The Pennine 100 Challenge 2008
From a race with 2300 competitors in 2007 in the UTMB, things were a little different on a wet windy weekend in the Peak District for this tough 100 miler.
The gale force wind cut through my five layers of clothing causing an involuntary shiver. The continuous rain over the last 15 hours had long ago penetrated my waterproof jacket and had soaked through the other four layers adding a chill factor that was becoming dangerous. I was at least 10 miles from the nearest checkpoint and in these conditions and over this terrain that was at least another 2.5 hours. I had been coping with the cold up until now; running had been keeping my core temperature up but as the wind had picked up and my running speed slowed down I was struggling to keep warm. My body was transferring blood from my legs to my central organs to keep them warm but this slows down my running pace which lowers my core temperature. There was no shelter around at all so I had to make the next checkpoint. After that there was another 12 miles till the finish. I couldn’t quite think about that yet.
I was determined to finish but one of the factors that had helped me establish a 2 hour lead on the next competitor was now becoming a hindrance – low body fat.
I am really not good in cold conditions. If I could just get out of this wind I might be ok. Unfortunately I am heading directly into it and I know the path continues that way for several miles. I know what will happen if I dont manage to warm up soon. The shivers will get more and more violent, my hands and feet will go numb as will my face until speech is difficult. Next my heart rate will drop as it stops pumping blood anywhere except the vital organs. Movement becomes difficult and there is an overriding desire to curl up into a ball somewhere and try and warm up. I’ve felt this before but not in a race and fortunately not in a remote area. I dont want to think about what happens after that. So far I have had an unwavering belief in myself that I would make it to the finish no matter what but for the first time I was starting to question myself. Could I continue in these conditions?
I’d never led a race before and to have to pull out now with only 22 miles to go (I had already covered
78) would be very disappointing. I had spoken to Catherine an hour or so ago and she had said there were severe weather warnings and organisers had taken the step of pairing people up as a safety precaution, not really what I wanted to hear but at that stage I was still managing to keep warm so told her I was fine and would see her in a few hours at the next checkpoint. Now that checkpoint seemed a long, long way away…….
It was all very different 15 hours ago..
The day starts at 7am as a small group of around 40 runners head off on a 100mile loop of the Peak District. Somewhat optimistically (despite the weather forecast) I start off wearing sunnies. It wasn’t long before they were put back into the backpack , never to be used again. The course involves a mix of narrow overgrown tracks, wide paths, rocky descents, cobblestones, muddy trails and the occasional bit of road. It passes through a number of small villages and over numerous peaks with over 5000m of ascent and descent. In many places the route follows a recognised trail that is signposted but other parts aren’t marked at all and good map reading skills are essential. Almost all of us carry our map in our hand the whole time.
The first few hours involve several wrong turns as the leading group try to remember from previous years which way to go. I decided for the early part of the race to stick with Dan who came second last year and had won several other ultra events. The group gradually thins out until after about 2 hours it is just myself and Dan with three other runners just in view behind us. The weather was deteriorating from a relatively fresh but nice morning to a cloudy overcast one. It was about to rain, and it had that feeling about it that it wasn’t going to be a quick shower. The course doesn’t seem particularly easy to follow and I wonder how I will go many hours later trying to make my way back along the same route. (The route runs from Point A to Point B 28 miles away and then goes on a 46 mile loop back to B and then we run 28 miles back to point A.)
After a nice flat section of a few km (the only one on the whole course) we climb a small rise to see the first checkpoint come into view. There are seven checkpoints spread every 13 mile or so throughout the course. The checkpoints supply water, everything else has to be carried, all food, clothing, head torch, spare batteries, maps and whatever else you need to run 100 miles. Catherine was helping out at one of the checkpoints and I hadn’t expected to see her till checkpoint 4 so it was a pleasant surprise to see her at checkpoint 1. As we were the leading competitors the organisers – Terry and Gary were dropping the support crew off at various checkpoints as they went along ahead of us.
