The National 100K Run 2001
At least one ultrarunner has said "When you find a good support team, marry her!" I did without realising it.
There may be some contradictions in this account of what was, in its latter stages, a mentally tumultuous exercise. But I think it reflects how I felt at the time.
Foot and mouth strikes. Most off-road races are cancelled so I do a few track meets. They are actually rather fun (variety is the spice of life) but just don't go the distance. I need a long run. Hmm, the National 100K should be long enough. It's flat, on tarmac and multiple loops (an old airfield, now the Fire Services College) but what the hell?
Having never done anything quite like this before, I spend many happy hours analysing times and distances from the nearest equivalent runs I have done in order to estimate my time. My aim is to beat 8½ hours, I'll be disappointed not to break nine and ecstatic to break eight. My plan is to run at about 7:30 miling and walk a hundred yards or so at the end of each 4K lap, giving me the opportunity to eat and drink regularly. I will avoid the three-hour bonk on this one. Marie will tend to my every need (almost). These advantages are not forthcoming in my usual races.
A couple of friends are also doing it which will help. Barry has won many off-road ultras, including the South Downs 80 three times. Mike has won the Grizzly three times and gets selected for the English Team in the Anglo-Celtic Plate which will be part of the race. Barry should arguably have been selected, too. I will be in impressive company.
Race day dawns (and remains) bright and sunny. Too hot perhaps?
I'm feeling good as I start with Barry. I follow my walking/eating/drinking routine right from the start so we part company at the end of the first lap. People pass me as I walk but I catch them within half a mile or so. Is this right, running faster but then walking? I think so as the running feels easy without being uncomfortably slow (I do find it hard to run slower than my steady lope) and I'm certainly well hydrated if the feeling in my bladder is anything to go by!
46 minutes for the first 10K.
Now I really need a pee but am loath to stop. So I don't. For the next couple of miles every left footfall squelches. I pass a runner who started faster than me and soon after lap the slowest. "You're looking good," a marshall tells me. I'm feeling good too, I realise. "Thanks!"
I lap a lady who comments, "At least it's flatter than the Grizzly!" as I pass. (I'm wearing my club vest.) "Actually, I could do with a hill right now," is my reply.
I'm holding my distance behind Barry, despite the walking. (I can spot him passing a particular point on the dogleg each lap.) Am I going too fast? (He's aiming for just under eight hours and definitely knows how to pace himself.) And then I see him standing beside the road. "We know what you're doing!" comes to mind and he joins me, unsquelchy, as I pass. We run the rest of the lap together, chatting occasionally.
45 minutes for the second 10K.
Now I pass a guy in a Road Runners Club t-shirt. "At least you didn't cancel it," he says. (The power of the vest, once more.) And I am myself lapped by the leaders including Mike in about third place. He looks good and we exchange encouragement.
Lap after lap passes, each section with its own character. The few turns at the beginning are followed by a slight climb over a hundred yards or so. Then the long half-mile straight, ever so slightly downhill, past the wreckage of various road vehicles plus a couple of trains and planes. As the race referee put it, "This isn't a race track, it's a bomb site."
At the end of the straight is the 2K mark with water on offer followed by by some long, sweeping bends (with more burnt-out wrecks) before the finish heaves into sight. But that is straight ahead and the course hangs left before a sharp dogleg finally heads directly to the line. The detour does have its advantages, though, as Marie can spot me coming with a couple of minutes to tear herself away from her book!
And finally there's the satisfaction of having completed another lap, followed by some refreshment and a quick chat with Marie before starting all over again.
45 minutes for the third 10K.
The easy pace allows many runners to give encouragement as they pass or are themselves passed. It's a good atmosphere out there and surprisingly enjoyable apart from my legs finding the unrelenting flatness rather monotonous. I've fallen into the ultrarunners' shuffle - no energy wasted in lifting my feet any higher than necessary. But it's a two-edged sword and my leg muscles begin to feel tight as they are not flexed beyond a limited range of movement.
I've tired a bit by the time I pass the Grizzly girl again. "Well done! You're looking really good," she says. I think she really means it and I perk up.
I'm losing ground to Barry. He's going strongly and probably consistently so dropping behind ten to fifteen seconds each lap worries me at this early stage.
47 minutes for the fourth 10K and the first marathon in 3:13.
And now I am hurting. It isn't the pain of over-doing the pace I get in a normal endurance race; nor the "this is fast but I can handle it" feeling when I'm right on the edge; nor even the draining of all energy from my legs. I've been there, done that. This is new. I want to lift my knees high, bring them right up to my chest. My calves, quads and hams want to flex fully. I try breaking the shuffle and running with a higher knee lift but it is too energetic to sustain comfortably and that is the way to failure in ultra running.
