London to Brighton

Posted: October 10, 2012 in Races 2012, September
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

I’m not sure whether it was the aforementioned nerves, the hideously early start to the day (4am) or the fact that I’d eaten a ton the evening before, including a late night bowl of pasta and pine nuts while watching Liverpool thrash hapless Norwich on Match of the Day, but I really wasn’t able to eat anything this morning. I had some yoghurt and muesli but even that was a struggle. In possibly the only sensible bit of preparation I managed this week Brid and I had located the registration and start area for the race last night, meaning at least there was no rushing around in the dark this morning. It was only a five minute drive from the hotel so we were there and registered by just after 5am, giving me loads of time to stretch, get loose and wonder just what the hell I’d gotten myself into.

The enormity of what I’d signed up for had really begun to hit home over the last few days. 90km. 90 bloody kilometres. That’s one marathon, then another, then another 6km on the end of that. And that’s only if by some miracle I managed to go the right way, all the way. Otherwise it’s extra distance, or as the organisers like to call it “bonus miles”. The longest I’ve ever done before is 42.2km, i.e. a marathon, and all I had to do then was just keep plodding along and follow the crowds in front of me. Here I had to manage the distance, the ever changing terrain and of course the dastardly navigation. Still, at this stage there was nothing to do but get on with it so at just before 6am, so I and about 200 other foolhardy souls toed the start line and set off on our own little adventure through the English countryside.

What Lies Ahead

Here We Go

 

I’d planned on a pace of roughly 6:30 – 7:00 mins/km for the first part of the race, which gave me a bit of wriggle room for the latter stages and would still bring me in just under the 13 hour cut-off. Hopefully. Now what I needed to do was not go tearing off at the start and burn myself out too early. Unfortunately as a large part of my race was predicated on sticking with people who knew the way I couldn’t really stick to my own pace, so I decided I’d rather be tired and knowing where I was/going than (slightly) fresher and completely lost. I made a concerted effort to stay with the main bunch, at least while still in London, which was a good call on my part as the route, even then, was quite convoluted. The pace was a lot brisker than I imagined, getting up to low 5 mins/km at points, but but it felt great (at that point anyway) so I just went with it.

I really enjoyed the running at that point, through the still dark streets of London with a couple of hundred lunatics. I always enjoy the early part of marathons, lots of people out running a route that they wouldn’t normally be able to and hours and hours of running ahead, and this was no different. I’m not normally a chatty person, and definitely not with people I don’t know, but part of the whole experience of running an ultra is meeting the other people taking part and sharing the peaks and troughs of the journey with them. I was going to be out on the course for approaching thirteen hours so I might as well get to know the people I’d be out there with, plus I was in a large part going to be dependent on the kindness of others so the least I could do was make with the chat.

For a couple of miles of the early going I was chatting with a guy named Paul, who was taking part in his first trail ultra, but who had run Comrades four times. Comrades is a race that’s definitely on my list to do so it was great getting to talk to someone who’d experienced it firsthand.

After only about five or six miles the entire group of about thirty or forty all came to a halt at a junction and we had our first navigational issue. After a quick conference the route was decided and off we went again. I was still following my “make like a sheep” policy so all I really had to concern myself with was finding lanes or alleyways for my all too frequent pit stops.

I was beginning to wonder if we’d ever get out of London but eventually we reached the very outskirts and though we hadn’t quite hit any trails yet we were definitely heading in that direction. Just before we did though we reached checkpoint 1 at about the 19km mark.

Rolling in to the first checkpoint I felt fantastic. We’d covered the first 18.5 km in under two hours and everything was going swimmingly. Much like the first half of a marathon, or the ones I’d done at least, the first stage felt almost effortless, just good running and enjoying the atmosphere. I’d brought my mp3 player with me and had it well stocked for the day but after a few minutes running at the start I made a decision not to use it. In a regular marathon it’s fine as the route is marked and everyone is doing their own thing but out here, with all the navigation required and the much smaller group taking part it felt like everyone was part of the same experience and for once I didn’t want to isolate myself from that.

Normally I’m not much of a one for striking up conversations with people but shortly after starting the race this morning I decided to make a concerted effort to chat with some of my fellow runners, and funnily enough every single person was not only extremely pleasant to talk to but we all had plenty in common and no end of things to talk about. Initially I’d been chatting to a guy called Paul who I found out had run Comrades ultra in South Africa four times. Comrades is one that’s definitely on my list to do so it was a great opportunity to talk to someone with that much experience of doing it. I chatted on and off with a few different people for the remainder of the first stage but found myself having to nip off a few times for covert wee’s. The chilly morning was playing havoc with my fully hydrated bladder.

