“Sometimes an event works when it’s given space to be made by its people. Wasn’t sure how I’d feel running round in circles all day – now it makes complete sense.”
If you’re not a big reader, that pretty much sumarises what I’m about to write down. Although I may well hang out my dirty washing in the detail so if that’s your kick, read on brother.
Mr Wisely flagged Hope24 to me back at the tail end of last summer. By his namesake I trusted him. Here is a man who just gets numbers. @run_frodo_run has some impressive stats over the standard distances and he has a vision around track work beyond my, “peg it ’til you puke” approach, that I’m determined to one day learn from. The pitch was that we ran this as a pair – “a good way in,” i thought. A bit of ‘run and think about it.’ Also interesting to tackle something like this as a team, although the more we talked about it, the more we concerned over how our four legs would cope with the warm up/cool down reps over an entire day. Nevertheless, Wisely booked us in.
Twenty four hours running round in circles is something that I’ve scoffed at in previous years as missing the point of running to journey in the wilderness. These events normally take place in an urban block at best, an inside-hip-crushing-brain-busting athletics track at worst. In these cases the numbers take over like our good friend Tom-Tom striving for the ‘quickest’ route. In a car I’m happy to take the blue road but, if my legs are doing the work, I’m leaving the tarmac behind; mountains, valleys, mud and weather in my hairy yet delightful face, please.
This Newnham Park venue is one of Plymouth’s lovely little gems. Easy access from the city yet with a crucial peacock’s screech fending off the brutalist urban sprawl. The route had meadow, dirt track, 4×4 ruts, exposed ridge, foot trail, gnarly trees, bluebells and wild garlic. But the place was just the start of it.
Danny Slay, Pete Drummond and team conceived this event off the back of some lateral thinking around their Easter yomp across the Sahara, the Marathon de Sables, for which they set themselves a humble target of 45k to raise. I remember, when I ran that event in 2012, I was also confident of its fundraising potential (though not quite on the same scale on reflection) – James Adams (Running and Stuff) describes it aptly as the marketing camel train that, ‘focuses more on corporate sponsors than the experience of its runners’, which seems grumpy but fair. One thing MdS does inspire year on year is camaraderie on the right side of sniper hostility under each canopy in the bivouac train. Teams brought together through self-inflicted indulgence in all things expensive and uncomfortable (in a middle class, skinny latte kind of way). Admirably, Team Hope seem to have been well ahead of their MdS game by realising an event that not only nurtures but calls on its people to shape it, helpfully exchanging ‘toughest footrace on earth’ machismo for ‘let’s all have a run about together and see what we can do’ (probably not the official tagline). From bespoke Buff and tshirt design to the midnight medley jukebox, most components of this twenty four hour festival were formed through facebook democracy and the distanced banter which prevails.
Being about the most local race I’ve run, I knew of a number of other teams formed and was looking forward to sharing stories along the way. Being regular parkrun (smallpalloneword) run directors at Plymvalley, Wisely and I had been pimping out our post-pr coffee chat to recruiting runners and volunteers on behalf of Danny, Susan and family who were quickly settling in as parkrun regulars both in trainers and voluntary high-vis. As Christmas passed we started to think about some race-specific weekend training routines and it dawned on us that the answer was staring us in the face; running the Plymvalley course a couple of times to set up the markers, bimble around the run proper and then take down. Start-stop-start-stop(rpt.) We managed this on an impressive two occasions and, along with a daylight saving series of Blair Witch Running through the deep dark woods, we crowned ourselves ceremoniously as masters of preparation.