Dan and I paused at the checkpoint long enough to put more layers of clothing and our rainjackets on and fill up our water containers. A couple of minutes later we are off again. We run on together at a comfortable pace chatting some of the time, deep in our own thoughts at others. It is around this time in an ultra you take stock of how your feeling. I had some knee niggles during the week and was a little worried how they would cope but despite a couple of minor twinges earlier they were feeling pretty good.
I began to notice when we went downhill I would open up a slight advantage over Dan which he would pull back when we went uphill. It was a long way to go and I was making no effort to drop him merely to run at a comfortable pace. As with all these type of races you walk as fast as you can uphill, run downhill and run any flat bits. It is easy to get into the habit of walking too much so it is good to have someone there to keep me honest, if the hill wasn’t that steep running is possible so one of us start’s running closely followed by the other one. We swap the lead many times without much thought to it at all.
It is raining by now, only lightly but raining none the less.The run from checkpoint 1 to 2 is probably the easiest part of the race. Not because the terrain is less challenging than other parts – it is very hilly but because we have got into a good rythym and our legs aren’t that tired yet. The miles pass by quickly and before long we complete out first marathon in just under 4.5 hours, only three more to go! A couple of miles later we arrive at checkpoint 2 and Catherine is once again there giving me another boost to my morale. Checkpoint 2 is a major checkpoint as a handful of competitors will stop running when they get here and jump on their Mountain bikes and then do 2 laps of the loop before running back to the start/finish. There are a few treats on offer here also. Some jelly lollies and a soft drink similar to Red Bull called Relentless is on offer. Despite never having tried it before, I knew it contained sugar and caffeine so couldn’t be a bad thing. So a couple of swigs of that and we are off again.
We climb out of the valley checkpoint 2 is situated in only to descend again and climb the other side of the valley before contouring around a large peak which is fully exposed to the weather. The wind has picked up and the rain has got heavier, my hands are starting to feel numb so decide its time to put more clothes on. Both of us stop and put on all remaining clothing we have in our backpacks. I struggle for the next mile or so trying to put on my gloves which where inside out. Not easy to do when you are running and are losing feeling in your hands!
Dan is taking longer and longer to catch me after the downhills. I don’t think about it too much, there is a long way to go and it is not my intention to try and drop him. If anything it is easier running together, helps with navigation, keeps you honest and you don’t have that feeling of being in the middle of nowhere by yourself.
This was all to change. At around the 36 mile mark there is a long downhill which I run down comfortably and toward the bottom I look around and I cant see him behind me. It seems the string between us has finally broken. I spend the next hour or so looking behind me every now and then to see if I can see him but he
has dropped out of sight. Ok I am now on my own leading the race – a very unfamiliar position for me to be in. The pace feels comfortable and my legs feel good so I figure I’ll just continue on and see what happens.
There is a large hill before the next checkpoint and uphills are a chance to refuel. It is too dangerous to run downhill and reach behind to grab my waterbottle or other goodies so this must be done uphill. I decide it is time for some jelly beans, it is a long climb and a boost of energy seems like it can only help. Now you would think that jelly beans specifically designed for endurance athletes would come in a packet that would be easy to open whilst on the move. These are in a small plastic wrapping which after over half a dozen attempts to rip open with teeth and or hands finally come open. Which genius thought of putting them in that packaging! Nevertheless they go down well and power me up the hill.
The next checkpoint is reached after a short descent. It is raining quite steadily now and I feel sorry for the two girls who are sitting in a car waiting for 40 people who think running 100miles in hilly terrain in pouring rain is a good idea. I grab some water and some jelly babies, say thanks and press on.
The course now goes into some remote territory across several peaks with no villages or roads. It is probably one of the most beautiful parts of the course but I cant really tell because visibility is limited to less than 100m metres. I notice a tightness in my left hip flexor that is becoming more pronounced – it mirrors a similar pain I had on my right side in a previous race. I got through that race ok so hope that the left side will hold up. I also notice a pain on the side of my left knee. I’ve had this pain before but not for a long time and it’s a bit more worrying. It’s a tightness in my Iliotibial band. Usually this is worse going downhill and if it gets really bad is impossible to ignore and will render me to a slow hobble. Not great when there is still 50 miles to go. As I’m contemplating this the first bike rider passes me with some kind words of encouragement and informs me I am well ahead of Dan now. Well despite not feeling tip top I’m obviously looking ok so feeling a bit more positive I push on.
