"It's getting dark in my head, can someone tell me a joke?"
The words I was about to type seemed a bit maudlin indeed, but facts is facts. But rather than worry the beautiful blob spotters sticking with me straight through to dawn over the course of my first 100k, I swyped a little joke of my own into the phone.
"In the words of the inimitable Sir Elton John, it's four o'clock in the morning, dammit."
And sure enough it was. 4 am. Exactly 24 hours since alarm 1 went off (we didn't get out of our respective beds for another ten minutes or so but STILL...) I'd been running, plodding, walking, climbing, sliding, resting, joking, chatting, feeling queasy, shivering, Buzzing, for 21 of those hours in my attempt to finish the Action Challenge Peak District 100k.
I'd tell you the exact mileage where this all happened but despite multiple efforts to extract the data my watch refuses to sync. Suspect it was somewhere around 87-88k, and I had just come out of a pitch black wood which reminiscent of March's Ashridge Boundary Run had felt a bit like the Hunger Games, staggering along and trying not to fall over but this time in the pitch black. Screaming birds in the distance, fat frogs (or so I'd hoped) dumping themselves into the river running somewhere to my left (think this was the River Derwent having studied the map in retrospect). Somewhere in the depths of the darkness a few flashing signs amongst those beautiful pink directional arrows indicated a hazard which I couldn't spot to save my life, around the phantoms being thrown up in front of my headlamp.
After a thorough scan I spotted a river of mud threatening to give my feet their second soaking of that 21 long hours, but I paused long enough to find a dry passage before continuing to flail along in the darkness.
That headlamp gig was a whole new kettle of fish. I would only need to crane my neck forward ever so slightly to spot masses of tiny bugs having a rave around my head. But if that was the worst of my problems I was having a good day. And it was.
It was singlehandedly the most amazing and satisfying and soul-enriching day of my life, barring the birth of my son.
God I've jumped right in there, haven't I? And how isn't it possible when it was all so long?! Such a lengthy blur I have never known, but this is an ultra. Now my third. On an aside, I've just done a survey which asked what my favourite race distance is and lo and behold I dare not admit it but I will. Ultra ultra ultra. Say it again just in case I am sleeping. Pinch me, I bloody love this stuff.
I was carrying the Realbuzz Baton and all its mighty powers and historic feats (feet/s?) around with me, having been surprised with a handover following the conclusion of the first 52 or so k - and that leg I will leave for Emelie, my absolute partner in crime to describe because it was all hers, and it was all amazing and I loved every minute of it. I will only slot in that a) I am absolutely ELATED that I felt so bloody strong throughout it, and b) I have never - EVER - in all 47 of my years been given such selfless support from someone who will be a friend for life. And more still from all of you Buzzers, at a time when life has been so heavy and unrelenting, with last weekend I am once again feeling free to fly.
Relentless forward progress.
But let me rewind. You deserve the story in the correct order after all...
And so after that handover, onward I went with tears of joy and pride tucked into my vest along with that baton, ready to get down to the hard graft of uncharted territory. I'd never been beyond 55k. I set out at the start of that 53rd km, after an hour spent changing out of sweaty things and trying to choke down some food. A couple rice puddings found their way from my car boot to my guts, and in went a few drinks and little else. I had anticipated scoffing down some cottage pie at the halfway point but the mere smell of gravy sent my stomach in cartwheels and it was clearly a bad idea. I figured at the time that the checkpoints were such that refuelling was close at hand and the stores of snacks I'd stashed away would suffice.
Little did I know how important my little stash of McDonald's salt packets would become!
Right onward I go, out of the halfway point and round the bend. I reached the exit of the showground and realised that the pain I was feeling in the dorsiflexion point of my left ankle wasn't about to skedaddle on its own so I stopped for a little stretch and massage. Fairly effective but I'd have to take it a bit easy at the off. There would be Voltarol in its future.
I managed to get another of my live videos on FB as I really wanted to promote the cause I was running for (www.positiveaboutdownsyndrome.co.uk) and keep people engaged but it would become very nearly impossible to continue. The terrain in the second half would challenge, nag, and eventually bludgeon me, and this was all in the first leg!
I snapped a selfie about 58k somewhere along a river where I would shortly have to navigate my way across paths coated in medium sized rocks, constantly threatening to snap my ankle were I not careful. All I wanted to do was get out of that section. After an odd tucked away scramble up some real slippery stuff I spotted the gate I never thought I'd see which freed me into a grassy field. As I caught my breath and my bearings, I reached a man sat down having a stretch and asked him if he was ok, followed by a 'what the HELL was that?!' referring to the terrain we'd just covered. A short while later I was on a road climbing upwards to the tents marking CP5.