Which brings me to the generic
excuses contextual awsomeness paragraph in recognition of the fact that everyone brings a story to the start line. And who would bemoan the weekend preceding Hope? Enrolled as 1/2 of team Pit____ for the #4321Challenge, I spent the bank holiday weekend conditioning the mind through sleep deprivation, power-hiking 2 of Britain’s 3 highest peaks alongside the team and learning from the most stupendous endeavours of bonkers friends and their gastric peculiarities. Phil Bird (Pit_____1.a) and I are pairing up for the Marmot24 in August and as we didn’t really talk about it through our 48hour road trip, I guess that means we must be skilled, primed and ready for that too. So, time to reflect on the power of excellent people while catching up on some sleep – a week would be ample… before Ofsted rang the batphone and chuffed the party at school on Wednesday. Reliably, they buggered off in good time and Friday rolled around as it often does so marvellously well. Mid-afternoon I took a call from Captain Wisely who was out setting up camp at Newnham Park. He brought with him the news from Gov’ner Slay that the only other pairs team had pulled, leaving us to compete against ourselves. While we’d never had any real fire in our belly over the race part of the weekend, he acutely recognised that the intrinsic motivation may begin to wane after hours of racing against an unknown (I told you, the man’s a scientist). Clearly the obvious choice was to go solo – clear and obvious (I now understand) because we were tempted in to the realms of ‘do something you’re not sure you can do’. All of a sudden things felt very different to the picture in my mind 7 days earlier. Awesomeness. Oh, and on Tuesday my mother (who stopped counting at 60) signed herself up on the solo start line. If you look at it honestly, running would be boring without life throwing in a curve ball or two…
What I loved about Hope24 was that, as the event went on, this sort of bubble of collective endeavour seemed to emerge. People brought together by similar goals and the dawning realisation that 24hrs just wasn’t going to go away, no matter how hard you tried. This began with a start-line group photo in the red and white get-up citing the charity purpose that had inspired the event in the first place, without which we’d all be simply stood in a field on the outskirts of Plymouth (lovely as it is).
Food prepped in the tent (I say tent; Mr and Mrs Wisely and children Wisely have clearly been camping before – this thing had rooms!) and we were ready to go. Getting ready to run round in circles for a day, or for any ultra really, is a funny thing to consider starting. Everyone knows there’s along day ahead but equally you want to show that you’re ready to go. How do you stand? Striving for the important balance between ‘focused on the hooter’ and ‘nice trees.’ I’d be tempted to one day go for a bit of a Linford Christie block start though in reality I’d probably just fall on my face so casual chat and best foot forward it is. I ran the first section with Luke from Team SRC and we chatted amongst others for most of the lap. The route consisted of two significant lumps (…did someone say hooter?) and a flat meadow section in between. This was the camp area which was a nice touch from the organisers. As the day progressed, this middle section became crucial for opening out the stride, catching food, exchanging pleasantries with fellow Hopers and splitting the bitesize 5 mile chunks down in to 2.5 mile nibbles as things started to get painful. Soon Luke trotted off and I felt confident to measure my own pace, knowing full well I was going too quickly already.
Which brought me on to my whole approach to pacing through this event – ‘run as well as you can in this moment’. Numbers aren’t really my thing. Part of the attraction of ultra running for me is that it’s so under-researched that anything you read can be taken as opinion at best. Timmy Olson talks about running in the present moment,
“at the point when you’re only conscious of each footstep. I try not to think about the race and how much farther I’ve got to go – but I’m definitely checking in with my body to see what can I do right now to make this work the best way I can… I run for those moments of complete blissful peace.”
This is still a work in progress for me but I really get it. I had a long period back on the South Downs Way last year where I definitely hit that state of flow. The tail wind may well have helped.
As the first marathon rolled under my feet here I knew I was slowing down but felt really comfortable with that fact. I was trying to recognise what I was feeling ‘now’ and responding with an action – nothing complicated, just running. From my own research (i.e. running about) I know that I’m at my best when I’m enjoying it, can smell the breeze and be totally immersed in my environment. Traditionally there’s music on my mind and incidentally through Hope24 I was driven along by my limited lyrical catalogue of Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. As 30 miles passed I was feeling the rush of fatigue in my legs and was starting to hike longer sections of the hills. I was playing with a 10 miles – feed -10 miles – feed strategy which went out of the window after I made my first stop at 15 miles. The reality then was that I was running to feel which meant that I needed to be listening pretty carefully to my body the way along. But this is the stuff that I’ve loved about upping the distance over the last few years. You can’t really wing it in an ultra – well you can (and I try to), you just can’t get away with stuffing it up therefore the stakes ‘is’ high. What I’m learning is that every symptom can be managed on the hoof, so long as you’ve got the tools. My staples are salt tabs, water, pork pies, biltong, crisps, melon and coconut water. With salt tabs and Gu in my pack and a spread of food on offer every 5 miles, it was just a case of listening and responding. Easy.
