Sunday was the big event, the Kent 50 Mile Challenge, that I have been training towards for 12 months. I should say straight away that I would not ordinarily choose to run even the normal marathon distance of 26.2 miles in the summer months because I don't do well in the heat; so to opt for a double marathon could be considered pure madness. Ah, but that's why it was called a 'challenge', because it was such a tough thing for me to do!
I'd taken the precaution of having a final session with Mary Massage Lady to iron out the remaining niggles in my groin so I knew I felt good. This gave me a much-needed mental boost because it had been playing on my mind. Everything was organised, we'd go to the village barbecue the evening before, relax and socialise, then early to bed, up at 3am and out of the door by 3:45am to head off to Marshside. Or so I thought.........................
On Friday Mike had a big job come in, the sort you can't turn down. This meant he had a heavy workload for the next week with tight deadlines and no room for manoeuvre. It looked as if he would have to work Saturday just to keep ahead. Then another phone call came which I knew would mean he couldn't come to support me. He was gutted. I was gutted. Ordinarily I wouldn't have batted an eyelid because I'm used to doing my marathons alone (except for the London Marathon which he came to this time) as I prefer off-roaders where the only support is from the marshalls and at the finish line. This was different though as it was such a big thing for me to do that he'd really wanted to be part of it and share in my achievement. Anyway it was not to be so there was no point getting upset about it. So, I decided that rather than get up at 3am and have to travel to the start I'd go up the evening before so I could have a lie-in until around 4am. It was jolly tough leaving him behind on Saturday night and I did have a little cry on the way.
This is my hotel room. I took my knitting with me just in case I couldn't sleep but I never actually did any as I couldn't concentrate! Settled down to sleep soon after 10pm but couldn't get to sleep due to the pub/restaurant next door throwing bottles into their container at regular intervals. Finally dropped off but woke up again at 12:45 and was restless for the remaining few hours until the alarm went off at 4am. Then I was up and on the go. Brekkie consisted of a banana, a choccy SlimFast shake and a cup of coffee then I headed off to the start at 4:45am.
I got in a bit of a panic en-route because the directions I had didn't correspond with the road signs so I just trusted my instincts and followed the signs to Marshside hoping that I'd get there eventually................and I did! The road through the marshes was quite eerie so early in the morning as there was no-one about until all of a sudden there was a car behind me, which could only be fellow runners, I turned a corner and there was the pub which was the base camp/start/check-point.
There were lots of people milling around already, some people had camped in the pub garden overnight. It looked really jolly with all the flags strung up. I headed off to the car park and started to prepare. The first person I met from the Runners World forum was Andrew Smith who gave me some very good advice. He said that the forecast was for a very hot day later so it would be wise to do the first part a little quicker to make up for slowing down in the heat. Next was 'Too Much Water' who I saw loads of times on the course. Both are very experienced ultra runners and I was grateful for their advice.
I ambled off to the start area and immediately saw Ruth, aka 'Plodding Hippo', who I last saw on my birthday. This is Pip, aka 'BearB.Hind', and I couldn't resist taking this photo of her and her bear who's wearing his running kit and has the same number as Pip. She does loads of long distance events. There were so many forumites and it was lovely to put some names to faces. We all had to sign a form to say that we were physically fit to attempt the 'challenge' (didn't ask about the state of our mental health though!!!). I had a cup of coffee, a quick trip to the loo and then all of a sudden it was nearly 6am and we gathered at the start.
Mike Inkster, the Race Director, gave an inspiring speech and reminded us all that it was not a race but a personal challenge. We could take a break for food, drink or first aid for as long as we liked as long as we finished within the 15 hour time limit. The route was 8 loops of 6.55 miles starting and finishing outside the pub. At the end of each loop we had to get our number and lap time recorded before we started the next one.
