A year ago the Norfolk 100K was the landmark event in a year of running 18 marathons for charity. I went into the race naive, ignorant of what it was like to run that far but ultimately came through unscathed.
This year once again it was a milestone, being my 25th marathon for Mind so it only seemed right that the race matched up to the occasion. I was feeling far from ready for the race, both mentally and physically. My anxiety had taken over and not an hour went by without me questioning whether it was possible. I hoped that the ultramarathon would serve as a timely reminder that like my ongoing battle with depression, it will be tough and at times seem unachieveable, but ultimately it is a battle I can win.
Two weeks before the 100K I was in Scotland running the Edinburgh marathon, a race that went so bad I completely neglected to write about it. On the evening before the race I spent half an hour stretching and going through a brief yoga routine to try and loosen my body for running 26 miles the next morning. With the stretching over with I got into bed and spent the rest of the evening struggling to catch my breath. The next morning I woke up and could tell I had come down with something, my breathing was shallow and I felt devoid of all energy. Naturally I stubbornly started the race, even though it hurt to cough and pretty much everything (apart from my legs) ached. It was a long, long day not helped by the fact I stopped taking on fuel half way round as I felt nauseous and my lack of pre-race preparation meant that I wasn’t aware that the finish was about 8 miles away from the start until I entered the 25th mile.
A great weekend in Edinburgh, seeing the sights and eating some delicious food was unfortunately marred by the sole reason we went up there and it will take a while to shake that feeling and to want to run Edinburgh again. Not that there was much time to dwell on the race, as just a few days later I was taking my cold to the Czech Republic to a music festival in Plsen.
Four days of hot weather, a diet of mostly chips and bread (thanks to the Czech Republic being a very meaty country), and trying to keep hydrated wasn’t particularly ideal preparation, but mentally it was probably just what I needed. Most therapy sessions end with my therapist simply asking what I’m doing for the rest of the day, typically on the Wednesday we were due to drive down to London to fly out, this question wasn’t asked. The festival ended up working as a massive distraction, where the black dog was kept firmly in his kennel back in England, and the only concerns were ‘Is my water bottle empty?’ and ‘Do I want to watch the next band?’. Dare I say it, but I think I actually enjoyed myself, something that was noticeable on my next therapy session as I was told I looked genuinely happy when talking about it. It was a big achievement, not just surviving the festival but even deciding to go in the first place.
After landing back in England late on the Monday night, I would have only a couple of days at work before then heading down to Norfolk in preparation for running 65 miles on the Saturday. There were a number of reasons as to why I was anxious ahead of the weekend, running 60+ miles in a day was one of them, but also a planned visit to the infamous bench. When my mental health issues begun as a teenager I would often go to the same bench in town, to sit, relax and generally hide from the world. It had come up in conversation a couple of times in my therapy sessions, so I figured when I was in the area I would seek it out and see if it was exactly as I remembered. Within minutes of sitting on it the same feelings I used to feel came flooding back, no memories or thoughts, just pure raw emotions. It was all a bit overwhelming and within minutes I ended up getting up and leaving. A lot has changed in the past 10 years, I’ve come to terms with my depression and whilst it has become stronger, I’ve become more aware of it and am slowly getting more prepared for the battle.
Preparation for the Ultra had been far, far from perfect. In the 5 months since the Peddars Way Ultra in January I had been out for a run just 19 times, albeit including running 5 marathons, in the 19 weeks since the end of January. On average this worked out to be less than 12 miles a week, an absolutely shocking situation to find myself in leading up to one of the toughest races I’ll run this year. It goes without saying that if I was to give any advice to anyone looking to run an Ultramarathon of any distance it is that you have to put the miles in, whilst I claim you can just about blag a marathon, you can’t not respect the distance for an Ultra.
This lack of preparation wasn’t just missing on the months leading up the race, but on the day preceding it to when I completely forgot to pack a spare change of clothes for the day after the race, or even my trusty race day Adventure Time pants.
This year I had no lift to the start, so instead I had to park up at the finish and catch the minibus back to Castle Acre, which meant a 2:30am wake up call as I had to be out of the house by 4am at the latest.
On the bus I realised that I had managed to forget another thing, my headphones. Typically I’m someone that has a freakout if I can’t find my headphones for the 25 minute walk to work on a morning, opting to frantically search for them and make myself late rather than go without. Any run of any distance is always done listening to music/podcasts, so the idea of running my longest run to date with nothing exacerbated the pre-race nerves considerably. Even on short distances I notice a difference in running with and without them, my pace drops and I lose focus without the distraction listening to music provides so I was anticipated a very, very long day on the trails.
In the race briefing we were alerted to a couple of changes to the course from last year, some new diversions taking the runners off the coastal path where it would typically go through a couple of caravan parks and instead along a slightly longer route, taking the total distance to 65 miles. The first of these would come around the 40 mile mark, but instead of running along a dusty trail meant we would have to run a couple of miles across a sandy beach, whilst the second came much later at about 60 miles when the finish line would typically be in sight.
