A sense of direction.

Posted on: 21 Aug 2021

Surrounded by the inky Shropshire pre-dawn sky, I sat cross-legged in the road, hand torch clenched between my teeth, shining feebly over a map of the area. I'd fortunately been meticulous in marking up my desired route on the map, which is extra lucky, as the GPS I'd finally begun to rely on had just lost connection. I managed a(nother) stream of cursing around the torch without it falling, so that's something.

My watch was looped around my vest, still running, still ticking away the hours, still chasing cutoff times. One lead connected it to the charging block in my pocket, while I'd been swapping another between phone and headlamp for a few hours, currently settled on the lamp.

I frowned and leaned over to get a closer look at the map in a desperate attempt to identify my position on the planet, and the charging block flew out of my pocket for the first time of what would be many before this seemingly endless night was done.

To say I was tired of being lost in the dark is awfully beige, but it's all I have in retrospect. That disorder of positioning lasted so long I've now taken it on as part of my fibre, the anxiety and frustration and stress of that moment in time so much a part of me now. Like an injury that grows back stronger, so too have I. So too will I continue.

But at that moment, I was so tired I began to think it may be best to just stay put until the sun kicked off the covers and guided me home.

It wasn't meant to be such an epic adventure; I'd only wanted some miles on legs in a beautiful place amongst beautiful friends in advance of this summer's A race, happening next weekend - the Ridgeway 86. Both were meant to be 2020 joints, but like everything else, Covid put paid to that plan and there I was, cross-legged in the middle of a dark road, wondering how many more times I'd get lost before I was found again.

What a delicious race in retrospect, and what great company for the bulk in our Libby who delivered the kind of grit most people can only imagine over a distance most people never achieve, even when well. That is her story to tell but from my side of it, I was proud to spend more than half my race in that esteemed company and terribly sad to see her race end when and why it did. And not only because she'd been such a good navigator!

The stories of start and scenery now told a few times by fellow Buzzers, I will shorten my version to say what a great pleasure it was to see everyone at the start after having been hosted by the Boltys in their home with one of the most beautiful views I'd ever seen from a kitchen window! And to see and touch that Spine Race medal so gallantly earned by Sir B, one could only imagine great things the following day as we all toed the line for that very bonkers loop around the 'shire of Shrop.

With Libby's feeling of malaise and my 'just want to go easy' plan, we started slow and kept that theme up for the duration, until we met up briefly with Rob at 'cheese and sausage' stop after which I tried with zero luck to neck a swodge of cheese while puffing up the next hill. I shoved the cheese in a napkin, managing to hang on to it all the way up and down the Stiperstones through to Fidget Pie stop, but by then the pie won the day and the cheese, albeit not yet quite fondue, was not remotely palatable any longer. 

Nearly as unpalatable as the unfortunately patronising chap at one check point who stomped on my 'don't go there' button by chiding me that we best 'stay focused at the check points' as we were only 1:30 within the time frame. The exchange came to a screeching halt as he next began 'I do these all the time and---' 

'So do we,' says I.

Yes. Don't go there. You don't want to press that button. Trust me.

But press on we did, me venting my spleen while storming across a field, Liz in pain both physically and probably mentally from listening to me lose my rag for so long. (I am truly sorry! But he went THERE...)

But the seed of panic and chasing the clock was sown, the relaxed 'miles on legs' vibe for me somewhat trashed by that disappointing exchange. I knew I'd finish. I just no longer knew whether that finish would be in time. I wasn't yet sure how much - or whether - I cared.

I didn't help myself at all as Liz and I parted company at Reith top farm, and I not only took the very first opportunity to get desperately lost, but I managed to positively revel in it for some 37 minutes. If only I'd put the map in my watch, or had the GPS open from the off (vs. halfway through the situation) or had managed to finish reviewing the written directions along side Google Maps I'd have known to 'walk downhill to the opposite corner of the field and go out the gate to the road'. 

Lost here, lost there, my amazing headlamp like a klieg light had been absolutely power lighting my way forward. It suddenly started flashing in the middle of a muddy wooded section where I'd decided I was going awry merely because I couldn't manage to get the gate open. (Wrong as it happens!) Back and forth I went through the same section, back and-- flashing again. 

'It needs charging. F***.' 

I remembered Liz offering me her headlamp as a spare at Reith top.

'No, I'm ok,' says I. I had a hand torch. Should've clumped myself with the hand torch at that point, but never mind.

I reached 'that gate' again and dug around for my torch. Made purchase, switched on, and it was about a quarter of the light of the other. I may have invented new words there. Ok, that's that, off goes the klieg, plug it in to the charger in my pocket and hope to hell it charges quickly.