Then we were off and it was real. I stayed right near the back and tried to settle into my pace. I'd trained for 13 minute miling but I heeded Andrew's advice and upped it to 12 minute miling. It was a bit humid and there were lots of grey clouds around but the temperature was OK. If only it could stay like this I thought. About 3 miles in it started to drizzle then at 6:50am Mike phoned just as I'd reached about 4 miles. He'd been woken by an almighty thunder clap and looked out the bedroom window to see torrential rain and lightning and he was hoping we hadn't got the same. At that same moment there was a thunder clap overhead and that's when it started - thunder, lightning (very dramatic!) and RAIN!
The marshalls, who were stuck out in the middle of nowhere could have been forgiven if they'd taken refuge in their vehicles but these 2 valiant souls braved the elements to stand there and cheer us all on whilst getting thoroughly soaked. This one took refuge under a large umbrella.
While this one made a fashion statement and constructed himself a rather attractive sarong from a black bin liner. Well, they say that necessity is the mother of invention! I had a lovely chat with him on each round and later on he and his helper were so encouraging that I just wanted to hug them.
The first lap was very wet and it was nice to get back to the checkpoint. I had a banana and a drink of water and then headed off again. On each lap I took a walking break of about 100m to eat and prepare for the next round. Laps 2 and 3 were largely uneventful as I just put my head down and got on with it. There was something quite exciting about battling against the elements as the rain was really heavy. The main problem was the water, puddles and long grass. The course was made up of several elements - a section of road, rutted grass tracks (vehicle tracks with a grass hump in the middle), cinder paths (lumpy for tired/sore feet) and vast expanses of concrete (hard on the feet and reflected the sun like mad - more of that later). As the vehicle tracks filled with water we all started running either on the middle or at the sides and it was quite hard on your legs as the grass was long. This meant you had to lift your legs higher than usual. After a few laps it was OK because we squashed the grass down. I chuckled to myself as I remembered the Steyning Stinger marathon I did back in March - it rained throughout that but then it was very cold too so this felt quite different. The worst part really was having wet feet and legs splatted with stinky grey mud.
I decided I wouldn't take any photos until the last lap as I knew the weather was going to improve and also I didn't want to stop and walk too early on.
However, around mile 17 the rain had eased off and I couldn't resist snapping this beautiful swan at the side of the river.
Just as I was trying to stuff my camera back into my belt, along came a young photographer who took this photo of me! I later found out he was the son of Gavin, aka 'Pit Stop Crew', who has kindly sent me his photos.
As the rain eased off, the sky brightened and the wind whipped up. It was like being dried by a giant hairdryer on the 'warm' setting. The mud on my legs dried to an attractive light grey and there were chunks of grass embedded in it. Lovely! It looked a if I was wearing knee high socks. I reached the 26.2 mile mark in under 6 hours (which had been the plan) and so decided to take a comfort break to change my socks, dry my feet off, visit the loo and have a snack.
Time for the second half. By now the sun was bearing down on us as it was midday so I slowed my pace right down and just started to pound out the miles. It wasn't a very scenic route but there were lots of things to look at and listen to so I busied myself by looking at the flora and fauna of the marshes.
Here's a photo of a concrete section I took around 12pm when the wind and sun had started to dry everything off. This was one of the better sections as some of the others were sloped and had mini rivers cascading down them. In the distance you can see Ruth, aka 'Plodding Hippo'. If you enlarge the photo you will see that she is not, as she claims, hugely fat and is actually rather trim!
Here is the same section about 6 hours later. The wheat on the left looks a much better colour. The marshes are intersected by lots of drainage ditches and there are lakes for fishing. There were plenty of fishermen out even in the torrential rain, undeterred as they had gigantic umbrellas under which they could shelter.
This small hill is the only one on the route. It was a very noisy section as it runs parallel with the busy dual carriageway. When the sun was out all the concrete sections were especially tough as the sun reflected off the concrete and the marshall in charge of that section was very sunburned by the end of the day. This hill is nicknamed "Tourette's Hill" because by the time you're on your 8th and final lap it feels like a mountain and people have been known to utter expletives whilst dragging their weary legs to the summit!!!!