The knee does start to hurt on the downhills but not enough to panic about yet! I climb another peak and visibility worsens, twenty metres at best. When I came and recce’d the route a month ago conditions were not much better. It rained for 9 hours straight and I didn’t see any stunning vistas. Whilst that gave me some confidence I could handle cold wet conditions I was really hoping it couldn’t be that bad 5 weeks later. (This is the longest day of the year at the height of summer remember). No such luck.
Another coupe of hours pass by. Time seems to ebb and flow in ultras, some minutes seem to take hours and some hours pass by in minutes.You learn to take the good with the bad. Enjoy it when time is flying by but when things get tough remember that things will feel easier again soon.
It is not far to the next checkpoint where I know Catherine will be. A large tent has been set up to provide both the volunteers and the athletes a bit of shelter. It also comes equipped with a stove for boiling water and when it was first mentioned I couldn’t see myself wanting hot water but it was sounding quite appealing now. My knee is beginning to bother me on the downhills to the point where I run a bit walk ten strides to rest it and run again. The steep descents are particularly painful. Finally I run into the small village of Holme Chapel to see the tent in the rear of the Pub.
I had stopped into the Pub on my recce as it was the only place open where I could get some water, walked in wearing lycra tights, rainjacket and backpack, ordered a coke, went to the bathroom and filled up my water bottles and then left without anyone even looking at me twice! This time it was into the tent. I was treated to a cup of tea with enough milk so I can slam it down fast ( sorry thats solo isn’t it) and some more jelly babies. I am offered a seat but I decided before the start not to sit down unless I had to. The pleasure gained in sitting down for a few minutes is heavily outweighed by the pain in standing up and getting going again. Catherine checks I am ok and makes sure I have everything I need, even offering me her thermal top but unfortunately race rules prevents getting outside assistance and whilst I had a good chance of winning this one I didn’t want to be disqualified. It is good to see her again though and it raises my morale once again. I have a quick chat with the cyclist that passed me first as he had decided enough was enough and then left the warm sheltered confines of the tent and head back out into the pouring rain. About a minute later I am back again – not because I’d had enough but I’d left my map there. As I run off my knee feels a lot better to the point I hardly notice it. I am feeling very positive and mentally strong. I had visualised winning the race and doing a time of around 24 hours and so far everything is going to plan.
I hadn’t visualised pouring rain and howling gales or being out in front for 65 miles but was dealing with both situations alright at the moment.
The path meanders up and down parallel to a minor road before finally climbing up to the Top of Leach – a barren windswept peak at the best of times. As I ascended today it was particularly bleak; freezing winds, pouring rain, zero visibility and large puddles of water all over the path made it a place that is best not to spend too much time in. There was just enough path left to run around the puddles but I discovered later that the slower competitors weren’t so lucky, many of them reported running through puddles that came up to mid shin. Once the climb is over it gets worse, the descent is full of cobblestones – not good at the best of times but my knee was starting to complain again. It really didn’t like this. Despite the pain I managed to continue to make good time, my walking breaks were very short and running faster downhill was easier on the knee than running slowly ,so run fast, walk for 5 seconds ( I count to 5 so as to make sure I dont start walking too much) and repeat was the order of the day. The slope of the decline dictated how far I run before I walk, very steep slopes meant walk breaks were more frequent, more gentle slopes and I can get into a good stride that hardly bothered the knee. Finally the path though this bleak miserable place comes to an end (it is probably very scenic in good weather) and I enter civilisation again in the shape of a small village and checkpoint 5. It is good to see people again and I have a quick chat with the girls sitting in the van, grab some jelly babies and push on again. I’ve covered over 6o miles by now and only have 40 to go. Can my knee hold out?
Other than that I’m not feeling too bad, my left hip flexor is sore but once I get running again it loosens up, my quads are sore but nothing that can’t be completely ignored. I am wet from head to toe but still warm enough
so I cant complain. I have set my watch to go beep every 3.5km. If I do this in less than 30 minutes I will be on track for around 23 hours. I am under this pace at the moment so even if I slow down a bit I might be able to make 24-25 hours. The race record is just over 27 hours so figure I must be doing ok. I wonder how far Dan is behind, if I slow too much will he catch me. I know that it is very difficult to make up time on the uphills and I think if I can keep running most of the downhills I should be able to hold him off. Musn’t get too excited though still a long way to go.
As I ascend from the checkpoint and begin another long climb I give Catherine a ring to let her know where I am. She tells me Dan has pulled out at checkpoint 4 and Carl is around an hour behind me. I have mixed feelings about this, the thought of Dan chasing me had made me keep the pace up for fear of getting caught, now I
knew he wasn’t there the pressure was off a bit but with a sub 24 hour time so close I didn’t want to back off at all. I didn’t know Carl but hoped that as long as I keep moving at this pace he shouldn’t be able to catch me.
I set off to checkpoint 6 which is also known as checkpoint 2 as it is the start and finish of the loop. At the top of the climb is a field full of cows. As I approach them I get a look like out of one of those western films when the good guy walks into the saloon and every one drops what they’re doing , the room goes silent and they stare at him. Every cow was looking at me as if to say “ What the hell do you think you’re doing coming into our territory” I try to ignore them and push on but this becomes difficult when one of them starts walking then running towards me. I stop, turn to face the cow and point and yell at it with as threatening voice as I can manage. The cow isn’t convinced I am that threatening but stops anyway. Continuing on I see from the corner of my eye another cow doing the same thing. What the hell is wrong with these creatures. I use the same scare tactic and this one seems even less convinced I am anything to worry about but gradually stops his approach. There is a fence and gate about 100 yards away. Can I make it there before they realise there is nothing remotely threatening about me. One more cow has a go at me and my scare tactics whilst not stopping him slow him to a slow walk which allows me to get closer to the gate. You might be wondering why I didn’t just run for it. Well there were a few cows between me and the gate and whilst I am no expert on the top speed of a cow I was pretty sure it would be faster than I could manage after 15 hours of running. With every one of those cows eyes boring into the back of my head I reach the gate and slip through with relief. I shake my head with disbelief and push on.
The next 10 miles are a mixture of painful descents and long open exposed ascents. The temperature has continued to drop and the rain and wind continue to increase – great! My knee and hip are getting very sore by now but running is still possible so I try to ignore it. One of the keys to a good ultra is to ignore pain for as long as possible. The more you let it bug you the more the thought of continuing for another 10 hours becomes impossible. I try not to think about anything but the next hill or the next descent. Can I keep running down to the bottom of this hill. If the answers yes I keep going and worry about whats next later. I give myself specific targets for walking and running. As I run along and the gradient becomes steeper I pick out a spot ahead and tell myself I’ll run to that and then start walking. As I reach the top I pick another spot and make sure I start running from that spot. As I run down I’ll keep running as long as I can until the knee pain becomes intolerable and then pick a spot to keep running to. Walk for 5 seconds and then begin running again. The knee pain isn’t really slowing me down much, its just making it more painful. Section by section I cover the remote ground between checkpoint 5 and 6. I don’t see anybody on the paths ( who in their right mind would be out walking in weather like this on a Saturday night!) and part of me enjoys the sense of freedom you get by being by yourself in a remote area.
The hours go by and I see the first sign for the town of Summit where checkpoint 6 (2) is located. Once I get there it’s just over a marathon to go. It took just over 5 hours to get to checkpoint 2 and if I can get back in less than 9 hours I will go under 24 hours. Somehow I have managed to make up some more time on the course record over the last 10 miles. If I can keep this pace up 23 hours is possible. I have had the occasional glance behind to see if I can see Carl but no-one is in sight so provided I don’t get horribly lost or blow up the race victory is mine. I am less concerned by this than by the time. These kind of races and really about competing against yourself and I thought under 24 might be possible but as no-one had gone close wasn’t sure if that was being unrealistic. Now I knew it was realistic if I could just hold things together for the last 30 miles. I was coping with the conditions – certainly wasn’t enjoying them but coping.