My wife (Brid) was waiting for me at CP1 so I stopped for a quick chat, photo opportunity and some Jaffa cakes. I barely felt like eating or drinking at that stage so just arranged our next meeting point and was then off again.

 

We were properly out of London at this stage, and now set about some lovely rolling hills and farmland. Not long after starting the stage I fell into step with a chap called Dave who was to be my run buddy (and navigator) for the next ten miles or so. Dave was from Shoreham, near Brighton, like most of the guys I was talking to today doing his first trail ultra, and was training towards doing the Marathon des Sables (another one that’s on my list) next year. The terrain remained mostly open fields and some narrow patches but still easily runable for the most part. The weather too was fantastic which was a relief as England had endured some horrendous conditions for the week leading up to London to Brighton, leaving me looking in horror at the weather forecast and reports all week. We stuck together almost as far as checkpoint 2 where I lost Dave, having got a little bit lost myself just before the checkpoint, but picked up a new buddy in Paul (II).

Ah stage 2. It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Coming out of checkpoint 2 I linked up again with Paul II (from Leicester) who seemed to know where he was going and was moving along at roughly my pace. Stage 2 was mostly open countryside, farm land, fields, gently rolling hills, occasional short stretches on country roads, so it was one of the nicer stretches to run. We were still running and moving quite well for the most part which I’d hoped would be the case. We’d just gone past the 30km mark, which under most circumstances would make for quite a long run, but today that meant we were only 1/3 of the way there. The kilometres were ticking away and I was really enjoying the day, chatting away with Paul II (who again was a really sound chap) and just following his lead.

There was a larger bunch of about twenty guys who were all roughly in the same area, all roughly moving at the same pace, and we kept splintering into smaller groups of between two and five, each having one navigator leading the way and another one or more guys following. We kept on criss-crossing with each other, traversing fields and golf courses, circumventing little villages and towns, constantly bumping into each other from different angles but eventually heading in the same direction. The pace started to slow a little around the 40km mark and funnily enough that’s when I started to struggle. The constant stopping and starting made it impossible to get into any sort of a rhythm and I found it harder and harder to start running again each time.

We passed the marathon point (42.2km) at about the five hour mark, leaving us with just one and a bit more marathons to go. I tried to tell myself it was ‘just’ another marathon and a bit to go but already some negativity was starting to seep in. Because I wasn’t doing any navigation I was doing a fair amount of standing round feeling useless, giving me time to focus on all my little aches and pains. My left hip, which had been sore coming into the race, was really starting to hurt. My knees, my hamstrings and my feet were also aching. Worst though was my stomach, which flitted between achingly empty and fit to burst (well, moreso that something a little further along the digestive tract was going to burst). I was feeling more and more removed from our little group and getting further caught up in my own world of misery and was soon enough lagging behind. After ten or fifteen minutes solving our latest directional conundrum I made a very stupid decision to play the cannon fodder sidekick and insisted that Paul went on without me. It’s not like the group were moving really any quicker than I was, all I had to do was stick with them for another few kilometres and then pull myself together at the next checkpoint. By that point though I was fairly well immersed in the mire of my own misery and making excuses left and right.

I’d come to regret my decision almost immediately as I clambered over a fence and followed roughly in the direction the other guys had gone, travelled a couple of minutes down a narrow path through some trees before appearing at an actual, proper tarmacced road. My choice at this point in time was very clear, left or right, but seeing as I’d been moping round the field some time earlier while the rest of the group had been huddled round the map trying to make sense of it I wasn’t privy to their decision. I had quite literally no clue where to go, I didn’t even know what page of the map book we were on, and there was no one in sight. I did then what I always do, just pick a direction and start running, before stopping myself after a couple of minutes and slapping some sense into myself. This wasn’t like getting lost at home, or even up in Wicklow. I had no bloody idea where I was. Not a clue. Even if I stopped a passing car and asked them where ‘this’ was it would be of very little use to me, so I went back to where I had come out onto the road and tried to figure it out.

After a few minutes deliberation I figured out what I hoped would be my route. After a minute or two on the road (to the left) a gap in the hedge appeared and a small path, similar to ones we’d been running on already, headed in what I thought was the right direction. I trudged off down this path, barely looking where I was going as I was so caught up with feeling sorry for myself. I hurt, I ached, I hadn’t done enough training, I’d been sick with a stomach bug during the week, my feet, my legs, my back, my belly, ooh eeh ooh eeh fucking ooh. The excuse making was in full effect and as I crawled towards checkpoint three I decided I’d had enough. This was a stupid challenge to take on, it was too far, too hard  and what the hell did I think I was doing picking an ultra with navigation? Even with GPS I manage to go wrong on a regular basis, so what exactly did I think was going to happen when I was supposed to find my way through pre-GPS Ye Olde England with only a stupid book with some silly colours and squiggles in it?

