Well, you can unwind this one too far to 'why run at all?'. But that's a bit deep for a Wednesday morning. I'd done two marathons in a nice focussed way, and I'd done another two in a 'I'm just going to enjoy this and walk bits and run bits and it's sunny' kind of a way, and I'd ended up with a 3.52 PB, so, while I'm sure I will pick up more marathons if they're in pretty places or with nice people, they weren't that scary any more. I could push myself with Crazy Training, and pick very flat tarmac races, and the 3.52 might, if I had a really kick ass day, become a 3.49, but that's not actually a challenge that my brain goes 'that's cool' or wants to throw hours of my life at.
Of course, the real reason why was because I bumped into Alex again at Parkrun, and he said he was doing it, and that I could tag along. This made all the logistics so easy - he did all the driving, found the B&B, knew where the start of the race was, lent me kit, etc etc. He was also a real help on race day, and excellent company for dinner and driving. So my advice is run ultra marathons, when nice people you like are running them and they can do most of the hard work.
Yeah, this is my first ever Did Not Finish in a race. 44 miles out of 50 miles.
[Also, when I did my two S'rious Marathons for S'rious People I ran the whole thing. This was much more of a run a bit, walk a bit, stop to eat and clip the checkpoints kind of a thing.]
What went wrong?
So, the race was four loops. The simple version is that I got round three loops, went back out again for loop four, got about a third of the way round it, and then wussed out and phoned up Alex to come and pick me up.
I've spent a lot of time overanalysing why, or at least things I could have done differently...
I _think_ I could have done it. I had 3 hours to do 6 miles, and I had a phone app that had a 1:25,000 OS map, and a little red triangle that was me, even if I'd reduced the navigation to 'take 10 steps, see if phone triangle has moved in right direction' I'd have probably got there in the end.
The main barrier was that it got dark. I _thought_, in that smug way that you do when you're naïve, that I'd practised running in the dark, by running 3 miles home from dancing across Cambridge. It turns out running three miles on tarmac with streetlights when the thing you're aiming for is your own house is a bit different to ten miles on footpaths / trackless fields and hills in the unlit middle of nowhere, where the things you're aiming for are small pieces of orange plastic hanging in trees. The training run had entirely lacked Lurking Sheep with Glowing Death Eyes too, or directions like 'Head down wide track (you may have to unclip/re-clip electric fence as you go)' and 'The CP is right on the top of this rocky summit'.
So dark was a problem because navigation was harder. I think I can solve this by doing some night running in a more carefully training way - maybe some places I know round Cambridge, maybe some hills where I've done them before in the daylight, maybe all of this when I haven't just gone 44 miles already.
Dark was also a problem because it stopped being fun. It was the prettiest course! There were hills and blue skies, and it was warm and sunny and the most wonderful time of year, with bluebells and ransom and it was so good to be alive. Night came, and suddenly the world was reduced to a tiny bland pocket of headtorch light, and it was freezing cold. A huge percentage of the things it's worth running for, it turns out, are things that you enjoy seeing, and when you can't see them that's a big motivational slump. I'm not sure what I'm concluding from this. Half of me has found a thing I'm scared of, and wants to go and debug it and fix it and learn how to do it, so me and my OS map can cross the pennines at night by headtorch, and I have Conquered the Terrors of the Night, half of me thinks that deciding you like running pretty places in the daylight where you can see stuff is Entirely Rational, and putting lots of time and effort into going to pretty places at exactly the time you can't see them is just Pointless. Still thinking about this. I _think_ the answer might be that come winter there'll be a lot of dark, so I can try more night running without wasting long summers days.
[I'm a little confused on headtorches. P, who to be fair is a bit old school and hardcore, but in ways I really approve of, thinks that you should just run wild by the light of the moon, and let your night vision sort itself out until you are one with the stars and the wildlife of the night. This is an attractively romantic notion, and being able to see more than a tiny focussed spot is in many ways less scary. However, it also sounds a bit crazy and like it might not actually work. I guess suck it and see, and always _carry_ the headtorch.]
