Tring2Town – A bloody long way.

I registered to do this race online. Name, address, club, estimated finish time, credit card details were all entered without much conscious thought from myself. Congratulations, my screen exclaimed, You are now registered for the Tring 2 Town Ultra – All the best etc. At this point my skin turned cold and my heart raced as I realised that I’d just opened the door to a dangerous place. The past 2 years had led me to this point that I knew was irreversible, something that can not be taken back. It took a moment for me to put it in order in my own head, but once I did it was simple. What has just happened that would change my life forever? – I now know my credit card details of by heart.

So, what have my keyboard happy fingers got me into trouble with now? A 45 mile race? Damn it. I’d only gone online to buy a memory card.

Six months later I’m on the starting line. It feels like its come so soon, yet I also feel that this has been on the horizon forever.

There are over 100 runners here, but I only see 6 legs – and two of these are my own. Everyone looks dressed to climb a mountain and has covered up considerably. Do they know something I don’t? Will I regret wearing shorts for this? Is it heat loss? Nettles? Dogs? The Randy Old Women of Rickmansworth?

I was getting quite a lot of attention for sporting the running number 1. People were glancing at me, obviously under a misapprehension that I was any good. There are some great perks to being top of the alphabet. You get cool running numbers, are easier to find in phone books and I always got the best seat in exams. There are one or two drawbacks though. I recall being the first in my school to have the TB jab.1

The first 1.5 mile or so was from the hotel/pub to the start of the canal. Everyone spread out quite quickly. Some walked to canal so that they would not get over excited and try and sprint at the start. My plan was nice and simple, run 9 minute miles until I finish. I often have a problem with navigation, however now that I am on the canal I know the way. Run 31.1 miles and then turn left. No one could possibly mess that up? Right?

I mean Left....

Saturday 16th December is a day that should be memorable to many. It was the day of the Serpentine Christmas party. That morning I had a strange premonition. I dreamed that on that night I would end up eating lots, drinking more, getting a bit tipsy and babbling on incoherently about some random nonsense whilst attempting to dance. With this in mind I decided to take precautionary measures such that these risks could be minimised. I thought that I should a) burn off these calories before I consume them, b) at least give myself a subject to babble on about and c) ensure that my legs were in no condition at all to even attempt to dance. So I put my plan into motion.

It was about time I did a long run.2 I set out from my house in Ealing and asked myself - how far can I run in 6 hours? The answer was Reading. I saw some beautiful sights on my 36 mile amble down the Bath road. Heathrow Airport, The M25, The M4 (twice), Slough (whose Tesco I used as a toilet stop). I was elated at being able to run that far, walking only to cross motorways and visit petrol stations. I felt surrounded by an aura of satisfaction (and others could smell it I think) as I bought my train ticket back to Ealing and made the hour long journey back home. As I hobbled through my front door and shouted my achievement to my housemates they just stared blankly and asked “Couldn’t you have run somewhere better?” Fair point.

So, having burned over 5000 calories I felt no guilt in gorging on the unpronounceable menu at the Shepherds Bush Hilton, drinking all that I could and babbling on non stop about my run. As far as I recall, there was NO dancing, not by me anyway.3

I knew I could run at 9.00 pace for 35 miles and still feel OK. I also knew how to run this pace exactly without any need for Garmins, milemarkers or anything else. My pace was seeing me overtake a few people early on. The pack spread out neatly and I counted about 15 people in front of me. It was just a matter of time now. When my stopwatch says 7 I should be lifting my arms up and woo hooing. In 7 and a half hours I will be drunk.

The ground was quite hard to run on. It was like cement mixed with bits of brick. Very uneven and quite hard on the feet. I’d developed a running style that involved lifting my feet only a little off the floor. Great for saving energy and going easy on the knees. Not so good if you wanted to avoid tripping over too much.

We were handed a route guide that told us which bridges to cross over at. It was very simple, all of the bridges had numbers on and you were instructed to cross over at bridge x. However, the distance of the bridge from the start didn’t seem to add up. When I crossed a bridge at 5.3 miles there was an hour on the clock. It had taken me an hour to do 5 miles? So that’s 9 hours for the whole thing? I did not feel like I was going that slow. In fact I was absolutely certain I was not. At that early stage the worst thing to do would be to panic. It wasn’t as if I’d be devastated with missing my target, the thing that concerned me was how I’d judged my pace so badly. Do I run faster? Settle on a slower time? Instead I decided to go for the simpler solution, the route guide was bollocks.4

More bridges came and went with the same anomaly. I arrived at the first checkpoint, 9.8 miles in 1.44.

