I had a suspicion this race would be tough, having had only three weeks to recover after my collapse at the Tooting Bec 24 hour race. I expected I would have to walk most of it and probably settle for a much slower time than usual. Tough it was, though not in the way I had anticipated.
Normally I’m buzzing with excitement and nervous energy before a race. When my friends and colleagues asked me how I felt in the week leading up to this race my answer was «tired» . Saturday before the race I helped my dad and uncle empty my grandmother’s house, which is to be sold as she is now in a care home following a stroke. The next day I visited my mom, and she announced that she has decided to not go through with her chemotherapy treatment for lung cancer, but take her chances that the surgeons managed to remove it all. I was thinking that with all this happening maybe I would be better off not running the A100. Then again, maybe running 100 miles on my favourite trails with some of my favourite people would be therapeutic and revive my passion for running, which quite frankly has been missing since the summer.
This was what I told Roz Glover and Sarah Sawyer in Goring Village Hall, aka race hq, and then Wendy Shaw (I know she’s married and changed her name now, I just can’t remember to what) on the start line on the Thames Path. I was tearing up as I was speaking to Wendy. I hope none of the three regretted asking me how I was, it wasn’t my intention ruining anyone’s day, or race.
For the first couple of miles I was running with Peter Windross, who told me he had used me as his unofficial pacer on the first out and back section last year. He also told me he had overheard me talking to Wendy, and he was really sorry that I was having a tough time. His empathy made me tear up again.
Then I was running for a while with Laura Swanton, shearing the lead in the women’s race. I was telling Laura about my experience at the WSER. Chatting with Laura made my mood pick up, and I was able to enjoy both the scenery and the temperature, both more reminiscent of summer than mid October. Laura told me that Sarah Burns-Morwood, who was 1st lady at Tooting Bec, had been in an accident a few days ago and broken her back. She was knocked over on her bike a few years ago, shattering her kneecap, and went through a long rehabilitation period to get back to running. Now she has to do it all over again. Life really isn’t fair.
It was considerably harder work running back to Goring than out, as I was now running into a very strong headwind. I also seemed to have left behind the group of runners whose company I had enjoyed on the way out, so I didn’t have anyone to shelter behind. I remembered how I nearly destroyed myself on the first 25 mile section last year, being completely dazed when entering the village hall, so I slowed down to conserve energy. I still completed the first 25 miles in about 3,5 hours. My watch showed that I had only run 23 miles, so it had tricked me into thinking I was running slower than I really was.
Back at HQ I scoffed some watermelon and a jelly pot (Sainsbury does vegan ones), while the volunteers topped up my bottles. Nici, strict enforcer of centurion’s unofficial «no faffing» rule, started hurrying me along so that I nearly forgot to restock my supplies of gels and food. I had been really good in the first 25 miles, eating everything I had with me bar two dates.
At the start of the second 25 mile section I was feeling really thirsty, and getting going again was really hard. While back at Goring I had noticed rivers of sweat running down my legs. Maybe I hadn’t been drinking enough? Had I been pushing too hard on the first section?
Peter came sprinting past, looking extremely fresh. He could tell me that I was in the lead, 6 minutes ahead of Laura and 20 minutes up on the 3rd lady. Peter went on to finish third in 15h something. I had run faster than him on the first section. Yeah, I definitely went out too fast. Coming into the first checkpoint at North Stoke I felt like sitting down for a little while, but no chairs had been provided. They did have a toilet though… Before I left I poured some cold water over my neck and down my back to try and get my heart rate down. Normally it goes down to below 100 as soon as I stop, which caused concern at one checkpoint during the WSER, as they thought a heart rate of 76 was a little low mid race in 40 degrees Celsius. Now it was staying in the 140s. During the first 25 miles my watch has been telling me that my heart rate was 160, which would be normal if I was sprinting to the finish in a half marathon or pushing really hard during an interval session on the treadmill. It didn’t feel as if I was working as hard as that, I was only a little out of breath, so I had decided to ignore it. My watch has shown unusually high heart rate numbers during every run and training session for the past few months, so I have just decided that it is probably something wrong with it. It is nearly five years old now, a considerable age for an electronic device.
Leaving North Stoke I had been passed by Laura, but not being in the lead anymore didn’t bother me very much. I was more concerned with the fact that my heart rate was now approaching 200. What if my watch was telling the truth? Although not very out of breath I was feeling dreadful. Something was definitely wrong. Soon after I felt my throat constrict, and I struggled to get air into my lungs. Then the crying started. There was no physical pain to make me cry, my legs were fine with only a slight and familiar ache in my hamstrings to speak of. For the rest of the way until the checkpoint at 37,5 miles I was crying nearly all the time. Every time I started running my heart rate skyrocketed to 200, then the breathing problems would start again followed by more crying. On the hill about a mile and a half from the checkpoint, the one after where Stuart March usually lurks with his camera, I had managed to pull myself together a little and not cry for a few minutes. Then two guys came running down the hill, on their way back to Goring. One of them shouted that I was doing great and that his daughter was following me on Instagram, I was an inspiration to her. I replied that I wasn’t doing great and wouldn’t be an inspiration to anyone today, and then I literally started crying on his shoulder. His mate came and gave me a hug, before I started feeling bad about delaying them, urging them to leave me and get on with their race. I just wanted to get to the checkpoint and sit there and cry.
