Your mind will quit a thousand times before your body will! – Yup! It’s true!
PILGRIM’S (LACK OF) PROGRESS
A TRAGI-COMEDY IN TWO ACTS
Setting: The North Downs Way
I had a feeling I might be making a mistake when I pressed that ENTER button sometime late November 2012. It was going to be a big ask to prepare in ten weeks for a 66-mile race, but one of my 50 goals for 50 years was to take part in a multi-day event and just as I was thinking about it up popped The Pilgrim Challenge invite – organised by XNRG. A two-day race – 33 miles per day out and back between Farnham and Merstham. I pressed ENTER. I was right. Mistake.
ACT ONE – TRAGEDY
7 a.m. Farnham
And we’re off. My route card said to follow North Downs Way arrows or pictures of acorns – both painted on pillars and neither sign much larger than … well … an acorn. Already I’m worried but everyone else seems to know where they’re going so I’ll just follow them. Weather’s perfect – chilly but dry. I feel rested and legs feel good, nutrition’s been spot on … so why I am so anxious? I know why. Because 33 miles in itself is a bit of an ask for me – particularly in ten weeks – and this is my first time trying to do it twice in two days. I realise that even as I start off I’m thinking about having to do this again tomorrow and I need to focus on today. JUST on today. I’m keeping pace with a local couple who are running together. It’s obvious they’re really good friends and it sounds like they’re catching up on news. It’s also obvious that they don’t want anyone to join them (I tried – a little company would’ve been nice for a while) so I run past and stay just ahead but this doesn’t really work because I haven’t quite got the gist of these signs yet. I know I am particularly stupid when it comes to this – but we passed acorns and I couldn’t figure out why we were ignoring some of them, following others …. It might seem totally ridiculous, yes, but by the end of Day Two I’d actually learned how to follow the blasted trail so this was in fact a great lesson! While still figuring it out, though, I stressed about getting lost if I got separated from this couple so I decided to stick behind them and stayed there for the first 20 miles. All was good although the pace was maybe a little too much for me. I should’ve pulled back just a little, should’ve relaxed and tried to stop stressing. Instead, I expended a lot of energy keeping up and my focus was on keeping this couple in sight instead of concentrating on my own race. The result was that I forgot about other things … minor stuff like water!! When I got to Checkpoint 2 at Mile 20 I realised my bottle was still full. Lack of experience got the better of me at that point. Instead of just rectifying the situation and ‘dealing’ with this minor problem I panicked. How stupid was that! Such a simple, easily-solved problem … but because for some reason I was not allowing myself to enjoy this whole day, I reacted adversely and allowed everything to spiral out of control. In retrospect this was another fantastic lesson. I can actually ‘see’ where I went wrong and it’s been a precious discovery just how quickly everything can go from great to disastrous if you let your head sneak up and take over. And boy did I let it do that, swiftly and without even noticing!! So yes, I spiralled. The rest of Day One can be summed up in one word – CATASTROPHE! Once my head had decided it was going to be awful, that was it.
I left Checkpoint 2 overly anxious and panicking about silly stuff instead of stopping to regroup, relax and change my mindset. To add insult to injury, the two locals had leapt on the opportunity to disappear. Oh, fair dues, they were keeping a great pace and had no obligation to pay any attention to me – this was just another example of my head inventing things to be annoyed about! When I look back on it I cringe! Really.
Thirsty, demoralised, agitated, tired … (all in the mind and exactly where I didn’t want to be) … I rounded the corner and faced Boxhill and her 260+ steps. Oh joy. Needless to say I clapped my hands with glee and skipped to the top. Ha!
Back to reality lol. By the time I got to the top and had rounded the fifth corner of endless hills I was almost in tears and I’d run out of water. Some walkers were coming down the other way and bless them they stopped. I think they thought I was dying. I think I thought I was, too LOL Three litre-bottles of water appeared in front of me. I can’t tell you how much I appreciated their help. I accepted one and continued on – wasting more energy cursing inclines that would on another day not have been a problem. It was so frustrating – and fascinating. I mean, I don’t mind hills – certainly not inclines like this. It wasn’t any kind of mountain and I’m STRONG on uphills. It’s the bloomin’ downhills that I can’t seem to master so the whole thing was doing my head in. You’ve just got to laugh. It was that bad that I actually turned around and went up one section backwards – just so I wouldn’t have to look at it!!! That should give you a good glimpse of my mental state at the time! Honestly, I just shouldn’t be allowed out on my own haha
I finished – finally. Isn’t it testament to how badly I managed this entire experience that I can’t even put any comedy in here? There was simply nothing funny. I had a shower, a massage, then I found a quiet hidden doorway in the school corridor and sat down and cried!!!