Ultimate Driving Ballads – Without the Car

I had spent the previous week carefully constructing a soundtrack for this event. Whilst training I was experimenting with food, drink5, clothing, shoes, pace, stretching and music. Every run would see the playlist on my cheap 8 hour device evolve into the soundscape that would get me through this. Each song had a purpose. Sweet Child O’ Mine, Free Bird, The Impossible Dream and Go Your Own Way would lift me from a low, Song Remains the Same, Tonight Tonight and The Queen is Dead would keep my tempo, Livin’ on a Prayer was to sound so that the “Whoooah we’re halfway there” coincides with exactly half way. Comfortably Numb6 will remind me of how shit it feels to watch your dream drift off in front of you, and you decide not to reign it back in. Always in the mood for irony or brutal truth I take Highway to Hell, The Road to Hell and Creep, “What the hell am I doing here? I don’t belong here”.

I made a decision not to carry an mp3 player on this run7. I never have done in a race as I’ve always thought it to be offensive to those people who have come out to cheer you. However, upon leaving the checkpoint it dawned on me that I was completely on my own. The runners had become very spaced out and the only time a passer by would talk to me would be to apologise for their Doberman mauling me.

For the next tens miles I have only my own brain for company. Could be worse, it could be Jade Goody’s brain.

So my train of thought commences. The top of my thighs hurt a bit, how are they going to cope with the remaining 35 miles? OK just don’t think about them and the pain will go away, think about something else. Oh, bridge number 165. It’s cool how every bridge has a number, it makes it easier for Trolls to tell people where they live. What happens when a new bridge is built between two consecutively numbered bridges? It would have to be called 165a or something. They couldn’t possibly re-number all the bridges could they? The Trolls would get so confused and turn up to the wrong dinner parties and everything. Oh I need a wee. Look out for somewhere where I can ... oh damn it, there’s a girl running behind me. I can’t go in front of a girl, it would be rude, and I’ll get stage fright anyway. Must hold it for a while and think of something else. Ow my thighs hurt....

I wish Jimmy Page was here.

The way to do ultra marathons (so I’ve heard) is to break it down into manageable chunks. I discovered this in my second long run. To make a 6 hour training run interesting I decided to run the length of the Central Line from Ealing Broadway to Epping. All I was thinking about was getting to the next station. I have long suspected that many of these “zone 5 & 6” stations don’t actually exist. It’s just some map drawer taking the piss. However, I can confirm that they do all exist, even Theydon Bois. Whether it was necessary to run 35 miles to prove that is still in debate.

20 miles was the second checkpoint (3.00 ish). I was still a little behind schedule but had caught up a bit. My pace had not changed so I was a bit confused still. My groin was hurting a bit more but that was all. About 4 people caught up to me and left at the checkpoint and ran on. I stayed to stretch a bit.

Only a marathon to go. Ha Ha. I was allowed to say it, but if I’d heard anyone else say it they would end up in the canal.

I started to get annoyed by my belt pack thing. I was travelling very light relative to everyone else. I just had a large bum bag. The things inside started rattling and bouncing around. It was like Chinese water torture, or Hertfordshire lucozade torture. The ground turned soft. The beautiful scenery gave way to flyovers. The picturesque buildings and boats became industrial estates and car parks. The even surface turned to mud. The friendly walkers and other joggers turned into grumpy fishermen and grumpier wives. I was headed towards Uxbridge.

One of the necessary preparations for a race like this is the kit you run in. A normal marathon would just be a case of trainers, shorts and a Serpie top. For this run though there was a lot more to it. I felt like a woman does before a Christmas party. “I could wear my black trainers, but then if it rains then my toes will get soggy, unless I wear the thicker socks. But they can sometimes give me blisters. I could wear shorts, but if it’s cold I’ll regret not wearing trousers, though my trousers don’t have very big pockets so I can fit my balms in there. Do I wear the long sleeve Serpie top or the vest with a top underneath? I could wear my white top underneath the vest, but then the white would clash with my shoes”.

