Third time’s the charm…

Saturday dawned bright and early, and a little less early – and possibly a little less bright – we dawned, too.  The plan was to leave home at 6am, to get to the start for 7:30am, and wangle our way into the first wave of starters.  We nailed the leaving part; the travelling part took a little longer than anticipated and when we got to the start line there were (entirely predictably) queues to pick up merchandise; queues to drop overnight bags and ohmygod queues for the toilets.  It was cold, wet and altogether drech.

But we got underway eventually, and I can honestly say that day 1 (pics above) was fantastic.  It fully lived up to expectations.  It was *bastard* hilly, and we both developed ITB issues (strain down the outside of a knee) early on – downhills, in particular, are brutal – which limited the amount of running we did.  But we ran many of the flat sections; powered our way up the uphill sections; swore our way down the downhill sections; and set the world to rights while we were at it.  The scenery was beautiful, neither of us developed blisters.  We met nice people along the way – none of whom, thankfully, were singing (!!) – and we completed the first day’s marathon in 9:07:29. Tortoise pace, rather than hare pace, but nonetheless.  Done.  Enjoyed.

Basecamp was at about 27 miles and we powered up the final hill, ran the closing stretch and sprinted under the finish arch.  A woman at the finish line was handing out cans of Heineken 0, which I was super pleased to see, and we headed straight for the massage tent.  I had noticed that, in compensating for the tightness in my left knee, I was putting much more through my right leg on the downhill sections and as a result, my right hamstring was super tight.  No problem.  A lovely University College Birmingham student sorted that right out for me with a brilliant and much needed sport massage.  So then we set up our tents, eschewed the showers (neither of us much fancied queuing in the rain) and headed for the beer tent.

Overnight was cold, and sleeping in a tent is never *easy*.  The tents are erected in rows, with military precision and you can hear your neighbour’s every nocturnal emission.  (Our particular favourite: “Are you asleep, Alison?” from one of the group behind us.  The entire row emitted a resounding “FFS” sigh, as Alison resignedly admitted, “no”).

We set our alarms for 5am, up and breakfasted and off for just after 6.  We were sore.  Both of us were struggling with ITBs.  We were slow.  We were *really* slow.   Rebecca, in particular, was struggling to find her motivation; the slow pace was not her style and mentally, she had an absolute nightmare of a first 4-5ish miles.  In retrospect, all became clear…

Let me show you that elevation profile, again.


Between 20mi and 30mi, there’s a big, V-shaped dip.  Base camp was at the top of that, on the 30mi side.  Between base camp and the first pit stop – at the bottom of the next V-shaped dip (the one before the one with a runner in it) – was 4-5ish miles.  The day before, we covered almost 27 miles in 9 hours (One of which was spent at pitstops.  So 8 hours of moving time).  Those 4-5 miles took 1.5 hours, or thereabouts.  I’m not super clear when I stopped my watch. [edit: having looked carefully at my Garmin data, I realise that I kept my watch on for the 2 hours I was waiting for my knight in shining armour to come and take me home, because he was navigating to my Garmin beacon.  So I’ve come back and reverse engineered all the times for Sunday morning.]

Somewhere between base camp and the 30mi mark, my right knee began to be super, super painful.  The kind of pain you can’t talk through.  Rebecca was chatting away, trying to keep herself motivated, and I was uncharacteristically monosyllabic.  I was aware of an overwhelming urge to puke, sit, stop.  I could not find a way of putting my foot on the ground that didn’t cause stabs of pain to go through my knee.  I didn’t want to admit to it – I knew if I articulated what was happening, my race would be over.

So we carried on, over those three little ‘hats’ on Cleeve Common, and at some point, we were overtaken by a friend from one of our online groups.  I had just begun to cry.  I was a little ahead of Rebecca, so she hadn’t noticed, and our friend and her husband were super excited with their day, and our meeting.  We paused for photos, and they sped off, on their way to the eighth of their target 10 marathons of the year – amazing!  I think this was the moment when Rebecca really was first aware of what was going on with me.  We set off again, and she was in front down the big hill.  At one point, I paused to massage my knee, and she stopped to wait for me.  She looked at me, and said “It’s bad, isn’t it?”.  I nodded, crying again.  She said afterwards that the colour was drained from me.  That final mile to the pitstop at roughly 31mi was tortuous.

