Ok, so let me just start by saying that 50 kilometres is a really long way, guys. When I initially signed up for Women’s Running Magazine’s, ‘Operation Ultra’, and found out that I’d be running the Royal Parks Foundation 50K Ultra, I nonchalantly justified to myself that 50 kilometres was just 50 kilometres: “5 x 10 kilometres? That’s not so bad!” I reasoned. And yes, I was right; 5 x 10 kilometres isn’t so bad. IF YOU RUN EACH 10 KILOMETRES AT SEPARATE INCREMENTS, AND NOT ALL IN ONE GO.
Of course, when I lined up at the start line, with the 249 other runners, I wasn’t to know this. Sure, I’d completed the Berlin marathon the week before, where I’d covered the 42.195 kilometres in a, dare I say, indifferent manner – crossing the finishing line and thinking to myself, “8-ish kilometres more next week? Pfff. Eaaaaasy“.
Reed Hastings, entrepreneur and CEO of Netflix, once said, “In hindsight, I slid into arrogance based upon past success”. I have no idea what Reed was referring to in that statement, probably some lucrative business deal that went to shit or something, but hey, Reed! I empathise, man.
At the start, standing alongside my co Operation Ultra runner, Matt, I met my running icon, Mr Ultra Marathon himself, Jody Raynsford. We laughed and joked about this ultra being the equivalent of a 5K jaunt for Jody – this was the last race of the year for him, having already completed 5 much longer ultras in 2012, as well as numerous marathons and the like. I couldn’t quite believe that I was part of it all. Me! A mediocre runner of 2 years, all knobbly knees and frizzy hair, standing at the start line of this inaugural race, representing Women’s Running Magazine’s team of ultra runners, and facing a distance I hadn’t covered before. I breathed deeply and closed my eyes. “You can do this”, I told myself, “Trust your training”.
The first 6 kilometres of the race followed the same route as the Royal Parks Half Marathon runners, who had set off half an hour before. The streets of London were lined with hundreds of spectators who mostly looked bemused by the sight of the mob of ultra-runners, wearing backpacks and steely stares, hot on the heels of the slower half marathoners.
There’s something about ultra runners. I can’t quite put my finger on it. They have a general ruggedness about them, an almost animal-like quality. They’re like a pack of wolves, where dominance is communicated by posture, and hierarchy is respected at all costs. That’s not to say that ultra runners are menacing and aggressive. Far from it. In fact, ultra runners are extremely friendly and welcoming. I, the low-ranking omega wolf, was accepted by my alpha-peers from the very beginning of my Operation Ultra journey. They reached out to me on Twitter, giving advice, bolstering me when I had my doubts and ‘virtually’ slapping me on the back when my toenails went black. “You’re a real ultra-runner now!” They Tweeted.
I was aiming for a 5 hour finish, anything faster than that, and I knew I’d find myself struggling in the latter stages of the race.
I ran strong for the first 30 kilometres, passing the breathtaking sights of Buckingham Palace, Westminster and the Millennium Wheel, before meeting the river path that would lead me to Richmond and through to Bushy Park, home to the much-coveted finish line. I smiled and waved at the people enjoying their quiet Sunday morning stroll along the riverside, who looked at me quizzically as I ran past them, a flash of black and light green. I had covered some of this route before, in the early days of my London marathon training, my close friend, Louise cycling by my side. I had managed 15 kilometres or so back then, before stopping in Barnes, exhausted and dejected – the London marathon seeming like such a tremendous feat ahead of me. Now, I delighted in just how much my running and fitness had improved over the last year, I felt like I was flying – I ran solidly, passing 3 checkpoints, at 10 kilometre intervals, in 3 hours. I was on target for a 5 hour finish.
But sadly not for long.
At the 30 kilometre mark, my right toe experienced some form of massacre in my shoe, developing an enormous blood blister that caused each step to become an agonising fight between my brain, (you should just stop right now), and will-power, (you will not stop, it’s just a blister, you’ve not broken your leg, get on with it). I knew that I would see Kristin at the 35 kilometre mark, as we had pre-arranged that she would meet me there with some water and food, and so I ran on, excited to see her, telling myself that when I got there, I could pause for a moment and rest.