Barry's standing at the finish when I arrive. His achilles isn't going to hold for much longer so he reluctantly pulls out. I press on but a little bit of me leaves the race with him.
By the end of the twelfth lap I'm ready to call it a day. It has all happened so fast. From "the luxurious ache of tired but not weary limbs" [Michael Fairless, The Roadmender] to their apparent inability to continue functioning much longer in just a couple of laps, a mere five miles. But I will not stop half a lap before 50K. So I go on. And then I've done it.
53 minutes for the fifth 10K and the first 50K in 3:56.
After I grab some water from the 2K point I walk outside the finish area for the first time. I walk a bit, jog a bit and eventually cross the line nearly ten minutes slower than the previous lap. I collapse into a deckchair, the first time I've lifted the weight off my legs since starting.
I'm not shattered (or am I just kidding myself?). I still want to complete the 100K (or am I just kidding myself?). But the apparent futility of the exercise - 20 minutes (and more) of shuffling to get back to where I started, again and again and again - is overbearing. The logical thing is to stop, sparing my legs any more damage.
Then there's the prospect of getting home at 10:30 that night. Not only do I need to get up at four o'clock in the morning to fly to Amsterdam and be fit to do a day's work at a client site but I won't see the children until Thursday. It somewhat reduces my resolve to continue.
"That's it," I tell Marie. "Are you sure?" she asks. "Yes." She offers to tell the timekeepers but I feel that I ought to do so myself. (That is one of the most valuable lessons I've ever learnt in running, from a pacer on my Bob Graham Round.)
I haul myself out of the chair, tears beginning to form in the corners of my eyes. "Oh shit!" I say to no one in particular. (And I suspect no one hears.) I just couldn't do it. "I'm going on," I tell Marie who looks quizzically at me (or perhaps she doesn't; I'm really in no fit state to tell right now) and shuffle off down the road.
It's a slow, painful start after eight minutes of inactivity but I get back into a half-decent jog after a few hundred yards.
I speak with Mike as he passes me again, holding his position. Not the same words as before, though. "How are you feeling?" he asks. "My legs are shot," I reply. "Mine too. I can't believe I've still got more than a marathon to go." He looks bad, a far cry from his form the last time he lapped me, in a 5K at Exeter Arena. I feel sorry for him and mutter some words of encouragement but don't really know what to say. ("Looking good" he ain't.)
I pass the 2K point and alternate walking with jogging. At the finish I once more collapse into the chair. I've never felt like this before. I am weary, yes, but not out of energy. My strategy of walking, eating and drinking at the end of each lap is working well (squelchy footfalls from time to time prove it!) and I'm not even sick of the same view over and over. But my legs are dead and a little voice keeps asking me "Why? What's the point? Of course you can finish but what would that achieve? You're not going anywhere - you keep ending up back where you started. You're damaging your legs. It won't be a particularly good time (over nine hours). Why punish your body any more?"
But something in me wants to continue. I've looked for excuses to stop in many races. And found them, too; some good, others bad. But now I'm looking for an excuse to continue in the face of reason; cold logic which is so overwhelmingly, so over-bearingly trying to tell me that a DNF is the only sensible thing to do.
And then, after four minutes in the chair, I find myself shuffling off again. It seems such a pointless exercise, running around in ever-slower circles. But, then again, stopping seems almost as pointless in a funny sort of way. ("I'm here so I might as well do what I came for.")
At times I'm remarkably upbeat. Then downcast. But never, not once, do I think "What am I doing here?" In a race of more than a couple of hours that is unheard of for me. And strangely enough, having been a runner for more than twenty years, in conditions ranging from beautiful countryside with blue skies and puffy white clouds to isolated mountainsides in apalling weather, from floating along the uninhibited, uninhabited path in a dream to hitting very nightmares of despondency, a road race, of all things, has become the deepest voyage of discovery I've ever made. It is so bizarre.
I stop for a pee just after the 2K mark. Stop for the first time out on the course. Then I'm off again and catch a kindred spirit, a fell runner also sampling the joys of road-racing-with-attitude, albeit at a walk by now. I persuade him to start jogging with me but he stops very soon and I leave him behind to complete the lap at a slow jog.
78 minutes (my half marathon time!) for the sixth 10K and 60K in 5:13.
I collapse into the chair. I've got to get up in the morning and be mentally alert. The further I go the more I will damage my legs. I am not particularly enjoying this. And I have only finished fifteen laps with another ten still to go. It is just too much to contemplate and yet ...
