Ultra Tales from the Pentland Trails
Tuesday, 21 April 2015
"Of all the hardships a person had to face, none was more punishing than the simple act of waiting.”
The 2015 World 24 hour championships - probably the longest run up to any race I've ever done. After originally running 216km in September 2013 at my first 24 hour race - Tooting Bec, I'd made the qualifying distance for the Great Britain (GB) squad to run at the World Champs which were to take place in the Czech Republic that following June. We found out in April however that the race had been cancelled and a new location and date set - the new location, Taipei in Taiwan, and the date, pushed back until December 2014. So, after spending the start of the year training specifically for a flat 24 hour race, I decided to jump back to the hills and did the West Highland Way race in June instead. After the race, it was back to 24 hour training, for Taiwan in December. A couple of months later however, we were faced with the same frustration and disappointment as we found out that this too had been cancelled. So again, a change of plans and I again entered Tooting Bec, this time managing to improve my distance to 233km, again safely securing my place in the GB squad. The new date and venue for the world champs was to be Turin, Italy, in April 2015.
"Promise me you'll always remember: you're braver than you believe, stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think...."
There are several things that I have learned so far from doing 24 hour races.
1). Past performances do not always count: 24 hour races are so difficult to get right. There are just so many variables. Fitness (physical and, often more importantly, mental), conditions on the day, nutrition (what works one day won't necessarily work the next) and support are but a few. Looking at the merits and personal best’s (PB's) of those on the start line, you can't take anything for granted. Someone who has barely scraped past 200km in previous races may toe up at the start line and hammer out 220km plus, and vice versa.
2). The mental aspect of 24 hour racing takes much longer to get over than the physical aspects: I'd run an absolute stormer at Tooting Bec last year; armed with what I thought was an overly ambitious target of 230km but full of confidence after a successful West Highland Way race, things just worked on the day, and I managed to run 233km, breaking the Scottish 200km and 24 hour records on the way. But it was far from easy - I suffered so much in the last 6 hours, my body was screaming at me to stop, but I was being pushed all the way by GB team mate Izzy Wykes, who just kept getting stronger and stronger as the race went on. After the race, I was obviously over the moon with my performance - but I felt almost traumatised! 24 hour races are not enjoyable. And the suffering doesn't stop when the 24 hours are up. The next week I spent hobbling about at work, falling asleep leaning on the photocopier and in meeting rooms, and generally feeling pretty rotten. Then, predictably, I got some viral bug, and spent the following week signed off work (I am extremely lucky to have a very understanding boss...). But even after my strength returned, my chaffed skin healed and my toenails grew back, I still didn't have particularly fond memories of the race itself. A couple of months later and I flew out to Barcelona to support GB team mate Karen Hathaway, who was out to improve on her 24 hour PB. Karen also had a fantastic race, not quite reaching her personal target set, but vastly improving on her previous PB and again securing her place in the GB squad for Turin (the team was to be announced at the end of December, so Barcelona was Karen's last chance to improve on her distance and make the squad) - but oh god, did she suffer for it. Seeing the mental and physical anguish that Karen went through to get her distance and experiencing it with her as her support - the despair of seeing her race plan slip away and frustration of a failing body, but the sheer will and strength of character that pushed her on, even as her body tugged at her to stop - both inspired me but also terrified me. It reminded me of my race the previous September and of the torments I'd gone through to get my distance. It scared me.
3). Physical fitness alone will not get you through a 24 hour race: The fittest person toeing the line is not necessarily the person that will win. One thing I've learned so far though my brief experience of running 24 hour races, is that you can literally run-your-body-into-the-ground. You can run until your legs collapse beneath you, and even then, sometimes, if you really want it enough, you can lift your broken and spent body back to its feet and start running again. I'd proven that to myself at Tooting Bec, when I tricked my body into moving steadily forward by repeating to myself over and over again that I was strong and I could do it; and I witnessed it at Barcelona, when I saw a totally destroyed Karen moved her body forward on nothing but sheer will power and determination alone. I would rather go into a 24 hour race under-trained but mentally fit (hungry and determined), than fighting fit but with doubts in my mind.