At 35 kilometres, as I reached Richmond, I saw Kristin. And my Dad.
There he was, just calmly walking along the riverbank with Kristin tailing behind him.
I ran to him and fell into his open arms. “What are you doing here?” I cried. “You think I’d miss this race?” He replied, “Never”.
And so there I stood, with 15 kilometres still ahead of me, staring at my beautiful big bear of a Dad, and crying my eyes out. He had flown from Manchester that very morning to support me. Kristin had been in on the secret, and had picked him up from the airport and got him to the 35 kilometre meeting point, as well as working out another stop along the route, later in the race, where they would wait to cheer me on again.
After a large amount of staring at my Dad and “I STILL CAN’T BELIEVE YOU’RE HERE”s, I figured I should probably keep on running. I threw my 5 hour finish target in the river and watched it sink, as did my heart, to the muddy depths. Ok, that was a tad dramatic, I know, but honestly, I’m really good at beating myself up about these things. If I set out to do something. I HAVE to do it. Knowing that 5 hours was now an impossible feat, unless I ran at a threshold pace for the next 15 kilometres (not going to happen), was tough to swallow. My toe was just too painful, and I had also spent the last 5 kilometres avoiding landing on my right toe by running on the outer edges of my foot which meant that I had developed bruising and the gait of a drunken duck.
At this stage, I started to break down the 15 kilometres into more manageable 5 kilometre chunks. I had used this effective mental technique in my training, and it always worked. That is, until you’re running 50 kilometres, and the thought of 3 more 5 x kilometres is enough to make you want to stab yourself in the head.
I soldiered on.
As I entered Bushy Park, with only 3 kilometres to go, I remembered a recent article in the Guardian newspaper, about an errant stag that had cornered a man, forcing him to climb a tree to get away from it. I pondered the strength of my fight or flight instinct, and questioned whether I’d actually have the grit to run away from an angry, testosterone fueled deer, should one choose to stalk me out. It was at this point that I realised that I had spent far too long running alone, with only my weird thoughts for company, and made a mental note to talk to the next person who passed me, in a bid to get away from myself.
Turns out that the next person to pass me, was an affable chap named Dan. I had met Dan at the start line, and we had run nearly 20 kilometres together, before losing each other at an aid station. To see him was such a wonderful feeling, he had really supported me when we ran together, helping me retrieve things from my backpack and making sure I was feeling ok. Turns out that he’d had a rough race too, and so we spent a kilometre yo-yo-ing between commiserating and congratulating each other, before I wished him well as he ran ahead.
I kept him in my eye-line, focusing on the black backpack he was wearing, forcing myself to just keep on putting one foot in front of the other. I repeated my all-time favourite quote over and over, “There is no advance, without adversity”, “There is no advance without adversity”, “There is no advance without adversity”. Suddenly, there it was in the distance. The finish line. The heavenly finish line. In all its wonderful finish line glory. I started to fantasise about crossing it, relishing in how I would dramatically fall to my knees, kissing the ground and weeping, before being helped to my feet by my adoring family and friends, amidst the hubbub of Champagne corks popping, fireworks and colourful confetti that fell from the sky.
As I approached the final few metres, I started to cry as I caught sight of my niece. She was holding a huge banner that she had made, and she grinned from ear-to-ear as she held it high above her head. I turned and saw my best friend, Tim, standing on the sidelines, clapping and cheering and shouting my name. He had completed the Royal Parks Half Marathon, his first, that same morning, as part of the 4races4cities project, and had dashed home, showered and made it to the finish so that he could high-five me as I ran past.
Next, I saw Kristin, my nephew, and my Dad, proud smiles lighting up their faces. I beamed back at them. My brother-in-law knelt in front of them, his camera aimed at me, clicking away as I crossed the line of my first ultra marathon.
My loyal supporters then recoiled in unison as I took my right shoe and sock off and they laid eyes for the first time, on what once resembled a perfectly healthy toe. Oh, and I later spent a good few minutes vomiting behind a tree.
None of it mattered though. My family and friends were with me and there was nothing else I could have wished for. I felt so incredibly lucky and loved – I really do have such beautiful people in my life.
Ultra marathon runner? YOU BET I AM!