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Respecting your elders at the Bewl 15

I frequently train with runners in their forties and fifties, and by doing so I am often led to reflect how ‘they put me to shame’ – be it through their commitment to athletics, their speed in spite of their advanced years, or their impressive never-say-die endurance. While there is the excitement of watching young and emerging athletes burst onto the running scene, there is something far more inspirational about seeing runners at the other end of the age spectrum continue to perform into their senior years. They prove that age really is a number.

I got a close-up view yesterday. The Bewl 15 around the eponymous reservoir in Sussex doubled as the inaugural British Masters Athletic Federation multi-terrain championship. Competitors helpfully had their age category numbers pinned to their back, be it 35, 40, 45 and so on. The age categories went up to V75, with Mike Rosbrook, who consistently knocks out 24 and 25-minute parkruns, the oldest of the lot. From the start in Wadhurst and downhill to the reservoir, the veterans were flying. After around four miles I found myself running uncomfortably quickly even to stay in the top-10. As the race split, so I found myself running with two others: the leading contenders in the M50 race. One was Todmorden’s Paul Brannigan; the other was Graeme Saker. Brannigan and I set the pace, taking it in disorganised turns to lead. Saker – seemingly – clung on for dear life. I would look back, see he had lost two or three metres, assumed he was ‘done’, only for him to claw his way back. As a trio we overtook a runner from Stafford, then a Burgess Hill athlete; a Beckenham runner would come later.

The game of cat and mouse went on until mile 10. After moving a few metres ahead on a road climb, I glanced back to see the pair side by side. Once on the brow of the hill, Brannigan attacked, charging downhill. I couldn’t keep up. Nor could Saker. Brannigan was now a snatched glimpse around a corner. Still we raced hard. I could hear Saker’s steps behind me; he hadn’t given up. As Saker and I converged on the aforementioned Beckenham athlete, Saker pushed past me, charging after Brannigan. I wasn’t about to give up either. A minute later, I was back in front of Saker and chasing Brannigan. Sneaking up behind him on the final half-mile climb towards Wadhurst, I caught Brannigan on the line. I apologised profusely. He was non-plussed. His race was against Saker – who finished 30 seconds behind us – not someone almost 20 years his junior.

The results were telling. I was fifth overall but first senior (under-35). Only a quarter of the top-20 were, like me, senior athletes. Thirty athletes – 20 of them V35 and above – breached the 100-minute barrier for 15 miles of undulating trail. There were 10 new age-category records.

Inspiring. Running life begins at 35?

In the spirit of the Tour de France, chapeau veterans, chapeau.

One day, I will, hopefully be like you.
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Discovering Strava

I have discovered Strava. Or Strada, as my wife likes to call it. ‘That’s a restaurant chain,’ I point out annoyingly. ‘Totally different.’ I joined Strava earlier this year, but I did not really get it. Another way to record how far and how long you have been running or cycling, I thought. I used it only three times. Yesterday, however, I downloaded the data from my Garmin onto Strava: a simple task even for the mind of a technophobe. Up popped ‘segments’ from numerous runs I had done. Essentially, in a given 10-mile run, for instance, there may be a dozen or more ‘segments’ over which you can compare your time with fellow runners. Presumably these ‘segments’ are calculated and compared by some wizardry in the sky that is far beyond my comprehension; yet regardless of how Strava works, it is a marvel. Now I know that I am the seventh fastest runner (out of 34 – it is a big sample) to run the ‘Yacht Club to Martello’ segment in Seaford, a distance of 1.3 miles. I feel happier knowing this. A chap called ‘David Bradford’ holds the CR (course record), although I have a feeling he may have been cycling, as his time of three minutes, 26 seconds would make him the fastest miler on the planet. More interestingly, I found out I am the CR holder (out of 37 this time) for the 0.7-mile ‘Zig Zag Rd Climb’ up the steps from the stepping stones to the trig on Box Hill. (You will know exactly where I mean if you know Box Hill). I feel happier knowing this too. And so on…

Oh, Strava, I was painfully slow to find you, but running will never be the same again.

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The travails of a soft southerner in the Lake District

It had all started rather well. I was running in fifth place in the Lowther Trail Run, ticking along nicely. I could not believe my luck. Despite not having raced for three months, with much of that time lost to injury, I was climbing well, descending reasonably and moving purposefully on trail. Entering mile six of 13, I was confident of sustaining my place and pace. I swept through a gap in a stone wall and a moment later I was on the ground. My right ankle had taken a shuddering twist on some unknown obstacle. Adrenaline forced me immediately to my feet and I attempted to put weight on the ankle. A sharp pain. I sat down again, watching five or six runners flood past. I got up, hobbled a couple of steps and turned to face oncoming runners with the intention of walking back along the course to a nearby road crossing. My race was over. There was no need to manfully continue simply for the sake of it. I am long past racing when injured or ill. As quickly as I decided to abandon, I changed my mind, and blundered down a grassy bank. I did not continue out of foolish pride. I continued because I pragmatically thought I could run the pain off. The ankle was sore for a couple of miles, particularly on downhill sections or on tussock moor. But soon I was climbing well again and tapping out a fair pace for miles nine to 13, despite not having run these distances since mid-June. I obsessed about catching the runner in front, some 60 seconds ahead. Slowly, he came back to me; I caught him and moved 20 or so metres ahead, only for the final hill to intervene. I relinquished my hard-fought ninth place and sprinted into Lowther Castle the last of the top-10. I have a long way to go before I regain where I was in the early part of 2013 (and surpass that level), but a time a shade over one hour, 40 minutes for 13.3 miles of trail with 1400ft of ascent – not to mention that had I kept my feet (and not had a tennis ball of a swelling on my ankle today) things would have looked rosier – is not a bad place to begin.

Results are here. I was 11th, it transpired, not 10th.

@MuirJonny

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The art of the ultra-shuffle

You have to be an ultra-runner to appreciate the qualities of the ultra-shuffle. To the non-initiated (and count yourself lucky), to ultra-shuffle is to occupy the hazy middle-ground between running and walking. It occurs when the athlete is fatigued to the extent that fluent, hamstring-extending motion is no longer possible – but, while the will remains, nor is walking. The outcome is shuffling. Not running, not walking, but trundling along at around 5 or 6 mph. Hobbling, trundling, shuffling, call it what you will; what matters is you are moving, and if you are moving you will reach the end. Eventually.

I do not want to call myself an ultra-shuffler. I am a runner and an ultra-runner, but I have no desire to be an ultra-shuffler. That’s why distances beyond 50 miles unnerve me. That’s why I never want to run 100 miles. Beyond the ballpark distance of 50 miles, legs will succumb to fatigue. Stride length shortens and fluency fades; before you know it, you are ultra-shuffling. And once the ultra-shuffle stage has been reached, there is no going back.

I ran the first half of the Vanguard Way; I ultra-shuffled the rest. It was not a race. Think of it as a challenge, an adventure, a self-organised (and cheap) ultra in these times of economic hardship. After getting lost some five or six times, the prepared-for 66 miles became 68. I ran for 10 hours, 47 minutes. That is how long it took me to get from Newhaven train station to East Croydon train station. I had hoped for a time under or at least nearer 10 hours. I went through 26.2 miles in 3 hours, 30 minutes. I went through 50 miles in 7 hours, 20 minutes, but I was inexorably slowing down long before then. I cannot remember the precise moment I became an ultra-shuffler. It was probably around the 36-mile mark as I left Ashdown Forest; the descent hurt more than it should and my gait was uncertain.

Having stopped for five minutes at Forest Row following 39 miles, re-starting was a painful affair. A hobble, a wobble, a limp and a flinch, and I was just about running again. My spirit was low. I had been due to meet two support runners at Forest Row, but their progress to me had been halted by lines of cyclists in the London to Brighton ride. Having run solo for 34 of the 39 miles, I needed moral support and a distraction. More than that, I needed someone to tell me to buck up.

I ultra-shuffled. This was to be my fate. Fun, if this had ever been fun, had evaporated. It did not matter if I was on trail or road, going uphill or down, my legs had a new maximum speed. This hour – the seventh – was my darkest. Fatigue overwhelmed my legs. But, as trite as this sounds, there is something far worse than all this discomfort – and that’s stopping. I could live with short-term discomfort. But stopping? Because I was a bit tired? Never. A measure of salvation was nearby. As I skirted the heights of Dry Hill fort, a familiar face appeared. It was Rob; he had paced me through a successful Bob Graham round, he would get me through this. Soon after, I greeted Duncan, another Bob Graham veteran. As a three, I felt rejuvenated. I was told what to eat and what to drink. I was urged to buck up. To be told that these two people will not leave me, will stay with me to the end, is the runner’s equivalent of a badly-needed hug.

Would I have succumbed to the ultra-shuffle had I met Rob and Duncan at Forest Row? I’ll never know. I’ve no intention of running the Vanguard Way again to find out. I had, perhaps, started too fast and too excited, yet at the time I felt like I was holding myself back, despite what a 3 hour, 30 minute trail marathon suggests. Was the ultra-shuffle – a physical affliction – caused by mental weakness: the disappointment of not meeting my support runners when expected, an obsession over the overall remaining distance rather than breaking the route into manageable chunks, the nag, nag, nag of self-doubt?

The last thing that is needed when ultra-shuffling is more ultra-shuffling. There are few things more demoralising than lost ultra-shuffling. Oh, Limpsfield Chart, how I cursed you. Regaining the Vanguard Way, I resumed pure ultra-shuffling and dragged myself up the North Downs. I was glad to see Titsey Hill; at least I could walk up. The path climbed scenically (and pointlessly) above Woldingham and something remarkably unexpected happened: I started running again. Proper running. Striding. Arms pumping. Joyous running. The epiphany lasted for about two miles before the ultra-shuffle returned.

I wasn’t running the Vanguard Way for a laugh; I do not run very long footpaths that are a devil to follow and – for large stretches – tortuous underfoot for the sake of a Sunday jog. No, this run was part of a series of charity events organised by my school under the umbrella of the ‘Vanguard Challenge’. Students and teachers were walking the entire route, as well as running and walking 12 and 6 mile stretches. As the path greeted the outskirts of Croydon, we met a group of around 30 student walkers. Duncan ran ahead, shouting ‘runners coming’. It was all very dramatic. The walkers stepped back and lined either side of the narrow path. We ran – I mean ran and absolutely no ultra-shuffling – through the group as they cheered and clapped. I felt like a returning hero. I could have cried had the Vanguard Way not already stripped me of emotion.

There would be no other drama. We simply kept moving. Duncan insisted I eat a jelly baby. I could scarcely look at a jelly baby, let alone eat one. Like Jaffa Cakes, they look set to be banished to the sustenance dustbin. We slipped through Lloyd Park, then in and out of a maze of alleys, until I knew I had done it. I knew where I was and I knew East Croydon train station was near. ‘We are very close,’ I said, desperately relieved. I had never been so happy to be so close to East Croydon train station. I crossed the tram lines and ran through the doors of the station. I stopped moving. I stopped my watch.

And that was it: the longest ultra-shuffle of my life. If there is a sense of anti-climax to this blog post, it is only to mirror the anti-climax when finishing an ultra-shuffle. I felt nothing, relieved only to stop running. That is when I know that I have tried very hard – when finishing has little pleasure beyond the pure cessation of movement. The warm glow of achievement comes several days later – even if it is achieved through ultra-shuffling.

A version of this story also appears on The Running Stories website here.

@MuirJonny

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The first major obstacle: Seaford Head

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Arriving at Exceat Bridge after 6.5 miles

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Hurdling at 60 miles on Nore Hill

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Journey’s end: East Croydon train station

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Mastering the ultra-shuffle

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Preparing for the South Downs Way 50 with the father of endurance challenges

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.

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Racing on the South Downs Way in 2011

How I almost won the Steyning Stinger Marathon

I could have won the Steyning Stinger Marathon. I should have won the Steyning Stinger Marathon. Had I been running the 2012 version, I would have been clear in first place by 18 minutes. As it was, I was 40 seconds behind yesterday’s deserved winner, Stuart Mills. Mills – known as UltraStu – is a serious endurance competitor having donned a GB vest. I had raced him once – at the 2011 Beachy Head Marathon when he finished more than 10 minutes ahead of me.

He flew off the line, running close to six-minute mile pace for mile one. I had a quick decision to make: let him go or take a risk and race him. I caught him and we ran side-by-side for half a mile, before I pulled away on a slight incline. For 13 miles, I led the marathon race, running hard and with confidence. Mills was always close by, about 30 seconds behind, with me making gains on the ascents, him clawing time back on the descents. I swept through half-way in sub-three hour marathon pace, conscious that it was quick, certain that I could maintain the pace. Then, minutes later, disaster: I took a wrong turn. To be fair, so had Mills, although mine was the greater, hillier detour. My carefully-built lead had been demolished in a couple of messy minutes.

We ran together until the course reared upwards again, the third of four ‘stings’. I quickly made a gap. Disaster struck again: a second wrong turn. Quickly realising my error, I returned to the track to see Mills 100 metres ahead. From that moment, it became a seven-mile race to the finish. I was weary, but convinced I could beat him. A passionate advocate of positive thinking, I knew that I had to be as utterly sure of my prospects as Mills probably was. But there could only be one winner. Having looked through the list of recent races, I reckoned Mills had never run the Steyning Stinger; although the South Downs is his stamping ground, he may not know what was to come. We were equal in that sense, I reasoned. I should have delved deeper into the history of the race. Mills is the course record holder, having run two hours, 57 minutes several years ago.

One more sting; inevitably, I pulled ahead, climbing high onto the South Downs to mile 24, feeling tired, more than 800 metres of ascent in my legs. My lead was too slender. He was close behind, a nagging, looming presence. There was not a specific point that I gave up; moreover, I accepted the certainty of defeat. Mills had been out-running me on descents all day and ahead of us was a two-mile drop to Steyning. Catching me close to the summit, he very soon opened a gap and surged downhill through woods. He was gone. I finished the marathon in around three hours, four minutes, with Mills just 40 seconds in front. As I crossed the line, Sally Gunnell, walking her two dogs, was coming the other way. The distance on my watch was 26.6 miles. I do not need to be a mathematician to estimate those additional metres account for about three minutes. Three minutes going the wrong way in a race that I lost by 40 seconds. That is racing, I suppose; that is also very frustrating too.

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Nocturnal wanderings in Surrey and London

End time

A night run of at least 30 miles from Guildford to London had seemed a good idea earlier this week. Today – at home, in the warm and dry, surrounded by food – it seems a good idea. Crossing the M25 at 11 o’clock last night, having negotiated 15 miles of the North Downs Way and soggy Box Hill – all in the dark – with another 15 miles of pavement-pounding to go, the whole ordeal seemed anything other than a good idea. This was stretching the boundaries of fun.

It started easily enough. (It always does!) The pavements of Guildford gave way to the sand of St Martha’s Hill, and the mud of the North Downs Way to Westhumble thereafter. The world is, naturally, a different place by night. Views are replaced by twinkling lights; North Downs Way car parks are used for alternative purposes; the familiar is unfamiliar. For large chunks of our journey, our existence shrunk to the milky beam cast by our head torches. The pace of our trio was deliberately slow, partly due to the greater care necessitated by darkness, partly due to the distance ahead.

A grind up steps to Box Hill, a sparkling view of Dorking, then a fortuitous descent to Mickleham. Stane Street, a classically-straight Roman road, went north and east, flinging us over the M25 to Epsom Downs. It was then a very long way from Epsom to Streatham on a route that desperately lacked inspiration: Ewell, North Cheam, Morden, Mitcham and Streatham – places not known for their prettiness. There were dodgy looks and sporadic abuse. The only benefit from such a route was the 24-hour petrol stations. Marathon distance passed, then the psychological milestone of 30. Bodies began breaking down. Running resembled limping, while Duncan went down with jelly baby poisoning in Mitcham. With a mile to go, I pressed on alone, through 33 miles, through six hours, through 1am. This had been no race, but there are few better finish lines than your own front door.

Route here

That winning feeling at the Broadway Tower Marathon

I won a race yesterday. A running race. I was the fastest. The victor. On one day, in one place, no-one could beat me. This isn’t gloating; it is savouring a moment that may not happen again. I’ve said it before on this blog, but while there is pleasure to be gained by running, the far greater pleasure is to run strong and well, and, ultimately, as fast as you can. The running race was the Broadway Tower Marathon, a 28.5-mile slog up (2900ft in all) and down the drenched and muddy Cotswolds.

The marathon course – essentially, Broadway Tower to Stanway to Winchcombe to Stanway and back – was a tough one on a good day, a grim one on a bad day. And this was a very bad day. The ground was saturated. I can’t remember running in such muddy conditions, and the marathon hadn’t been billed as a cross-country. It was a day for toughness. The bravery of a fell runner was needed to descend on slippery, steep surfaces. The strength and leg speed of a cross-country runner was needed to churn through the mud. The speed of a road runner was needed to take advantage of the firmer surfaces. The grit and doggedness of an endurance athlete was needed to cope with the ultra-distance. And, finally, the qualities of a hill runner were again required to scale the final, relentless slope to the flat finish.

I led from about mile two, running the entire race thereafter alone apart from the dozen or so half-marathon competitors I passed en route. At times, it felt like I wasn’t in a race; I was merely running as fast as I could between two points. Never judge your form on an uphill, is the motto I employ when struggling on an ascent. It’s a hill; it’s bound to hurt a bit. When the flat and downhill bits start to hurt, that’s the time to worry. By mile 24, my legs were beginning to cramp. I was wobbling a bit too; I needed to eat something other than the tablet and jelly babies on offer. The climb through Snowshill was hard and followed by a long downhill during which I had two thoughts: one, I haven’t seen a course marker for a while, so this better be the right way; and two, why are we going downhill? I knew for every metre of descent, I’d have to make the same re-ascent to Broadway Tower. Mercifully, I was going the right direction and the route lurched right, straight up a long-anticipated hill. I struggled up, stumbling a bit, walking a bit, forcing myself to run, before eventually the track flattened. Now at least I only had mud to contend with, rather than slope and mud.

The show wasn’t over, however. After pounding along the road for a short time, a sign indicated there was still a mile to go. There is no excuse to walk or take it easy on the road, so I motored on, arriving back at the finish line three hours and 52 minutes after I’d left. The organisers strung up a piece of red and white tape for me to run through. Folk applauded and said appropriate things. A medal was put round my neck. People shook my hand, a hand encrusted with mud and sugar. A hero for a few minutes. The winner – by some 25 minutes. And – in a world where I’ll never amount to the likes of Mo Farah in running terms – that’s a good feeling.

Shedding demons courtesy of the Fellsman

Close to three weeks ago, I felt what I took to be my left Achilles tweak at an evening race at Beckenham. I thought little of it. Running the next night, the  Achilles became increasingly sore. It was one of those runs that, in hindsight, I simply shouldn’t have done. An inexplicable, wholly avoidable error of judgement. I took the next day off. That weekend I was in the Lake District and proceeded to run legs 4 and 5 of the Bob Graham round in support of a friend who finished in 20 hours. That wasn’t a terribly sensible idea either.

Post-run, the Achilles was painful and stiff; I would be ‘off games’ for several days.  When I finally got to a physio in midweek, my Achilles was given a clean bill of health. Regardless, running the next day confirmed that something in the left ankle area wasn’t right. And so to today: I had run once in 10 days. Those 10 days were plagued by doubts and fears. Would whatever is wrong heal before my Bob Graham attempt in six days time? The problem has been magnified by obsession. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about my ankle; dwell on it every step I take; constantly analyse the joint for pain as I cycle to work.

That feeling of indestructibility and invincibility generated by the 30-mile training runs in the hills, the long Bob Graham recces, the completion of the 61-mile Fellsman in April, the sequence of hard fell races, was obliterated in those 10 days. Other demons took hold to. I had seen my friends and training partners get round the Bob Graham in 19 or 20 hours; I wanted to match them; outdo them even. The Bob Graham suddenly wasn’t about completion, it was about how fast completion could be achieved. Yet these aspirations of greatness were juxtaposed by a crushed confidence caused by incapacity. The thoughts were incompatible and deeply unhealthy.

I needed two things: one, something to remind me that I am capable of getting round the Bob Graham, a reminder of the old invincibility, and, two, to be able to enjoy the simple sensation of running – as close to pain-free as possible – again. Salvation came today in the form of a communication from the Fellsman organisers. An envelope containing a certificate reminding me of my time didn’t matter. Nor did a second certificate reminding me that as a member of the Iced Spiced Collective we had won the team prize, The Service Trophy. No, what captivated me was the round plastic disc (pictured above) that I wore round my neck throughout and brought out for checkpoint staff at 26 different places to punch. The enormity of that day came flooding back; this disc symbolising the struggle of those hours. The symbol that I ran 61 miles in 13 hours, that I climbed 11,000ft, that I crossed mountaintop after mountaintop, that I never succumbed to exhaustion, that I survived numerous niggles, injury scares, aches and pains, that when I reached the road at the 59-mile mark I had an extraordinary second wind. I could feel a little of the old invincibility returning.

The first thing I did was go for a run. A 20-minute trot around Tooting Bec Common in the sweltering London heat, but a run – the first for three days – nonetheless. Does my ankle feel okay now? Not perfect, no. Maybe it just needs some good old-fashioned rest? But in those 20 minutes I achieved more than I have done in 10 days. I began to eradicate the demons. I will be fit (enough), I decided. Time – as long as it’s under 24 hours – is irrelevant. Perhaps now I’ll be able to enjoy the last few days before I embark on the Bob Graham.

Winter Tanners 2012 results

The results for the Winter Tanners have finally appeared. It was not a race – the LDWA make that abundantly clear. Still, it is good to compare yourself with others. And comparing myself with others, I did alright: second, in fact, in 4 hours, 20 minutes. I trailed the leader by two minutes; he was a mere 4 seconds per mile faster. Of course, in an event where there was two-hour starting window, I had no idea the margins were so tight.

The runner in question was Huw Lobb, who in 2004 became the first runner to beat the leading horse in the annual daftness that is the Man Versus Horse Marathon in Mid-Wales. Lobb is also a very distinguished long-distance athlete, with a 2 hours, 14 minutes marathon PB to his name. It would have been a proud scalp, even if he was only jogging round.

Winter Tanners 2012

I very nearly didn’t run the Winter Tanners. My right soleus had tightened up following a hard track session on Tuesday, and by Friday I was on the cusp of dropping out. I had gone to work on the muscle on the foam roller the night before, aggravating it further. I was hugely disappointed. Suddenly, my stepping stone to the Fellsman and the Bob Graham was gone. I told my fellow BG attemptees to almost certainly count me out.

By Saturday, it was better – unbelievably; a similar injury two years ago took a month to heal. Maybe the effect of the foam roller was delayed? Crucially, I changed my mental outlook on the soleus. I wasn’t injured, I told myself. There is nothing wrong with me. That was what I was thinking as I trundled away from Leatherhood on Sunday morning. There were four of us running together, south-east based runners dreaming of the Lakes.

The route was unmarked and this being uncharted territory for most of us, we were reliant on the LDWA’s detailed instructions. To give a flavour of these, this was the first instruction upon commencing: ‘Leave car park by vehicle exit & TR. Cross RD at traffic lights & along WATERWAY ROAD. 20Y after RD islands, TL to cross RD (you can use lighted crossing just under the bridge & come back if traffic is heavy). Along RD towards LEISURE CENTRE. When RD swings R keep ahd on tarmac FP to pass LEISURE CENTRE (including MOLE BARN) on your R.’ These instructions took us a mere 0.6 miles of the way. The LDWA are nothing if not thorough.

Despite the LDWA’s thoroughness, we went off-route within a mile, blundering across a cricket pitch because we overlooked the ‘tarmac FP’ above. We soon sorted ourselves out and advanced steadily, gently-rising away from Leatherhead, passing streams of walkers who had started earlier (another perk of this event is that you can start when you want). It was an exquisite morning – a chill in the air, a cloudless winter sky. I scarcely noticed the first seven miles as we crossed Ranmore Common, skirted the southern slopes of White Downs and arrived at checkpoint one at Abinger Roughs car park.

Neither hungry nor thirsty, I consumed nonetheless – Jaffa cakes and orange squash, and a couple of miles on, close to Gomshall, I ate half of the jam sandwich I had been carrying. Nutrition is the key to ultra success, I keep being told. A vast landfill site was the most memorable sight on the section to the bottom of sandy St Martha’s Hill (picture above), the day’s first ‘test of manliness’. All passed this examination and we swept downhill to Guildford. At the second checkpoint, at a shade over 15 miles, I ate liberally – cookies, more Jaffa cakes, handfuls of raisins and crisps. One of our number announced he was dropping out; an injury-induced lack of training the reason. Here was a logical place; he lives in Guildford. Neverthless, a female competitor gave him hell. ‘I’ve done dozens of these events and I always finish, even if I’ve broken both legs, there’s 10 feet of snow, and it takes me a fortnight.’ Or words to that effect. She was certainly motivational. We discussed placing her in Wasdale, armed with a loudhailer, through which she could bark instructions. ‘It’s only a hill.’ ‘Keep running, you bunch of girls.’ Things like that.

We went on as a trio, climbing steadily to Newlands Corner. From here, the route was predominately flat and followed the North Downs Way, making navigation a simpler proposition. The three of us were now separated, with me at the front. I pressed on. I knew I could run quickly from here, on a terrain that suited a road runner more than a hill specialist. I felt terrific. The final checkpoint at 25 miles appeared; I grabbed a customary helping of Jaffa cakes and went on my way, pausing for a short time only. As I churned up a grassy hill, another test of manliness, close to Polesdon Lacey, 26.2 miles arrived. I had run a marathon in about 3 hours, 50 minutes. Seconds later, I had breached the marathon. I was an ultrarunner. By mile 28 and 29, my ankles and calves were beginning to hurt, inevitably, but I felt like I was flying, running close to seven minute miles. The troublesome soleus was unstressed. It wasn’t what I had expected after almost 30 miles and 750 metres of vertical ascent. I thought I’d be struggling, suffering badly, but I was running, properly running, striding out, comfortable, able to accelerate.

It wasn’t until the final 400 metres when I began to think, I’m actually feeling pretty tired now. But very soon I was back in the car park at Leatherhead, 30 miles, and 4 hours, 20 minutes, after setting off, happy to have survived, happy and proud to call myself an ultrarunner.

A map of the route is here.

Recovery…

Post-marathon recoveries are tricky things to get right. After London in April, I abandoned the sport for a fortnight, then ran 30 miles in the following three days. My body was all at sea. There was an illustration of how not to recover after a marathon. After the Lakeland Trails Marathon  in July, I was running sections of the Bob Graham route two days later. Nor was that – essentially, more punishment – an ideal ‘recovery’.

Not one to learn from my mistakes, I am about to repeat the errors of history. Following the Beachy Head Marathon on Saturday, I had not run for more than 48 hours until today, when I stepped out in a new pair of Adidas Supernova Glide 2 (replacing a now-retired, triple-marathon and rather smelly pair of New Balance MR759SR) for a four-mile trot around Tooting Bec Common. So far, so sensible.

Tomorrow, however, and the next day, and the day after that, will test my post-marathon recovery. I plan  to cycle close to 200 miles over those three days, crossing Wales from Swansea to Chester, with – weather-permitting – an on-foot detour up CadairIdris in a Heights of Madness-style assault a distinct possibility too. The weather forecast, particularly for Thursday, is grim. Foolhardy maybe, but it is harder to do nothing.