Some say we ultra-runners are crazy, some say we are insane, some even say we need help. Why would anyone want to run 100 miles in one day? Why would anyone want to put themselves through so much pain? There is no simple answer as to why - as we all have our personal reasons. However, sometimes my response is, why not? On the odd occasion I am asked; what is it like to run that far and for that length of time? That is a question I can answer.
Like any major event the preparation will determine as to whether you succeed or fail. I have failed enough times to have learned that if you get this first bit right then you are half way there. This part of the race proves that we are not crazy; we have to plan very carefully and with precision. There is so much to think about; running kit, spare kit, emergency kit, nutrition, hydration, first aid. This process takes me two weeks to sort out, sometimes repacking my kit time and time again. It becomes obsessive, and that helps sometimes.
Well that's the kit sorted, that is the easy part. Now comes the toughest part of all...the mental preparation. I run the race through my head, again and again and again. Day after day after day, until it feels like I know every single step of the course. This can go on for weeks before a race, eating, sleeping, breathing the race. Then, like a bat out of hell, along comes every ultra-runners worst enemy... doubt.
Doubt can kill your race before it has even started. If you let doubt settle in, it will evict every last positive thought you ever had in your life about running. It will leave you feeling like there is no point in running ever again. How do I stop this from happening?
Mischievous monkeys is the answer, you let them in to run around and play until they are bored and then they move on. If you try to chase the monkeys (doubt) away, they will come back again and again until you give in and that's when the monkeys have won. There is no time scale to all of this, so I have to be patient and allow the monkeys enough time to play. The 'darkness of doubt' is the closest thing to how I would describe depression to someone, I have never been diagnosed with depression but I think it would be the same type of darkness. It can last for minutes or hours, however, knowing that it will not last forever is really important. I did tell you we are not crazy, didn't I?
The adrenaline is rushing through my veins, the emotions are climbing to the surface again. Before the race starts, I need quiet time as far away from people as I can. I usually meditate for ten minutes to calm my mind, to tell my legs that my head is in charge, that they will do as my head tells them, no matter how bad the pain.
I explain to myself to give respect to the distance but not to fear it, it cannot hurt me. I am in control of my destiny, nothing is beyond me, nothing is impossible. My mantra is "Run strong, run free, run true" This is repeated until I feel calm and ready to run. Many times people have asked, what do I think about whilst running these distances? The answer is everything and nothing. If the terrain is very technical I have to concentrate on every foot step so there isn't time to think about anything else. You have to keep your mind sharp, as one wrong could step could result in a broken ankle or something similar, or worse than it would be the end of my race. There are times when I can empty my head of all thoughts, almost in a trance like state floating across the surface of the ground. In a spiritual sense I become part of the trail, I am the dirt, the trees, the grass, the streams. These moments are so beautiful and calming, it feels like I could run forever.
The hooter blasts out, the journey begins with one simple step. Nobody knows for sure who will make to the end.
I break the race down into sections, for this example I will use my last race - the Adidas Thunder Run. It's a 24 hour event where the solo runners have to complete as many 10 km off road laps as possible.
Sounds simple enough; all you have to do is run for a day. I had set my overall target of 18 laps (180km/112 miles) and then decided to break this down to 10 laps by the half way point of 12 hours, allowing for the fact that fatigue may be kicking in beyond the 12 hours. This again was split in half, giving me 6 hours to complete 5 laps. As I have said before, planning is the key to success.
What happens when it doesn't go to plan? What happens when things are going ten times better than expected? My answer is to keep running. Don't slow down. Your head and legs are happy working together so let them get on with it. This is exactly what happened at this event, after 50 miles or so I was on cloud nine. No pain, no aches, lots of smile miles……for now at least.
Then of course we have the opposite, what happens when the pain kicks in? It can be in one part of the body, several parts or as in this case, every single part of me was hurting. Or was it? Was I just tired and needed some sleep, no time to sleep though, need to run, the job isn't done yet. The pain for me is part of the run, I accept it, and I sometimes welcome it as part of the journey. If I am not in pain at some point, I worry. Acceptance of the inevitable is my answer to the pain, it will not last forever, I need to push on, need to keep running. The job isn't done yet.
Night time comes, night time goes, dawn raises its beautiful face over the horizon. This is when I realise how long I have been running for. It's a new day. I started running yesterday and I am still running. Daytime can feel like reaching the home straight in this event, the clocks stops at 1200, signalling the end of the race. Not long to go now, I hear myself saying; only 5 hours left to run. It sounds weird writing that last sentence but when you have been running for 19 hours, five hours isn't very long.
By 0800 and 20 hours of running I had completed 16 laps (160km/100miles), I still had another 4 hours to run though. So I did just that, I just kept running and running. The body was more like a robot at his point, left foot right foot, left foot right foot. The mind was completely blank, apart from one thing...run. Stopping was not on the cards, tick-tock, tick-tock, left foot, right foot. I am talking to myself, telling myself that all I have to do is put one foot in front of the other and repeat. It's only running, we have been doing it for millions of years, it's not complicated.
I am within an hour of finishing, I am on lap 20 (200km/125 miles), now the emotions are difficult to keep under control. I had never run this far before, reality is kicking in about what I have done. The tears are flowing, the head is no longer in control, the pain is taking over, I have to get a grip of myself, I need to be in control until the end, the job is not done. The finishing line approaches, I can see my wife waiting for me. It is over, I have finished. I have run for 24 hours and covered a distance of 125 miles. Now I can let go of all of my emotions, now I can relax.
My senses are all over the place at this point but the overwhelming feeling is always relief; the relief that I don't have to run any more. I can sit down, I don't have to run, I can eat normal food, I can have a shower, I can sleep. I can do any of these but I don't have to run anymore today, the journey has to come to an end. Well, until the next race comes along and I will go through all of this again.
See, I am not crazy.