Still doesn’t stop you getting tired. The important thing is that once you hit about 30ish miles, things kind of plateau. I mentioned to someone, since the race, that running 30 miles is pretty much the same as running 100 miles. And I partly stand by that statement now. The difference between running five miles and running twenty is quite significant, thirty and you’re in to a whole world of boring fatigue. But then it kind of hangs around. I had a passing conversation with one of the ever present (and pleasant) Nuns on the Run, Shane, during the race. He started to query how I kept going and I talked to him about how it felt like a process of normalising the tiredness. After a good chin wag, it wasn’t long before he carried on his journey ahead of me but I continued to mull over his question and my response. It struck me that the process of normalisation was a really helpful way of moving forward to the next bit. Running for that kind of time, of course you’re going to be tired, and it’s probably going to hurt. But if that’s just the way it is and we’re still moving then it can’t be all that bad. Lance Armstrong was wrong (in many ways), pain isn’t temporary, it’s a construct. So play with it.
I’d passed Mum a couple of times now and each time she was either singing along, bouncing about or stomping with intent. It’s pretty cool having your mother on the same course as you. She was aiming for 50 miles in total which is inspirational in itself. I’d also stared to pass more runners going round again, or at least recognising the teams. As the laps ticked by I started to wonder about my positioning. I wasn’t going to make a point of asking but inevitably it wasn’t long before I was told. Holding first place is always a burden and 20 more hours of essentially running away wasn’t going to be plain sailing. The game was taking shape.
As I came up to 50 miles I was starting to feel hungry. I’d been eating really well and had fallen in to quite a nice routine, including plenty of variety thanks to the race village setup around the start/finish line which meant I could dip in for a bite after every lap if I had needed to. Even so, my stomach was starting to feel hollow and I get pretty grumpy when I’m hungry. The 3663 boys were perfectly poised alongside the route and as I passed them on lap 10 (48 miles) I asked if they could pre-order a box of noodles from the food wagon for me. Once fifty miles were ticked I clocked in through the timing arch and took a sharp right heading straight for the van. Proving the gents that they are, the noodles were sat warming on the side, ready for me to inhale.
Moving again I was really starting to get grief from my right knee. Up on the windy top ridge a shooting pain started to halt me in my tracks. Each time I was able to run it off again but the pains started becoming shaper and more frequent. No idea what milage this was at, memories are blurred somewhat but I think it was just starting to get dark. I need to send out a huge thanks at this point to Elisabet from MyRaceKit/Running Matters. At the end of one lap I called out to Susan and Danny to see if anyone was around to K-tape it up. I was starting to get a bit worried about it but by listening and responding, perhaps I’d get away with sticking a mickey mouse plaster on it. Thankfully Elisabet’s work is much more rigorous than that and before long I was back out on the course with my knee held in a sort of purple adhesive cuddle. It seemed to be working.
The night was getting dark and it felt like there were fewer runners out on the course. I was steadily making my way to 100 miles under lamplight and felt like I was on for a PB time over that distance if things kept working the way they were. I was finding that each time I hit a climb, I was eating and then having to fend off extreme lazy eyes, to the point that I was testing how far I could hike with them shut – collecting cumulative sleep seconds, surely my body would be satisfied with that? Luckily the descents woke me up again and it came a case of enduring sleep/wake repeats through the night, analysing the sky for the temptation of sunrise as my watch had died not long after 50 miles in. I hit 100 miles as the sun was rising and was still in first place. 17hrs 38 minutes. It was at this point that I realised ‘the ton’ had been my goal so far, focusing on the incremental threshold which I had prior experience of and knew I could achieve. Trouble was, there were still six and a half hours to go. Curse this twenty-four-hour ridiculousness. Things seemed to fall apart as I was sat eating my 100 mile feast (which consisted of a masses of fruit, smoothie and coconut water – I would have hated to watch me eat at this point). I got cold really quickly an my quads began to spasm. As I stood up, my knee locked out and it was clear that this was game over. I crawled in to my sleeping bag clothed in layers and shivered myself in to a sort of murmuring sleep. 100 miles is still pretty good going…
Just under two hours later I woke up to the dulcet tones of Pete Drummond as he cranked up the PA system. Pete did such a great job and its important to recognise that this was an endurance feat for everyone involved in the event management too. From Pete and Danny in the timing tent to The Team Hope ladies and young apprentices Maddy and Tane, who laid out the glow sticks for nightfall, these guys earned their medals twice over and were always up for a cheer. Amazing display from Kevin Guild, troll on the billy goats’ bridge, who must have clocked up near twenty of the twenty four hours in a kind of groundhog day greeting over the first mile each lap. Team Gethin brought revered spirits around mile 3/4 when they returned in the morning with their waves and high fives – great to see a member of the future running community in training. It’s all these efforts that live in the memory of the runner far more vividly than ‘how my stomach felt at mile thirty two.’ And of course, the bluebells.