This year I’ve decided to start filming my races in a bid to confront my anxiety head on, as well as a new means of spreading awareness of my fundraising and maybe finding a new hobby along the way. As usual, my ‘excellent’ organisational skills meant that I didn’t actually purchase my GoPro and gimbal until the week of the race, meaning that I had little time to actually get used to it and would end up experimenting during the race. I didn’t even have the camera ready to film at the beginning of the race and ended up with some upside down footage of my feet when the race begun before I realised and tried to correct it.
There is 90+ minutes of footage that I have been slowly working my way through over the past few weeks, many things were learnt of when and what to film and hindsight is a wonderful thing, but hopefully I will be able to get something worthwhile out of my first attempt. Although I nearly didn’t have any footage to look back on as less than half a mile up the road I dropped the camera without realising, but thankfully a runner behind me was able to bring it to my attention.
After the low key start underneath Gatehouse Arch (so as to not to wake the residents) at a couple of minutes past 7 we headed up along the Peddars Way towards Holme. As with last year much of this section of the race was quite familiar, having ran it during the second half of the Peddars Way back in January (and twice in 2015), and it wasn’t long until we hit the first checkpoint at the 7 mile mark. Race day nutrition is still something I’m trying to get to terms with since turning Vegan at the end of last year. It means that I can’t ever rely on food from the checkpoints and instead have to plan ahead and carry everything I need. For this race I committed the faux-pas of trying something new on the day, in this case Tailwind, partly because I felt I had no other option.
With my water bottles topped up I continued up the road towards the next checkpoint 20 miles in at the beach in Holme. It’s traditional for my legs to not feel like they’ve loosened up on these longer races until well into the miles, around the 15 to 20 mile mark. Without my headphones I was beginning to struggle coming into Sedgeford at around 14 miles and I toyed with stopping somewhere to buy some, but without going drastically off course there wouldn’t be anywhere until I reached Wells at about 42 miles. As I didn’t put the required months and months of training in before hand it would be a much greater case of relying on my mental strength than my physical strength, my legs would try to give up long before the race was over so I had to work twice as hard mentally to make up for it. Without the distraction that listening to music provides on long runs, this would prove to be very, very difficult.
When I finally arrived at Holme at about 10 minutes to 11 I was very grateful to have reached the second checkpoint. I wasn’t even a third of the way there, and there was a lot more of the race to go but it marked the end of a significant chapter of the race, the Peddars Way was completed and the next 40+ miles would be run along the Norfolk Coastal Path. In the miles leading up to the checkpoint I had already broken and started to walk a few sections, so a genuine excuse to stop for a few minutes was greatly appreciated. One of the many mistakes I made throughout the race was failing to apply any sun lotion at this point. In truth it completely failed to cross my mind, but with the next 40+ miles being run along the coast line I had no defence against the sun and would go on to get quite badly sun burnt, which I’m sure only added to the exhaustion I would feel towards the end of the race.
The next 6 miles from Holme to the next checkpoint at Titchwell were fairly uneventful, moving away from the coast up into Thornham. After a short break to top up my water bottles and eat a couple of bananas I was on my way towards Burnham Overy Staithe and one my least favourite sections of the race. The 3 mile stretch along the marshes before the 4th checkpoint may not physically be the toughest section of the course, but mentally it was. Last year it was at this point in the race when the rain started to fall, so most of this stretch was spent looking down at the floor trying to shelter my face from the bitter rain. Whilst there was no rain this year, it wasn’t any easier. The long, winding trail is never easy to run when you can see yourself running away from the exit, particularly when it all looks the same.
After grabbing some supplies from my bag at the halfway checkpoint it was on to Holkham and the first diversion of the day. One of the great things that could be said about the race is how the course is always changing, whilst the first half can feel a bit samey, the second half more than makes up for it by throwing new sights and terrain every 5 or so miles. Holkham Beach is a highlight of the Norfolk Coast, beautiful, golden sand surrounded by pine trees, it is one of my favourite sections of the race, even if it isn’t the easiest to run along. Whilst last year I opted to run through the pine woods, this year I kept as close to the border of them to save as much as my legs as I could.
When I stopped the get the sand out of my trainers after clearing the pine trees, for the first (but not last) time, I got into a conversation with a couple walking by who started asking me about the race and what I was running it for. After a short conversation they ended up wishing me well for the next 20+ miles and donated £5 to charity. It was the first time I’ve ever been sponsored mid-race and it took me completely by surprise, to receive a donation from someone I’ve never met before, and will most likely never meet again is something I never expected to happen. My ongoing battle with depression is very much a personal thing, the endless running of marathons and ultra marathons is one of the ways I try to deal with it. Blogging is another method, it gives me a way of talking through my problems out loud and a bit of depersonalisation seems to help. The raising money for Mind just seemed like a logical thing to do, I would be wanting to run these races anyway, the raising money and awareness for charity feels like something I need to be doing, but I still never really expect anyone to hear or listen to my story.