Everyone, bar the most cheerful cheer squad man on the face of the earth was looking bedraggled and just glad to have that stretch done. He said that many people were commenting on how rough the stretch was, particularly after a heavy meal at half way (blessing in disguise for declining that meal methinks!) He said one woman reported that she couldn't keep it down from the tough graft on the terrain, and just passed by the CP after dibbing in, clearly just wanting it all to end quickly.
I changed my socks again - I'd done this every check point and it would result in zero blisters bar a tiny one underneath my second toenail which disappeared post one piercing. That said all the sock changes and general faffing would cost me nearly an hour at every check point in the second half. Not ideal but it got me round fairly unscathed.
Socks changed, I was cold and decided to put the long sleeve on. Meanwhile the banter going round those of us sat there brought a smile and I promptly swapped lyrics to the song blasting out of their speakers: 'I'm coming out'
'I'm slowing down!
I want the world to know
I'm going to run real slow...'
Snickers and giggles and snacks in, glowstick tied on to the strategically placed quiver I'd bought for my poles and off I went, said poles in hands. And what a difference it is to run with poles, even on the flat! I think had I not been doing that for the duration the toll on my muscles would have been far worse, so this is a technique I will hold on to. Off I went down the road, round a few corners leapfrogging a really fast walker who redirected me up a missed staircase (thank you!)
As I was crossing a road on a walk break I met up with someone I'd chatted with at the check point who was at a similar pace and we exchanged stories of why we were there. His was particularly moving and stayed with me for the duration. I went off at a jog for a bit and on another walk break we happened upon the 'light at the end of the tunnel' as I've begun to think of this photo:
That scene also stuck with me and will probably do so forever. Just keep moving. Just keep moving. There is light at the end of the tunnel and you are larger than life. Go.
And so I did, and this flat long stretch seemed to go on forever. As darkness began to fall I finally reached the next checkpoint which was only about 10.5k away. But trouble was brewing a bit. Hands were puffed up, I was a bit dizzy and slightly queasy.
Brain was engaged. Check.
First I strategically plonked myself into a chair beside the medics just in case I happened to black out. I really felt horrendous. My heart was absolutely pounding so I sat quite still, caught my breath, and when the wave of nausea passed I got up to see what food was on offer. Two tiny triangles of cheese pizza popped on to a plate and I swanned back to the table desperately trying not to look ill while the medic was giving me his best professional side eye.
Once I dug out the salt from my pack I slapped a good layer on the pizza and got through both slices, feeling better within literally a couple minutes. Another sock change and I gathered myself up, off to the snack table to find a cup of tea and lo and behold 'Smiley Cheer Squad Guy' was there. I'm debating whether to put sugar in the tea as I felt over sugared and decided not to. Forgot entirely I like milk in my tea. Then I sort of whispered to him I felt queasy when I got there, but better after some salt, what snacks did he have that would work?
He offered me peanuts (no, just had a bag) and about four sweet things til we realised I wasn't interested in sweet things, and I settled on Hula Hoops. I'd tuck into those on the next long flat, which was about 20 minutes hence.
Loo stop, water bottle top up, another packet of salt into a cup of water and I was good to go. And once more into the breach I went, only to be stopped at the gate by two people looking for someone with a good head torch as the guy's had stopped working (although he had a couple other lights on him). I stayed with them both a fair while but I don't walk terribly fast, and it was becoming too hard to keep up. Didn't feel like I could jog yet after the dickey guts so I said I'd drop back. Guy decided to stay with me. We stayed together down the flat, up and down a fair few heinous hills and stiles and he either took or made a call then eventually says 'you go on ahead'. So off I trot further into the stretch from hell.
It was supposed to be 16k, felt more like 160k. I've no idea how much I said aloud 'it's time to play where's the EFFING checkpoint!!' and the air was blue, if I've ever seen it blue!! By now I was feeling it in the joints, checkpoint approaching at 88-89 k and I'm thinking again 'I'm in the pain cave. Just ride it out.'
So I told myself if I'm going to live in this pain cave I was going to decorate it appropriately, so I made a mental list of the stuff that needed to go in.
I pictured Kat trying to keep her back loose while seated, rotating around.
I pictured Jim and Hobs plodding silently side by side, getting it done.
I pictured RD toeing the line in London.
I pictured Nick T fighting off the wall and finishing strong again and again.
This cave would be a place of comfort.
I pictured the baton in my pack.
This cave would be powered by legends.
I pictured the finish line.
I came to the last checkpoint. Warriors scattered around, one and all.
Nod. 'Well done.'
I collapsed into a chair and texted.
I felt my throbbing feet, like Hulk wanting to burst free from shoes.
Food nibbled. Nibbled. Choked in.
Dreading whatever the rest of this terrain would give me. I got up and faced it.