Once again the steep descent into the town is painful on my knee but I am still in good spirits and reach the checkpoint just after 10pm at night. I fill up my water supply grab some more jelly babies and relentless and set off again. The path is initially very steep and my legs complain loudly but as the slope evens out I am back running comfortably again.
Twenty eight miles to go and nine hours to do it in to break 24 hours – sounds easy. Normally it probably would but I’d already run almost three marathons, it was getting dark, the wind was picking up and the rain was relentless. Navigation was apparently difficult on the return leg and apart from a couple of miles of flat path it was all uphill or downhill. I give Catherine a call while I am walking up one of the many hills a reassure her I’m still feeling ok and will see her at the next checkpoint.
All of a sudden I realise I have left my map back at checkpoint 2. I have been going at least 20 minutes from the checkpoint and don’t want to retrace my steps, so can I navigate my way back onto the other Map? The course is split over two maps, the first map contains the route from start to just past checkpoint 1 and the other map covers the rest. I had covered this part of the course twice when I recce’d the course and once on the way out so I am fairly confident I can make my way back to the top of the other map. It is just another thing to worry about though, it is almost dark and everything looks very different in the dark illuminated by a small head torch.
Well thats how I find myself in the situation I am in now- 10 miles from the last checkpoint, 22 miles from the finish, wet from head to toe and freezing cold. From Catherines description of the weather forecast it sounds doubtful that anyone will finish the race. I still believe deep down that I can I’m just not sure how.
I force myself to keep running into the bitingly cold wind and rain. I can’t cope with this much longer, I am shivering constantly now. All I can think about is a hot shower. I try waving my arms in the air to generate some more warmth but to no avail.
Suddenly a brain wave – I have an emergency space blanket (one of those foil blankets) in my back pack , if I can make the next checkpoint I can wrap myself in that and then put my thermal layers on top of it to keep myself warm. This thought keeps me going for another 15 minutes or so until I realise unless this weather changes I wont make it to the next checkpoint, at least not in any state to continue on. I need to put the space blanket on asap. I look around for somewhere out of the wind to put the space blanket on. Shortly I descend into a slight hollow with a couple of trees for shelter. There is a noticeable drop in the wind behind the trees. This will have to do. I take it out and without taking any layers off manage to wrap it around my chest under all but my base layer of clothing. I hope this works! I set off and whilst I wasn’t exactly what you would call toasty warm it certainly is an improvement. The shivering gradually stops and I could feel my legs loosening up as blood went back into the muscles. Ok I think I can make it to the last checkpoint without getting hypothermia.
It is completely dark now and I am second guessing some of my route choices; “is this the right way”, “I cant remember this path being so long” “wasn’t I meant to turn left not right” ” but the sign says right”, “but do I follow the signs the whole way or does the course deviate from the Pennine Bridleway signs?” Luckily as a rising sense of panic is starting to grow something triggers in my memory and confirms I am on the right path.
The route now passes over some open expanses with more steep ascents and descents, the ascents are ok but a couple of the descents are painfully steep and I really struggle down them. I remember Dan saying his quads were killing him when he came down these in last years race, I understand what he means! After a particularly painful descent I cross the base of a reservoir which I know is on the top of the map I do have. It is a relief. Checkpoint 1 is just around the corner so I decide to push on to checkpoint 1 before I get the map out. A long ascent is followed by some undulating paths that eventually bring me out to a main looking road. This doesn’t look familiar at all. Wait, there’s a small path just across the road , that must be it. I follow it but very soon reach another main road and all signs of paths disappear. I’m certain we didn’t run on this main road at all. Shit! Time to get out the map- should have got it out back near the reservoir. I check my GPS co-ordinates and find my position on the map – I cant be there – the GPS must be wrong. I ignore the GPS reading and head down the road. Hang on, what am I thinking, who’s more likely to be correct – a GPS unit or someone who has been running for 17 hours. I turn and go back up the road to where the previous path ended and have a look at the map again and discover where I am. Shit. Shit. Shit. How did I let that happen. Ok, can’t do anything about it now, how do I get to where I need to be. I plot a course back to the race route and head back down the same road again. No this doesn’t feel right. I check my compass on the GPS and discover I’m going west when I should be going east. Ok back up the road again , the road meets another road which corresponds to where I thought I was. Thank god for that. I’m not back on course yet but at least I know where I am and how to get back on course. I follow my new route and before too long see a bridge crossing a river. I think the checkpoint is somewhere near here. The maps are great when you are out in the open but are too small to see much detail when you are in towns which is where I now am. As I approach the bridge I see two respectable looking gentlemen standing on the corner.
“Excuse me guys , you wouldn’t know where the pub is would you” I ask, as the checkpoint is situated in the carpark of the Pub.
“Which one” comes the reply as if it is a perfectly reasonable question to ask at 2am in the morning by someone running along in the pouring rain, fully kitted out in lycra from head to toe
“Just across the bridge on your left hand side”
With that I cross the bridge and to my relief see the race van. It is not till I get to the van and peer inside do the occupants – Catherine, Terry and Gary wake up. They look startled and I discover they had nodded off waiting for me (fair enough to) . They make a fuss of me, Catherine makes sure I am ok and I honestly reply that I am. The space blanket has worked and the temperature seems to have risen a few degrees. Filling up with water I set of for the last leg to the finish. I tell Catherine I should be there sometime between 6 and 7 and that I’ll give her a call when I get close.
The path descends and then flattens out for a few miles of which I am able to run most of. I’m still managing to run around 8 min miles along the flat which I am happy with. I certainly won’t be caught if I can keep this up. I check each path, intersection and significant feature to make sure I am following the correct path. I really don’t want to get lost again. After following a path up and down for several miles parallel to several small villages the trail leads up and around a number of reservoirs. The rain is actually easing and I am warming up. My legs whilst still sore are less painful so am coping with the downhills noticeably better. I look at the map and notice that the Pennine Bridleway goes to to Tintwhistle and I want to go to Hollingworth. I must make sure I turn off the path before it heads to Tintwhistle. I keep following the signs to Tintwhistle as everything look familiar and then I don’t see any signs for a while so presume I’ve got onto the correct path. It is beginning to get light now ( its 3.30am) and I notice down to my right a reservoir. Checking my map it confirms I am heading in the right direction. Hang on, I turn the map to face the direction of travel and realise the reservoir should be on my left. Shit! A sign confirming Tintwhistle is ½ a mile away confirms I missed the turn off. Bloody hell how did I miss that – I cant even remember seeing any other paths I could have turned into. I study the map and plot another route back to the correct path. Looking at the map I guess I’m at least a mile out of the way. Bloody hell, 100 miles is far enough without adding more to it. Fortunately the road back to the proper route is a lovely gradual descent similar to the ones I train on and my legs fly down the hill doing well under 8 minute miles. I’ll make the time up quickly at this rate. I finally enter Hollingworth and fortunately find my way to the correct path easily. Back on track again but did I lose much time and was I still on pace for sub 24 hours.
I was now only around 4 or 5 miles from the finish but I knew these were the hardest navigation wise. The route follows very narrow trails almost completely overgrown in parts, numerous fence, style crossings and changes of direction. I decided to stop whenever I have to and make sure I am going the right way. The next three miles consist of a few stop, start, backtrack, start again repetitions. Fortunately I never get more than 50-100 yards before suspecting something is wrong. Finally I come up on a path that looks familiar. I follow it along around the back of a farmhouse and continue past it. Didnt we run around the front of this on the way out? Not sure but this path is going SW and I need to go SW so I’ll take my chances. A bit further on I see a sign that indicates Broadbottom straight ahead and Hague Path turn left. Now I know I need to get to Broadbottom but I distinctly remember Gary telling me Hague path is the one to be on. So I descended some stairs to get onto Hague path only to be greeted at the bottom of the stairs by a very grassy field with no distinct paths at all. Shit – again. Bugger this I’m not stuffing around amongst knee high grass looking for a path when I know the other path goes exactly where I want it to go. It might be a bit longer but at least I wont get lost. I trudge back up the stairs and head along the path to Broadbottom. Five minutes later I am at Broadbottom.