"Very superstitious....writings on the wall...."
I'm superstitious. Debilitating so at times and I always have been. I remember stressing out for the majority of my twelfth year, dreading the day I'd turn 13. When it finally happened, my dad tried to reassure me by saying it was ok, because now I was actually in my 14th year. If I ever looked at my watch when it was 13 minutes past the hour, I'd have to keep staring at it until it changed to 14. I still can't sit on row 13 of a flight. And so, the Tuesday before the race, when I was leaving my house for my final taper trot, I found a black cat sitting on my doorstep. As I bent over to pat it for luck, my iPhone fell out of my pocket and the screen smashed. Not the best of omens. Another thing - malteser cake - this has proven to be my secret weapon for my last couple of races - it helped power me to victory at both the West Highland Way and Tooting Bec last year. So the day before I was due to fly out to Turin, I set about making the usual race batch. It wasn't until after I'd finished making it and was putting it in the fridge to cool I realised I'd missed out a certain important ingredient - the packet of maltesers sat unopened on the kitchen counter. These were not good signs.
On a more serious note, the run up to Turin had gone relatively well, training wise. I had managed to get to the start line injury free, albeit with the usual niggles, and with a solid block of training behind me. There had been a couple of hiccups - mostly concerning confidence (lack of) - however training hadn't felt as enjoyable or easy as pre-Tooting last year - sessions felt harder, I hadn't had the same consistency of speed-work or hills, and some of my long runs were starting to feel like a chore. I put this down to higher mileage - this time around I'd bagged more consistent 100+ mile weeks, and I was so ready for taper when it finally arrived, maybe I was just tired. Whatever the reason, things felt different this time around, and as I result, I lacked the same confidence and hunger that I had going into Tooting.
"Sometimes you win, sometimes you LEARN"
We had a fantastic team going into the World's this year with real prospects of medals for both the men and the women's teams. This year was to again be the joint European and World championships, and team manager Richard was full of confidence and enthusiasm that we could and would do well. Looking at the most recent stats of the team and comparing it with results from the last World Champs, things did indeed look promising. However, as previously noted, past performances do not always count. It just takes something small to start to go wrong and feel your whole race start to slip away.
Performance wise, the last 2 years for me have gone brilliantly. Even in races that have not gone "relatively" well (Glasgow to Edinburgh last year, Thames Trot this year), I have managed to get good results position-wise. Something felt different today though. After only 6 hours into the race, I felt like I'd been running for 18. Every time I stopped to grab something at the support points, everything started spinning and I just felt really wobbly. I stopped at one point to use one of the portaloos - and once inside it felt like everything was moving. This was not a place I wanted to pass out in. Maybe it was the heat. Maybe I hadn't taken enough fluids or electrolytes early enough. Or maybe I should have readjusted my pace earlier on: I was running based on Tooting Bec pacing - so running a 24 hour race in the relative coolness of London in September, not Italy in early summer. Whatever the reason, I wasn't feeling happy and I could feel both my strength and my positivity sap away from me. At 12 hours I was pretty much still bang on track for my target distance, but the flame in my heart had gone out. Quite simply, I didn't want to run any more.