That was exactly what I did. For a long time. My bottles were topped up and the volunteers came and asked me what I needed. My answer was tea, a shoulder to cry on, hugs and sympathy. All were provided. I was asked what was wrong, and then it all came pouring out. How in the last 6 months one of my cats had to be euthanized, a friend of mine, a young and seemingly healthy runner, died very suddenly of cancer, my mum was diagnosed with lung cancer followed by surgery and chemotherapy, which she has now decided not to go through with. The diagnosis, surgery and chemo all coincided with my goal races for the season, so I have felt guilty about taking part in these instead of e.g. travelling with my mum to Bergen for her surgery. My mum’s cancer was also originally detected back in February, but the hospital messed up and failed to notify my mum or initiate any treatment. I actually spoke to someone I know in the radiology department about why it was taking so long to get the results of the scans, and was told that if they suspected cancer we should have had the results within a week. She offered to follow up for me, but I decided to trust the system, and interpreted it to mean that the health professionals didn’t think my mum had anything very serious. However, there were plenty of other things to worry me. My mum had several falls, and was often covered in bruises and had a black eye when I was visiting, telling me she had blacked out and couldn’t remember what had happened. Already very underweight she injured her arm and couldn’t cook food. Was she safe to live on her own? For goodness sake, she is only 68, she shouldn’t be this frail and unhealthy! Frustration because, as a physiotherapist and personal trainer, there are lots of things I could do to help her help herself, but she doesn’t seem to be interested. Then when the hospital’s mistake was discovered there were new scans and worries that the cancer could have spread since the first scans. Guilt on my side because I had turned down the offer of help. Turmoil at work, which maybe I should be used to by now since it has been going on for years? Throwing out all my grandparents’ stuff and being in the house from which I have so many childhood memories for the last time. A friend of mine struggling with mental health issues… Realising that running didn’t have the therapeutic effect I had hoped for made everything feel even worse. Another loss. In the last 7-8 years I have always been able to rely on running to bring me joy when I was feeling down. What if this joy never returns?
I don’t think I said all these things, some of them only popped into my head as I was walking back down the hill after eventually leaving/being kicked out of the checkpoint. Walking because I had had quite a lot of tea and I was afraid it would come back up again, and because I had been sitting just long enough to stiffen up. At the checkpoint I had mentioned my heart rate and breathing problems, and concluded that today running/exercise just seemed to stress my body, instead of being a release like it normally is. I tell my personal training clients that they need to take into consideration the total amount of stress in their lives, and that if they have too much to deal with exercise can become a negative stressor. Sometimes it is better not to go to the gym. Maybe I should follow my own advice for a change? I decided that when I got back to Goring I would have a long break, and if I didn’t feel considerably better by then I would drop out.
On the return leg I did feel a little better, and my heart rate wasn’t as high. Maybe it was because I was going at quite a slow pace, walking as much as I was running, or maybe it was the net downhill, which meant that it was physically easier? However, I was now being overtaken by lots and lots of runners. Every time someone asked me how I was, and most of them did, I would burst into tears again.
Eventually I arrived back at North Stoke, where it turned out they had a bench and tea for emergencies. After a lot more crying and attempts at explaining what was wrong I was simply told I should drop out. I agreed. Since walking back to Goring would be quicker than waiting for the bus, and since it was only 4 miles away, I decided to walk.
The walk back to Goring was almost pleasant. Very little crying, which meant I had saved up lots of tears for when I entered Goring village hall again and was met by Nici and Ian, my pacer from the NDW. I had said to him before the race that I might be needing a shoulder to cry on, but I hadn’t thought it would be so badly needed. Ian and Nici were both fantastic. Of course there were more tea. Ian was probably listening to me for a good half hour, until I eventually started coming up with positive thoughts too. Like how proud I am of my grandmother for having managed to live on her own until she was nearly 96, how she had been a role model with regards to exercise. Whilst clearing her house I found a picture of her, from the 1960s, pedalling away on her exercise bike dressed in a skirt and blouse. Ian eventually had to go and get ready for pacing duties, but before that I think I promised him I would do the Sparthathlon next year. Phil Bradburn took Ian’s seat and was treated to some tears as well, and then had to multitask as the runner he was pacing entered and got ready for leg 3.
Nici took my bib, after double and triple checking that I was sure I would not regret my decision to drop out.
There was intermittent crying through the night and next morning. For goodness sake, the only thing that normally makes me cry is videos on social media of stray cats and dogs being rescued. I’m normally a big fan of bottling things up, but have learnt this weekend that this sometimes results in a major eruption of emotions. Sorry to all the runners and Centurion volunteers who happened to be in the splatter zone at the time. I’m extremely grateful for the support and kindness you all showed me. Some retail therapy in Reading yesterday helped, and writing this has also been cathartic. Hopefully I’ll meet you all again in happier circumstances soon.