Who knew a cinder block could be so comfortable? May well have been at The Four Seasons, that. Solid underneath and a place of rest. Again.
My goodness, what a journey was that Ridgeway (not)86.
To my right, the path up to Waylands Smithy, tucked neatly behind a curtain of mist. Ahead, a young man and woman who'd just passed, while eyeing me curiously to determine whether I needed some kind of assistance or perhaps some kind of rubber room.
Neither, friends. Just a bed.
It seems that my thousand mile stare is also hideous at maths, as it must have gone light years by then. And out there ahead, more fog swallowed up those two people walking with feet that weren't battered by miles, and effort, and hills and chalk and...and...and...
There's me, so slumped over I may well have been boneless, taking one deep breath after the other to regain control of my breathing, regain some mental focus, make some decisions. I looked around again, closed my eyes and shook my head.
I'd started that Ridgeway 86 so strong, and kept chewing up those tight checkpoint timings, my goal of staying around 4mph solidly in hand throughout the first half. I'd wanted to bank time as I knew beyond any stretch of the imagination that these final miles would be excruciating.
I wasn't wrong.
This was the second time I'd sat down in the past ten minutes, the previous chair of choice little more than a dewy verge along the trail which soaked my leggings through, but by then I was entirely beyond caring. Didn't help the chill though - I'd been suffering for hours, having packed poorly for the night weather, expecting my wool short sleeve over a long sleeve compression top to suffice. Should've had the long sleeve.
Should've started slower.
Should've downgraded my SW80k distance two weeks prior.
Should've gone straight to physio after that race.
Should've recce'd that middle 12 miles from Streatley.
Shoulda coulda woulda. Can't turn any clock back. Damn it. Can't.
Relentless forward progress.
That chill was only one of the multitude of things stealing what little energy I had left, combined with the stomach aggro I'd faced for the duration. My historically sketchy guts had not been playing ball for a few weeks before the race. No idea whether it was nerves or if the prescription-controlled reflux has got a second wind, but that pit boring a hole in my solar plexus was driving, denying me an appropriate energising breakfast, and making most of the food throughout the race plenty hard to choke down. Although it must be said, to be fair and perfectly honest, I didn't like any of the food at the checkpoints. Even that warming halfway point meal that should've geared me up for the drive to the finish was this|close to coming back for most of the next few hours. But I'm skipping ahead, no surprise there then.
Thank God for Kat and Richard, supplying me with the anti-queasy magic combo of babybels and tomato juice throughout, sorting me a cup o soup very late in the game so at least something was going in. But guts ahoy, it was a problem that clambered on board and rode along for the duration.
These exceptionally trained legs had been battered quite markedly in Shropshire, and my quads had only just settled before race day, so wouldn't you know ye olde IT bands came out to play as early as about mile 5. ********. First just reminding me they were there, but by the (banned) Field of Dreams, my response to fellow competitors passing and asking how things were going was basically "mumble mumble...stupid to run 50 miles two weeks out...mumble mumble...IT bands...(grimace)...mumble"
My 100s technique (count run / count walk) to survive the dark miles came out early. All too soon, 100s became 50s. I was rolling my hips out with a tennis ball at Lewknor to calm the torque. Finished a marathon with still 100k to go.
It helped, still - trouble in paradise.
If Kat hadn't seen it in the eyes by then, she would soon enough. This wasn't going to be an easy day at the office.
Not being a speedgoat by nature, my goal had always been to stay at least an hour ahead of the checkpoints closing. Still ahead and feeling some positivity at Nuffield, I'd set out into the setting sun and caught up with a runner I'd been playing leapfrog with throughout the day - Andrew, who as it happens, would become the race's final finisher. We chatted on and off as twilight snickered at us from within the three mile trip hazard of Grim's Ditch. And it delivered. The fourth root I kicked didn't earn an F bomb, so much as full on blasphemy "G-- damn it!!!!!" and not quiet, mind. Nearly a week on, that big toe joint still twinges, so I can perfectly understand the volume and exuberance. Minutes later, out came the head lamp.
