k distance that day, in our time of 9hours and 7minutes, we came in 11th and 12th. Of course, a lot of the others were walkers, but to be honest none of it even matters. What I’ve learnt is that with an ultra, time doesn’t really. What’s important is getting from A to B, and the journey you take and stories you make getting there.
And for that reason, I loved it. The whole experience; the (literal) ups and downs, the highs and the lows. Being out there on the trails, the peace, the quiet (save for my own whining), and the freedom. And crucially, the lack of pressure. Everyone and their mother has some definition of what they think is a ‘good’ marathon time. With an ultra, whether you take 5 hours or 25hours, no one has a clue what’s ‘good’ or ‘bad.’ Everyone’s going to be in awe of your achievement. And as I say, as quickly or as slowly as you like, it really is just all about the journey.