The latest nav error landed me at a junction with two older guys to whom I said that I hadn't been able to get through down below. One mumbled 'it goes up and then down' and then they both basically walked away from me. Ok, to hell with you. I'd spotted the SW signage on the turn into Walcott wood, so decided to ignore the written directions. I somehow managed to find my way out. I think this is where I couldn't find the unmanned water station, which thankfully still had some water left, but I can't be sure. Bit of a blur.

The rest of the event was so much the same. 

Charge light
Charge phone
Check map
Check GPS
GPS dies
Written directions
Get lost from written directions, no I can't make sense of those, start over
GPS on again
Phone battery going down
Charge phone
Klieg on
Hand torch in pocket

At one point I'm in the pitch black trudging down an empty path singing Imagine Dragons Believer top of my lungs only to round a corner to a bunch of houses with motion sensor lighting but thankfully no dogs.

I stop singing and apologise to the ether.

Back into the pitch goes I, now realising the klieg is dimming every time I look down at the phone or map. I have to switch it off and back on to get it full bright again.

I start singing 'This little light of mine, why won't you let it shine?' substituting 'little' for a rousing F bomb.

I zoom in on the phone GPS map, and as soon as I get my bearings, drop my arm to head in that direction. Moving the phone causes the zoom to fail and when I go to look at the phone again and it's gone, I invent more new words. So many words.

Repeat repeat repeat.

That laminated clip tally card in the wrong position, falling out of my vest strap, or stabbing me in the armpit. Every factor flashing, dimming, rubbing, scratching, irritating, annoying---

I just wanted miles on my legs and here I got a full grit bin. Ok, that's where we're at.

Check the written directions to see something about dangerous owls in the section I'm in so I stop singing. 

Light flashing again. Map going out of zoom. Stab in the pit. Heel starting to rub.

Done. Done. Bloody done.

And it was there I sat in the road. Not giving a toss if I made the timings. Not caring whatsoever if I'm a finisher a not finisher, just as long as I get to the end of this damned thing.

My God it was dark. Like FOREVER. 

I sat in that road, and I thought I'd not get up for some time.
 
I sat in that road like an embrace from a long lost friend. The comfort of something solid beneath me when I was tipping over some edge of patience and anxiety and this chasing cutoffs had been going on enough. Don't care about the time. Just get it done.

And here, in all that, I never once considered quitting. Not once.

When I got my bearings, I stood to get up and the charge block fell out of my pocket again.

Words. 

The lead on my watch stayed put but unplugged, so in it goes, still charging away on the strap wrapped around my vest. I dusted myself off and moved down that road. GPS and map said go through that gate over THERE, you know, the one leading to that field of enormous cows? Before that road you need to use next?

I approach the gate and look one of them in the eye, which I clearly woke up and she's groaning at me and - I'm not kidding - looks as big as my SUV. I glance up to the barn behind the crossing and it looks like some rave going on in the loft. I'm clearly hallucinating four ghostly marionettes dancing about in the window which look scarier than the giant cow. So I take a deep breath and go through the gate, taking the widest berth possible to the other side. Thoughts of climbing over the fence are quashed when I spot the barbed wire but I managed to get round and out without dying, vomiting or hyperventilating.

Progress.

Check the phone. Hobs is up. He's had a meal, a shower, a sleep, and here I am cursing at cows, swearing my way through hymns and still getting lost on paths that are blatantly obvious, desperate for the sunrise.

Around 5 am, that old girl shows up. I'm feeling slightly less likely to get lost now, but am dog tired, boss. All I keep thinking every time I take a wrong turn is if I get lost again, I'm toast. Despite me not caring about finishing in time, seems I still care. I care after all. 

Well how do you like that.

Fortunately I've done 22 and 23 hour finishes before so I'm not unfamiliar with this level of exhaustion, nor the relentlessness of spirit you need to get to the end of the line. I am quietly comforted by that knowledge at that moment, until I lean over to inspect my shoe and the charge block falls out again. 

Oh for F**** SAKE!!!!

To the cows. To the sheep. To the skies.

Dog tired, boss.

I took the last climb to the wrong patch of trees (natch) and redirected myself to the correct one opposite corner, at the end of the climb as instructed. No longer in use of the second trekking pole as I now had one eye on the clock and a death grip on my phone, that climb a bit harder than the average bear but I got up, I got down, I started hearing wild pigs - perhaps some of these sheep were terrific voice impressionists as it happens - and very nearly dropped down to my knees with gratitude on reaching the final self-clip.

