I have been unwell. Not that that is the excuse for taking from the 23rd of October to the 5th February to run the next race. After Beachy Head and finishing 2021 on 14 marathons and above toward the 100 Marathon Club (again!) I took stock, revaluated my cumulative fatigue and decided to build my strength from the bottom up (not literally), so I started at the local The Gym, and started hitting it hard, 4-5 times a week. Which was great, I started feeling stronger, building up core strength and cardio too. But then the third weekend of December I caught COVID. I knew that I should give up licking the windows on London Underground trains. I got it bad, for someone triple vaccinated, not hospital bad but enough to be coughing up blood in my phlegm two weeks later and being put on a course of antibiotics and steroids.
Fast forward to the 5th February and I had had to cancel the Funchal Marathon in January, and then put off the Portland Coastal Marathon, and a lap race in Daventry (wherever the fuck that is), and a half marathon with Runthrough at my PB venue. My lungs were not 100% but I was no longer coughing and, with the year getting away from me, I needed a tester and so I signed up for the XNRG Pilgrim Challenge, making it 3 XNRG races out of my first 4. I knew I couldn’t run Portland under the cut off, and I couldn’t be arsed to get to Daventry (wherever the fuck that is) and so a race I’d run before, with a big cut off, yes hilly, but if anything I could just hike it, that was what I needed.
And so a hotel a short walk from the station in Farnham (the race organisers put on shuttle buses from the station to the start, from the finish to hotels near the finish, and to the station in Redhill), traditional Fish and Chip supper and my new thing, the Coros watch vibrating alarm clock meaning I could sleep with ear plugs and sleep well and I found myself in the start area, day release from prison timing tag on my wrist, shorts/leggings/trackies on the bottom half and two long sleeved tops and waterproof jacket on top, bobble hat and mittens. I was ready for a long day. My lungs would be the main factor for a DNF, DNS and a slow ass day. So we shall see how I did.
How I did
I am a simple man with simple tastes, simple dreams and, when it comes to running, simple goals. I want to finish, that is one, if I had run the race before then I would prefer to beat my previous time, and then the outlandish and rare PB at the distance. I ordinarily spreadsheet up all 3, with the CPs marked too so I can see the ideal time targets at key points (every 5K normally) or distance points (how far have I got at the top of each hour running) and I just go for it. And that is what I did. Running out early into the frostly day with a run/walk strategy that would bring me both a finish and a better time than 2019.
And it worked, for the early miles anyway. I made great time for the first 7-8K. The hour whizzed by but then the lungs started to feel a little raspy. I wasn’t coughing but they felt weak and so I dropped down to a march. I was going to get this done, but I was now going to look after myself.
It was about coming back stronger. It always is. I have been to the gym, as I said, 4-5 times a week, and I have been listening to Erick Brown’s guided meditation on mental toughness in sport, basically to stop me bottling it and walking whenever I feel tired or a mild niggle. This time though, post COVID, I knew I had to take it easier. Which is tricky on a course with thousands of feet of elevation including the energy zapping Box Hill Steps around mile 28 or so.
Before the steps came the stones. I always knew about them, the stepping stones across the weir, but I had never crossed them before. When speaking to the others Keith said he had only seen them with the water flowing over them. Unfortunately for me the water was an inch or two from the top of the stones and so I had to go across, after all, the bridge was out. It made for a precarious crossing, the fast flowing water made my eyes go funny and I starting seeing the stones moving. I was dizzy. So I stepped, stepped and stepped again, jumping the last bit onto the far bank and was thankful for it. A guy who tried to cross ahead of me with his Springer Spaniel had to return to the other side of the weir when his dog couldn’t handle it and just jumped in.
I wasn’t planning to jump in. But when I got to the other side I knew I was in for more pain. Now came the Box Hill steps. Some websites say there are 270, and there probably are scattered over Box Hill. I am not sure how many I climbed that day, certainly triple figures, pausing to let the endless stream of walking tourists come down ahead of me, and losing so much time doing so that in the end I would finish 26 minutes slower than last time out. But we shall come to that.
Whilst most things were old, tried and tested, I had a new pack. It was a WAA pack down from £90 to £30 and thus a real bargain. It had soft flasks, that I hadn’t ever used before and in the end really liked, and elastic straps to hold my walking poles/cheating sticks in place. And this latter fact, after a sit down by a tree and recording some audio for the podcast, made the difference to the day. Feeling a bit down I opened up the sticks and started marching and the miles kept ticking over.
I knew there would be a few small hills, there was a horrible zigzagging one at one point, where I said out loud “oh come on, this is unnecessarily hard.” I may also have sworn at the RD. But what could he do, we were following the North Downs Way, and the North Downs Way, as we know, is a particularly hilly bastard.
I had originally wanted to record a bit of the podcast at 42KM to compare how quickly I had made it compared to the marathons at the end of last year (Beachy, Manc and Loch Ness were all slow as…) but I was slower. Of course I was slower. I hadn’t been running, I certainly hadn’t been running hills and I was still recovering from a respiratory virus that had knocked me on my arse for weeks. I should have been happy just to be there. And, truth be told, I was. I had nothing to prove as I descended the final hill, the dark enshrouding us as we made our way into the outskirts of Redhill
I saw this sign, and joked that someone had already made the turnaround point and we would see him soon. Note: We didn’t.
I had made the town as the sun went down, and now had the streetlights to rely on. Back in 2019 I had turned my torch on 12K earlier. I even remembered the exact place as I marched down it.
And then, slower than last time, but still getting it done, I found myself surrounded by faster runners, who had started after me, and we were crossing the line together. I had made it, 100 Marathon Club number 66 in 6 years and 4 months.
The sustainable wooden medals is a thing now. I have plenty of them as XNRG, and Ultraviolet racing now award them. It is fine. This race was more of a tester.
And yes, as I said, this was a tester. COVID knocked me on my arse. I am rarely sick, and never seriously so. So when I got COVID and it lingered and then worsened I feared the worse. The chance to test myself was welcomed. I may not have doused myself in a thick stream of glistening glory, but I did it. I completed perhaps my most difficult race of the year, certainly the longest single day distance, and single day elevation in probably the worst underfoot conditions of the year. I do need to sort out my lungs, and have taken measures to do so. I have also planned to start to add more running to my training regime. The gym and the self-hypnosis/guided meditation tapes I shall continue with too, and hope that come the next race I shall be ready to go for target number 2, a PB at the course, and maybe 3 the distance.
NEXT UP: AMERSHAM ULTRA