My gear wasn't great either. No, that's unfair, my gear was great, but when I'd come in at the end of the third loop I should have known it was going to be freezing (they'd told us, and my phone has a weather app), and I should have known I was mostly going to be walking (because I'd mostly been walking the previous 12 miles), and I should have made decisions to upgrade from shorts and thin fleece and wafer thin waterproof to Leggings and Thick Fleece and Mountain Waterproof. Or at least a smidge more than I took. I'd have been fine if I was still running, but let's face it, in the dark, after 44 miles, a bit broken, heading towards 'watch out for electric fences', I was managing more of a lurch than a brisk jog. Oddly, the main thing that went wrong with my gear was my gloves. I was so scared of being lost in the dark on the hills that I used my phone a lot for micronavigation (which is a bit pathetic, but being lost 10 miles off course nowhere near any roads with no idea where you are after the cut off would be more pathetic) and my gloves don't have touch screen. So I would get a bit panicky I was lost and want to check my phone, and every time this happened I had to take my glove off and my hands would get miserably cold and I'd sink a bit further away from Happy Perky Coping Sally. This must be fixable with some sort of stylus or just a magic sticker you put on the fingers of your gloves?
Also, I got hilarious (with hindsight) gear brain weevils. I'd go 'I'm alright, I've got a headtorch', and then my brain would go 'but what happens if the headtorch fails' and I'd think 'I have spare batteries', and then my over imaginative brain would go 'but how will you change the batteries, you won't have a head torch to see by (and by the way your fingers are frozen)' and I'd go 'aha, but I have a Spare Headtorch!' and then I'd imagine being in the dark, rummaging in a bag for a spare headtorch, not quite sure where it was, and not being immediately sure how to turn it on, and... I definitely could have made it through all of this, it just wouldn't have been much Fun. The brain weevils of the Dark after 44 miles are strange beasts. It was scary, and I wanted to cry. Lots of tricks and checks and balances and saying 'well, just do this thing next'. Also, the grass went really weird, and like it was a 3D film of grass.
I was also a bit Broken. Some of this was just 44 miles, some of it was my complete lack of hill training (it's _hard_ to do hill training in Cambridge! But that's no excuse), some of it was that I'd been much Too Keen for the first two loops, wanting to keep up with Alun because Alun is Cool and Good company. He was being very nice and going very steady, but I think in hindsight until I know I can finish these things in one piece, I am going to do some forced walking breaks for recovery well before I hit the 'oh god, it hurts' point, possibly half a mile every five miles. I mean, I got that with the hills, but they weren't exactly recovery time. I have always been much better than average at downhill, but there was a _lot_ of downhill, and I was under trained, and I'd felt so perky, on such a sunny day, that I'd run down the hills in the first loop with wild abandon, and, err, that was a Mistake. There was pain. There was lurching. I'd expected the uphills to be grim, but when the not-that-steep tarmac'd roads downhill were Huge Pain, that was unexpected.
My brain weevils also managed to persuade me that I was Unbelievably Slow, and everyone else on the whole course had Finished, and they were all sitting at base waiting for me, half bored out of their minds, and half disparagingly mocking how anyone could be so slow, and that it was basically Rude and Impolite for me to still be out on this race making everyone wait up until 1, particularly Alex, who had just run 50 miles and come second, and really deserved a bath and bed because he was Awesome. Looking at the results after, it was less true than I thought it was that I was the Sole Survivor (although I would definitely be one of the last few, Alex says there were a fair few who went out after me). So I guess if I do it again a) check the finish times from last year, and b) if you finish inside the cut off time, you're not imposing on people by finishing the race. Stupid brain weevils.
One way to solve the dark would have been to run the first three loops faster. I did walk pretty much all of the third. This was in many ways a great decision - all the pain stopped, and I had excellent company - but I think if I'd hit sunset on the last hill rather than the penultimate hill it would have made a big difference. So just squeezing the time down a bit would really help. (Or, of course, the race organisers could have their start at 7, not 9. There was so much daylight between 4 and 9! Why, why, make us run in the dark? Because That's More Apocalypse?)
I think also, embarrassingly, one of the reasons I bailed was because it was easy to bail. Everyone who did more than a marathon got the medal. Alex was sitting there, with a mobile phone and a car, just waiting for me. Would I have gone through 3 hours of petrifying freezing night doom for a bit of metal with four horses on it? Maybe? But if you know you're going to get the bit of metal anyway, and it's even going to have the same colour ribbon... I never thought I was Stuff motivated, but it turns out removal of Stuff motivation doesn't help. Also, Alun had done two loops and stopped, Heather had done three and stopped, the gentle falling away of my companions seemed to leave me with less to prove...
Another, better, reason for bailing was that I am looking forward to summer so much, and wanted to avoid breaking myself for the whole season. My hip had been a bit twingy before the race (ever since my one attempt at hill training), and it is easy in the night terrors to go 'this hurts! If I push it it shall Hurt Forever, and I shall Never Run Again!' Also, having watched M with his broken foot, and being in, not huge, but really actually hills, which could have held their own in the peak district, the 'don't get caught out on the hills after dark' mantra, with its attached fears of twisted ankles, broken legs, falling down cliffs, all preyed on my brain.
One factor was that it was a lollipop-loop (ie a bit out, a loop, and then back in on the bit out) and the stalk of the lollipop had not been huge fun going out. Some of it just 'this is dull lurching down a road', but little teasers like 'that person running back is completely lost and is on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence and is going to have to make a big diversion to fix this' and 'this cow is evil and is standing by the style and won't move and has no interest in moving and shows no fear of me' and 'this checkpoint is off the main path in a tree and I only just found it in daylight', and 'this footpath is indistinct and very uneven' didn't make me desperate to come back. I have too good an imagination for quite how grim trying to do it all in the dark could have been. Chalk this failure up to 'fear of death cows.'
So there we go. I am a quitty quitter. But I have gone further and faster in a single day than ever before. And they do the same race (well, a similar, if not identical course) every year...
Ways to fix it for next time - start steadier. Go more carefully down hills. Try and get round quicker by running more of the third loop. Take better gear for when it's cold. Take a friend in the dark, if possible. Try and save a loop you've done before for in the dark. Practise running in the dark beforehand.
So, if you've finally got your apologetia for not finishing out the way, was it good?
It was awesome! A lot of that was probably the weather, but it was glorious countryside, with lovely people, the route was interesting and varied, the maps and directions were clear, and it was the most perfect time of year, with bluebells and ransom, and everything green and blue.
I actually liked the cheesy gimmick. It was a four loop race, and every loop was named after one of the horsemen of the apocalypse (war, death, famine, and
The first loop (Famine) was just bliss. There were lots of people around, people running it backwards who you could smile at, and I spent most of it chatting to Alun. It started in a ridiculously extravagant blue bell wood, it had a lovely valley by a stream, there was a steep climb up a slope covered in ransoms, with the whole air full of the smell of garlic, and then a glorious, slightly downhill ridge run, with tall trees with the sun in them, and views across the world that went on and on and on. There was a big field, where my navigation was not as good as it could have been, but Alun's was. And then finally there was Ragleth Hill, which was a Proper Hill, steep and covered in short sandy coloured grass, and when you were on it you were on top of the world, and got to clip your passport and feel so alive, looking at Church Stretton nestled below you, all the places you'd run already and all the ones you still had to go, and then running along the ridge and down through the bluebells once more.
War was tougher, as I was tireder by then, but full of lots of joys. There was a Duck Race, I got lost (got lost _while_ two other people were telling me I was going the wrong way, which was particularly special, Sally, you have to be so convinced you're right, don't you), but in my defence the instructions had been very unclear ;-) Anyway, having bought the map and put it on my phone saved the day. There was plodding up a track up a valley, and then wandering over the top of the hill, followed by a glorious long tarmac run down, trying to keep up with Alun and Heather (this was probably my downfall. I don't remember it hurting before this, and it definitely hurt after this). And then more hills, and more views, and finally a long track that went on and on and was really rather dull, but up high with the world spread out, a patchwork of fields across to the Wrekin. The final road run in was definitely deteriorating into Pain and Lurch and Shamble.
