The February Challenge came round rather quickly after the cross country. I didn’t actually have time to get nervous, why should I? It was my weekly long run, just a bit longer.
After misjudging my run route and doing 2.5hrs, I decided on a whim that I wouldn’t do the 10k as originally planned, but upgrade to the 18 miles (30km). After all, I had run 24km in those 2.5hrs, so what’s another 6k?
I got myself a hydration pack to carry my Elivar Endure, some food and all the other bits that were required like the safety blanket and first aid kit. After all, this was an off-road race and who knows if I’d run with people or be alone. The weather in the run up to the race had been anything but kind, emails warned of extremely muddy sections. All I wanted was for it to stay dry on the day. I didn’t have much hope being woken up by the howling wind and rain drumming against my window in the middle of the night. I prayed.
At 6.30am, I set off to catch the bus and train to Falmer. Someone must have heard my prayers because it was actually a rather lovely morning and my spirits lifted.
I relaxed into the seemingly endless and slow moving registration queue. Lots of people were getting nervous, they had a race. I on the other hand just wanted to accomplish the distance, running, not walking. I didn’t care what time I did (although secretly I was thinking that 3 hrs would be doable).
After the obligatory last minute dash to the toilet, I strapped on my pack and made my way to the start.
I didn’t warm-up bar a few dynamic stretches, after all I wasn’t going to dash off but rather just go for a run.
We set off and as soon as I crossed the timing mat the inevitable happened: the heavens opened. We were pelted by hale stones the size of peas and within a minute we were all soaked to the bone. Great, and only 17.5 miles to go. But just as quickly as the hale storm arrived, it disappeared again and the rest of the day was glorious sunshine. I kid you not.
I was going along nicely, climbing up the long hills, focussing on my footing and my breathing and life was just wonderful, the views over the Downs glorious. Along the way I chatted to people I passed or who passed me, marshals, cyclists and horse riders. I plunged through calf deep slushy mud and bounced over fluffy gras.
I had forgotten to turn off my 15 min timer that I use for progression runs, but that was a good thing. It reminded me to drink regularly and also to eat. That all went well.
I was smiling all the way, cheering on people. This wasn’t so hard. Until we turned into the headwind and started another long, long climb back and onto the second part of the course. I was so glad I wore my GoreTex jacket, otherwise the wind would’ve sucked all warmth out of me. I slowly picked my way down a slippery slope, somewhere in the beautiful nature reserve, and suddenly my ankle blocked. Just a split second, but sufficient to make me feel uncomfortable.
This was the exact point where things got difficult, physically and mentally. All of a sudden my adductors started feeling twitchy, the smile was wiped off my face, my legs felt heavy, and generally I was getting annoyed with the couple that had been playing cat and mouse with me walking and running. Call it want you want, the wall, the bonk. It was all that.
I had no idea where I was, how far I still had to go, but I figured I was no more than 4 miles from the finish. I clung to every single step, thinking of not stopping, drinking more, and watching the ground. It’s a nice thing about trail running, you cannot lose your focus or you’ll twist your ankle or slip.
At the top of the climb, a marshal waited and pointed me along a road with massive puddles. I was so tired that he almost physically put me on the right branch of the path. I clung to the thought I was nearly home. None of my usual tricks helped. The Power wouldn’t come, Blondie surely wasn’t gonna get me and my mind was even incapable of tapping out a steady rhythm for my feet and arms to follow.
Across the top, the wind picked up again, there was a branching of the path, no markers, no people around me. I was desperate, which way? Which way? A runner caught up and we decided the top path. Slowly I trotted after him. There were just no markers! I was sliding into more desperation. I did not want to have to turn around and run back. But when we saw the sea ahead of us, it dawned on me that turning around was the only option. So we did. I had been pulling a tail of about 20 runners after me, and slowly, we met them and the group of returning runners grew, bar a few on the 29 mile course.
Two friendly guys settled in with me, helping me along as I struggled on the path, trying to hold it together and not break down in tears. I was still running though. Turns out one of them was fellow Twitterati @fromboris the other was Gareth, wo was training for London, like a lot of the runners.
Back with the marshal, I stopped with everyone, and you can imagine the debate. The complete lack of acknowledgment he might have read the map wrong was infuriating. He insisted on being right. Eventually, we decided to rely on Google maps to get us back along the road.
Stopping, however, was not a good idea. My legs had seized up, starting to run again, I was in a dark place. No idea how far to the finish, pain, wind. Every step was a struggle and I had trouble not to whimper with each one. A friendly couple pointed us in the direction of the cycle path along the main road.
I caved, my legs just did not want to leave the ground. I walked. I felt bad because the guys stopped and walked with me. So after a little bit I pulled myself together and ran again. Listening to their conversation, trying to channel my anger about the marshal into strength. It was difficult, it didn’t last. We walked again.
Until we saw a flag. I recognized the spot, we had turned off the path here at the start of the run. This was round about a kilometre from the start. All of a sudden my legs cooperated again. Slowly, but they functioned, unlike the chest strap of my hydration pack which gave up the ghost at this point. We trotted down the hill and saw the finish. But it was more or less empty except for some runners who had finished and were voicing their anger. There was none of the elation of having achieved the distance that I had expected and that you see so often on the telly. I was simply relieved to be back.
At the parish hall, I gave some feedback, got my goodie bag, collected my medal, got some food and drink. But I did not want to sit down. I feared if I sat down, I wouldn’t get back up. At this stage, I felt a curious mix of contentment, satisfaction and disappointment (I hadn’t run all the way), but also I couldn’t care less.
After putting on some dry clothes, which took 5 times longer than usual, my world started to improve. Food and Elivar Recover brought me on a bit more. I looked at it more realistically: in total I had covered more than 20 miles of which I’d probably walked less than half a mile. Conditions had been tough with the hale, wind and mud. Here’s an impression just how muddy it was.
Physically and mentally I had peeked at the edge of the abyss. No, I hadn’t looked down it. I believe it can get much worse. But having this knowledge will equip me to cope with this sort of situation when it comes in the marathon (though hopefully I will get to nowhere near this sort of situation). So actually I’ve accomplished quite a lot and learned a few lessons.
In the aftermath, I discovered that my ankles had gotten a right beating from the terrain and underfoot conditions. Both swelled up like balloons – a day later. In contrast, my legs were surprisingly sprightly.
So what’s another 6k? Well, everything and more.