So it was the morning of my first ultra marathon, the RTTS 2016. Having jumped out of bed at 5.30am and banged my head on the ridiculously low ceiling I was wide-awake. I had trained hard for this event (I hadn’t, I had runners knee and hadn’t trained at all) but I was fully fit (remember my knee? I was going to wrap it up like a mummy’s leg, I was the half Egyptian Mo Farah) and I had cut my toenails (OK that one I had done), I couldn’t be any more ready for this.
When we arrived at the venue the weather was a bit nippy with light drizzle, our favourite running weather. My sister made several uses of the very few portaloos and after a bit of bants at the start line they finally let us get this show on the road. At pretty darn close to 8am we set off at a very modest pace which I think was perfect for us as I do tend to start most races like its a 5k regardless of the real distance. I have a very handy ability to completely ignore stressful situations and in my head this really was just another half marathon. After a few miles of jogging along nicely we came to the first of the massive hills, which for some reason we were queuing for…we later realised it was for a double kissing gate. Lots of people were moaning about the hold up but for an 18 hour run it really wasn’t a problem, it gave us a brief rest in the heat (it had warmed up dramatically by now) and gave me a chance to speak to a more experienced lady runner who (pleasantly) pointed out that there were many, many hills like this throughout the course. I didn’t think it was going to be flat for a second but never in a million years expected what was to lie ahead of us.
After the kissing gates we set into a really nice pace, not too fast but not too slow and before we knew it we were at the first aid station. We couldn’t believe how busy it was, so it was a slow water top up, a quick bit of extra tape on the back of my knee (which was being rubbed raw by the strapping) and we grabbed a weird energy bar which was way too dry to force down, this was a spanner in our nutrition plan but the Tailwind was doing a great job so off to the next aid station.
The following 6 miles or so were the best part of the whole race, some amazing single track which made me feel like we were in a real race, really covering the miles and having great fun doing it, this was what I signed up for. Before I knew it we were at the 2nd aid station, little was I to know that this would be the last really enjoyable part of the whole race. The queue for the food was massive so we went straight to the smaller water queue, topped up the water with some tailwind and snuck into the food queue near the front (sorry people) grabbed a sausage roll and a finger of fudge…both went down pretty easy and we walked for a bit to make sure it stayed down.
The next leg seemed to be during the hottest part of the day and my lack of fitness was really telling, the dryness created a tickle in my throat and while trying to clear it I brought back a bit of the sausage roll. My sister seemed to have energy left so I felt bad making her walk but between the heat and the sickness I was really struggling. I went quiet and my poor sister was left trying to pull me out of my bad mood which was an unusual turn of roles, but one that would last the rest of the race.
I started stressing about the heat, did I need to top up my sun cream (being a ginge is a terrible curse) my fitness….the fact that I was using my bags water bottle for the first time was annoying me (listen when people say don’t try out new things on race day…especially when your race really is for a whole day) and a pop stud had ripped off the bottle holder and was now starting to rub below my ribs. Even the majestic cornfields from all the race bumpf couldn’t lift my mood.
The third aid station came out of the blue and at a fantastic time. The runners were taking up the offer of flat coke like it was from the fountain of youth, myself included…2 cups of coke and half an orange followed by my first sit down of the race, my knee had held out a good 10 miles more than I thought it would but the knee support and the tape was starting to leave big blisters on the back of my leg so the knee support and some of the tape had to come off. Every extra mile running on this knee was now a bonus. I didn’t have to worry, we came out of aid station 3 full of beans but the 4 miles up a mountain meant no running and even less energy. The next 2 sections and aid stations were pretty much a blur of misery and slow jogging/walking. At some point I managed to finish my first ever marathon in possibly the slowest time ever…I vaguely remember half heartedly high fiving my sister but the achievement was completely lost due to the fact that I still had to run another one…and then some. By the time we walked into the half way base camp my legs hurt, my feet were killing me and thoughts of quitting were playing in my mind, my sister needed a wee and I found a shower cubical I could change my leggings and socks, another note, I love my Injinji socks but trying to swap them for another pair after 30 miles is just way too much effort. It was then I realised the state my feet and legs were in….covering my legs with long leggings did a trick of covering my woes for now. My sister did a great job of looking after me making sure I had some pasta and an orange juice, which I barely had enough energy to force down. A quick phone call to the kids and Mrs gave me the confidence to keep going…mostly it was the shock of my Mrs being supportive about something but my 3 year old daughter made me laugh by pointing out “if its hurting you should stop daddy” she’s right why were we doing this? But bizarrely it made me want to finish it more.