I need to say a couple of thank yous at this point. THANK YOU for the most incredible support that was going on on Facebook. When I scrolled through at that point I felt totally humbled – I was so undeserving of the most amazing comments and thoughts and personal messages … and SO MANY! I truly truly appreciated every one of them.
The other thank you goes to Ian Corless of Talk Ultra ( http://iancorless.org/ ). On my last interview I asked what may have seemed a silly question – about how to deal with mud. Thanks, Ian, for taking so much time giving a really full answer because I can honestly say it was probably my saving grace. In fact it was probably the one thing all day that I DIDN’T stress over – because I was thoroughly confident that what I was doing was right!! What may have seemed a ridiculous question to a seasoned trail runner made a huge difference to me. Fab.
Thanks, too, to the gentlemen who entertained me over dinner with all sorts of anecdotes and silliness. I was glad to be able to contribute to the entertainment by proving once again that the 6 degrees of separation theory is quite reliable LOL After a few stories it became apparent that the man sitting opposite me was related to one of my brother’s best friends in Ireland J
DAY TWO – THE COMEDY
7 a.m. Merstham
Amazed I even made it to the start line. I had decided enough was enough and that this two-day mullarkey was definitely not for me (well, you can’t know till you’ve tried, right?). However, although I am a wimp, I’m also a stubborn wimp. I hate not finishing what I’ve started, so overnight I’d come up with a new plan – to seek and destroy Checkpoint 1 at the very least. After that, I would reassess and draw up a new plan – possibly involving Checkpoint 2.
The walkers (me included) set off at a galloping pace (me not included). I appeared to be the only walker who was walking. Suffice to say that my headspace was in no better condition than the previous evening. I was still in a world of negativity and still hadn’t managed to take on any fuel. Since midday Saturday I hadn’t actually managed to get anything as far as my stomach. I tried a forkful of pasta and managed one teaspoon of apple crumble. Once again, Ian Corless had more or less saved whatever chance I had by reminding me to get some protein in as soon as I crossed the finish line and with this in mind I’d packed a protein shake as well as a couple of bars. The shake had been good but that was the sum total of my nutrition. Breakfast had not happened either. Body simply said No! For that reason I had decided to try and be kind to myself at least up to Checkpoint 1 and start off walking – in the hope of saving a few running miles for later on. But since ever other walker started off at a gallop that meant I was instantly right at the back and on my own. Cue Invaluable Lesson No. 3: when attempting to follow a trail it’s not good just ‘wandering along’ – or even ‘running along’. You actually have to keep focussed and alert for signs – which brings me to my first comedy moment of Day Two: I got lost TWICE before I’d even left the school grounds!!!!! Yup! That’s how bad it was/I was. I couldn’t even find the bloody trail (‘scuse language but I was just a teensy bit frustrated LOL). I’m going to cut this very short. I eventually found Checkpoint 1 and had an ‘If-you-stop-here-you’ll-never-continue’ moment, so I walked straight through and carried on. I use the term ‘carried on’ very loosely!! It was more like going backwards, going sideways, going every effing way you can think of except the ‘right way’!!! It took me a total of FIVE HOURS to cover TWELVE MILES!!! This was due to the simple and indisputable fact that I got lost SIX TIMES. How many extra miles I added, I do not know. Did I mention that my watch stopped working?????? Go on! Laugh! I dare you!!
Checkpoint 2 was my make-or-break decision checkpoint. It was 10 miles to Checkpoint 3 and I’d already wasted half a damn day being an idiot. I had another ‘moment’, this time a ‘get-your-f***ing-act-together’ kind of a moment. (Nice language was no longer working!) I re-grouped, took a Nurofen for my head, peeled off a layer of clothing in the hope that this would encourage me to move faster to keep warm, forced down a couple of fruit & fibre biscuits which I found in my bag, took the advice of the man at the checkpoint who suggested I try a slug of Ribena (be this right or wrong, who knows) and I set off. Better! I started to win a few battles. I realised that walking had become a habit, not a necessity. I found that discovery quite fascinating – it’s the kind of thing that interests me a lot. The discovery meant that I could do something about it. There was no real reason why I shouldn’t be running, so I started running. Checkpoint 2 to Checkpoint 3 was the only highlight of my day. Not easy but satisfying because of those few battle conquests. Big thank you to the lovely man at Checkpoint 3 who more or less walked into my path and gave me a huge hug upon arrival. Beyond the call of duty, I’d say. He was fab. I have no idea who he was but he obviously ‘got it’ because he didn’t faff around. He just gave me a hug and then ‘told’ me what to do. It was brilliant. No questions, no question marks, no grey areas … ‘I’ll just take your bottle and refill it. Take a drink. Drink this and then this. Have some cheese. Put your hat and gloves back on. Six miles to the next checkpoint … ‘ Absolute bloody magic!! Thank you – whoever you are/were.
