This was a two stick job, no bones about it. Three if you count the Buzzer baton, but that has now apparently transformed into a sausage, if you believe Dave Payne of Ultra Challenges.
I'm not sure where to begin as per, when something so massive has exploded and been once again left simmering, with swollen knees, brain fog and lungs full of wheeze from an overabundance of hay-smelling farms and pollen.
It was a lumpy sort of weekend. That kind of weekend I suspect I'd have absolutely smashed, howling in the most triumphant of triumph - would I have been injury free. But (very stupidly, in retrospect) I told those tendons I'd injured by merely tying my shoes too tight (the shame of it all) that they weren't going to take me down, I'd be 'aving them. So I went in the car and up up up to Kendal therewith that magical Realbuzz Baton whispering sweet nothings in my ear. "Go forth and Buzzzzzzzz..."
It's what I do after all.
There has never more been a time I've needed to, quite literally, run away from it all for a spell, which was the defining factor in why I didn't withdraw from this race. I should have, would have, let the lingering tendonitis heal properly and defer to another race this year, but I'd been gunning for the Lake District Challenge and it's massive elevation since last year took it from everyone and there wasn't another option as climby. I'd worked my **** off for this. Then too, the tendonitis was only bothering me when the toes were curled under and you don't run curling your toes under, so, logical right? Erm...
I traveled up a day earlier than planned because I thought the extra rest after a long drive would do me good, and a stay in a hotel with a bathtub for a last soak to boot. Unfortunately it took forever to get out of the house and so I only managed to arrive at the Premier Inn Preston about midnight. Shoveled in the melange of foodie bits I picked up along the way, soaked in a long epsom salt bath, drank too much wine under the circumstances but hey this was a stupid weekend so why not?
Much to my great dismay some donkeys fired up a wood chipper outside my hotel room window and woke me up snarling "there'd better be a nine on that clock!" Luckily for them there was, and I reluctantly tumbled out of bed into breakfast before I got cracking for the final hour to Kendal and my campsite for the weekend.
A trip to Asda was in order to pick up some supplies, including the underwear I forgot to pack would you believe it. Good grief, half the running kit I own in the car but no bloomin bloomers. Thereafter I managed to get behind a traffic jam caused by a gnarly accident in which the barrier of the M6 appeared to have sawn straight through the front end of a small car but all parties looked to be alright if not shaken up as we crawled on past.
Camping and Caravanning Club campsite in Kendal welcomed me with open arms and a wonderful kind fellow camper named Lionel came to my rescue as I failed miserably in getting the tent sorted out quickly. I was sure there was a hidden camera and they'd all be watching this on a wide screen later in the night holding their sides with my ineptitude. But we set it up and at last I got inside to start laying out my kit for the drop bag and the vest.
Biggest mistake of all happened next. Normally I stay in a hotel night before a race so the flat lay is on the bed and I'm moving around vertically. This time I was on the floor of a tent, albeit on a tumbling mat, but kneeling.
Guys, I NEVER kneel. Stretched the everloving hell out of my knees and knew this was going to bite back the next day. It would.
The fog of life wasn't lifting quickly enough and I struggled to organise what I thought I'd want during the race and when. Which warm kit to pack for the night section? Am I sure I don't want the bladder? How hot am I going to get? Which socks? Impossible choices to make when you know there is no crew, and if you need something you've packed and brought 300 miles along with you, then merely forget it in a tent just down the road you will beat yourself up viciously when the fates line up.
Finally got everything packed and climbed the great dewy hill between me and the toilet block and back again before tucking in to bed on the giant airbed I'd packed. That was a good shout, as was booking an electric pitch and bringing along a fan heater.
Naturally awakened at some ungodly hour needing the toilet again, so out I went in the dark and it was so cold I again questioned the clothing I'd packed for the second half. Never mind, back to sleep and before I knew it the alarm was off and so was I.
The half mile walk to the start seemed reasonable so I'd just done it again, dropped my bag, a few photos and off we went into this new, promising day, ready to bring that baton home whenever and however and whatever it took me to do it.