My sister had been a rock the first half of the race so I made a conscious effort to lighten up. We ran and we chatted, we chatted and we ran and although the second half of the course was pretty ugly, horrible compared to the first half (lots of chalk and very narrow track) the miles actually started to fly by again, we couldn’t believe how much we were still running and that my knee had held up (I promised if I finished the race I’d buy my physio a crate of beer). Every time I felt like walking or like it was getting on top of me I remembered the phone call to my family “you can do it dad…you got this” said my son….I did…I had this. We did a few time checks as we had a 2am shuttle to catch at the end of the race and if we missed that it was a 5 hour wait for the next one…provided they had room for us on the next one. It was around this point that the battery died on my TomTom watch. It had lasted much longer than expected and we had my sisters 10 million pound watch as back up…the battery on her watch lasted years and she was able to charge it on the go. But most importantly we had time….JUST.
Unfortunately there were more hills (up) followed by more hills (up). We had plenty of swings but not many roundabouts…the roller coaster ride was all ups and the only downs were emotionally. The few actual downs there was were horrible, narrow hard and very stony, you really had to watch your footing. My sister had kicked a pretty large stone which your toes do not need after 40 odd miles, speaking of which we hit the 7th aid station, the staff were great, trying to keep morale up, I even tried some salt blackcurrant shots…then had a straight blackcurrant to wash the last salted one down with. My sister even managed to force down some Mini Cheddars which was funny as we’d both been lugging them in our backpack as comfort food for 40 miles only to not need them as they were provided (note for next time). In hindsight I should have asked the medic to check my feet here, I was in a lot of pain but we had the 2am shuttle to catch and time seemed of the essence so out we jogged.
Again people were surprised as we raced out of the aid station, running the few downs and as many flats as possible. We (my sister) worked out the maths and at 16-minute miles we had ample time and we truly believed we had this in the bag, then disaster. I felt great pain in my left foot, stepping on it felt like I was walking on pins, running was even worse. I tried to hobble on but every step was agony, so the shoe came off and I had to deal with my blisters, well the ones I could get to without taking my Injinji socks off my toes. The main one looked about two inches long along the inside of my heal on top of a blister that I already had. I knew I had one on the other foot but it wasn’t so bad and I only had one blister blaster so I dealt with the worse one hacking at it with some scissors until I broke the skin, stuck the blister plaster on top and covered it with more tape. I got up and hobbled on promising that I’d see the medic at the next aid station….so how far is that “about 8 miles” (turns out it was about 10 but felt more like 20 odd).
Running was really painful, walking wasn’t any better and just prolonged the pain. The next 5 miles I must have been subconsciously walking/jogging strangely to minimise the foot pain but unfortunately this just aggravated almost every part of my legs…the hips went, my calf, ankles and my good knee (bizarrely my bad knee was still going strong). I was really struggling with forward motion and energy wise I had nothing left in the tank. I couldn’t work out how I was going to do this for another 6 hours. I kept thinking about the 2am shuttle and asking my sister to recalculate our timings, she insisted we had time but I started to become obsessed by it. If I dropped would I give her a better chance of making the shuttle, I’m holding her up but how would I break it to my family that I failed.
This section was probably the worst section yet, a lot of running by or on main roads, very slightly up hill, very slow and very draining. We met a lot of friendly runners, making jokes as we took turns passing each other, some remarked on my hobbling and asked if I was ok, I tried to sound upbeat as it’s not fair to bring everybody down…just my twin. We both agreed that this was not fun, it was very traumatic and we had no idea why anybody would do more than one of these….we agreed it was one and done, never again. Think of your favourite thing to do…now would you want to do that non stop for 16-18 hours?
It seemed to take forever to get to aid station 8 and with every corner turned and no aid station my mood sank deeper. I’m not going to lie, I started to become a bit emotional, not sure if it was tiredness or the thought of not finishing but it was all getting on top of me. I knew in my heart that I had to drop out but felt I was letting my sister down and most importantly letting my kids down. It was only a half marathon left, which on a good day would take just under 2 hours, this was not a good day and at this pace would be another 6 at least. I was not having fun, every step was such hard work and filled with pain, I didn’t even have the energy to wrestle the water bottle out of my bag so hydration would be a problem soon. I finally built up the courage or despair to blurt out that I was quitting at the next aid station, my sister argued with me but I think she knew it had to happen.
