PART i: TRAINING
I ran because I could, because the sun was shining, because adrenaline was pumping through my body and I had something to prove…that I could race if I really wanted to.
PART I: TRAINING
I looked back over my shoulder. I could see a white bibbed figure in the distance behind. They looked strong. Damn. My head turned back to the rocky descent as I tried to get my legs to move quicker. The soles of my feet were burning and I stumbled on, quicker than before, but still slow. The sun glared down and I felt uncomfortable in the heat. I couldn’t put off taking my layers off any longer now the sun was high above me… Deflated and defeated I knew as soon as I stopped she would catch me. I had such a sense of Déjà vu. So strong, as if I had been through this exact chain of events before, even to the words Marcus would text; maybe I had been over this scenario in my recce on this part of the route, or maybe it was the sleep deprivation. I prepared for it and slowed to text Marcus “I’m going to have to stop and take layers off. I’m not racing for another 26 miles. It’s too stressful for me. If she comes past so be it.” I dropped my pack and prepared to take off the three warm layers that had kept the cold out for the morning. I heard footsteps and looked up… to see a man running towards me! What? I thought it was 3rd female coming to catch me? Relief washed over me, and I said to him that I had assumed it was 3rd catching me up. He looked surprised and told me she was much further back. He ran on, and I followed, going as fast as I could down the descent in Glaisdale. I cursed myself for that text though, and again tried to ask myself why I’m always so easy to give up in my running, in my racing, to always take the easy option… As I got into a rhythm after the rougher path it suddenly felt like I was moving quickly. Marcus was out running now so I knew I couldn’t rely on him to let me know about the gap between me and 3rd… I headed to the bottom of Glaisdale and started the climb out the woods, I checked the trackers for the first time all race on my phone, she was at the top of Glaisdale, I’d managed to get a bit more of a gap between us, and I pressed on.
The next few miles were bliss, I forgot the blisters and the ankle pain, and just ran. Ran because I could, because the sun was shining, because adrenaline was pumping through my body and I had something to prove, to prove to myself and Marcus that I didn’t always give up, that I could race if I really wanted to… I sent him another text “You better set off soon, I’m flying!” And for that moment I really felt like I was. Fast forward another 5 miles and my body had run out of adrenaline and the little boost of ten starburst sweets which was all I had eaten on the last 20 miles; the final ten miles of the race after that seemed a battle of different kind, against my body that was slowly shutting down. As if it had done enough to get me to so close to the end in 2nd, and then given up. I fed it nuts, Cliff Bars, whatever I could reach in the pack. I had replayed the moment I could meet Marcus in my head for the last 3 days of running, but by the time it happened I was so tired of battling against a body that just wanted to walk, that I felt a bit numb. I had seen the sea, I knew I could finish, and I just wanted to get to the finish line without losing too many places to the men behind me. I pushed and held on to my top ten finish, managing a jog down the steep road to the finish. Again, I had gone over this moment in my head so many times, would it be dark? Would I cry? Would the people in the pub be cheering? But although I noticed it was light, and the tide was in, and how amazing it was that James would greet every runner to the finish… it didn’t quite feel the exalted moment I had imagined. I was happy, I was definitely happy, and I had just run across the country…
Race Kit – complete with trademark jazzy shirts!
The ‘Northern Traverse’ was a race that divided me. On one hand I entered with the full belief I would finish. But conversely, if I thought more deeply about it I would have so much doubt that I could do it that it seemed impossible. I had heard about it years ago, and having walked the Coast to Coast in 2010, I had said to Marcus I wanted to do it, maybe not realising what effort would be involved in running 190 miles. ‘It’s non-stop and you would need to cover 50 miles a day’, he replied. This is about the closest he gets to ‘you’ve no chance’, at least I think that was what he was saying. But the seed was planted and like most ultrarunners it’s never going to go away until it’s been entered, so that’s what I did, when entries opened in 2017. The biggest risk at the time seemed financial, as I knew it was a large amount to pay for one race, and would likely be my only ‘holiday’ of the year. I kept telling myself and others around me how fun it would be, even believing it myself at times. Some others did fall for it and entered on my encouragement. And then it was really put to the back of my mind. I was lucky to get a place on Spine Challenger in January and threw myself into the training and recces for that from August 2017, training consistently for the first time in my life. It went well and was perfect training in the sense I knew I could go through one night without any tiredness, and could at least get to 113 miles. After that race my focus was on the High Peak Marathon, which in the end got called off due to the snow. And then it was March and I only had a couple of months before the race. I hadn’t planned to recce the whole route, but I know it makes it so much easier the more you can switch your head off navigation, and also helps me stay calm if I can visualise what is coming up. Having realised I didn’t remember huge swathes of the route from my walk, I broke it into three sections and decided to recce for 3 or 4 days at time. The first came in the Lakes and I had a fun 3 days with my friend Martin as we nearly missed trains, had the drama of him being reported missing to the police, and scampered across the Lakes with memorable stays in Black Sail and Patterdale Youth Hostel. It seemed tough, but I could break that section down into 4 climbs and then I would be at Haweswater with most of the ascent behind me. The next recce was from Richmond to the finish and I was so lucky to have Marcus to give me lifts. I nearly cancelled this break on the Friday morning as work seemed overwhelming with deadlines being missed or pushed to the limit. I tried to focus on anything but work on the runs, and it was this section, maybe because I was on my own, that made me think back to the walk.
Race Fuel – Ultra running does allow for some pretty spectacular indulgences for a vegan!
I had walked it with my Mum in 2010 and this had come about as, in my memory, on the day my Dad died she said she wanted to walk it. They had bought the route guide just after completing the Pennine Way in 1974 but never got round do doing it together. We planned it for the next year and by the time the walk came around my brother has also died. The walk for me is of happy memories, but returning back it was poignant. Much more than I expected. It felt like memories of my Dad and Brother, and my thoughts of our future without them had somehow been left along the path, stored in the rocks and landscape. All the things I didn’t say to my Mum on that walk, or to anyone, being released as I ran back. It felt emotional to reach the sea at Robin Hoods Bay on the recce, maybe more so than in the race. As if I’d returned to show the version of myself walking back then that it’s alright, that the light came back. That I was strong. The Yorkshire Dales section felt the same, that sense of returning, although again, it was nearly cancelled due to my work. After that recce I knew my work had to be in more order, or the race and recovery would be so much more difficult. So I invested time into getting help with my workload, and cleared the backlog in time for the race.
Despite the recces being done and organised, my race prep was far from it. Kit was thrown into bags last minute, with 2 drop bags between the 4 checkpoints. We arrived at the hotel in St Bees after a long journey, and I wasn’t in the mood to socialise. I went to the room and started sorting out my kit, what would be in the pack and bags. The weather looked good, though not too warm, so I decided to start in my ¾ Montane Trail Series tights. It turned out to be warmer that forecast, but with a wet first night and cold other nights they were perfect for keeping on the whole race. The resulting tan lines are less than perfect but are a small price to pay! I started with a Featherlite windproof jacket on, but that was too hot after the section by the sea and removed before Cleator. After Marcus came back from his run the night before, we had the unglamorous scene of reheating our meal of veg and pasta on a tiny stove in the hotel room… the easiest way we knew we would have a vegan meal that night. Then more packing. A surprisingly decent amount of sleep followed. The next morning was a vegan sausage sandwich for breakfast in the room, and then registration. I really didn’t feel too nervous at the point, and it was nice to see friends and acquaintances in the hall and at the start.