Onward we went, Andrew leading the way with his GPS, which once instructed us to turn in a direction that didn't seem to have any signage. We pondered it a bit until another two runners (who also finished, as it happens) arrived and we all debated what to do. As Andrew turned right, the other three of us decided the GPS must be wrong...
(...stop screaming at your screen...)
So we three went the wrong way as Andrew escaped our foolishness into the darkness. After we realised the error of our ways, we backtracked to the turn and spotted the missing finger post partially concealed by a bush. Within about ten steps I recognised exactly where we were (the entrance to a church yard) and off we went, my new companions easily trotting away as I continued to curse my lack of recovery.
I caught up with Andrew once again in the flat along the Thames.
"We found the sign. Had I followed you I'd have known in five steps we were going the right way..."
Bit of discussion and again I was moving faster than he was (probably why he finished and I didn't) so I passed and put on the headphones, trying to get my mojo on board.
When the music doesn't energise, Houston, we have a massive problem.
I took the headphones off and that was the end of the iPod on this adventure. It was way too early.
Still, into South Stoke I was cheered with vigour, and I grinned and curtsied with delight at the amazing volunteers and my fellow runners. I only wish the sustenance would've given me the same boost. I just didn't get along with it and thankfully Kat insisted I choke down that pasta whatever it took or I'd have never made it much further.
Into some fresh clothes and the cushioned trainers I wore in Shropshire (which had given me an enormous honking heel blister that had healed but I didn't tape...and oops, I'd do it again...) I grinned for the camera, shortly before Kat read out Moose's 'feel the force' message after which the power suddenly went out.
"My Pop's here," says I, before proceeding to explain the power outage as I was trying to write my father's eulogy years prior.
Now out into the night again, wearing what had felt warm enough at the time, wishing I'd properly used the toilet. I had to stop almost immediately to adjust the shoe but once it was sorted I managed to get going along quite confidently, not knowing where I was in the pack but not really giving two monkeys at that point, as long as I was ahead of the checkpoints.
Chasing times. Well it is a race after all, but this...this is something I'm not used to.
This was immensely out of my comfort zone. Pop that in the old grit bin, kids.
Still it was wearing me down. South Stoke would be the last time I'd be able to sit down long enough to address my foot care and other needs sensibly.
The back marker of the race had been walking all of it, yet still caught me up in the dark climb out of South Stoke, somewhere in the midst of those 12 un-recce'd miles. I'd been trudging up, up, looking for a place to wild wee amidst nothing more than people's driveways and front gardens, starting to worry I'd gone wrong. I stopped, and out came the phone which needed switching on and a wait to load...wait for signal...wait, wait, wait, ticktockticktock
Once I jigged that I was beside the golf course I could identify on the map, and that I was stood on the line I needed to be standing on, off I went again. I finally found bushes for that comfort break and up I continued. Out of nowhere Four Non-Blondes "What's Up" enters my brain and pours out my mouth "...25 years and my life is still, trying to get up that great big hill of hope for a destination..."
I'd seen a light bobbing behind me for a while, when suddenly out of the darkness came that light, and beneath it a man called Jason, who would be great company through the night section. We chatted on and off, sometimes just plodding along in total silence. I commented that I'd been thinking it's so dark, so completely quiet, and we're out here just moving through the stillness with such great purpose.
Relentless forward progress.
I kept stopping for wild wees until one "jeez I need to disappear behind the bushes, I'm so sorry, go on ahead," and still he waited. Strangers suffering together on a life-altering journey.
This is trail running.
Jason's GPS and my knowledge of distance between the checkpoints were what got us to Bury Down and its crew who had been waiting for us, then waiting for us to quit, then were no longer waiting but instead packing up and driving off once they knew we were a) continuing and b) being looked after by Kat and Richard.
My amazing friends/crew/team offered Jason a cup of tea. I took a few sips of Kat's brew. I peeled off my socks to inspect the new blisters on my heel, ball of left foot and sides of two small toes on the right. Those damned shoes. Again. Come ON.
Right, give me the other shoes back, new insoles will have to suffice. I knew the heel and ball of my left foot were from the shoes. The toes, from stupidly forgetting to powder my right sock at the start. Seems that an early sock change at Wendover wasn't enough to sort it.
With a warning to Kat, I pierced blisters and taped the toes, repeatedly telling Jason that it was ok to leave me and save his own race. Still he kept refusing.
I sure do love this sport, damned if I don't.
That thousand mile stare now on a beam as high as my headlamp (which never needed a charge, would you believe it - sensibly used the spare into halfway and saved the goodie for the dark). And off they sent us into the abyss.
I not once thought of giving up the game at that point, but in retrospect I have to admit that the checkpoint disappearing act took a big chunk out of my resolve.
Enter the chimp.
I'm too slow. They're all waiting on us. We're keeping people waiting. They want to go home. But I have a right to be here. I'm in time. I'm still moving. By the time you get to the next one they are going to be so annoyed. You'll have to hurry to get out of there.
The battle in my head raged.
I WILL finish. I will finish even if I miss their cutoffs. I will hand them the tracker and I'll finish anyway. I've got a bigger plan here today, I WILL finish. Go ahead and pack up. My friends will see me home. I'll finish. Damn it, I'll finish.
But I know now, it was too late. The pace, the energy outlay to keep warm and to chase time, the blisters and self-flagellation for mistakes made, the stupid phone that wouldn't charge (but was magically fine after the race was long over), the repeated trips into the bushes which has NEVEREVEREVER happened in my life. Who uses a gauze bandage as toilet paper?
Needs must. God, the learning! So full that bin. There is grit on my grit, surrounded by grit.
Still, sapping. Draining.
Jason called it a day after fighting his way to Sparsholt Firs. His pauses to stretch had been increasing as much as my wild wees. Us both feeling so deflated when my watch mileage didn't align with expected distance to the checkpoint. I feel awful that my goodbye wasn't a bit more energetic but I barely knew my own name at that point.
Jason, you are a flipping legend. Honorary Buzzer, right there.
(Dog tired, boss.)
My time at Sparsholt Firs involved collapsing into a director's chair and asking them to turn peanut butter sandwiches and jam sandwiches into a PB&J combo which I ended up doing myself, discarding the buttered half. Tomato soup. Coffee. Nothing helped. Another sock change. Do I want my bottles full? I don't know, the pack is heavy. Drain the bladder, give me the bottles. No, don't. No, I don't know.
I don't know.
I offered to let them dismantle things behind me and to sit outside and they refused, but that chimp in my head kept laughing and telling me I was in the way, I needed to get out so they could go home, they were annoyed I was still there, they wanted me to go. That chimp is a nasty piece of work, let me tell you. He can go do one. Another *******.
Now Jason is out and I'm DFL. We'd joked earlier about finishing together as I wasn't going to be allowed to take that title off him. I wouldn't have it either...
...as it happens.
Jason had got me through the dark and there I went off into the day by myself, still wearing my headlamp and carrying the other in the pack. Unnecessary weight on board, death grip on a banana, not knowing how I'd eat it while holding something in the other hand. Mental acuity nonexistent. All kinds of wackadoo.
The cut back Hogweed on the sides of the trail looking like a cheering squad rooting me onward. More signs of life out on morning exercise. I'd have to work hard to hide for the wild wees now. Stuff it, naw, I'm going right on the edge. Guys do it. I no longer care.
Plodding onward, that huge time cushion I had purchased yesterday constantly shrinking. I'd been saying for every mile under 17 minutes "that's bank". But for hours, I'd been making huge withdrawals. Per mile pace now going 23, 24, 25 minutes. I'm starting to veer from side to side on the trail. Now a downhill on chalk. IT bands screaming, I can no longer rush - that is just no longer going to happen.
And then, "they're getting this tracker back. I'm done chasing the clock. Take the damned thing."
So down that road I went.
It comes as some relief to have decided that I'm going to stop racing. At this point it was only the racing to stop. I was certainly not going to STOP stop. What I needed to do was to get a decent amount of rest, get my feet looked after properly, fuel up properly to be able to move on and...
...wait. Just wait. Who am I kidding? If I keep up at this pace I'm going to be out here til 5 or 6 o'clock. Do I want to be out here til 5 or 6 o'clock, then try to sort myself out, get to bed super late, then try to drive home tomorrow? Then try to do life?