We finally made it into the 8th aid station and my sister found me a chair to sit on and arranged for one of the race volunteers to come and take my details and arrange a lift to the finishing line so I could watch my sister bring it on home. It was starting to get dark now so I made my sister promise me that she wouldn’t run alone and that she would find a nice group to run with. I kept pointing to nice groups leaving the aid station but she was being surprisingly sensible and trying to get some soup down her…unsuccessfully I might add. So I finally gave her a hug and told her how proud I was of her (which is kind of a big deal in our family as we NEVER hug or say nice things) double checking I was ok and then off she went latching on to a group of amazingly nice people, unknown at the time but having met them after I couldn’t have wished for a nicer group to look after her.
I sat in this deck chair and finally built up the courage to text my family, my Mrs called back immediately telling me I mustn’t quit and that I should take a moment and re-evaluate the situation…too late. She told my son and he called me to tell me how proud he was of me and I felt a million times better, I was now shaking uncontrollably but wasn’t actually cold, in fact I was sweating, last time this happened was when I spent 5 hours in the tattooist chair so I wasn’t overly concerned. I knew my body had had enough, the miles had taken their toll and dropping was 100% the right decision. By this time another young chap had quit and was waiting with me for a lift back, he looked fine but was complaining of dizziness. He was moving about grabbing food and cups of coffee and I wondered to myself if he would regret his decision in the morning, I mean I couldn’t physically move, it took me nearly 10 minutes to walk 8 paces to grab a cup of coffee which I then spilt all down myself due to the shaking.
It was as I sat back down that a really tall guy behind me collapsed face first into the floor, I think this confirmed that the younger dizzy guy had made the right decision. This also meant that my ride back to the finish line was now hijacked to get this guy to hospital but it was totally understandable. I won’t linger on aid station 8 too long but the 4 and a half hours there waiting for a lift home was a little trying. I genuinely began to feel very ill and when the mini bus finally came to pick up the (now) team of about 8 freezing droppees, all I could think about is meeting my sister and getting back to a bed I could lay down in. The only stressful note left to mention was the 45 minutes left to meet our shuttle…but it wouldn’t take that long to drive 13 miles would it…would it??? After 20 minutes the driver stopped to pull out a sheet of paper to find the postcode to put into his sat nav, oh dear he was lost. My concerns about running and missing the shuttle, then quitting and still missing the shuttle was devastating.
At about 5 to 2 we pulled into the car park and I hobbled around trying to find the finish line. Just as I finally worked out where it was I looked up to see my twin, not only had she just this second finished her first ultra (in the nick of time) but had managed to pick up our bags and work out where we had to meet the shuttle, which happened to be where we were standing. I was so proud of her I gave her another hug, although she had broken her promise and left her new friends to sprint the last two miles to meet the shuttle on time. Just then her group had come over the line so I thanked them for looking after her.
Now where was that shuttle, oh terribly sorry but the driver thought it was 2 pm tomorrow not 2 am now…..he’s on his way but will be about an hour, so we all headed into a barn which looked like a scene from the dawn of the dead, us only adding to that appearance. We laid on padded mats with blankets over us and shivered for 2 hours until the shuttle finally arrived. My sister didn’t even have the energy to take her rucksack off which prevented her lying in a comfortable position if that even existed after running 64 miles. The shuttle finally showed up and we all got a free £10 RTTS cap for the inconvenience. I wont lie I love a free running thing and have actually warn the cap since, its quite nice.
So after a few hours sleep and fair trip home I got to see my family, the Mrs had given up on being supportive and mocked me for being a quitter but the kids were very good about the whole situation. We both agreed it was way too traumatic and painful and never to be done again. My sister contacted RTTS and they very nicely sent me a medal confirming that 50 miles is still an ultra and I did well and had earned the medal. I’m still not convinced I did. Unfortunately the medal turned up a few days too late for my son to take it into school for show and tell.
In the days following I couldn’t stop wondering if I quit too easily, as much as my sister insisted it was absolutely the correct decision time has a way of minimising the pain, its why I keep going back for tattoos. But I do feel like I have a bit of unfinished business with this race.
A few more days later I received an email from RTTS, register now for advanced info on next years race? … no thanks, never doing that again … well erm … “Hey sis fancy going back next year and smashing it?” F**K YEAH.