I’d been paying serious heed to giving up at as the miles had racked up. The last 10km or so were very tough but the last two or three while I was on my own were horrible. My already low spirits were now as low as they’d ever been on any sort of expedition or endeavour, lower even than my most miserable Croagh Patrick moments and all I wanted to do was get Brid to come and pick me up and finish all this nonsense. When I finally got to the checkpoint there were some people who had pulled out sitting around, and I told the organisers present that I too was out. I then got my phone out to ring Brid and break the news to her. The sympathy I was looking for was not forthcoming though – why are you pulling out? Are you injured? No, then why? Don’t you dare stop. I’ll spare you any more details but essentially she told me to stop being a massive girl’s blouse and just carry on. I wasn’t really in the mood for a pep talk or any kind of discussion really so I just hung up and carried on feeling sorry for myself. There was no point in carrying on by myself as even if I could handle the physical side of things, how the hell was I supposed to find my way there with the whole map and navigation nonsense? I was stuck here and that’s all there was to it. Brid sent me a, what I’m sure was supposed to be, motivational Dean Karnazes related text but I barely even looked at it. I moped around, had a couple of biscuits and tried to figure out why exactly I wasn’t carrying on. She then sent me another text which I actually looked at this time. I’m sure this one was also meant to be motivational but all I saw was the spelling mistake in it (pucked rather than puked), which actually cheered me up far more than any of the so called motivational stuff did.

I managed a laugh, well a smile really, at Brid’s famously atrocious spelling and my mood and everything else seemed to pick up a little. I sat there a little while longer and finally asked myself the crucial question “What am I going to tell my boys?”. Was I supposed to tell them that I’d just given up as soon as it got hard? Is that what they’re supposed to do? “That’s it boys, just give it a shot but if it doesn’t work out, or at the first sign of things getting difficult, just give up”. I know they don’t really admit it, well my eldest son doesn’t anyway, but I know my boys are proud of me and what I’ve done since I dragged myself off the couch. I didn’t want them to have to listen to any of my bullshit excuses or see what a quitter I was.

Around about this time another group of guys came shuffling down the path, one or two of whom were dropping out but the rest were carrying on. The organisers had been talking about this bunch, who were just about scraping under the cut-off time, and decided that they were going to give them the opportunity to make the next checkpoint. The cut-off time was supposed to be 14:30, but they said as long as the bunch made it by 14:45 they’d be ok. I’d said (jokingly) before the race that I’d be on the lookout for guys with glasses and giving off a navigational air and one of the guys in the group, Chris, fit the description perfectly. Things got better and better than as not only did Chris have glasses, but he also had M&S mini sausage rolls, which were a blessed relief after nothing but sugar for the last six hours. To top it off then, as if the ultra Gods were finally smiling on me, when I asked Chris if he knew where he was going he replied that he’d actually recce’d some of the route. Hallelujah and praise be to whoever. I was back in the game.

It was now approaching 13:00, and we had to be at checkpoint 4 at 14:45, which gave us close to two hours to do 16km. A small group of four of us set off with renewed vigour, confident of reaching the next checkpoint in time. We managed to run for all of a couple of hundred metres before the maps had to come out and we ground to a halt. Chris and one of the other guys, Lee, lead the way with the navigation and the other chap in the group Andy and myself followed. It was slow going but at least we were confident at all times (well, most of the time anyway) that we were going the right way. After a while it dawned on us, or me at least, that we were going reeeeeeeeeaaaalllllly slowly, and we were in serious danger of making the next checkpoint. We’d been running, or moving at least, for half an hour or so and we were only about three quarters way down one page on the map book. With each page equating to about 4km that meant it had taken us roughly 30 minutes to do 3km. That meant we were on schedule to make it to the next checkpoint at about 15:30. I knew if we made it there at that point there was no way we’d be let continue as the organisers had said 14:45 would be the absolute latest anyone would be allowed carry on from CP4. Any later and there would be people wandering around the South Downs in the dark and that could be very sketchy indeed.