This wasn't because it was the last clip in and of itself, but because it was the last 'proof I was in the right place' and if I got lost again I was close enough to whack on Google maps and walk a straight line to wherever.

Needs must. Dog tired.

At the final road crossing before the rail bridge I did open Google maps after getting lost for a final time, and taking some 22 minutes to cross the road (good lord, had I had time to actually sort my pre-race prep I'd have just written out 'reach the T junction, route jogs a bit to the right, then turn left') but those directions for me could have been hieroglyphics at that point, I was just not registering them at all anymore.

Once I figured out where I was, I was now desperate to finish in time, and at 23 hours and 10 minutes I walked up to find Hobs greeting me and Grant himself waiting to check me in.

50 'miles on legs'
50 minutes to spare.

Dog tired. Done.

Hobs was the greatest butler in the world, sorting out my tea, helping with my breakfast and giving me a lift back to the campsite. I was feeling slightly shell shocked, slightly traumatised, said I had been anxious for most of the time, chasing those cutoff times. It was only in hearing his viewpoint of how challenging the race actually was that it dawned on me what an epic achievement I'd just undertaken. When I registered to do this race, I was immediately terrified of going wrong in the dark. And there I did, over and over and over and over again. And still I got home.

I got home in time.
I only went and did it.
How do you like that.

As I tried to get some sleep before moving on, I genuinely wasn't planning on doing my A race next week. Why on earth would I want to race a clock again, over even more miles? Why on earth would I want to extend that mental mileage to a nice round figure, this one with three digits? After all that, could I even begin to think I have the ability to get that done in time? Without self destructing?

I napped poorly, then woke up to an empty campsite and drizzle. I suddenly missed the hell out of my son and burst into tears. I debated cancelling the hotel room I'd booked and just throwing in the towel. No, no, I booked it, I'll go. Still, I cried out all the anxiety from the day before, all the loneliness I had felt stumbling around in the dark, such a mirror for the way I've felt the past nine years - that very real Venn diagram of running and life was here full whack in my face, and there was no doubt I would have to go after what I originally set out to do. It feels like a necessity, like air and food. I'm not sure how I got here but I have to do this thing.

I drove to the Premier Inn Marlborough and after a giant dinner, hot bath (in which I dozed off) and nine hours of sleep, off I went towards the Ridgeway to recce the route diversion.

I never managed to recce the route diversion on foot.

Instead I saw where it would happen (check!) and headed to the Holiday Inn Swindon, where my Ridgeway 86+ is going to end. My plan is to finish the race in good time, then turn back up the Ridgeway for a ways before heading north on foot, finishing up near a lake I can loop around until that number on the watch has three digits. 

Three digits.
100 miles.
Mentally locked and loaded.
1088 miles and 101,765 feet of elevation since January.

Physically locked and loaded.

I'd mapped out my extension route, so parked up and started walking the tail end of it, only to find the way I'd chosen over the M4 was inaccessible. Thank heavens I stopped by. Suddenly able to use a map, I quickly found an even better alternative that overlays a national cycle route and wot hey I'm ready to rumble.

So a good shake out of the legs was had and I've found my very special finish line. I popped by Barbury Castle on the way home to get a nosey at the Ridgeway proper and recalled that moment during my first ultra, second half RTTS, where me Bev, Yves and Tony had some great banter before us gals trudged our way home. More grit in the bin, that memory.

I don't know what's going to happen next week, but I know a few things for sure.

1. I know the full Ridgeway now, bar 12 miles so not likely to lose more than 2 hours getting lost again. (Don't worry you can mark those words!)

2. As long as there aren't any bones sticking out of my leg, I will make my attempt at 100 miles whether I make the race cutoffs or not. I will have the awesome Team Miller at my side and I know Kat will most likely just swear at me if I try to quit because I'm feeling sorry for myself ;-) Hopefully see Hobs along the way for that extra lift of very recent personal experience with the R86. Full speed ahead. Relentless forward progress and all.

3. I was confident in my ability to tough out a difficult situation before the SW80k - all my life is a difficult situation to be fair. But there is a hell of a lot to be said about being lost in the dark for so long and finding your way home. I'll hold that tightly.

In fact, everyone should try it - I am most certainly not the same person I was before.

So I'll leave you with my R86 race number (33) and a start time (10:30). I will once again be a blob on a map, staggering around in the dark. Swearing, mullering once beautiful hymns, howling at the moon, whatever it takes.

They don't call me Mad Max for nothin'.

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