When we got there, I headed straight to the medics.  The lad who assessed me decided I needed the proper event medic, who appeared instantly and poked and prodded, and declared that my tendon was either pulling out of my tibia or at risk of doing so, and so he wasn’t prepared to let me continue.  Would I like some painkillers?  Tears streamed down my face as he spoke.  I knew the wisdom of his words.  I knew it wasn’t really my choice any more.  But I also knew that this event that I had looked forward to for *so* long; that I was lucky enough to be doing with one of my dearest friends under the stars; that was the victory lap of my trio of ultras was being ripped away from me.  And frankly, reader, I would have happily sacrificed a limb to be able to continue at that point.  A minor, upper limb, obviously.  But a limb nonetheless.

Where I stopped.
Where I didn’t get to go.

Tea was fetched.  A whole, big mug of steaming tea.  And enough painkillers to numb a cart-horse.  Rebecca appeared, and I cried some more as I told her she was going on alone.  She cried a bit too, I think, but promised she would finish for us and my little heart broke afresh as I watched her run away from me, up the track I wouldn’t be following.

My lovely Tim came and fetched me, and brought me home, and nurtured me through the remainder of a very emotional day.  And massive thanks to him for all of that.

Later in the afternoon, Freya and Plummy went up to the Tower and picked up a triumphant, warrior-like Rebecca, who ran her second hilly trail marathon – pretty much on her own – in two days; reeled in a lot of the people who had passed us, and brought home a spectacular medal for her first ultra.  She is AMAZING.

This morning I have, as advised by the race medic, been to A&E.  My MCL is very, very strained.  They are quite sure that had I carried on it would have detached and caused an avulsion fracture, which would have meant surgery and at least a year of recovery.  As it is, it’s still attached but very strained and very painful. I am told I can still do Endure24 this weekend, but only at a walk and only with a particular type of knee brace, and only if I STOP as soon as/if it hurts.  So I’ll assess over the week, and see, but at this point that looks like a good option.

And what do I take from this?  Darkly, it seems fitting that the series upon which I have broken two people came back to break me at the last gasp!  But I now am the proud owner of a hoodie I have yet to earn.  So I *have* to go back and do the fucking thing again.  And I will, next year.

One of my friends did the Centurion South Downs Way, this weekend – a 100 miler.  He found it difficult and very sweetly said that the thing that kept him going when he wanted to stop was knowing how disappointed I would be if he didn’t finish.  Lots of you have reached out with sympathy and kind words since I Facebooked my withdrawal.  And that means a huge amount.  Knowing that how I deal with this, and what I learn from it will mean something to you lot is very precious, actually.  So thank you ❤

Looking back, I could have done more hill work in preparation.  Later this year, Rebecca is running Chicago, and so I think I will (very gently) do the training programme we both enjoy alongside her, for rehab purposes.  Not to put a hammer down, and leave it all out there, but to rebuild strength and long runs and get myself back to fitness in order to start it again, seriously, for Manchester marathon next spring.

I’m hoping to do a short holiday in the Atlas mountains after Manchester.  Climbing will count as prep for a repeat attempt, right?  And then I will build as much hill work into my training as I can.  I could build runs on the Cotswold Way and around Blenheim into my Manchester prep and post Manchester training. I will make sure I’m *really* familiar with hills.

And then perhaps the way to nail this baby is to go for all three races, all in one year, next year.  Starting with this one, and then King and then Stones.  Building on what this has taught me to get stronger and go harder.  Because this isn’t failure.  I mean, sure.  I didn’t succeed.  But as one of you said, I didn’t quit.  I was pulled.  I couldn’t have gone on, actually.  It was a real thing.

And the first day?  Well.  As I said on Facebook.  We look like we’re having the very *best* time.  Because we were!