"That's it ... I think ... Oh hell! ... Yes, that's it." I feel a bit sorry for Marie as she doesn't know whether to console me or to kick my sorry carcase out of the chair and back into action. "It's up to you," she tells me. Hell, I can't make that decision in my state. It's not fair. Someone should decide for me. But no one can. It really is entirely up to me.
I walk over to the timekeepers and hand in my number.
Is It Worth It?
This was Marie's take on the exercise ...
"You've got to be tough. When they don't want to go on you have to make them. When they expect you to be psychic and know they want fruit cake and tea instead of the usual banana and squash at the end of the next lap - then it starts. That's when you need to take over". These were the words of wisdom from the wife and supporter of a Black Heath runner (a veteran of numerous 100kms and 24hr track events). But what if, in your heart, you didn't think it was worth it? What if you knew your runner had to be up at 4am the following morning to fly abroad and impress a stranger! What if you had to get up the following morning and get the children to school and yourself to work and at the rate your runner was going you would be home very late. I'm sure that the BH wife would say these were excuses, but..... The lesson being, if Garry does this event next year I will insist we have the following day free and ascertain beforehand just how serious he is to finish.
With the children always in mind we stopped at the National Trust Roman Villa at Chedworth on our way up. Abby happens to be studying the Romans at school at the moment so this was an information gathering exercise for her! We then had a rather nice pub lunch with a bacon and melting brie baguette and a pint of the fine local brew - tasty, but very busy and rather the sort of place you would take your mother or grandmother to lunch.
On to our second NT property. A superbly eccentric house and garden (oh, I would have loved that garden, all winding paths, walled areas and hidden ponds) jam packed with Samurai clothing and armour next to model hay wagons from each county, next to keys, next to nursery equipment, next to clocks. There wasn't a square inch of uncovered wall or free floor space. In fact the crazy results of a kleptomaniac's life crammed into the house whilst he lived in the barn!
From there we progressed to the Fire College where there were a couple of nice touches in the room. Firstly there was a TV, but it only received channel 5. Secondly there was a notice advising that the incorrect smoke alarms had been fitted in each room which were triggered by steam so if we had a shower or bath be sure to close the bathroom door and keep it shut! Having settled in we took a walk around the course which was rather like walking through a war zone with crashed cars, burnt out aeroplanes, derailed train coaches, blackened buildings and smouldering heaps at various places. It smelt pretty foul too. These scenes of carnage were however surrounded by green trees and lush grass with only the sounds of the birds to listen to and the odd rabbit or deer to add to the surreal atmosphere - a very strange experience.
In fact the whole event I found very strange. The dining room was vast, it could easily swallow up 500 people, so the 20 to 50 that turned up for supper rattled around somewhat. The less said about the food the better - "not too good" about sums it up.
Race day dawned bright and sunny but with a cool wind. I set up camp in the handling area on the grass in the shade of a tree and watched the fun begin. Each team set up in different areas, the Welsh near us on the grass with umbrellas for shade, the Scottish opposite us based in a transit van and the English carefully positioning themselves in the shade of a building which after an hour was in the full sun. The race started, Garry ran, I chatted with other supporters and read my book. From my position I could glance up after 15mins to a bend in the course, then when I saw Garry I had time to collect drink and food and arrive at the start of the handling area at the same time he did, walk to the end of the area with him and start all over again.
The day wore on as did the laps and people started to drop out including one of Garry's friends, Barry. This was slightly annoying because I had rather come to rely on Barry to judge where Garry was. Barry was wearing a bright green vest and his running style was even stranger than Garry's (yes I know, hard to believe) so he was easy to spot, also he was slightly ahead of Garry so when I glanced up and saw Barry I knew Garry wouldn't be that far behind. But drop out he did which coincided with a bad spell Garry was going through and that seemed to put him off and make him question why he was doing the race. A few laps later Garry stopped.
The St John Ambulance were kept busy bringing back three people at least who had collapsed out on the course and treating numerous muscle strains and other injuries at the handling area. By laps 10 to 20 all athletes were beginning to look pretty bad, some suffering more than others and I'm afraid I couldn't see the point of it all, it seemed so futile. When Garry finally stopped I didn't try to talk him out of it, it was his choice, one I think he regrets, but he would have regretted it more if he had continued. Will he do it again? He thinks no, I say yes. It will nag at him that he didn't finish, I know he could have completed the distance and next time I'll make him do so!
© Garry Perratt & Marie Perratt, 2001