There is something instinctive in human nature for the amateur to celebrate the professional. Radcliffe. Rudisha. Kimetto. We watch in awe as the extraordinary achieve the extraordinary. But there is something more extraordinary than this: the ordinary achieving the extraordinary.
That is not to say that Colin Dear is ordinary. Ordinary humans do not run marathons and ultramarathons. But Colin Dear is no Kimetto. But then Kimetto is no Colin Dear.
On a Friday afternoon, the head of media slipped out of the gates of his Croydonschool, picked up a vaguely marked route called the London Outer Orbital Path (LOOP) and began running. Four days later, a little thinner and a little rougher round the edges, he returned to where he began. He had circumnavigated the capital, running more than 150 miles: 26 on day one, 57 on day two, 47 on day three, 28 on day four.
Less than 24 hours later, ‘sir’ was back in a classroom, guiding sixth-formers through last-minute preparation for their A Level media studies exams. Only a cautious, shuffling gait – and an almost imperceptible air of relief, of knowing that a very big job was done – indicated the teacher had done anything out of the ordinary in the preceding days.
Yet quietly and determinedly, Colin Dear had achieved the remarkable: the fastest known completion of the LOOP. An expectation comes with the superlative ‘fastest’: teams of pacers, hours of careful route-finding, deliberate nutritional plans. Colin preferred a different approach: a celebration of glorious amateurism. His LOOP would be back-of-the-envelope stuff, a proper boys’ adventure that teetered on the dreaded fringes of disaster, but the worst – missed turnings, sugar crashes, crushing boredom, simple exhaustion – would not cause capitulation.
Knowing the route would have been a good start. It was a start that was not accessible. This is an ordinary man, after all. What 39-year-old with a full-time, often seven-day-a-week job, a pile of marking and planning, and a wife and two children under eight, has time to make wild forays across the capital to find a single track that threads its way innocuously through London’s insalubrious outskirts?
At least he had done some training – as much as (don’t forget) a man with a job, wife and children can. When he is on duty in a boarding house on a weekend, Colin cannot leave the school site – a scenario not conducive to training for ultramarathons. His solution? He devised a one-mile loop around school, never more than five minutes from the boarding house, and he ran it again and again and again. Twenty is his record, often capping off 60 to 70-mile weeks.
It was a wonder, therefore, that Colin found himself in Kingston at the end of day one having run a marathon, albeit two miles behind schedule after spending an hour wandering in circles around Banstead. The next day he got up and ran the second longest run of his life – 57 miles to Cockfosters. His support crew was a bloke in a camper van and some fellow teachers who could run a bit. He got bored around Hounslow, grazed on crisps and hot cross buns, got lost around Cockfosters. Chiefly, he put one foot in front of the other, knowing with certainty that every step took him closer to the end. In a cheap hotel that night the man who had ran for 10 hours fled from an ice bath before two minutes could elapse.
Day three: the day the LOOP would be won or lost. Waking early, Colin decided to rip up his schedule and start two hours before planned. His support runner, arriving at Cockfosters, would run 29 miles just to catch him up at Harold Hill. They were lonely miles, but strangely buoyed by the prospect of going so long without being caught. As the LOOP met the Thames in Rainham, Colin had run more than 120 miles. He celebrated his 125th mile by running a mile in seven minutes, 55 seconds. With the brown, frothing Thames on his shoulder, a fierce wind blowing off the water, clouds skudding across an expansive London sky, nothing seemed impossible. Running had never looked so beautiful. ‘I don’t remember a turning point,’ Colin said after, ‘a moment when I thought, I’m going to do it.’ Yet this moment seemed decisive: a moment when you realise something extraordinary is not a wild ambition; it is a reality
All that remained the following day was a 28-mile stretch from Erith to Croydon. All? This was a man who had run 125 miles in three days. He would whimper and wince with pain each time he re-started running following a break; they would be the only sounds of complaint anyone would hear in four days.
Conclusions? It was ‘fun’. The mental battle was as challenging as the physical. You are not going to get a new philosophical slant on long-distance running here, I am afraid. ‘We used to get drunk all the time,’ his wife, Kate, said after. ‘I don’t know what’s happened to him.’ What Colin had achieved transcends words, however: ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary feats.
This article was originally published in the July issue of Men’s Running.