I stopped at this drainage ditch because I could hear a bullfrog croaking. I didn't manage to spot him but I noticed there was lots of Reed-Mace or Bulrush growing on the banks (which you can't quite make out in the photo). This is a perennial plant found in most open marshland. The leaves are often used for weaving chair seats and the cigar shaped flowers are highly decorative in dried flower arrangements.
This, however, is not a welcome sight. It is Fairy Moss and is causing problems in our waterways as it multiplies like wildfire and clogs up the whole surface of the water thus stifling all other life. It was introduced into garden ponds many years ago and when people realised how invasive it was they tried to get rid of it. I say 'tried' because once you've got it then it's very hard to eradicate so people started throwing it into rivers (although why they didn't chuck it onto the compost heap is beyond me!) and the problem spread to the wild.
This section was rather hard on your feet as it was loose cinders. On the penultimate lap I found myself stumbling on this section as I wasn't lifting my feet up properly. There were beautiful silver willow trees on either side. In the fields they were growing wheat and oil seed rape (which getting rather stinky and had that unmistakable smell of rotting cabbage).
It was nice to see some mature hedgerows with a mixture of native shrubs in them. Many of our ancient hedgerows were ripped out in the 1950s and 1960s to make gigantic fields. Now we realise what an important role they play for shelter, stabilising the ground and supporting wildlife and farmers are being encouraged to replant them. I heard a Turtle Dove in this section several times. I'm probably rambling a bit now but this was what kept me going. Some people listened to music but I prefer to immerse myself in nature
Mike had been brilliant and had been phoned me to check on my progress every 3 hours. He knew how much I hate the heat and was quite worried about me. We were very lucky to have such fantastic marshalls at the checkpoints to offer us water etc to keep us hydrated but we also had a team going round the course in a landrover and they were handing out ice pops which were very welcome. It was on lap 7 that I had a little lapse in concentration. Several things happened all at the same time - I'd just finished a phone call with Mike and was trying to stuff my mobile phone into the back pocket of my shorts whilst negotiating the edges of a large puddle when the ice pop landrover came along. I dropped the phone and it landed in the grass beside the puddle. I wobbled on the edge of the puddle as the landrover came alongside, accepted the ice pop, had a chat and then carried on (notice anything?). This as just after about mile 5 on the lap. As I plodded along the road towards the 6 mile sign I suddenly realised that I hadn't retrieved the phone. Great! Now I could have left it there but then Mike might have phoned and not got a reply and then would have worried or someone could have heard it ringing and picked it up. There was no option.......I had to double back to find it. I knew exactly where it was so wasn't worried about finding it. You can imaging the strange looks I got as I went past people going the wrong way! Everyone was really nice and said they hoped I'd find it and thankfully it was where I thought. The detour did make a difference though as I'd run faster to get back there in case anyone else found it so I then had to slow right down until the checkpoint. I'd added over a mile to my total distance so far.
So here they are, the lovely ladies who sat there for over 12 hours, taking note of our time for each lap and carefully recording it against our name/number. They were really encouraging and I couldn't thank them enough. I had a quick slurp of electrolyte drink and a banana to keep my energy levels up and then headed off on my final lap, number 8.
I did my usual walk to the turn in the road and then started running again albeit very slowly. I stumbled along the cinder path and the first grassy bit and came across Mike Inkster, the Race Director/organiser. He said I should take great care as I'd nearly completed the challenge and it was then that I made the decision to walk the last 4.5 miles as I was risking injury by stumbling along. There was nothing to be gained by running anyway as I was well within the time limit of 15 hours and that way I got to enjoy stopping to take photos and chatting to the remaining marshalls. I can't thank Mike Inkster enough - there aren't many Race Directors who would be out walking and even running the course all day to check the runners and marshalls were all OK. Goodness knows how many miles he covered and he always had an encouraging word to say when he met people. What a star.
This was one of my favourite marshalls. He was part of a great double act at the cross-overpoint at mile 1.5/4 and they really lifted my spirits. I stopped and had a chat with them each time I saw them.