I'd started on single nurofens so drank drank drank to avoid a dehydration problem. It wouldn't be a problem. I'd be frantically searching for the perfect wild wee location at daybreak.
For now I had reached the last checkpoint before any Trekmasters were out. No one would hold me back. Those of us heading out were heading out on our own. Smiley Cheer Squad Guy asked me if I caught up to a woman who'd just left and was quite downtrodden if I would mind staying with her. I must have looked determined and strong, despite how I was feeling.
I was bloody proud of that. We were at 89k.
Into the darkness, now light, a road, now a creepy farm with open gates and reflective speed humps, the whole place felt like the Disney haunted mansion. Over another stile (no longer gangnam stiles as we'd dubbed them early on but now my sworn enemies). I had to help my leg over the top of one, and as I stood up I spotted four white glowing eyes staring at me from about 20 feet away.
Perhaps these were the gate guardian sheep as when I looked up it was blooming Children of the Corn across the field. Hundreds of eyes aglow, I attempted to make a bit of joking small talk with a particularly rude bunch of walkers behind me who were desperate to pass. Go on. I've no requirement of you. Pfffft.
They left and once over the final stile I was alone again.
Me and the moon and the pain cave and the pings of Buzzers in my flipbelt.
The rest is a blur. There were more hills with single tracks which were very nearly invisible from the overgrowth. I lost sight of plenty even though I was going straight on down a hill and along a fence. It was that bad. I lost sight of all the people in front of me. A few came running from behind and passed. Go ahead. I'm shattered.
Maybe 93k? 94? Another flat bit and I'm actually jogging a bit. Until I realised I don't have to jog I just have to move. And that's ok. My A target was sub 18, proven impossible on the first half. That's ok, says I, one day.
Next target was sub 20, proven impossible on leg 1 of the second half. I wouldn't be moving fast today. But I would be moving. Fast enough. Sub 24. Just give me sub 24.
Flat jogging turned to more staggering, turned to 'is this over yet, only 10k to go surely I can get there now.' Out came another salt packet, tipped into my hand a little at a time, and downed with water like a tequila shot. I was having a real party up in the pain cave. I'd say wish you were there, but you were. That baton. Those pings. Every step.
I heard someone stumble behind me. I turned to glance, turned back and heard him continue staggering on behind me.
All this staggering for a free banana or 10.
The sun had now come up. I hadn't expected to finish in daylight. This irritated me, then I stopped caring.
I looked up from my feet to see another trail leading into another wood. I slowed. I slowed.
I planted my poles into the ground and leaned over and stretched my lower back as stumbling guy stumbled on past.
I rested and caught my breath and felt that baton in my pack and stood up and kept going.
I kept going through that trail and out the other side rounding a corner and stopping to pull the baton out of my pack and tuck it into my vest pocket. I'd carry it over the line. If I knew nothing else, that was about to be done. I ran my thumb over the words. Beautiful texture in a world that had become numb and grey in the dewy exhaustion of this morning.
But there was a light at the end of the tunnel.
Still moving, texting Emelie the things she could get from the car and telling her that I was doing 25 minute miles at this point and...
"I don't know how I'm still moving."
And I really didn't. But I was moving. Not as fast as the two runners who virtually flew passed me but moving. Into an uneven cambered grassy damp field which felt like it was trying to pull me over. I could see the tents. I could see home. I was headed there. It was just over 1km away.
It was so far away.
Around the corner I saw the place where the field ended. I saw someone who looked like Emelie but I wasn't sure. Then I saw the canvas bag I'd asked her to bring swing around the side of her. I lowered my head and cried as I plodded along.
You stayed. You came. You Buzzer.
That sight so beautiful, to see that level of giving in her own state of total exhaustion, I was so moved and emotional. I think I said thank you. I think I told her how horrible the terrain was throughout that half (and it was heinous for non-fell runners to try and run if I haven't explained it correctly, do trust in this undisputable fact).
I know I gave her a massive hug and she walked with me round those final corners, into the showground. I talked and talked as I do, and I said there's no way I'm going to run anymore. Em said she'd be there at the finish. I had to loop around a few hundred metres and just before the turn were some folks who had been walking in front of me.
But I don't walk across finish lines. I started jogging.
I finished in the daylight, 22 hours 48 minutes and 34 seconds after I'd begun.
I finished running.
I finished with a hug and medal from 'Smiley Cheer Squad Guy' and the offer of bubbles declined as I thought it would come straight back up.
I finished with a fist pumping the air and a huge celebration because the tears had already come. Thanks to a friend, a Buzzer, I had already had those out and instead finished smiling.
It would only be a few hours until I was saying 'next time'.
And now aside from going further, all I want to do is do it faster.
Because I'm a Buzzer, that's why.
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