In all honesty, my foot felt absolutely FINE. I'd bought a brand new pair of Altras earlier in the week, their joyful toe splay and loose enough laces not pressing on anything unreasonably and off I went. Walking up hills, jogging down and flats. Up, down, jog around, repeat repeat repeat. I was storming and felt so good.
Nothing was too taxing in the immediate, steep climbs were getting chewed up, my training was righteous and set in stone, that couldn't be taken by a small foot injury. The head game, well rehearsed. I'd been here before. I know how it works. Pain will come on as a passenger and you either refuse the fare or you drive the car. I drive. I drive and I drive.
First seriously dicey terrain was Garburn Pass. What a **** show. I have seriously never seen so many folks staggering up a hill that early in a race. It was a boulder strewn Scafell Pike-esque nightmare that I foolishly expected to be runnable on the descent, which was more of the same, then some slate, rockslaterockslaterockROCKROCKSLATErock. Worry snuck in. How much of this is coming? How carefully I picked my way up that nightmare landscape so as to not tweak that foot, and jog-picked my way down it. What a head game and at only 19k so early on.
From there on in the rock was a fixture. Boulder strewn hills, even on the flats it'd be buried underfoot so the head was consistently down, trying not to tweak the foot which still felt amazing.
There was a slight downhill along some flat stones paved on their pointy sides of all things (what on earth that must have done to everyone's feet I can only imagine) and then another climb that started with a maze of buried slabs, into small rocky path, into boulder field. It was there I felt just total and utter fury. I was absolutely raging. I stopped mid way, told myself off and to calm the hell down. Caught my breath (which was ragged at best - the asthma also came out to play for the duration and I'm feeling the results still) and got to the top absolutely blown away by the most amazing scenery in the middle of a small forested bit.
My Facebook friends will have seen the video. The view at the top so worth the climb. But the damage - ah that is another story altogether. I started to feel the run slipping away. Pain coming through in the foot on the run but not on the walk. New pain in the lower right shin from favouring - again, but not on the walk. Knees beginning to ache from the destroyed kinetic chain. But not so much on the walk. Damn it.
Melancholy doesn't quite cut it. I spent the next many miles in a state of alternating despair and elation, of anger and resolution. I came out here to do it for myself - to RUN - and I'd be damned if I walked away from this. I don't do much for me anymore. This was MINE. I was going to have it whatever I had to do.
Staggered into the 50k stop hoping a change to road shoes and their cushioning would help. I put on so much compression kit I thought I'd turn inside out. Took loads of weight out of the pack, dressed in warmer gear for a nighttime temperature drop, ate a ton of food and delighted in the perfection I was finding in nutrition. I'd been queasy only twice throughout the entire race (aside from the very end) which was tempered both times by an S Cap and a Babybel. I had done so many things right! GAH the frustration of it all.
Anyway, off I went to round 2, loads more tarmac mixed in with those still vicious two stick hills. On these weakened joints the sticks were playing a leading role in this second act. Somewhere between Howborrow Farm and Witherslack (65-75k ish) my phone started going off again but not Buzzer pings - this was a Messenger call and it was Rukai. He'd been ringing all day but knows if I don't answer I'm otherwise occupied.
Chatting away with him and showing him the views around me as I shuffled along this road, for a moment I nearly forgot how much my feet were beginning to hurt, that pulverising hurt that you only know if you've done a race like this. But I wasn't feeling them. My son was there with me. And he reminded me why I needed this so badly.
Why do I race this long at all? Because I need to go out and break myself physically; to create this massive mental battle. I need to visit the end of beyond, to the point where there is nothing more to give. Because the pain that comes through, that pain that I can fend off, that resilience I build up, that determination I draw out, that knowledge that if I ever wondered how strong I am, the answer is THIS.
This is how strong I am.
Over time that race pain dissipates, but the strength remains. The grit bin is full again. The pain leaves physical and emotional scar tissue and with it a more solid foundation to go forward again, in every way. This is why I run.
I put the phone down and spoke aloud. "The running is done. This is a walk now. You've been here before. You know what you have to do, now go do it."
And so I did. The hills relentless, but not as relentless as I. They were going down. There was no other option. I needed it. I had the Buzzer Baton. We all needed it.
There was no other option.
Darkness set in, my new headlamp bright as a Klieg light pointing me forwards. Chatting with a few fellow competitors along the way, then dropping back when I could no longer focus on chat because the battle in my body was ablaze, that in my skull was raging. The headlamp making the grass 3D. Treading through a farm being dive bombed by a bat in the dark. My glow stick caught on a gate and snapped off. The absence of anyone else in the middle of the blackness, I wanted to turn the light off and sit still in the grass, drink it in. Me and life and the darkness. How small we all really are in the grand scheme of things.
Strange views of the Cartmel racecourse in the dark, followed by a particularly mad climb out that left me breathless, cursing, overheating and taking the extra wool top on and off and onandoffandon. What problems came in and what troubleshooting was done. This is ultra. This is why I run.
Build it up, sugar. Build it up.
Many hours later, long after the sun had come up, I passed through a gate well in front of a bunch of folks and promptly decided to sit down in the grass to get the load off the joints for a few minutes. I was absolutely used up. I had 10k to go. I knew I could do 10k. What I didn't know was just how badly it was going to hurt.
The folks behind passed me by asking if I was ok (I was) and as I waved off the last and they disappeared into the distance I dragged myself up again. Step step step, poles in, clack clack, go go go.
By the time I reached that last climb and looked down at all its embedded rocks: small, smooth, knobbly, white, I was thinking "inlaid with the bones of the fallen." It all felt so intense. I crested the hill by a monument called the mushroom and immediately tweaked the foot on the way down. Had to choke back a yelp as there were some folks nearby who I thought may have been medics, and I was not about to stop now thankyouverymuch.
The very long descent put me to a 93k marker and a woman at the gate asking if I'd spotted her husband who phoned saying he'd been having a hard time. Should she go up? I said it was really hard going and yes, do go, it will really help him. She went to rouse the kids from the car and I gave a wave as I plodded along.
The few things I remember from that point on: pinging phone, the texts coming through and lifting, lifting me. Desperate to discard the poles so I could grab hold of that baton and raise it aloft. Desperate to stop so I could stop the body screaming and the battle raging. Tired - dog tired, boss.
I had been telling myself for the bulk of the second half that I wasn't enjoying this, it was hideous. Maybe an 18 hour 100k is my Moby Dick, maybe it's just a bridge too far to do comfortably. I'd never try again.
Followed by 'well, the Ridgeway terrain is not this. And that's 86 miles, yes, but not bleedin Scafell Pike. Not boulder fields. No, I'd do it again and then some. Fix the foot and I'm on it. Not long to go, time to get on it.
Relentless forward progress.
Still, telling the Buzzers I was in such pain I felt like I was going to puke. In retrospect, it was the sustained pain I was struggling with. That moment made me realise the true heroism of some of the feats curled into that scroll hidden in the baton. The fierce, relentless, awesome power of this collective. I begged for support by text and you pinged, you people pinged. So much love for some mad woman staggering up and down the hills. My heart is also full now. I needed this so much.
When I reached the 99k marker I suddenly wanted to savour all of it. The pain, the queasiness, the exhaustion. It was a silliness to have attempted this at all, considering how strongly I should have finished it and how much I knew I was risking going in with a sustained injury. But here I was, finishing it strong after all. I'll be damned.
The baton firmly in hand, on went live stream and I brought everyone who'd been following along over that finish line with me because you had all come along with me. Deed done.
I was absolutely giddy. "It's not a sausage! I did it. I did it!"
I spilled a bit of prosecco on the baton. I sure hope you don't mind.
So now, my deed is done and I'm handing off to Kat, with a fresh coating of grit, and conquered fears, and a huge heaping of Buzzer love. And a bit of the finest Anglo-Saxon I could muster. It's proper blue from all that air, just the way you like it.
Onward we all go, relentlessly.
Go forth and...
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