10 March 2013
A 9 a.m. start gun for the New Forest Running Festival 50 km trail race (http://nakedstrength.co.uk/events/the-new-forest-running-festival-2014/) meant a 4.30 a.m. start from Brighton but spirits were pretty high in the car. I was thrilled that my art of persuasion had resulted in Amanda Jackson joining me, intent on racing the half-marathon later in the day. It was the first time I’d ever had a friend with me on the way to an ultra start line – usually I’m just one among strangers. Having company made a huge difference to the general ‘spirit’ of the day.
Never having been near the New Forest before, I always thought ‘spotting’ the wild ponies would be a bit like going on safari – a lot of searching and a lot of luck involved in ‘finding’ a herd. I was so wrong. They could take over the planet, there were so many of them and it was oddly exhilarating to be among them and sense their ‘freedom’ in the relative wilderness of this little corner of England.
There was just enough unhurried time to collect my race bib, reassess the number of layers of running kit I had planned and make umpteen pointless trips to the loo before it was time for lap one of the three that would make up the 50 km. I’m starting to come to terms with how ridiculously slow I am and I had a realistic goal of 5 miles an hour for the first 20 miles or so. I knew I was going to have to give myself a little leeway for the final 10. A finish around the 6-hour mark would be somewhat miraculous but anything close to 7 and I’d made a promise to myself to be proud.
The course was pretty amazing. Nature was showing off, the scenery was glorious and unusual (I’d expected more green than brown, more trees than ‘bush’) and running amongst all those ponies (and a reasonable number of strangely beautiful cows) was an added bonus. Mother Nature was also having a small tantrum, however – and took it out on us in the form of zero degree temperatures and gale force winds. These were most noticeable on the toughest few miles of the course – toughest under foot across marsh/bog land (which I found quite difficult) and straight into a head wind. Emerging out of this stage we were faced with a short stretch of road which barely had an incline but which by lap 3 felt like a mountain! At the end of this road, though, it was Heaven for the few miles home by way of glorious winding and undulating woodland paths that were a pleasure even, I must admit, on the final lap.
Lap 1 was great. I even had company for some of it, keeping ‘my own pace’ alongside one or two lovely ladies. It wasn’t long before I was running on my own, though – a usual state of affairs for anyone unable to keep up with any kind of group. However, any fears I had of getting lost (see The Pilgrim Challenge!) were very quickly laid to rest. There were huge signs and ‘real human beings’ (as the RD called them) at every turn/crossing/intersection or anywhere there could be the remotest confusion. Not only that but all the humans were chatty, supportive, smiling and simply amazing. A massive THANK YOU here to all those humans/marshals who were lovely on lap 1, brilliant on lap 2 and, in my case, who went beyond the call of duty in lap 3. Since lap 2 was reasonably uneventful I shall skip quickly to lap 3 …
What happened in that final lap? I don’t know. Final ten miles and I thought I was going pretty well, then I rounded the corner heading towards the bog from hell (ok, it wasn’t that bad, but that’s how it felt at that moment) and I fell to pieces. It was so frustrating. I stopped running and wasted at least 40 minutes on a screaming match with an inner voice that had absolutely nothing positive to say. What a complete shambles – hence the bog became the bog from hell. Granted, it was now bloody cold out there, the wind had picked up and the bog was definitely boggier and marshier than ever, making it so much more difficult to cross. This just didn’t help matters at all, but those ‘humans’ made all the difference. The human at the second water station (bless you) took one look at me and instead of laughing at my misery he actually showed real concern, suggesting I try getting down some glucose/gels/anything – as I still had a ways to go and yes, I’d already been out there quite a long time. There was a marshal a little further on who left his post and walked up the hill with me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated that. And then, would you believe, there was a marshal who greeted me at a key turn-off towards the third WS – who had driven there with the sole purpose of warning me that the water station had blown down and been abandoned so he’d caught up with me to bring me a Cliff Bar to make sure I had food to get me to the end!! What a blessing these people were.
I finally dug myself out of the depths of my ridiculous self-pity and although it was too little too late I managed to do what I hadn’t been able to do in my previous race – actually ‘run’ rather than ‘shuffle’ to the finish line. I’m still learning how to manage these races and although I do appear to have only one gear, this time I found something much more akin to a ‘running’ gear for that last stage and that was a personal psychological victory – nothing to do with physical ability. I’ll be filing away that conquest to relive it in my next race, I hope. That was this month’s real learning curve … I CAN not only find a way around, through or over the wall but I can also kick my bum into a running gear rather than a total geriatric shuffle. Success!
The finish line was most definitely my happiest moment – and my happiest finish line!! I actually remembered to savour the moment and to celebrate crossing it – rather than wallowing in regrets of ‘could’ve done betters’. I thoroughly enjoyed that finish and I also knew that although I was last by a long, long way, I had come close enough to my own personal target. I really and truly rejoiced crossing that line. I tweeted afterwards that you’d think I’d won some massive victory like Western States or something – rather than actually being last. It occurred to me how crazy it must seem to runners at the top of the field how one can possibly bask in the glory of taking 7 hours to run a 4-hour race (if that) and to cross the line 2 ½ hours after the 2nd-to-last runner!! I guess it must simply be a whole different kind of joy – but much as in my dreams I would love to be reborn and experience that joy of ‘winning’, you, the elites, will only ever in your dreams experience ‘my’ kind of joy. It’s a very special joy to be last in the field and still be able to truly celebrate. Yes, this running lark is definitely good for the soul!!
Of course, the problem with not being an elite athlete is that when you cross the finish line after 7 hours, freezing and screaming for some comfort … the hot drinks tent has been packed up and gone!! Oh well.
Congratulations, too, to my friend Mandy, who finished her first trail half-marathon in her own target time. Double victory for the Amandas today!!
Finally, I would thoroughly recommend this race to anyone! And once again, many MANY thanks to the Naked Strength organisers of this New Forest Running Festival (http://nakedstrength.co.uk/). The event was faultless.
p.s. Did I mention that I came 1st in category? Females 50-59?
p.p.s. Did I mention that there were no other females in my category? Haha
Oi!! Don’t be rude! That’s as close to a win as I’m ever going to get! J