In around 6 weeks I’ll be towing the start line to the Dragon’s Back, which I am doing to raise money for Dartmoor Search and Rescue – Plymouth. The Dragon’s Back is such a tough challenge that I’ve been focussed and training for it since September 2016. Over the last few months I have continually pushed myself to higher and higher levels. I am 40 years old and all of my previous personal bests are tumbling with this new focus.
It’s been hard fitting the training around a new job and my family. It has been hard finding the motivation to keep going out. Even with all of this there is no guarantee that I will finish the Dragon’s Back. It is one of the hardest races in the world and a finish wont be guaranteed until I have crossed the line on the final day and I have my trophy in my hand.
The following is a short tale from a run that I did last weekend on the edge of the beautiful north Devon coastline. It shows how even with all of this ultra training and experience that just a few miles can all of a sudden feel insurmountable.
Mental strength in an ultra is something that you have to train and work on, just like any other aspect of the race. On any single day of the Dragon’s Back each competitor will likely go through something similar more than once and each time it will be all they can do to keep moving forwards. Everyone that starts the Dragon’s Back is the kind of runner that is used to pushing on when their body says no more, moving forwards when others have given up. Even then this event is so tough that history says nearly two thirds of the field wont make it to the finish of the final day.
Hopefully this will also demonstrate that my efforts are worth a £ or two in donations for a worthy cause. www.justgiving.com/dragonsback2017
On Saturday I took part in a race which was the same length as Dragon’s Back day 1, but not quite as hilly. I went out hard, anticipating a decent finish. I was also trying a few things out prior to Dragon’s Back, food, gear etc. The picture above is quite significant for me because it shows the section of the route where I blew up, and plummeted down the rankings. I shall explain 🙂
Up until this last section I was flying, I generally felt good and was well ahead of my previous time on this course. Then the wheels fell off. I had a proper ultra “crash.” Stomach issues earlier in the day combined with pushing on a bit too hard meant my energy vanished suddenly. I went from floating along to stumbling. My brain was quietly but persistently telling me to quit. I wobbled onwards. I poured away 700ml of energy drink which I knew I would never drink. I sipped on my electrolyte drink, and poked down an isotonic gel. My brain carried on with the bad news. I should turn around, and walk back to my car. I should also quit Dragon’s Back immediately because I would never do it. I should give up running and become a couch potato.
I stumbled on. Runners overtaking me every few minutes, making me feel worse and worse despite their apparent sympathy.
As I arrived at a gate on a clifftop I turned to face the view and just sat down, cross legged on the ground, looking out across the sea. You can see this at the 5:33:20 mark in the picture.
A runner passed and asked if I was ok. I replied that I was fine.
I was sat next to a junction on the path. Turning left would take me straight to the finish and my car. Turning right would mean the torture would continue. This was a typical “red pill” or “blue pill” situation. In this sort of situation things do tend to get a little melodramatic, and I get my inspiration from wherever I can. My soul was exposed and my brain was mercilessly harassing it. Telling me to turn left. Quit and it would all be over.
Something refused to give up.
I peeled down my arm protectors, so I could see the tattoo on my wrist. It reads “Never give up.” I stood up, and took a step to the right, pulling out a gel and forcing it down. Brains get awfully despondent when they are low on sugar. I pulled out my map. It was approx. 2km to the top of the hill. I could do 2 km. Once I got to the top the easiest way back to the car would be by following the route of the course and finishing the race.
I took another step, then another. Some more people went past.
For the most part I looked just in front of my feet. Taking it one step at a time. Patiently. Relentlessly. One step at a time. 2km is a long way. It is far more than 2000 steps when creeping slowly forwards. One step at a time. Sipping steadily on my electrolytes until they were gone. Finally I crested the hill and the only way was down.
That final long downhill was taken running. It was barely more than walking speed, but my brain had changed into a different gear. It had stopped trying to sabotage my finish attempt as it had no other choice. Finally I crossed the line, having no idea of my overall placing. It turns out that I had over two thirds of the field still behind me. A good, solid result despite the drama of the final two hours.
Sometimes that horrible, pessimistic inner voice just needs to be ignored. You need to find a way to shut it up. A way to carry on, and keep going. It will pass, and things will get better.
Reading back through this I realise that any reader could be forgiven for thinking that ultra marathon running is a horrible experience, only to be attempted by loons and fools. In reality this particular run was 5 hours of glorious trail running with great company and in amongst some of the best scenery in the UK. 40 minutes of it was utterly shit and another hour was pretty uncomfortable. To finish felt simply amazing, as completing any ultra always feels. The emotional pay off is always an amazing high.
My next big race is The Dragon’s Back itself. If you follow my Facebook page and my blog I’ll share the link to my tracker and you can keep an eye on my progress. Rest assured that this challenge is absolutely worth one or two pennies in donations, as is the cause that I am raising money for. Dartmoor Search and Rescue. www.justgiving.com/dragonsback2017