I’m almost there. I’m actually going to break the race record and win this race. I can barely believe it. My heart starts pounding a bit faster and tears well up. I try and hold them back as I give Catherine a call to tell her I’ll be there in 15 minutes or so. It is just over a mile to the finish but it is still on tiny trails and involves a lot of twists and turns. She asks if I know the way , to which I reply “ I think so but I’m not sure” which I don’t think fills her with much confidence. Five minutes later I recognise where I am and am sure I can find my way back now. The last few minutes drag on a bit as I am sure I am close. Finally I see the last field to cross, Traipsing through the high grass I see Catherine waiting at the other end behind a gate – the last obstacle to cross before the finish. I wave at her and she waves back. Tears are starting to well up again and I don’t hold them back. Reaching the gate I get a big hug from Catherine and I am sobbing now. Composing myself I brace myself for what could be the hardest task of the day – climbing a 5 foot high gate. Catherine makes me stop as I sit atop the gate for a photo, I cant take the grin from my face. There is 200 yards to go now and we run in together, Catherine letting me do the last 100 yards by myself to the finish where Terry and Gary are waiting. It is 5.32am and I finish in 22 hours and 32 minutes – breaking the previous course record by 4 Hours and 35 minutes! How did I do that? I really thought sub 24 was possible but didn’t dare hope that I could do under 23. Terry puts the medal around my neck and gives me a hug as does Gary. They are the only ones there to greet me as everyone else is either out on the course, or helping out at checkpoints. I hobble to the race marquee and sit down for the first time since yesterday morning. It feels very surreal sitting there with no other competitors. The organisers had planned for hot soup to be available for the runners but they didn’t anticipate the first runners until 9am so fortunately Catherine had brought a smorgasbord of food up with her for me to choose from. Two packets of salt and vinegar chips went down before I had a chance to take a breath! What would I do without her.
There isn’t the huge crowd at the finish like an Ironman or at Chamonix last year (in fact there are only three people) but the sense of satisfaction is the same if not more. This race whilst maybe not as tough as the Ultra Trail Mont Blanc on paper , I found more difficult in reality. With only 7 checkpoints on the course compared with over 15 (plus many unofficial ones) and huge amounts of time spent with no-one else in sight, the large distances between checkpoints, the navigation aspect , not to mention the horrendous weather conditions makes it a very demanding race. To be able to grind out a finish in conditions that are the polar opposite to what suits me and end up with a course record is immensely satisfying. The race win was a bonus and also quite satisfying as the last time I won anything was for an age group category of a sprint triathlon around 15 years ago!
I sit down and chat with Catherine about the race. She’s had only a few hours sleep in cramped car seats so is just as tired as I am. It is just the two of us and it is a special moment, sharing in the afterglow of the race. She probably remembers it as trying to make me eat some food and seeing if there is anything I need but my emotions were running pretty high. Her support makes a big difference to my mental state and I wouldn’t be either the person or the athlete I am without her. I learn that my Mum in Australia has been up all night waiting for progress reports from Catherine. Catherine’s Mum has been doing similar. It is great to have their support from so far away.
Eventually I begin to get cold and realise if I dont get warm soon I’m going to have to get into my sleeping bag to warm up before I can make it to the showers. As I stand and begin to walk across the field to the shower block I realise how mental these races are. My left hip flexor has completely given up. I can barely lift my leg at all and I resort to walking by bending forward using my hands under my left leg to lift the leg up. I must look pretty silly. After taking almost 10 minutes to walk what is normally takes three I make it to the showers. As I take my shoes off I realise why my feet had been hurting so much. They are completely wrinkled with over half a dozen blisters and whilst I haven’t lost any toenails yet it was obvious that at least 4, possibly more will go in the next few weeks. The hot shower is one of the best I’ve ever had!
Throughout the day the other finishers trickle in. Second place also breaking the course record but finishing 4 hours behind me is Carl. After him only another 11 competitors make it to the finish. The last competitor takes 40 hours but given the conditions it is an amazing effort that he managed to continue going for that long. I take my hat off to him.
Why do I do this to myself? Is it really worth it? It is difficult to explain. I have read far better writers than myself attempt’s to explain it with mixed degrees of success. Suffice to say that the sense of satisfaction gained overrides all the physical pain and is something that lasts forever.