3.35. ♫ Whoooaaahhh We’re half way there....

I think I passed the marathon point in 4 hours. At the same time I’d caught up with another chap who was pleased to hear that we had passed that milestone. He them informed me that the measurements were not quite right as the route plan did not include the 1.5 miles we ran to the start of the canal. I could not quite believe how I had not figured this out but it explained exactly why I was behind. I was running a perfect pace, its just I’d ran 1.5 miles more and hence should be about 14 minutes behind.

Thought express 2 – My broken Heart (Rate Monitor). Should I have used a Heart Rate Monitor to manage my effort rather than a constant pace?

I bought one of these gizmos recently and was quickly confused. To train effectively I need to know my resting heart rate, which apparently you achieve in your sleep? How are you supposed to measure that? Your maximum heart rate can be achieved after the second burst of 3 minutes of running as fast as you can. After that kind of effort I doubt I’ll be able to lift my arms to see my watch, let alone see the reading. I decided that rather than let another £40 go to waste I’ll at least have some fun with it. I thought I’d just wear it around the house and see how my heart reacts to stuff. Here is how it went;

59-Put on strap thing

80-Run downstairs with my washing and put in machine

65-Sit drinking tea and look at football scores on teletext

125-Emile Heskey??? Scores a goal?

120-Cycle to supermarket

75-Rate drops as I walk through chilled food area

135-BUY ONE GET ONE FREE – PRINGLES. Pick up 8 tubes

160-Get honked at on way home by juggernaut

90-Unpack shopping and explain to girlfriend about HRM

80-She calls me a pathetic sad geek

65-Read instructions to try to figure it about a bit more

315-Girlfriend enters room and tells me she’s pregnant

220-“Just Kidding” she says. “It’s your fault for being so sad”

175-Struggle to remove strap

0-Get strap off and throw it at her head

0-She breaks it

Thought Express 3 – In answer to the question “What do you think about when running for that long?”

It’s a hard question to answer. I think about so much but recall so little. It’s a bit like dreaming. Then I thought, it’s exactly like dreaming but the other way round. When I’m running I try not to think about the complications of the race. Whether I’ll get dehydrated, have stomach problems, what to do with a blister, what if I pull a muscle, trip over, get lost? All these things I try to push out of my mind and I think of other stuff, like what to say to my friends at the checkpoints, what to include in my race report, what I’m going to say when I cross the finish line, how bad Leicester City are, what I’d like to say to people I don’t like at work and wouldn’t world peace8 be great?

When I’m not running however I think about all those things in the first list. Even when I’m sleep I dream about travelling to a race, trying to remember all my stuff and getting ready at the start. That is until I’m rudely woken up by a slap round the head at 3am and someone shouting “GET THOSE BLOODY SAFETY PINS OUT OF MY BED”.

What do I think about when I’m not running? That would be a better question.

Checkpoint 3 – 28 miles ♫ Back in Black

I have now “raced” further than ever before. I have run more than a marathon and still have 17 miles to go. My legs are quite sore but I know that means nothing. One of the most important things I learned in the training is how far you can actually go when not feeling great.

The thought express was to sit in the station for a little while as I had been joined by some of my friends. Nikolai and Lou asked if it was ok to run alongside me for a while. I felt like Forrest Gump9. This was the part that everyone said would be most difficult. Gowan was there too. He managed to be there for every checkpoint. I felt that I was cheating slightly by having all of this great support. Most of the other runners were on their own, having travelled from far on the day to run in some place they didn’t know. I’m glad they were there though.

Lou is always fun to have around when running. She would often remind me that my “form” was good10 and that I was winning11. I felt sorry for Nikolai though as he should have been running the whole thing with me. No, that’s wrong. He would have run the first mile with me then the next time I’d see him would be at the finish in 7 hours eating a burger or something. It was great to see him back running after 3 months out.

The surface was now gravel. I had several small stones in my shoe but was scared of taking it off as I’d have ended up with even more small stones in my shoe. The gravel was quite tough and my legs were getting sorer. It was great having company though. Even if one of them started coming out with this..

The Strange world of Lou Reeves 1 – “I was just thinking, wouldn’t it be awful if you found a dead body while running?” Yes, It would.

