I was following the progress of the 147-mile Viking Way Ultra at the weekend, a through-the-night race in Lincolnshire and Rutland that goes on for an impossible number of hours. I had something in common with those runners: I was also awake when the world was sleeping. I was fighting a different battle of endurance: the battle that faces the father of a newborn child. The challenge – the details of which are well-known – is psychological, not physical, but then so is ultra running. I have had to draw on reserves of patience I did not know I possessed. On top of that is the supreme, oppressive weight of sleep deprivation.
My life is now about trying to find a new compatibility between family, work, running and everything else. I could, therefore, do without a 50-mile race in 12 days time. The race is the South Downs Way 50, an event I entered as part of preparation for a record attempt on the 66-mile Vanguard Way in mid-June. It was only a month ago that coming off the back of two months’ outstanding training, I finished second at the Steyning Stinger Marathon in a hugely encouraging time of three hours, four minutes. I was not intending to simply run the South Downs Way 50, albeit my first non-mountain ultra, but to race hard to see if I could replicate my form over double the distance. In short, I wanted to see what I could potentially achieve in this ultra game.
March, thereafter, was a running disaster. Illness followed marathon success. After two weeks of no running, I was definitely on the mend. I just needed a weekend of recovery and sleep, I thought. And then – a baby came into the world, expected yet so unexpected. Life was tipped upside down. I re-started running last week. Four miles of coughing felt like 14. The next day the ache in my legs resembled the discomfort that comes from hours of running up and down mountains, yet I forced myself through another seven miles. At the weekend I managed two runs – 10 miles on Saturday, 11 on Sunday. I was a shadow of the athlete I was four weeks ago.
So, here I am, on the first day of April – 12 days from an ultra, the third-longest distance I have ever undertaken, still fighting the remnants of cold, still enduring the inevitability of sleep deprivation. I could pull out of the South Downs Way 50. It would make sense. But what sort of example is that to set to my child? Today, an email arrived from Centurion Running, the organiser, setting out the on-the-day requirements. I felt a frisson of excitement. I don’t want to not be involved, if that makes sense. I am in. It is not how I wanted it to be, but life is rarely that simple.
Racing on the South Downs Way in 2011