Lee must have made a similar calculation as he said to me it’s just taken us 22 minutes to do the first mile, that’s the end of me busting a gut to make the next CP. Although we didn’t expressly say it as a group I think we all realised that we were probably going to be finished at the next CP, so let’s just get through this thing. The remainder of the stage was horrendously slow, but possibly the most fun I had during the entire race. We picked up another two guys somewhere along the way, Scott and Steve, and we all stuck together, trudging our way through the English countryside. When the terrain allowed it we tried to break into a run but the constant changes, the navigation, the uncertainty was all very wearing and everyone was breaking down. If I had been on my own it would have been a truly horrendous experience but with the other guys there it was great. We hiked through fields, past farms, through forests, I fell into quite a lot of muck and thorns and nettles, I got to chat for ages with some really sound guys, it was fantastic. We were like a (slightly less photogenic) Band of Brothers. Sure my legs (in particular) were sore, and almost all of me ached in some way or another, but being in a group that just gave us something to laugh about. Andy and I were particularly amused by our attempts to run when we did get on to some flat ground – it took a good couple of minutes for our knees to bend sufficiently to shuffle along and when we did we looked like guys who didn’t make the cut for the Craggy Island All Priests Over 75’s Five a Side football team.

The one thing that seemed to be moving more slowly than our legs was the time. I kept on looking at my watch, feeling like an eternity had passed since the last time I checked only to find barely five minutes had passed. It felt at times like we were in a cabin in the woods, with a demon in the cellar and a big rapey tree outside and we were trying to hang on until the morning but the clock refused to go any faster, seconds crawling by like hours. 14:00 passed, then 14:30, 14:45, 15:00 and still we were nowhere near the checkpoint. I tried to stop looking at my watch, or even where we were on the map, and just shuffled/walked/ran when the rest of the guys did. The last few kilometres became a real battle of attrition but the thing that kept us all going was the group. As tough and all as it was the fact that there a few of us in it together, all in the same boat, made it all bearable. I’d remarked on it a few times during the day but I really do think, unsurprisingly enough giving our proximity and all that we have in common, that the English and Irish are far more similar than we (the Irish anyway) like to let on. I know it’s the default setting for a lot of us anyway but almost the entire group, despite a determination to carry on and finish, employed fantastically self-deprecating, very black, gallows style humour to survive the final stage and rise above the misery of it. We were physically in tatters and moving glacially slow yet having a great laugh doing it.

Eventually we reached the page on the map with CP4, though it still took us the guts of an hour to reach it. It almost felt at that stage that we’d never reach the checkpoint when all of a sudden our little forested world opened up like we were the Narnia kids and spat us back into the real world. There was a road, cars, buildings and a little figure in red and black sitting outside a pub straight across the road from us. Was this it? Were we finished? I trotted across the road and stopped briefly to chat with Brid before remembering there was a checkpoint to hit. I asked her where it was and she pointed round the back to the car park, where I found the other guys already waiting. When I got round there to be told by a smiling Lee that we were done I was absolutely delighted. I’d done enough by this stage. I’d accepted the fact long ago that we wouldn’t be carrying on after CP4, in fact I was banking on it, but it was a full stage after where I thought I was done. I didn’t mind being pulled from the race by the organisers, I’d done as much as I could and I hadn’t quit (well, I had but I carried on so I didn’t really if you know what I mean). It was possible a little anticlimactic but I was just so relieved to be finished that I didn’t care.

We hung around for a little longer, chatting with the guys before hitting the road back to Brighton. We gave Chris and his girlfriend Theresa a lift back to Brighton, as well as Andy. Along the way we saw some of the competitors in the race making their way across the South Downs, still running strong eleven hours into the race. I have a huge amount of respect for everyone that took part in that race though, not just the finishers. It was far, far harder than I’d thought it was going to be, but at least I wasn’t alone in that.  Lee had done the Marathon des Sables and a couple of 24 hour races, Chris the Thames 50 miler and Andy numerous thirty plus mile training runs around the South Downs, and yet everyone was destroyed physically. I had been a little disappointed in how much the race was beating me up and breaking me down but when I heard the races the other guys had done, and yet they were all in exactly the same boat as me, I felt considerably better.  I learned a huge amount about myself doing this race, learned that what I’m capable of is far, far greater than what I think I’m capable of. I hopefully learned how to overcome dark moments and how to motivate myself to carry on (maybe in the future without the motivation/nagging of my better half) and I also learned that I’m a far more outgoing and gregarious person than I perhaps allow myself to be. I learned about the kindness and openness of other people, about how different, yet how much in common, people who undertake this sort of endeavour have. Most of all though I learned three very important things:

1.       You cannot wing an ultra marathon.

2.       You really, really cannot wing an off road ultra marathon.

3.       You absolutely, positively, definitely cannot wing an off road ultra marathon that requires you to navigate every step of the way.

 

Total: 66.17km in 10:17

 

Brid Forgot to Take a Picture of Any Runners at the End, But Here’s a Pub and Some Weird Ornament/Statue Thing

 

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