Friday, 16 September 2016

This is what we came for...

Blencathra to Dockray (7.7miles, 49 miles total)

I felt a sense of urgency as I headed down the steps and across the field.  My legs were screaming at me and tears were flowing down my face.  I couldn’t believe I was still stuck in this nightmare race and I’d done it to myself! I was going to stop.  Why didn’t I stop?  Now I had another 8 miles to cover. But maybe that was okay.  Even thought everything hurt, at least then we would be sure that it was the right decision and that I had really thought it through.  Oh god, trying to get over that stile onto the road.  Clearly I was going to stop. I needed to stop. If that was how much pain I was in at 41 miles then there was no hope of me getting past Dockray (49 miles), then to Dalemain (59 miles). There’s no point even thinking about Coniston anymore.

I had created a new playlist on my Ipod especially for the Lakeland 100 so I felt I may as well use it for this section before I was done.  My earphones went in and I started running down the road. I turned it up loud to drown out the demons in my head.  Near the bottom of the road I caught up with Steve.  I remember Steve from the first climb out of Coniston.  He went flying past up that hill with his poles.  I wished I had my poles right now.  We briefly chatted before I Steve pulled away again.  I really need to thank Steve because he was the carrot that pulled me along the railway path and then then up the miserable climb up to the coach road.  I’m glad he was there, pulling me along as I think I would have been much slower otherwise and certainly wouldn’t have found the drier route up through the boggy area to the gate.  So thanks Steve.

I’m not a big fan of the coach road. Since the flooding last December the erosion has made a real mess of the road for the first couple of miles so it was even less appealing than previously. I think half the trouble is that you can see where you are going for a long, long time as the track stretches off into the distance.  Some people might enjoy that but I don’t.  I didn’t need reminding of how far I still needed to go, and how frustratingly slow my progress was.

I tried to keep close to Steve but he was running more than he was walking and I was walking more than I was running. Gradually he went out of site but there were a couple of other runners that I used to pull me along. I was grateful for my music.  I had selected some songs that would inspire and motivate, and others that were simply happy songs.  I thought long and hard (as instructed) about what I was feeling and how much I was hurting.  Annabel’s words repeated over and over in my mind, as did Paul’s.  Did I really want to go back to the cottage at Coniston where I would be able to see all the others finishing and then spend the next week in the village with the constant reminder that I’d given up and I was the only one walking round without a medal?

I didn’t want to give up.  I didn’t want to be weak.  Whilst the dizziness, fear and confusion I’d faced during the night was gone, the pain was not.  My legs were in complete agony.  My feet felt like every single bone was broken in them.  Whilst I had chosen well with my shoes (plenty of cushioning and good grip for the trail) the underfoot conditions on the 100 route really are the most brutal I have experienced and my feet simply hadn’t had enough miles pounded into them. But I was still moving forward.  And is that not all I had to do?  Embrace the pain and use it to push myself further than I’d ever pushed before.  The pain was unbearable and yet I was still going.  If I could get to Dockray within the time then why not just keep going to Dalemain?  It’s only another 10 miles.  And then at least at 59 miles I would be reaching the virtual halfway point in the race. By the time I would get there all the L50 runners would be long gone, as would their supporters so the humiliation of stopping wouldn’t be so bad then right?  And getting to Dalemain is pretty respectable isn’t it? Plus, then I will have raced along the entire route as I only ran from Dalemain in the L50 last year.

It was starting to sound like it made sense, and the closer I got to Dockray and the closer I got to seeing Paul and Annabel and Daniel (who were going to pick me up when I handed in my chip-timer) the more I wanted to keep going for one last ‘glory’ leg.

I passed one more runner just before Dockray and this gave me a wee boost.  Not in the ‘I’m going beat you’ kind of way but more in the ‘thank goodness there are still other people here’ way. And on arriving at Dockray checkpoint I went straight into the gazebo and asked for tea and soup.  I said nothing about stopping, and Paul didn’t ask. The soup was cold and tasted burnt (which is not surprising by the time I got there!) and I left it and just drank my tea and ate a sandwich and some crisps.  I packed away my Ipod as I needed to concentrate on the next section.  I said goodbye to Paul and the kids and set off down the road.

Dockray to Dalemain (10.1miles, 59.1miles total)

I walked down the road.  My quads hurt too much to do anything else.  Paul and the kids came past in the car and gave me words of encouragement.  I could tell Paul was impressed that I was still going and that gave me a much-needed boost. I do enjoy this section (mostly) so I wanted to try and do the best run I could, especially if this was going to be the end.  Whilst I was walking down the road Angela pulled up alongside me. She was in much better spirits than me and was moving well so I wished her well as she continued running down the road.

I tried to be as positive as she was and managed a short jog as I reached the village.  There were a few people around and walkers out and about, so again, not wanting to look rubbish I tried to keep jogging as much as my legs would allow me.  As I travelled down the path past Aira Force I heard a few comments about ‘crazy runners’ from people out ‘touristing.’ Who can blame them though?  Angela came into view near the bottom of the path.  She was taking off her rain-jacket.  Mine was tied round my waist as I couldn’t be bothered trying to put it back in my pack, and I figured I would be going so slowly I would probably need it again very soon.

As I made my way around the side of Gowbarrow Fell and then through the forest I kept expecting Angela to come past me.  Instead I seemed to be passing other runners. This really came as a surprise as I didn’t see how anyone could be having a worse time than me.  Each time I caught sight of somebody I used them as a target to reel in.  It became a game almost.  I found myself running (in relative terms) really strongly, and for increasing amounts of time.  My legs were utterly trashed but somehow this game became my new coping mechanism.

Just before I reached the field crossings before the road section John Duncan was waiting with hugs and encouragement. I told him that the race was just ridiculous and the Fling is a far more civilized affair ;-) If I had been doing the Fling I would have been finished long ago. See, far more ‘normal’ and ‘sensible.’  John was waiting for Noanie and said she was in great spirits so as with Angela, I expected her to catch up to me at any minute.

The fields went by really quickly.  There was very little bogginess for the first time ever! Well, the first time ever for me anyway.  So that was a bonus.  And I spotted my next pair of runners to tag onto; and then one more, and another one on the road section, which I ran most of.  I was definitely coming out of my funk and running along those last couple of miles before Dalemain I made up my mind.  If I could still run, and could still pass people, then there was no reason I should be stopping at Dalemain. I was running better than the other runners around me and they were still moving forward so I had no choice but to keep going. The awfulness of the previous night was in the past.  I’d put it in a box and moved on.  I needed to get through Dalemain.  Once I was through there, there was nowhere else for me to go but Ambleside, and if I got to Ambleside, then I was basically at the finish, there’s no stopping at Ambleside right?  I could do this.  So long as I could move, with some running, I could do this.  I would do it.  I told myself over and over.

As I approached Dalemain I saw Susan first, and beyond her Marian and Paul and the kids.  “Hold it together Vicky. Don’t fall apart now.” Susan hugged me.  It hurt!  I hadn’t realised that absolutely everything was hurting, not just my legs and feet.  I was so focused on getting to Dalemain that I blocked out so much.  I guess that’s the only way to get through these things.  It’s all a question of how well you can block it out.

I dibbed in at 20 hours and 34 minutes, which was almost 1.5 hours inside the cutoff time.  I had made up a whole hour in time between Blencathra and Dalemain. The momentum was with me and I had to use that. Inside the marque it was absolute carnage with broken runners all over the place.  The marshals were busy supporting runners so Susan grabbed my drop-bag for me, Marian got me a chair and I sat outside and we set about getting me sorted for the second half of the race: feet cleaned, new socks, new shoes, a change of top, re-stocking my fluids and food.  I ate some soup, it was not good.  I ate some bread, had some banana bread from my drop bag, drank a couple of cups of tea and ate a banana.  I had put a can of Diet Coke in my drop-bag too.  Oh that was good.  I know lots of people swear by regular CocaCola during races but I just can’t touch the stuff. It makes me want to throw up.  But the caffeine and the bubbles from the Diet Coke was just what I needed.  I had lots of cuddles from Annabel and Daniel and before I set off hugs from Marian, Susan and Paul.  I told him I would see him at the finish.  I was definite in my mind that I would finish and he wouldn’t need to leave Coniston again to collect me.  So having picked up my poles (from my drop-bag) I just had the small matter 46 miles to get through.

 As I set off power-hiking across the field I felt a sense of this being a pivotal moment in my race.  I was one hour inside the cut off, my legs were destroyed and in absolute agony, and even my new shoes couldn’t mask the wreck that my feet were. Physically I had absolutely no right to finish this, but my mind was in a new place.  I had come out of the worst low of any race I had ever done and I was on a mission.  I had put myself through absolute hell for the previous 21 hours – I didn’t want that effort and the work of the past 2 years to be in vain.  This was why we were we all there after all – to see if we can push through, to push beyond what we thought possible and find new strength and a new drive to succeed. This was the point where we would all find out what I was made of…

Friday, 9 September 2016

Lakeland 100. Part 2. The broken Hart.

It was a strange feeling walking out of Braithwaite.  I felt defeated and just not up to the challenge I had set myself.  But now that I had decided I was done, and I just had to get through the next 8 miles, however long it took, and then I would be free. There was a little sense of relief with that thought, knowing the pain and distress I had been through was almost over. The dream was over I had to let it go.

Before I had even reached the edge of the village the very lovely Mike Churchyard appeared at my side. He was in good spirits and we chatted a bit.  I didn’t let on that I was going to pull out at Blencathra.  I was too ashamed.  He advised me to change my socks if I had a spare pair in my bag. All these little things can help make or break your race he told me. 105 miles might be a big thing but it’s all the little things that decide whether you’ll get to the finish or not.  I took his advice and stopped on the edge of the village; partly because my feet had been wet for a long time and dry socks would definitely help (even just for the few miles left) but partly because I didn’t think I could handle having company at that point.  I thought I might crack and turn into a big blubbering mess.  I needed to be alone, to think about my decision and to brace myself for seeing Paul and my wee girl and boy.  I knew that was going to be tough.

I trotted along on and off by the roadside.  I didn’t want to be seen walking along a flat road with early morning traffic going by; the shame of it.  I needed to keep a little false sense of respect for myself, at least publicly. I was relieved when the route then cut away from the road and along the railway path where I could again hide from the world.  Since the path was flat I jogged on and off still, feeling like that was what I ought to be doing. I came across a fellow runner asleep by the side of the path.  She woke as I passed and we jogged along together. She was saying she just couldn’t stay awake. That she was falling asleep whilst running and that she thought her race was over. I didn’t confess much of my own situation.

We were together as we arrived at Keswick.  I had a moment of panic when I saw the two Johns (John Kynaston and John Duncan).  How was I going to act like everything was ok and that I was just suffering a bit?  I couldn’t bear to confess how I was really feeling.  They were both so cheery and supportive.  I felt a terrible fraud, especially when I knew how much JK had suffered during his first L100 and still finished in a great time.  I tagged onto two more runners as they came down the road past us.  The lady who was struggling to stay awake pulled out at this point. I believe she went back to Braithwaite.

Often times when I have been down in the Lakes I have walked or run up Spooney Green Lane and up round Latrigg, I have wondered how anyone could possibly run up it after thirty-five miles.  I would always struggle when it was the first miles of a run. Oddly, it didn’t feel any worse than any other time I have been up.  I have never managed to run the whole thing before and so made no effort to this time.  The knowledge of being near the finish helped me get up to the car-park but once the trail was less severe I found I struggled more.  As I rounded the hillside towards the start of Glenderaterra Valley golden rays of sun were breaking through the clouds and sprinkling their light over the lower slopes of Clough Head. In the previous 12 hours I had lost sight of the beauty of the Lake District.  I had sworn not only against ever trying a Lakeland race again but I never wanted to visit the Lakes again at all.  I was done with the place.  I took out my phone and took a picture for the second (and final) time in the race.  I figured it didn’t matter if I used up my phone battery or stopped for a couple of extra seconds to catch a photo of the new day.

As I slowly made my way along the valley my legs were aching with each step and any downward step sent spasms of pain around my pelvis.  I lost count of how many people passed me.  It could have been 5 or 50, I was so spaced out at this point and I’d given up caring.  I just wanted to get to the unmanned dibber so that I could start going down the other side of the valley.  It’s a real battle going up and down that valley.  The whole time you are heading north you can see the far side of the valley, and your route, heading south.  The further up you go, the further down you will have to come.  Eventually I made it to the dibber and then followed the steep and painful downhill to the bridge before starting the final journey back down the valley and towards my finish.

In between the tears I tried to look back across the valley to see if anyone was still coming along behind me.  I saw the occasional moving black dot but not many.  I figured I must be very close to last coming along the trail.  I knew John had been waiting on Noanie so I supposed he wasn’t far behind me on the trail and was fully expecting her to come past me at any given moment.