The Strange world of Lou Reeves 2 – “I’ve foolishly decided to wear a g string and it’s really uncomfortable” I wouldn’t know.

We approached the turning. 31 miles in and I was looking for a left turn, praying it would be obvious so I wouldn’t miss it. I knew that as soon as I see this I’m on the home straight. And there is was..... over a bridge then round to the left. Making the turn felt like the last turn in the London Marathon at Buckingham Palace. You can see the finish. Only I can’t. It’s FOURTEEN miles away. However I could see the Wembley Arch. It’s the first recognisable thing I have seen so far. Thank god they built it so quick.

Checkpoint 4 – 33 miles 5ish hours. ♫ The hardest part

The stretch between CP4 and CP5 was the hardest part. I’d slowed a bit and was hurting more and more. If no one was around I may have considered walking. Luckily I was in very good company. A lot of friends had come out to see me run today. To start walking would be the end of me and the thought of making everyone wait longer than necessary eliminated these cravings pretty quickly.

At 35 miles exactly Nikolai got a call. It was Ben who informed us that Ian Sharman has just won. Less than 6 hours had elapsed, I still have 10 miles to go and the Serpie I was talking to at the start had finished? I’d liked to have said “Well Done” and meant it. I’d loved to have felt really happy for him and look forward to seeing him at the end, but for some reason I couldn’t. My body and mind were filled with bile and spite.

There was a seminar the night before this race where lots of tips and stories were exchanged about ultra running. For many, including myself this was their first. There was an air of nervous anticipation in the room. The guy leading the session says that the key to success is how you feel when running. How you feel determines the outcome of your run. He asked us to take a card and to write a few words on it to say how we wanted to feel the next day. Some then read out their suggestions. “To feel Strong, in control, relaxed, the sense of achievement and to have a smile for the finish line”. I couldn’t decide what to put at the time but I did later add something to the card. Soon after Ian’s victory I thought about what I’d written, what I wanted from the race.

Nikolai and Lou were still beside me. Nikolai has been out of action for 3 months and is just returning to running. He should have been doing this too, but after 3 months he’d changed his goals and was really pleased to be running his longest run for ages.

Lou is in training for her first marathon. If she is feeling nervous about it she hides it well. She doesn’t need to worry at all. This was her first long run for a while and she looked fine.

They both ran 13 miles with me and both looked like they were enjoying themselves.

I thought of the guys at the end who were waiting to buy me beer at the nearest pub. How I was looking forward to seeing them.

Gowan had been there at every checkpoint along the way. Sometimes I’d only acknowledge his presence with a grunt. I felt guilty for a man who’d thanklessly drove from point to point on a canal to cheer me on for 2 minutes at a time. Then I remembered that I’d sent him a text message at exactly half way. It said “Start singing the song”, a reference to the Bon Jovi song that had become the official anthem for being half way through anything. I’d forgotten to ask him if he received it. I asked Nikolai, “Did Gowan like that text?” “Yes, he loved it”. Brilliant, Gowan was happy too.

I thought about what was on my card. What I wanted from this race. 6 miles from the end I realised that I’d already got what I came for. The pain receded, the pace quickened.

Checkpoint 5 41.1 miles 6.40 ♫ This is the end. My only friend, the end

The sky started to dim. I was lucky to be finishing while it is still light. Nikolai and Lou had left me to run the home straight. Harlesdon isn’t the most pleasant place to run at the best of times, however it contained a steel cold beauty. Iron bridges, rail depots, dockyards, rusty boats, abandoned warehouses and idle cranes. It felt like I was running back into London.

Ben and Simon had joined me at this point. I think they were anxious to get to the pub. I felt stronger and faster than I had been for the whole race. I have never felt this good in the last 4 miles of a marathon. Navi popped up out of nowhere and started running too. It was Forrest Gump all over again. There were a couple of really steep bridges along the way. I have spent the day exploring the 4 dimensions of space and time and so I was not going to let a slight blip in the 3rd dimension beat me.

I could now see 3 people ahead of me. If I pick up the pace I could catch them, all of them. Alas there was no time. If the race had been a mile longer id have done it. Damn the race for being so short. I finished in 10th place. I got caught up in the euphoria so much that I nearly forgot to get my medal12.