At 39 miles came the first diversion, with the size of the race field tripling from the last year the event was no longer allowed to pass through the caravan park, so instead the next two miles would be spent running across the sand of Wells beach. Once again, without the headphones to keep me distracted, this was a difficult section mentally. I didn’t want to risk burning up energy in my legs by running through sand for the next couple of miles, so instead I walked most of it. By the time I cleared the beach my trainers were filled with sand, there was so much sand underneath my toes that it hurt to walk and when I got the opportunity on Wells’ promenade to take my trainers off I emptied out half a beach. It was at this point whilst I was putting my trainers back on that another runner, Lee, stopped to check I was OK and with my trainers back on we spent most of the next few miles run/walking together.
The fifth checkpoint at Stiffkey was only a few miles down the road and when we arrived we heard that the winner, Matthew Hunt, had already finished. With about another 20 miles to go there was still a long way before my race was over, but it only helped motivate me for the next section. Once again marshland would prove to be a big mental test for me during this race. My body had long since wanted to give up, but I still had a good 15 or so miles to go. Like back in Burnham, the stretch from Blakeney to Cley Marshes would feel like it went on forever. I was in no hurry to reach the shingle beach at Cley-next-the-Sea, but seeing it in the distance and knowing I still had several winding miles of, often in the wrong direction, trail to run made me want to just get it over with.
Last year when I reached the shingle beach I felt slightly rejuvenated knowing that my family were waiting at the end to cheer me on, but this year I was on my own. Last year I was ignorant of just how long these 4 and a half miles would feel, how difficult the beach would be to run across and quite how long it would take me. This year I knew all those things and I really, really wasn’t looking forward to it. About half way across the beach I was joined by another runner, David, who mentioned that he read my blog last year and it inspired him to enter the race as his first Ultra. I half jokingly apologised that I didn’t say enough to put him off, particularly whilst it felt like we weren’t making any progress towards Weybourne and a way off the beach. It took about an hour and a half to cross the beach and reach the final checkpoint and any hope of matching last years time had well and truly passed.
Once I reached the cliff tops and Sheringham came into sight finishing began to feel like a real possibility. The knowledge that I had ran, and finished, the race before last year had done little to reassure me throughout the day. Confidence is powerful thing for long distance running, with it running 60+ miles in a day can seem easy, but as soon as you let that doubt creep in just running the next mile can seem impossible. Doubt was something that I had carried with me throughout the majority of the race, I had spent most of the prior week worrying over the race and things only got worse the closer it got. There was still a good 7 or so miles to run, but the worst was now very much behind me and now I began picturing myself crossing that finish line.
The second and final diversion would come agonisingly close to the finish, as we were sent away from the top of the cliffs towards Beacon Hill and ironically past more caravan parks, where once again my failure to do sufficient preparation caught me out. I knew before the race that there would be a diversion, but I figured as we were in Cromer at this point it would be through the streets and so when I reached the halfway point I decided to leave my headtorch in my dropbag. A massive, massive mistake. Deep in the woodland it was pitch black, I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face and with uncertain terrain underfoot I didn’t feel confident to run without seeing where I was going. The next 3 miles took me the best part of an hour, as I slowly plodded through the dark hoping to come through the end at some point.
When we got to a crossroads we stopped to check the map and realised we still had a bit more of the woodland to get through. With about half an hour to go before the 16 hour cutoff we had little time to hang about, we picked up the pace as much as we could hoping for the trees to clear and the path to be more visible. Eventually the trees cleared what was little was left of the daylight allowed us to start running confidently again. The sight of roads and houses was a massive relief, it all began to look familiar after seeing it from the bus this morning and with about a mile to go I knew the finish line was just around the corner. We both crossed the finish line in 15:53 just a mere 7 minutes before the stated cut off time. Adrenaline was running high, when I left the house that morning, a mere 19 hours earlier I never envisaged finishing the race coming down to the wire like that.
It wouldn’t feel right to write a new blog post without the events of the past few weeks getting a mention. Each and every time there is an election of any kind my insomnia returns with a vengeance, and last Thursday was no exception. Every hour, almost on the hour my mind forced me awake and morbid curiosity made me reach over for my phone and check the results coming in. With insomnia taking care of my night, Anxiety was there to help out during the day. Not even a trip to my usual happy place could help, as when I got there instead of finding 4 very friendly happy goats, I found that two had managed to escape. So instead of spending 30 minutes feeding them and meditating, I ended up frantically running round trying to work out what had happened before helping lead them back in.
Well who knows what's going on? The country feels on the edge of chaos, many are scared and concerned for their future and even some of those that chose to leave are already regretting their decision. But that's OK, if it all goes to shit I'll move in with the goats…..oh for fuck sake they're trying to escape too. #goats #animaltherapy #vegan #animals #referendum #fucksake
With it being my 25th marathon for Mind it would have been a shame for it to have been uneventful. I could never have envisaged it being quite the adventure and challenge that it was though, but it was poetic how it mirrored the struggles of battling with my depression. The fundraising is far from over however, this past weekend I ran another two marathons in two days and have many big races and challenges lined up for the rest of the year. The link if you wish to sponsor me and donate towards Mind is https://www.justgiving.com/fundraising/15in15
Any donations great or small are very gratefully received.