Shortly after that I saw Pit Stop Crew and his son walking towards me. Here I am, actually still running at that point (I thought I'd stopped before then but must have got confused). Looking at the photos I'm amazed at how quickly the ground dried up. You'd hardly believe there had been gigantic puddles there in the morning!
I look as if I'm doing an impression of the late Tommy Cooper "not like that, like this". I definitely didn't do any running after that and I remember looking down at my arms and seeing lots of black wiggly things about 3 mm long. I had to take my sunglasses off to see that I was covered in corn flies. YUK! They made me itch like mad but thankfully they don't actually bite.
Here's Pit Stop Crew as well, encouraging me to keep going as I was nearly home. That was another thing I noticed - everyone was so encouraging and supportive, no matter how fast or slow people were as we were all sharing the same gruelling experience. It was just a fantastic atmosphere. I think I was about 2 miles from the finish line at this point.
Then I rounded the corner for the last time and saw the pub and the clock and lots of fellow forumites sitting around and they gave me an almighty cheer. Andrew Smith very kindly came and took a photo of me next to the clock so I had a record of my time - 13 hours 20 minutes (the '1' has only got a top bit!!!). I got a lovely big medal and a certficate to say I completed the 50 mile challenge and my time. When I looked at my GPS watch it read 53.7 miles so because of my little detour to rescue the phone I'd added 1.3 miles to my distance! I had another drink and a chat with some people, phoned Mike to let him know I'd finished but didn't want to hang around as all I wanted to do was get back to the car and have a jolly good cry.
I sat in the car and tried to undo my shoes which was awkward then I had to peel my socks off to reveal the true horror of my feet. I don't normally suffer with blisters but as my feet had been drenched and then forced to run 53.7 miles it was inevitable that I'd get some. Oh my, there were some corkers! Both my little toes looked as if they had giant balloons on the back of them. I had matching blisters on the inside of both heels and a giant puffy mass under the ball of my right foot. Then I realised that my sports bra felt quite uncomfy too even though I'd smothered myself with BodyGlide but I hadn't got the energy to get changed so I sat in the driver's seat and had a bit of a sob. I had to hobble round to the boot of the car to get my flipflops, closed the boot and hobble back again. Then I realised that I'd left my energy bar in the boot but I couldn't manage to hobble back again so I drank some Lucozade Sport instead (which made me feel sickly). I managed to compose myself and headed off home. Thankfully it was only about 1 hour 30 minutes away so not too bad and I knew Mike would look after me when I got in.
The drive home was OK until about 20 miles away when a giant thunderstorm erupted again. Thankfully it had stopped by I got home and Mike was there to greet me and help me into the house. After lots of hugging and congratulations all I wanted to do was peel off my mucky clothes and get in the bath. Eeuuuuuuuk! Now I know just how much Mike loves me as it was not a pretty sight. I looked as if I was wearing leg warmers when we pulled my shorts off - the lower part of my legs was splattered with grey mud that had dried like concrete and the top half was bright red from the sunburn with a white line of skin that hadn't been exposed. My feet looked a right mess and Barney tried to help by licking my blisters (I nearly launched him into orbit when he decided to nibble my toes though!) The top half wasn't much better as my sports bra was literally stuck to me (perhaps too much detail here) and when we peeled it off there were lots of friction burns. Anyway, a good soak in the bath sorted out most of the problems and then Savlon dealt with the sore bits. I managed to eat a piece of toast with cream cheese on and drink a cup of tea before falling asleep. I slept soundly that night.
Barney and Tinker decided they deserved a little snooze after all their support during the day.
Someone commented to me that if I had run all the way, not stopped to change my socks, not chatted to the marshalls, not dropped the mobile phone and gone back and not walked at each checkpoint break then I would have completed it much quicker.
Well, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt:
"It is not the critic who counts, nor the person who points out how the strong stumble, or when the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the person who is actually in the arena. Whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood. Who strives valiantly, who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions. Who spend themselves in a worthy cause. Who, at best, know in the end the triumph of high achievement. Who, at the worst, if they fall whilst daring greatly, know that their place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat".