The final countdown
In the final stage of training the weekly long run ramps up to 5, 6, 7 hours that, if you are aiming for perfect practice, should really be on a proper trail. I thought that Nigel would relish the idea of driving me into the middle of nowhere and pushing me out of a still-moving car in order to facilitate this, but he was not so keen on the idea (which I consider a major triumph after 10 years of marriage). In any case, I couldn’t really afford to be off radar for that amount of time so my long runs were around the woods and byways of Bath, with the occasional detour to the shops/post office/ MOT centre. I squeezed the miles in, one way or another.
Of course, it would have been preferable to follow Kerry’s actual training instructions when it came to terrain, but so far in life I have managed to bumble along with a gormless attitude and a (presumably genetically bestowed) ability to blag/ beast/ fudge my way through any obstacle. So I set off with the confident belief that the worst that could happen would be that I would have to walk/crawl for a really long time and it could hurt quite a lot.
The first half of the event was, in fact, glorious. The sun was shining, the views were stunning, the hills were steep but the climbing was offset by the opportunity to gambol down the lovely descents. My biggest worry was that I would pass the points where Team Davies was planning to turn up before they even got there. Then the torrential downpours came and even they were quite pleasant and refreshing. It was the effect on the terrain that proved to be the big challenge of the day.
The amazing Joanna Zakrzewski, who was the fastest finisher, commented that the entire route was runnable. This is her truth as an experienced elite athlete and I salute her for it, but my journey 400 people or so further back was a little different. The rainwater had longer to marinate the soil into a lovely, thick layer of mud, which had been nicely pulverised by all of those trampling feet into a perfect sliding consistency. I met someone who had decided to carry his mountain bike as riding was too treacherous. There was a lot of mincing, slipping, flailing and cursing. The darkness added another layer of difficulty. People who I chatted to about my blog pleaded with me (in the style of bedraggled survivors in a war film) to make sure the world found out the truth!
But this is not a tale of defeat. This is a tale of uncovering inner grit and savoring that feeling on one level even while you suffer on another. Ultras are difficult and that is the point. You could run the same route a hundred times and there would be a different challenge every time. This is what they mean when they say that success is 80% mental. You can’t prepare for every eventuality; you can only do your best in any given moment and somehow find your way forward. So that is what I did.
So based upon my own experience, this is how your first ultra could well go down:
· You will experience despair, euphoria, hopelessness and invincibility in fairly equal measures.
· None of the bad things you planned for will happen but circumstances will give rise to numerous previously unimagined ways of thwarting you.
· You will put on your last pair of lovely dry socks just before you have no choice but to wade through a flooded pathway or attempt to scale a 40ft mud slide with only nettles or barbed wire to grab onto for support.
· You will pull a muscle you didn’t even know you had, but which is apparently vital to the proper functioning of your entire lower body. You will wonder whether only a wuss would stop or only an idiot would keep going. (Top tip: Everyone already knows which one you are or you wouldn’t be in this situation, so just get on with it, idiot!)
· Mordor, Mount Doom, the Dead Marshes and that really depressing poppy field from The Wizard of Oz will all turn out to be on the official route but you will have failed to notice this in your preparations.
· You will curse everybody who ever suggested this was a good idea, especially the route planner, who will be subject to ever-darker revenge plots the further into the night you stumble.
· Everything you eat after mile 30 will taste like the fruit of the gods.
· You will meet at least one amazing stranger who helps to carry you through the worst bit. (I mean you, Nusi Pedro!)
· Upon finishing, you will immediately forget all of the bad bits, hug the afore maligned organizers and tell them all how amazing they have been. (Upon rational reflection, this will be true).
· Your legs will hurt like bejaysus and you will walk like bambi with sciatica on ice for at least 2 days. However, a week or so later, you will notice that you can crack a nut with you inner thighs. Your mind will have expanded. Running a half or even a full marathon will be nothing to you.
· You will realize that you have the best family and friends in the world. This may be in an embarrassingly weepy way, completely at odds with your new tough guy image.
As my most forthright friend Lisa, waiting patiently for me at the finish line, said “No offence, but people who looked far fitter than you finished behind you”. This is the highest praise I need and proves the whole point of this blog. If I can do it, so can you. Feeling that you have it in you is great; actually proving it feels incredible. What’s next Kerry Sutton?