“Why can’t you just be normal”… a question which is echoing around my head as I slip and slide my way down the Thames Valley Path on a freezing cold February afternoon. I’m taking part in the ‘Thames Trot’; a rather innocuous sounding title for a 50 mile run from Oxford to Henley. Well I say ‘run’…it turns out to be a mixture of running, sliding, falling and swearing. My mum’s response to my decision to enter this race, my first ‘proper’ ultramarathon was beginning to seem like a very good question, and one that I am going to try and answer here.
Firstly, I must point out that running is a relatively new obsession for me. In a former life I had horses and competed in One Day Eventing and Dressage. When I realised that horses were not really a sustainable hobby financially I decided to take up a ‘cheap’ sport…running: that will be perfect I thought. So in September 2012 I took part in what I consider to be my first proper race- a 5k Cani-X event with one of my best friends, Bob the Whippet. I came somewhere near the end of the field, having been overtaken by a succession of Huskies, Terriers and Collies, but I realised why people run- for many it isn’t about beating other people, it’s about competing against yourself. Since then I’ve been on a bit of a rollercoaster. Never one to do things by halves, I’ve thrown myself very quickly into distance running and have now run 8 marathons and 5 ultramarathons. I think my mum might have a point…
I think it comes down to three things:
- I’m easily bored. This is the main reason why, although I do them from time to time, 5 and 10km road races aren’t really for me. Pounding down the pavement, checking my watch at regular intervals and panicking that I’m way off projected PB pace just isn’t fun. What I have enjoyed the most about some of the races I have run is the amazing scenery along the way. Probably my favourite in this regard was the St Oswald’s Way Ultra- 100km (well actually 65 miles- what’s an extra 3 miles amongst friends?) along the historic trail followed by St Oswald himself. As an historian I loved the sight of various castles looming into view as we came over the crest of the hills and the varied terrain meant that there was never a dull moment. This race also saw some of my worst running moments to date. I got chased by a herd of angry cows and then, 5km from the end, I got hopelessly lost in a field full of ferns and brambles in the pitch dark. As I was sitting on the floor, looking at my map and crying, I did have a little ponder about my sanity… but yet I have since signed up to another 5 ultramarathon distance events, so it can’t have been that bad! The highs definitely outweigh the lows!
- I’m not very fast. I’m also not very slow. I’m distinctly average in road racing terms. Try as I might, my little legs seem to have one speed; I call it ‘Turbo-Snail’. Ultramarathons are perfect for Turbo-Snails. If you walk into the office after running a marathon, every man and his dog has an opinion on a ‘good’ marathon time- even if they have never run a step in their life. The great thing about longer races is that most people have no concept of why you would even want to attempt to run that far, let alone what a ‘good’ time for 50 miles is. Usually your geriatric hobbling around and inability to rise from a chair without accompanying pained sound effects is enough to convince them that what you did at the weekend was distinctly difficult. I’ve had some very painful ‘day after the event’ experiences. In May 2015 I ran the ‘3 Forts Marathon’, a 27 mile slog up and down a succession of incredibly steep sections of the South Downs. I was hoping for some amazing views at the top and the geek in me was interested in the aforementioned forts. Alas, Mother Nature conspired against me and produced driving rain, wind and fog so thick that you could hardly see the hands in front of your face. I was woefully unprepared for this race as well. I had suffered quite a bad back injury at the start of the year and was coming into the race with hardly any running miles in my legs from the 6 week period beforehand. The race itself was bearable, the next day was rather less enjoyable. On a visit to a National Trust site one nice lady offered me a ride in the mobility scooter they had available… again, I was wondering about my life choices!
What running has taught me is that the mind really will take you further than you ever thought your legs could. This perseverance learned through running has helped me in my professional and personal life. Through running I’ve made loads of mad friendships and have some memories which really will last a lifetime. Life begins at the end of your comfort zone and I am looking forward to the various challenges that 2016 has to offer. If I can just inspire one person to enter an ultramarathon then I’ll be happy – if I can manage it, then I honestly believe that anyone can. Just be warned… it’s very addictive!