I texted Susan to let her know I was pulling out of the race.  It would take too long to explain but it was all over for me. She texted back saying she was crying for me as she knew how much the race had meant to me. If I hadn’t thought I could feel any worse, I was wrong.

A runner came along the trail towards me.  He had no race number so I assumed he was one of the aid station helpers.  He informed me that I only had a bout half a mile to the checkpoint.  I felt a rush of relief. My legs, my feet and my heart could all rest soon.  But first I had to steel myself ready for the emotional onslaught that I knew was close ahead.

Soon the car-park was in sight. There was Paul, Annabel and Daniel. And to add to my torment John K. was there too.  Suddenly it was all too real, and too painful. This was it, this was the end. My poor heart was breaking.  I felt like I was letting them all down but it was just too much.  I just couldn’t do it.  I’d given my best shot, and I simply wasn’t good enough.  But how do you explain that to people who want nothing more than for you to finish having seen all the work and sacrifices that have gone into the race?

I couldn’t look at Paul.  I couldn’t look at John.  Daniel was being a busy little boy, like he always is. I felt comfort in that.  He didn’t understand what was going on. He had just missed mummy overnight but here she was again, all is well with the world.  Annabel, well, she’s very clever for a 4 year old.  A strong and passionate little girl, she loves the outdoors and loves to run.  And she loves her mummy. She ran up to me and hugged me.  It was both wonderful and painful at the same time. I think John said something encouraging but it’s a bit of a blur. Paul was asking all the right questions, as I knew he would but I was determined to be steadfast in my decision.  I was holding up, just.  Then Annabel said “I finished my Mr Fox race mummy, I want you to finish your race.” Have you ever watched a slow-motion video of a glass object fall to the ground and splinter into 1000 tiny pieces? That was my heart in that moment.  Perhaps my heart had only been cracked and a bit battered up until that point, but now, it was most definitely and completely broken.   And that hurt more than anything else, more than my feet, my hips, my quads or my pride.  It was everything.

How could I let my little girl down? What sort of example was I setting for her?  Paul I knew would understand.  He’s an ultra-runner.  He’s had more than his share of racing trauma.  Whilst I felt awful for letting him down, I knew he ‘got it’, but Annabel, how do you explain it to a wee girl?  How do you explain ultra-running and all the depths that you go through to somebody who hasn’t been there? I didn’t know what to say other than “I can’t baby, I’m sorry.” And I walked down through the car-park, with my head low and hurting in every possible way.  It was done.

I found my way down to the Blencathra checkpoint and went inside.  I said to the marshal as I went in the door that I was done and that I wanted to pull out.  He asked me what was wrong to which I replied “Everything.” I found out afterwards that this was Little Dave I was talking to.  He told me to get a seat, have a cup of tea and have something to eat and see how I feel after that.  The other marshals sorted me out a cup of tea and I grabbed some of the famous and very delicious chocolate cake made by Little Dave’s mum. I was close to tears.  Oh who am I kidding, the tears were coming, leaking out of their own accord.  But I wasn’t sobbing, which is what I felt like doing. There was a sign next to the cake that said something along the lines of “quitting is the easy part it takes true strength to continue when things are against you”.  I’m paraphrasing but you get the gist. Another punch in the stomach as if I wasn’t hurting enough.

Paul came inside with the kids. He’s a savvy runner and he knows me too well.  He knows how to push my buttons. Armed with his emotional arsenal and the beautiful faces and voices of Annabel and Daniel it was inevitable.  I wasn’t going to win was I?  “I want you to finish your race mummy,” Annabel again pleaded with me.  We agreed I would go onto Dockray.  There was no harm in that.  It was less than 8 miles with lots of runable bits.  If by then I hadn’t been timed out and I was sure it was over, then we agreed that would be it.

What do you mean timed out? Holy cr*p, I was only 30 minutes inside the race cut-off!!  How had that happened?  If I didn’t get shifting I was out of the race whether I wanted to be or not!  This was not what I had envisioned when I had started this race.  If I was going to be out, then I would be out on my own terms!  And with that, I kissed Paul and the kids goodbye, I said to Little Dave that I had changed my mind and I was going to try and make it to Dockray.  And with that I was out of the door, still in the race, still crying and still in pain.