What do I want more? To finish, or to rest?
Which do I NEED more?
That was something. I tell you what, that was the something-est something I've ever realised in my LIFE.
Dog. Tired. Boss.
I started ticking off the achievements. I knew I PB'd the 100k and achieved the sub 20 hours I've been chasing since the first. My biggest fear going in was that I had never gone under 20 hours and I had to - with a cushion - in order to stay in the game. I achieved 19 h 15 m roughly. Absolutely massive.
My longest run had been the Peak District, coming up on my watch at 64 miles. I'm now over 64 miles. That's a record. If I get to the checkpoint under 70 I'll move around til I hit it. 70. 70 bloomin miles.
(...and funny how I can suddenly math...)
The sun had risen but the morning was so foggy. So chilly. It wasn't supposed to be this way, none of it. Nor my life in fact. None of it was supposed to be this way.
I was so tired, but not from the run, not really. I was tired from everything that preceded it and everything that will follow it. I'm exhausted.
I'd done enough. On the day, I'd done enough.
I took out my phone to text Kat, plodding along while I waited for it to switch on.
67.26 on the watch
Imagine a music box at the end of its song.
My song is called 100k PB. Distance record. My song is done. Nothing left.
I have to keep stopping to sit down
And right now I can't think of anything worse than climbing another hill
I looked away, shaking my head, plodding along. Knowing what I earned. Knowing what I learned.
Still, the idea that I didn't want to climb a hill hurts to even think about. I flippin love climbing hills. I could probably have climbed the hills but the descent on the IT bands would rage. I kept texting, temporarily holding on to my bigger dream despite the lack of logic.
I need this race to end on my terms, not theirs. I won't make it.
Foxhill is it
I need to sit down for a while and if I perk up we can go on straight towards Swindon from bottom of Barbury hill
If I don't get energy from a proper rest, I have to stop feeling dreadful
[I'd meant to say 'I have to stop. Feeling dreadful.' That feels important and quite Freudian.]
Kat: Do you need picking up?
No, I can make it to Foxhill
Probably on time
Think I have 1:15 to go about 2 miles
Should be about 40 minutes
I looked at the ridiculousness of hoping I could travel 2 miles in 75 minutes. I was so tired, it seemed potentially out of reach to go 2 miles in 75 minutes. But I wanted that one more cutoff. Then they could have their tracker back.
Now staggering on to that cushy cinder block at Waylands Smithy. I nearly lay down but realised I'd fall asleep and not wake up and folks would start to worry. I debated messaging that if I didn't show up in time please do send someone but I didn't think that would help anyone, so I just kept moving.
I didn't need to, in the end. When I got up and staggered further it wasn't long before an orange topped apparition in the shape of Hobs appeared out of the fog. I wanted to cry. I didn't.
"I'm f****** toast." Shaking my head.
I can't remember his precise reaction but it was exactly what I needed at the time. I do remember the hug and trying to jog another couple of steps without joy. "Nope, that's not happening." I was empty. There would be no more relentless forward progress after Foxhill.
Not for today, anyway.
It was like getting the devil cut off my shoulder as they took the tracker off, all of us joking with the control room that I would be continuing. I laughed and said there was probably a collective groan across the network. And tell them I coming for my hot dog. It was all very positive and joyful. I ended on a such a massive high. At 70 miles.
I'd have said I "finished on a high" but, well, I didn't finish did I?
A DNF. An important one.
I remained so proud and committed to having another go for a couple of days, neither of which has left in any way shape or form, in fact both are even more embedded as the body continues to recover from that punishing journey.
It was excruciating.
It was magic.
It was awful and awesome.
And I can't wait to have another bash.
But, 70 miles all told. 70! That is a hell of an achievement for this girl who used to only run when someone was chasing her.
Admittedly, it only started to hurt when I opened my kit bag to see pack #3 unopened. The one with my trekking poles and my GVRAT T-shirt that says "The Old Wolf Hunts with the Teeth He's Got".
But this old wolf still has plenty of teeth.
This old wolf has only begun to hunt.
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