“An update for those who are waking up this morning, the lead male has run one hundred and five miles…” announced Drummond. Aware that ‘lead male’ was no longer me, I stood up. The legs felt different. Which brings me to the leading question and motivation for me throughout the race,
How about I go again? How about I run up the hill this time? How about I walk? How about I eat…? Heading back out of the tent I felt dazed and confused but totally up for it. Absolutely no idea how the legs had come back again but I was running and it felt good. Watch was out of battery by this point but as I ran most of the lap, it must have been close to a 45 minute rep. Game on. I knew there were limited hours left and having been a very consistent half hour ahead of Richard Keefe up until the 100 mark, I knew this guy was running strong. The thing I was motivated by now was that I thought we might be able to make great race out of these final few hours for Danny and all those who had been supporting throughout. Being the way it was, Richard was about the only person I had no idea what he looked like. I was running well, had I passed him? I knew I would need to do this twice to win, ‘it may well come down to the last lap? Now that would be exciting.’ I just ran and I ran, although soon getting quite tired again and with a wonky knee dosed up on paracetamol. But I chose to take no tent stops in this last phase, ‘just keep moving forward’.
This period was a highlight. Runners were waking and trotting past me, congratulating the efforts. I shared lots of interactions with other runners and it became a chance to really reflect on something that we were all doing together. A number of people asked my how the hell I did it. By the third time I had a pretty resolved response, “exactly the same way as you are.” It was true, the power of the collective endurance, no matter how many laps, how much sleep you’d had or how much it was hurting. Everyone had been tasking themselves with shaking it off and going again. The repeat climbs, the knee-busting descent, the screeching bloody peacock… running round in circles was beginning to make sense. Never have I shared a race with so many brilliant and aspiring people, including my own mother. Wonderful.
It wasn’t until the penultimate lap that Rich and I crossed paths, running opposite ways across the shooting ground. There was still half an hour between us so I knew at that point the race was won. On the last lap which I started with a heel flick in acknowledgement of my second place resolve, Rich was running with his son and he called respect and congratulations through the trees to me. The sentiment was entirely mutual – what a great battle to the last. I loved that final phase, despite it hurting like hell, because we were back in the excitement of the unknown. The game was being played and the race panned out just the way it did. It was great sharing in the making of that.
I finished 125 miles with 4 minutes left on the clock but there was no way I was going again. It was time to acknowledge everyone who had been part of the memories I was building and they were all there at the finish line, in the sunshine (I also had to get home for three as Cass was going to have the most spectacular roast dinner on the table – probably the real reason I run in the first place). Presented with a promised Doom Bar from team Gethin I basked in the glory of being one small part of the Hope24 story. This was about people coming together. As we clapped the teams finishing hand-in-hand, more and more people were realising their goals and all were equal in their achievement. Soon Richard rolled in looking in jovial shape, although I’ve no doubt he was also hurting, after clocking 130 miles for first place. Amazing stuff. The congratulations then turned importantly to Team Hope on what was a classic and seamless inaugural event. I’ve seen this done really badly in my time and on a much smaller (therefore arguably simpler) scale. A week on and I’ve not read a single negative comment. And judging by the bags under Danny’s eyes on Monday afternoon, that didn’t just happen. It’s the only race I’ve commited to doing again next year while still finding it difficult to go down the stairs forwards.
If you’re here because you’re considering running Hope24 in 2015 (and you’ve bothered to read this far), do it. It’s not going to be massive and draw a huge prize pot. Well it might, but that’s not the point. Sign yourself up, bring your story and indulge in a very long day where everyone else has brought theirs to share.
Recovery is painful with sleep sweaty and crampy. Went for a run on Thursday with SRC and in hindsight 10k was probably farther than I would have run if I had gone out on my own. A sequence of yoga now to try and readdress the balance should see me back moving again proper in to next week. Eating like a horse. >>> Results page