So what now? There are so many places to go from here I don’t really know where to begin. Longer Ultras or Multistage ones? I don’t know. I’ll leave that thinking for a little while. In the mean time I have a marathon to train for in 3 months, and I need to start reducing my mileage.

Top Ten Tips for Ultra Fun

  1. Get used to running whilst you are still aching. I did 20 miles runs followed by 20 mile again the next day. From the very first step on the second day I was aching, however I knew that I needed to know how this feels. Knowing that you can run 20 miles whilst feeling sore is what will get you through a race like this. Be very careful about confusing aching with injury though. If you feel injured, stop.
  2. Drink early. I could comfortably run 15 miles without fluid. However, run any further and the dehydration will catch up on you with interest. I discovered this on my first long run. 15 miles no drink. After 25 I had to stop in every shop and guzzle half a litre of drink and it wouldn’t quench my thirst.
  3. Talk about it constantly. Think “Fight Club” but with the opposite rules. First rule - talk about it constantly, second rule - talk about it constantly, third rule – if someone does not know about it then go and talk to them about it forcefully, fourth rule – if someone changes the subject to themselves talk about it even louder, fifth rule – if all your friends desert you for being boring, don’t panic. That will leave you with more spare time to run.
  4. Vaseline – EVERYWHERE. Just don’t get caught in the bike room at work applying the stuff.
  5. Turn your long training runs into at bit of an adventure. My run along the central line felt a bit like the journey of Frodo Baggins. Leaving the shire (Marble Arch), galloping though Rohan, land of men (St Pauls), evading orcs and uruk hai through the detestable bowels of hell (Bethnal Green). Then through the secret staircase into Mordor (Roding Valley), sneaking up Mt Doom wary of the Nasgul (Theydon) then sanctuary in heavenly Rivendale (Epping).
  6. Don’t experiment with music (if you take it) on a long run. Take what you know will work. I made the mistake of getting over excited in a HMV sale and bought loads of cheap CD’s from bands I’d heard were quite good but I wasn’t sure whether I liked them or not. The band I took was Korn. I thought they were some sort of hard rock band; turns out they produce some god damn awful rapity hop or something. I first attempted the central line run listening to this shite. After 3 hours of listening to f*****g this and f*****g that and everything is f*****g f****d I just felt like killing myself. Instead I got on the train at Leyton and went home. It’s a mistake that Frodo didn’t make. Next time it was Celine Dion all the way......
  7. When you get overtaken by a smug runner in the street, just catch up and ask “so how far have you run today? 8 miles? Oh”
  8. 90% of distance running is psychological. The other half is in your head
  9. Stretch as much as possible after a run. I did and could do so much more the days after. (Yeah, I know it’s a tired cliché but it works. Like when your mum says “always wash behind your ears, wrap up warm when you go outside and stay away from that Cynthia from the villiage).
  10. Remember, from what I’ve heard most people who turn to the ultra side never go back.


Acknowledgments (If Alphabetical order, since that always decides what’s best)

Ambition Events – For organising such a great race

BBC Weather – They got it right, for once.

Ben Cope – For pacing me over the last 4 miles and not muscling in on my photo opportunity at the finish.

British Waterways – For providing these lovely canals for us to run on.

Debbie Edwards – For all the coaching and encouragement in the past 12 months. Though she did piss off to New Zealand on the big day.... – For counting all my training miles and for the great advice I got off other users

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Google Maps – For visualising exactly how far this was. (You can see the start, the finish and Canada in the same shot)

Gowan Clews – For being at every checkpoint. For thinking about this day probably more than I was. For refuelling me with fantastic cake and Serpie fudge along the way. For always being there when I needed energy drink and encouragement. The lift home was pretty useful too.

Ian Sharman – Amusing me greatly by comprehensively winning this race wearing tennis shorts and a hoodie.

Imodium instants – Came up trumps once again.

Lou Reeves – For taking my mind off the running with her own odd sense of reality

Navi Dhillon – Sports massage and for running about 1 mile with me in boots.

Nikolai Pitchforth – For pacing me in a race he would loved to have done himself. For wanting to continue the journey into ultras with me after this.

Serpentine Running Club – For the nice top

Simon Bamfylde – Running the final 4 with me despite the risk of muddying his nice shoes and jeans.

Tesco, Slough – Nice toilets