Alun decided that two loops was the right number of loops, and Heather was dithering, but it was the most beautiful summer's evening, there were hours till sundown, and I pointed out that even if we just walked it we'd be back by dark. So we set off, and walked it, chatting away about everything from gear to skiing holidays to what we did for a living. Everything was green and sunny, the world was full of views of hills we'd already run up, the navigation was interesting enough to be interesting, but not Doom. Heather had put the route on her watch, so I got all the fun of proper navigation and reading the map, but then when I got it wrong her watch would go Beep and we'd correct (didn't happen that often!). The start was a navigationally interesting wander through woods and up a hill, following little snippets of tape on sticks, and then once again you were on top of the world, on a high road over the top past a trig point. A steep track down, and then a lazy sleepy farm track, flat along the bottom of the hill, that went on for miles, before the Death Climb back up the hill, which turned out to be much nicer than my brain had hyped it up to be. Forest tracks and oh, a steep and painful downhill, and then a never ending walk in on roads.
Alex was awesome when I got back. With hindsight, I should probably have made a bit of time and space to do my own checks, I got very swept up in things, and did not top up my endless supply of haribo or my water bottle, and didn't drink The Bottle of Lucozade I Was Going To Drink. Not that I needed it with the energy gel, just something about race superstition and being on your own watch. But oh, he was awesome! I really didn't know if I was going to go back out or not, but he took it forgranted I was going to, cheered me up, gave me an Inspiring Gel Plan ('drink this one here, this one at this checkpoint, this one at this checkpoint') some salt tablets, which were excellent placebos if nothing else, and a huge pile of energy and confidence. I wish I'd finished just because his race support was Excellent, and not finishing feels like I didn't appreciate it or it wasn't good enough!
And then off into the dark, for the final loop. I've already overanalysed the bad bits enough, but oh, there was the most wonderful bit walking up Caer Caradoc, where the whole world was settling down into twilight, but the far sky line was aglow with the colours of the sunset, and there were hills behind hills behind hills, fading from grey to black. I'd never been foolish enough to be up hills as the light was fading and the evening gathered before (well, B and I had cut it a bit fine, but in a 'the shadows are very long' sense, not in a 'the shadows went home an hour ago and you're going up and up watching the last light drain out of the world around you' sense). It was beautiful and magical and lonely and terrifying and so so peaceful, and I'm so glad I went back out for the last loop and found that time.
Having spent my last motivation on 'I must climb Caer Caradoc and see the sunset from the top!', I pushed through lurching down Caer Caradoc in the dark, wandered off on the wrong path for a bit, got back on track with phone micronavigation, nearly screamed at a sheep, and phoned Alex and bailed at the next check point. And sat there shivering in the cold and the dark, for 10 minutes of weird worry, thinking 'what if Alex can't find me, or I've lured him out to pick me up and he's really too tired to drive and something bad has happened', when really Alex is one of the most amazingly competent people I've ever met. He'd made the car so warm I nearly cried with relief, and he bundled me in and let me huddle under the softest, warmest downy (well, synthetic downy) jacket, and oh, I might have been a quitty quitter, but there is definitely a space in the world for Stopping when things are Grim. (There's a space for pushing on too, I should get the balance right). And I did the Walk of Shame, and got half a horse stamp and a medal, and then we went back to the B&B, and there was a hot bath, and I stopped shivering, and collapsed into bed to watch the Eurovision voting in a semi-delirious way (which might be the best state to watch the Eurovision voting in)
It was awesome, and I loved it, and maybe bailing was the right answer, because 20 minutes of 'it's dark and I want to cry' was exciting and interesting and taught me things about myself, and three more hours might have broken me. Still a bit wistful I didn't push through though! Know your limits... And maybe then do some training and push them back a bit further, so they're not your limits next time...