Saturday 4th March, 9am. Chrys and I, surrounded by another 100 runners somewhere in Otley listen carefully to the race brief. It’s our first ultra but we’re not making a big deal. Both passionate about sports and with our fair share of races we feel optimistic; it’s only 10km more than a Marathon, how bad can it be? Big on enthusiasm, it’s true what they say: Ignorance is bliss!
Not long after we start, we smile at each other and say: ‘Wow, look at all this mud!’ (7 hours later we repeat this sentence followed by: ‘… this S*%& is never going to end, is it???’) Trying to run in thick paste-like mud and ascend 1.300m with a backpack is no mean feat. We accept it will be some tough 50km; this is what we signed up for. Attitude is everything.
The race is over open moorland, providing incredible views. We cross streams, bridges, woods, railway lines, moorland and fields. Every mile is a different emotional state, we feel excited, positive, tired, frustrated (here comes the bit where we uncork a couple of saltier words to relieve the stress!) and finally ‘more tired’ but we get on with things.
Humans like to share experiences. It appears to me that an ultra-race attracts the kind of humans who embrace life, those who are open to the concept of living life in the moment. A place to meet genuine people for whom they really are. Running at a similar pace it is inevitable we make friends with Matt. He tells us this race is part of his prep for his upcoming Des Sables challenge. For six days he will run over 250km (156 miles) through the Sahara desert, with endless dunes and across white-hot salt plains. The sun will regularly reach 50 degrees. Self-sufficient and carrying all his own food and equipment on his back. Chrys and I regain perspective and feel thankful for our no-longer-tiring run; things can always be worse!
We make it to the top of a hill with a small diversion to see an OS trig point. An old man sitting on a bench smiles and asks: ‘Do you know what this is?’ pointing at the 3 large chimneys in the horizon (I pretend not to!) ‘Well… as a matter of fact you’re looking at the Ferrybridge power station’ he says and without any encouragement he continues to share his knowledge in all that surround us. At times when loneliness and isolation are a real issue, with a significant proportion of the older generation relying on television for their only source of company, this man radiates positivity. His courageous plan to befriend people and his ability to communicate with passers-by are admirable and make my heart smile!
In the meanwhile, and despite the mud, we are enjoying the here and now and feel connected to life in all its fullness. ‘Tell me, if you could eat anything at all at the finish line, what would you have?’ I ask. ‘A big steak and potatoes on the side’ says Matt. ‘How about pudding? I would go for lemon sorbet’ I say. ‘Oh, well if we’re going for the full-deal we must have a starter too!’ ads Chrys and continues: ‘I will have pate and plenty of bread with it!’ All three of us are salivating and we continue to daydream until we’ve explored all food options! Dreaming is free, isn’t it? But for now, Matt introduces us to dried mango and it's delicious; adding this to my 'race nutrition' in the future.
By 3pm I am running in the most undignified way. The relentless mud has consumed all my energy and reserves! All three of us are feeling exhausted and we continue with a quick walk instead. Even walking is painful, somehow beyond my own understanding, my body still moves and it’s becoming an out-of-body experience! ‘If I drop a leg, can you guys pick it up, I can’t even bend down right now?’ I ask. We turn it into a competition about who and what hurts the most; we prefer to laugh than to cry. This race makes us realise how truly amazing the human body is; so easily left unappreciated.
I glance at my watch, its 6pm, it’ll soon be dark and we’re still out in the fields. My heart sinks and my head nags that I should have finished hours ago. I switch-off and go on silent mode. No longer taking notice of the world surrounding me and wishing the mud wasn’t there. You know how it feels when you begin hoping for something that you want desperately badly? I wonder now how long I can keep it going for and the desire to finish the ultra is so strong that I can’t bear not to make it happen.
9 ½ hours and 52km later we complete the race and receive 2 bacon batties each which we eat with no shame :) Matt opts for his dry food as part of his training regime and he is off again to complete another half marathon. What a champ!
Next day I have completely forgotten what ought to be forgotten. Despite the back pain I am buzzing with energy. ‘Do you want to do another ultra in August, it’s a longer one?’ asks Matt. ‘Yes, definitely’ I reply. Because the more we do in life, the more our imagination works towards the extraordinary things we CAN do!
What became apparent to me during this endurance race was how low the female participant numbers were; 15 out of 100 runners only. Ultra-running is excitement, passion, purpose, laughter and even pain, despair and tears. A sport that dares us to go after what we want and helps us develop awareness in our own abilities. Ultra running is about finding our core values, when one feels ‘broken’ and keeps going with faith to finish. More women should accept these challenges and give ultra a try. Is that crazy or impossible? No I don’t think so- Because even coming practically last in this race gives me a reason to celebrate all my imperfections!