"Don't dwell on what went wrong. Instead focus on what to do next"
I've felt pretty rotten all week since the race. I ran over 30km less than what I ran last year at Tooting Bec, just scraping past the 200km mark. I've deliberately avoided the "if onlys" and "what ifs" though. I know deep down that if I'd wanted it enough, I could have picked up the pace again and ran much further. But I didn't. So the problem was my head, not my body. I've been thinking about events before the race that caused me to stress and waste energy. Silly things - like stressing over my kit (UKA had run out of kit, so I had been left with a men's vest that was too small for me, and a particularly skimpy pair of shorts that I wasn't looking forward to wearing). Another thing - I didn't have the food I needed. I've found in races that what works perfectly for me is tortilla (Spanish omelette) and quiche. I'd taken a quiche over with me, but as expected it hadn't travelled well and I'd hoped to be able to source quiche and tortilla somewhere in Turin. Seems the Italian's aren't big on such delicacies though. And so, a core part of my nutrition plan was pretty much missing. Also, I think maybe part of me still expected the race to be cancelled - I'd been disappointed twice before, after the Czech Republic and then Taiwan, so maybe part of me half-heartedly still expected the plug to be pulled at the last minute (as it turns out, we later found out that 2 weeks before the race, it was actually almost cancelled again!). Finally, I think that my training had become stale - a core part of my training this time around had been big back to back miles on the canal. I started to dread these training runs - I'm a trail runner - I run because I love the variation and beauty of running on the trails and in the hills. Every Friday night after a full day at work, I knew I had a long (20+ mile) trot on the monotonous canal waiting for me (often as an out and back), only to be repeated again the following Saturday morning. The majority of these runs were done on my own. All of these may have contributed as reasons or causes, or they may just be excuses for the fact that at the end of the day, I just had a bad 24 hours.
"Only in darkness can you see the stars"
Simply put, sometimes you need a bad race to prove to yourself that you can carry on. It takes overcoming such low points to prove to yourself that even when everything is over, and all you want to do is stop, sit down, cry and accept defeat, you can still carry on and just accept new goals. My race was over at 12 hours from a competitive point of view. It wasn't physically over, but mentally the flame had gone out - I'd given up. My target had slipped from 230km+, to just staying on the course and finishing. I wasn't competing anymore, I was just participating.
But - there are still so many positives that I can come away with (although, these were not obvious at the time, and it's taken me over a week of feeling pretty sorry for myself to realise them). First of all - I am incredibly proud of all my team mates - Robbie Britton had an absolute stormer of a race, leading the men's team to World and European Gold and securing individual Bronze European and World medals - a huge, huge achievement, but even more considering he is still relatively "young" in 24 hour speak. Izzy Wykes also had an amazing run, leading our girls team to European Bronze, narrowly missing out on a European individual medal, and more than making up for her disappointment at the World Trails 2 years previously. But with 24 hour running, it's not just those that bring home the medals and perform well on the day that inspire and impress - Emily Gelder, with a PB of 238km and capable of so much more, was also having a bad race. It was Emily however who scooped me up when I was at my lowest during the race, and pulled me along, helping me set new targets and persuading me to keep carrying on. Marco Consani and Karen Hathaway also had bad races - I passed Karen at one point, pale as death, layered up and shivering uncontrollably as she shuffled along the course - but she was still out there and moving forward - she wasn't giving up. And Marco - like all of us, had pretty much sacrificed everything over the last year or so for this one race, only for it to fall apart - like Karen, Emily and myself, his race was over, but it didn't stop him moving forward and shouting words of encouragement to all of us.
"We must accept finite disappointment. But never lose infinite hope"
The week and a half since the race I've been in the North East of Scotland at my Dad's. Away from work, running and "civilisation", it’s given me plenty of time to think about Italy and to go through a sort of grieving process - the disappointment of not achieving what I knew I could, and the anger for allowing myself to give up so easily. During the race, I swore to myself that this was it, I would never do another 24 hour race again. Hell, I didn't even want to run again. But a week and a half on.....I'm thinking about next year and the European champs, and the possibility of again making selection and running with the rest of the team. I'm thinking about the distance I still achieved in Turin - even though the majority of the second half was barely a shuffle - and realising that if I'd only kept fighting, I'd have still come away with a more respectable distance. And I'm thinking about the other girls in the team - practically my sisters - and how I'd love nothing more than to be out there on that course next year, suffering alongside them!