So it might sound strange, but the story of my second attempt at a 100 mile ultra marathon begins with the shoddy picture below:
03.06am, about 40 miles in. I was down and out. The area to the left side of my knee had been really painful for 10 miles or so. It was the pain I’d been dreading. It had plagued me through training and the Vale Ultra, which I’d completed a few weeks before. And it was my left knee that prevented me from finishing my first attempt at a 100 miler in Pembrokeshire the year before. My mind was gone:
- ‘Fuck! I can’t believe I’m gonna have to retire at the next checkpoint, at 4am in the middle of nowhere. What a joke. Useless. Why do I even think I can do this stuff? And why the hell did I make a fuss of me attempting this race on Instagram and Twitter? ‘Hey I’m running a 100 mile ultra this week – whoop!’ Now I’m gonna have to explain I had to quit early because of my knee. Fuck it, I’ll have to ditch social media for a while. This is pathetic.’
On and on, this was my mind for 2-3 hours. Mentally, I was punching myself repeatedly. Needless to say, I felt dreadful.
I looked at the pic. Completely out of focus. Normally, I’d have taken another one. Not when I felt like this though. I just wanted it all to be over.
From despair to where?
I decided hating myself this much wasn’t helping, so I weighed up my options:
- Retire at the next checkpoint. This would crush me. Second retirement in two years at a 100 mile ultra marathon. Oh, and the small matter of calling my wife at 4am to come and pick me up from a forest car park in the middle of nowhere. On the other hand, my knee was hurting and I just couldn’t see me lasting the distance.
- Change the record. And by that, I mean distract myself by getting a song going in my head.
What the hell: option 2. At least I won’t have to wake my wife up.
Bohemian Rhapsody and a bit of self-help
A week before, my wife and I watched Bohemian Rhapsody. The songs had been flying around my head ever since.
So that’s how it started. With the piano intro to ‘We are the Champions’. I played the whole track in my head, imagining every piano note, lyric, guitar lick and drum beat.
I’ve paid my dues
Time after time
I’ve done my sentence
But committed no crime…
Nice. A bit of distraction.
And I suddenly remembered that old trick where someone tries to push your arm down when you say out loud ‘I’m strong and powerful’, and it’s nigh on impossible. Whereas, it’s a piece of piss for someone to push your arm down when you’re saying ‘I’m weak and powerless’.
Positive affirmations. Cheesy as a quattro formaggio pizza, but I had nothing to lose.
A few minutes later, I had Queen playing in my head, and was bellowing affirmations to myself in the voice of Gandalf (Sir Ian McKellan) for added grandeur:
‘I’m strong!’ ‘I’m powerful!’ ‘I’m such a good runner!’ ‘I’m a machine, and I can run forever!’
It felt ridiculous. And it feels even more ridiculous writing it down now. But, within a few minutes, my knee pain had gone from 8/10 pain to about 3/10.
Whaaaaat? Don’t think about it. Just keep doing it.
I was getting freaked out now, but loving it. Was this real? With my mental battle raging, I’d been quiet. But now, feeling a bit better, I was chatting to any runner I came across.
Just keep saying them. Keep saying them.
At the 45 mile checkpoint, where I’d assumed I’d be ending my run, I was joking around. I even posted an Instagram Story about coffee at 4.41am.
Not long after: dawn. At this point, I was lucky to be running alongside Kevin and Boris, two amazing guys I’d eventually run a lot of miles with. We were high up in the hills, and tired after a long night. But with the early morning light and birdsong, our spirits lifted.
We cracked on, dropping down out of the mountains into Margam Park.
Day 2 was now well and truly underway, and we were just past the halfway point. At 6am, we reached the 55 mile checkpoint near Kenfig nature reserve. Just 3 hours on from my lowest point, I felt like a different person.
At the checkpoint, I tucked into crisps, topped up my water and asked the marshall if he could take a pic. I was feeling good. Cocky even.
Boris killed me with a look that said: ‘it’s cold, let’s get going’.
A searing shooting pain in my left knee. Like a nail hammered in from the side. I stepped forward again.
Ooh. NOT good. Freddy’s not gonna help with this.
It was still early when we’d arrived at the checkpoint. 6am, in the shade, and the temperature had dipped – probably 1-2*C. I’d stiffened up badly.
Despite the pain, I needed to keep moving. But, 45 miles left and I was reduced to a pathetic hobble. I carried on for a few hundred yards. The shooting pains kept coming, and the idea of running suddenly seemed ludicrous.
Boris, now accompanied by Kevin and Stacey, carried on. 5 minutes from the checkpoint, I was suddenly alone. Resigned, I stopped and took this pic:
I gathered my thoughts. Ok, it’s the beginning of the day. Yes, it’s painful but I can keep walking, and just retire at the next checkpoint (Porthcawl) where I’ll call my wife to pick me up.
I watched the 3 guys disappear into the distance. And for the second time in the space of a few hours, I was crushed.
What now? It hurt standing still. It hurt walking.
Screw it, let’s try running, and get Queen and the affirmations going again.
I hobbled a few yards.
Sped up a bit. No shooting pains. Progress?!
Yes, I can run!
To my surprise, I was running again. In fact, it was only running where I felt ok. Any other posture or movement, I was in trouble. The good news: this was a running event!
5 minutes later, I caught up with the others. I was back in it.
When the going gets tough…
If you’re running 100 miles, I guess at some point, you’re gonna have to dig deep.
My crisis in the early hours (35 miles), and searing knee pain at Kenfig nature reserve (55 miles), defined my race. Both times, I was certain my race was over. And yet, somehow, I got through it.
26 hours and 6 minutes after setting off in Rhosilli Bay, I crossed the finish line in Cardiff. Positions don’t really matter in these things, but for the record, I finished in 14th place.
It was without doubt, the hardest thing I’ve ever done.
A few weeks on, as I write this, I’m shocked just how much I pummelled myself with negative thoughts during the first third of the race. It was relentless. But then, I’m also reassured by my resolve, mental strength and sheer bloody mindedness to cross that finish line.
I guess if I’ve learnt anything at all from the experience, it’s that I have nothing to lose, and everything to gain, by sewing the right seeds in my mind. If I get that right, I’ve got a fighting chance.
Freddie, Brian, John and Roger (Queen, obvs) for helping me get through it.
Everyone at Run Walk Crawl and all the marshalls/volunteers. Great event, and phenomenal support from all the volunteers over the weekend. Joe, thank you for your embrace at the finish line, I know you know how much it meant to me. And I’ll be volunteering for one of your upcoming events to say thanks!
Neil and Matt, who I chatted to, from the Gower coast into Swansea. Did not expect to be talking about work, but that’s exactly what Matt and I did at night through Swansea at night. The second half of my race was spent with Kevin, Boris and Stacey, and we really helped each other as the race progressed. Stacy, thanks for those last 12 miles – tough as hell!
And my family and friends. So many people were watching the live tracker, sending me messages of support as I ran. It makes such a difference. Thank you Paul, Jade and Valentina for finding me in Barry and making me feel much better. Sophie, who found me in Penarth and took a snap of me looking ok-ish! And Louise, Rhys, Ian, Elin, Simon, Elena who joined me for the last mile, playing ‘Eye of the Tiger’ ensuring I made it through that last, agonising mile. I can’t believe you managed to make me laugh so much, given how tired I was. And to my wife Leonie, who always supports me doing stuff like this and who looked after me and took care of all the admin (smelly kit, eating/drinking etc) the next day. Thank you 🙂
When you’re running for 26 hours, you have plenty of time for taking snaps. Here’s a chronological gallery of pics from the race: