Wednesday, 25 May 2016

Blood, sweat, mud and tears.



This is NOT a race review. It's more of a ramble with big chunks of race details left out. It's a ramble written still in a state of shock, exhaustion and numbness. Try to stay with me as I struggle to find words to describe what happened on Sunday.

What did happen? At 8.40am I stood shivering on the start line of my first ultramarathon. The www.whitestarrunning.co.uk Ox Ultra to be precise. Just a little one, only about 36 miles, but still considerably further than I have ever run before. I had no idea what to expect, what might happen, what it might be like. My only race plan was to keep putting one foot in front of another until it was time to stop.

I knew it would be hard, I knew that I wasn't as running fit as I wanted to be- this year has been full of a frustrating niggle that has really affected my mobility- but my general fitness was pretty good and I'd managed to gain a little weight going into race day against the chance I wouldn't manage to eat whilst running.

What happened over the next 7 hours, 47 minutes, 24 seconds and 36.3 miles is a bit hazy really. Even at the time there were chunks of time and miles that just disappeared. I think that even 3 days after the race I'm still numb and in shock.

I do remember starting to run, feeling immense relief to be moving and to find myself pain-free. It was a strange experience to start a race so slowly (although it was still too quick really) and looking at a video someone shared in facebookland it does look odd watching a race start at such an easy pace although of course that's what you do in an ultra. I also remember that even before the 1st aid station I wasn't running in pace with anyone else. That bothered me a bit because I'd rather expected to find myself running with other people much of the time, and in shorter races it has always been a comfort and a source of motivation to be around others when the going gets tough. This time there were many miles when I couldn't even seen anyone.

The thing that really shaped the race for me was around mile 17 when I took a big fall. Either I didn't see the flint rock my left foot caught, or the tightness in my left hip meant that I wasn't able to lift my foot high enough to step over it. Either way I went flying and landed hard. I lay on my back in the mud staring up at the rain pouring out of a sky as grey as the flint on the ground with no idea how I was going to get up and carry on. I think it was at that point I suddenly realised how fragile my body is. What the heck am I doing putting my body through this? Should I be doing this at all? What do I think I'm doing putting myself at risk like this? It was a miracle no bones were broken. But there was quite a bit of blood. Maybe I should quit now, before something does get broken...

Here's the aftermath 2 days later:

 No, I haven't got 3 legs! Just the one above is a better view of the cuts and scrapes. Both hands were cut too.








Luckily there was a lady running not too far behind who, in true ultra runner fashion, helped me up, gave me a dressing for the biggest cut and walked with me a while to make sure I was ok. When she went on ahead I think she must have tipped off the people at the  next aid station as they checked to see if I was ok to continue. Unfortunately they didn't have any plasters or antiseptic wipes so I just hoped all the blood streaming down my leg and out of my right hand was enough to keep things clean.

From that point it all went downhill. Well, downhill in a metaphorical sense because a WSR event is mostly about going up hills. Up lots of hills. Except about 5 miles (??) from the end when there was a steep and slippery downhill where, for the first time ever, I had dreadful knee pain as well as quads smashed from so many uphill climbs. I literally hobbled my way down cursing every step.

I guess the fact that I continued and completed the race well within the cutoff means it wasn't really all downhill. Mentally I didn't recover from that fall- the next 19 miles were nothing but teeth-gritting and a bloody-mindedness to match my bloodied leg and hand. Keeping moving became almost an automatic response even though there were times when the moving was little more than a shuffle. But I suppose it shows a level of determination and resilience, a deep drive to keep going and not admit defeat, and that can only be a positive thing to take from the experience. Even a landscape as gentle as the Wiltshire/Dorset downs can put you in your proper place in the world scheme of things- we are as tiny, feeble specks on this earth. At least, that's how I felt with the leaden sky pressing me into the mud.

And that's the other main thing I remember from the race. The mud. Mile after mile of nasty, slippery, sticky mud. The special sort of mud you only get on chalk. It sucks the strength from your legs and the will to live. I started having flashbacks to the Portsmouth Coastal Marathon last December. You can't look up and out at the scenery because you have to take care with every step. Even with my inov8 X-Talons I struggled to get grip in places. Then there was the muddy hill. For those of you reading this who took part in the Ox races you will know which one I mean. That brute of a garlic-stinking, steep, mud-treacherous climb at some point after the Love Station where it was a struggle just to stand let alone walk up it. I started it walking, then the walk became a trudge. Finally it was just a determination not to crawl up the rest of it.

If I'm honest I can't really remember finishing. Or rather, I can remember that I crossed the finish line at a slow, slow run not a walk or crawl, but I can't remember what it felt like. Perhaps I didn't feel anything. I think it was lonely. There was no one at the finish for me. I got my medal and T-shirt and then that was it. I wandered aimlessly for a few minutes then it was back to the car and a long struggle to get my wet and stinking shoes and socks off and something drier on so I could start the 3 hour drive home. I also remember really desperately wanting to curl into a ball and sob my heart out but I couldn't let myself because if I didn't hold it together I wouldn't make it home.

I do want to say a few things about the aftermath. I expected to ache. I assumed I'd probably get flu-type symptoms. Sunday night and Monday I ached badly. Tuesday- no DOMS at all. But Monday afternoon my tummy began to complain. By Tuesday morning it was bad enough that I knew I couldn't go to work and I had a temperature too. I had stomach cramps and every time I ate or drank something it just went straight through. Horrid. Tuesday evening things had settled enough so I could take my children to karate but this morning it was back to food not staying in. It's been miserable and I've lost at least half a kg since the race. This I was not prepared for.

Emotionally I'm still trying to process the race. I have moments of sudden tears and bleakness and I'm definitely not ready to examine the thoughts about whether I'll race or even run again. A bit more time is needed before I can make a balanced decision about that. It's odd, because other than the GI distress I'm physically in really good shape. But I think that running an ultra was a far bigger challenge than I had imagined it would be and whilst I prepared the best I could, nothing could actually prepare me for the journey to becoming an ultra runner.
First aid station I think.

In pictures the journey was along these lines:

Show time.


There were a few smiles along the way. I did run quite a bit too.

Love Station, about 29 miles. Had a cry.
Fallen apart. All I wanted was to see my fella

I wish there was a picture of when I crossed the finish line. 

I know I've missed out a lot. Perhaps another post on the Ox is needed, but for now this is all I can manage. It's been an incredibly difficult and painful journey. I am very grateful for the experience but I feel no elation or pride or sense of achievement. Just weak, wobbly and exhausted from being so poorly. The physical and psychological bruises from Sunday hurt too. A lot.

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