I got lost again soon after that but by then I was going to finish if I had to crawl so there was no messing around. I’d had it with the messing around. Soon as I realised, I phoned the emergency number and asked where I needed to go. It was already dusk and no time to be wandering around looking for signs. Worked perfectly. I was back on track within five minutes and had a straight run through to the final checkpoint.
Checkpoint 4 done and dusted … and the comedy began in earnest. Oh Good God the cameras should’ve been out in full force. I cried and I laughed. Just when I thought this challenge could throw nothing else at me … IT GOT DARK!! Not just dark – PITCH BLACK! And I couldn’t find my way in broad daylight? What hope did I have? Oh Lord!
So I laughed. Out loud. Well, there was no-one around to hear my hysteria so what the hell? I laughed – and I started singing! I was singing to keep the North Downs bears away – ‘cause you’re supposed to sing aren’t you? And we all know how dangerous the bears can be on the Downs.
You thought I was kidding about the hysteria, didn’t you? Ha! But there’s more. You see, since I had no intentions of running at night (I mean, who takes 12 hours to cover 30 miles!!!!!) I had not gone over-budget with my head torch. Hmmmm. The light barely hit the ground. It certainly didn’t show up any trees (wide angle was not a strong point) and I was guilty of many an inadvertent tree hug. Not seeing the ground was the worst, though. I could make out a track but not the terrain and this was ever-changing from mud to grass to water to stone. I couldn’t see any camber, either, so spent most of the time bashing my feet and tripping over bumps and tree roots and experiencing that awful sensation when you think there’s one more step and there isn’t and you just fall over LOL Candid Camera definitely missed a lot of opportunities.
So I was falling over and bumping into trees, I was singing my loudest with music blaring in my ears to ensure there was absolutely no chance of hearing any night-time wildlife rustling in the woods – Argh! And, of course, nothing but NOTHING would entice me to lift my head an inch for fear of spotting a pair of eyes staring back at me. It’s one thing knowing you’re surrounded by vampire badgers, were-rabbits, giant flesh-eating squirrels, Surrey panthers and, of course coyotes … but coming face to face with one was not something I could actually contemplate! Somebody on Facebook made a comment about my plight and wondered at the safety aspect of roaming the North Downs alone, miles from civilisation, because ‘who knows who could be out there!’ Ha! Who? WHO? My focus, I assure you, was entirely on WHAT! The who’s would not have stood a &%*ing chance! Any would-be axe-murderer or rapist in my path right then would have been churned up, spat out and turned into an instant footbridge for the next mud section – right after I’d borrowed an arm to use as bait to distract lurking panthers!!
And meanwhile, my playlist was finding a way to take the piss. Really!
Alone again (naturally)?
I think I’m going back?
If I knew then what I know now?
And a couple of personal favourites …
Cause if you get it wrong you’ll get it right next time and
Fool if you think it’s over …
Oh dear! Oh well. What more to say? 12 hours later I saw the most beautiful sight in the world …. A green glowstick!
15 minutes after that some beautiful woman came racing down the field towards me shouting ‘You’re here, come on, you’re here, run, I’m going to run you in ……’ and 12 hours 15 minutes after starting the second day (yes – just the second day) I crossed the finish.
Ho Hum. Not one of my finer moments – but hey – no DNF!!! I’ll take any positives that I can get and this is definitely one of them!
On that note, ‘finer moments’ haven’t seemed to feature much in my ultra-running career – certainly not in my blog!! But hey, nothing’s ever been achieved by giving up and it’s only February!! One should always have at least one dream that’s just out of reach and for now that dream remains, entitled ‘a finer moment’. Maybe I’ll be able to put this as the title of my next race blog. Ah, there’s always hope.
10th March. That’s the next one. 50km trail in the New Forest. Multi-day? Not a bloomin’ chance. I think I’m about done with multi-days for 2013. Oh – and I think I might take a bit of coaching advice on my 100km race in June … I’m wondering if I should stick to 50s for a bit …
Meanwhile, I’m off to listen to the latest Talk Ultra podcast – http://www.marathontalk.com/talk_ultra/episode_28_geoff_roes_emelie_forsberg.php – and right after that I’m going to re-think my running playlist!!
TIME TO BEAT: DAY ONE: 08:55:09 (Position 188); DAY TWO: Any time before cut-off would be marvellous 🙂