Not so long ago, I decided to enter an ultramarathon. The idea started as many awful ideas do, down the pub, chatting to my wife’s best friend. She mentioned that she was thinking of doing something unusual and memorable in memory of her partner’s memorable and unusual grandmother, so she’d decided to run an ultra. 4 pint Drew proclaimed this to be an excellent idea, and added himself to the endeavour.
If you’ve never looked into ultramarathons (and why would you?), they’re any race that’s longer than a marathon. This could be a 50km race (less than 8km more than a normal marathon) to punishing 100 mile slogs or even more. We picked something close to our home in Brighton, with familiar terrain but a challenging distance - the 100km South Coast Challenge from Eastbourne to Arundel. One of the hardest parts of this, which we realised fairly quickly, is that this route passes close to both our houses just before the halfway point. This means that after a punishing 50km, we’ll be nearly home, only to have to run away from it again. One turn, and I could be back in my house, talking to my cats about the nonsense I’d just avoided. Instead, a wistful glance, a muttered curse, and we will slog on.
When professional athletes talk about training hard, they often talk about pain, sacrifice, dedication and the like. What they don’t often talk about is how boring it can be. REALLY boring. Shuffling and sweating in lycra to notch up 60+ miles a week takes ages. My mp3 player only holds 17 hours of music and whilst the music on there works for running, I’ve heard some of the songs on there so often I could whistle them while in a coma. Add in the fact that I also quit the delicious cigarettes after 23 years and cut down my drinking to be an occasional weekend tippler, you can imagine how much fun I am now. It’s strange to be heading out for a run before most people are up on a Saturday, and to still be out doing it by the time they’re legitimately and socially acceptably on the lager.
Maybe the pros have a lot more imagination than I do, but running that much is as much of a mental effort as a physical one. Can I be bothered to get changed and do all this again? Wouldn’t I rather be doing something else? Maybe I could just sack this one off and go for a pint. Do I have to spend half my life sweating like late-period Elvis? If you live and work in Brighton, most of your weekday runs are going to be down on the seafront, given the narrow pavements and the lack of large parks, and whilst it may sound churlish to suggest it, the seafront view can pall after the first few hundred miles. Summer time may bring nicer weather, but it also vastly increases the number of obstacles on my normal lunchtime runs. Or ‘people’ if you prefer.
Weekends and long runs bring with them the greatest chance for variety, the open country and reward. One of my last mid-length runs last weekend saw me schlep 18 miles or so over the South Downs, palling around with the sheep, heading down into Lewes past some unusual architecture, back up on the Downs towards the infamous Ditchling Beacon followed by a 4 mile downhill swoop back into Brighton through beautiful woodland. In a turn of events that may make you want to punch me, I got back feeling elated and energised rather than sweaty, tired and pig-stinking. One good thing about switching from marathons and half-marathons to ultra-length races is that time doesn’t matter so much, as long as you finish. I’ve always been a middling speed runner, neither particularly fast nor deadly slow, but when it comes to 100km, no-one’s really got a PB to compare unless you’ve done the exact same race, and no-one is going to judge you for an extra half hour here or there. Very handy if you’re massively competitive but only modestly talented.
I’m also lucky in that my work sometimes takes me around the country meeting clients and suppliers, and instead of sleeping off hangovers I can take the opportunity to run around somewhere new and interesting. It helps that I get excited by industrial architecture and the odd liminal spaces on the edge of those post-industrial towns where the scrapyards meet the unusual houses along the canals, as these are often the places I end up to get away from the cities I’m staying in. Birmingham, Bristol and Nottingham, take particular bows. These areas can teach you as much as old maps about the rise and fall of industrialisation and the lives that people create around the ruins of the formerly thriving, smoking and clanking manufacturing areas that used to create the fabric of our country.
Despite the long runs, injuries and exhaustion, in the last few weeks I’ve started, with grim inevitability, to look up other ultras, wondering how nice it might be to do 50 miles around the Gower peninsula for example. If my toes don’t fall off during this one, you might find me there next year. I can only apologise to my wonderful partner. I promise to find a less time-consuming hobby one of these days.
In doing something like this for the first time, there has to be a ‘why?’ beyond the physical and mental challenge of it. One of the ‘whys’ for me is the opportunity to raise money for the Alzheimer's Society. It’s an organisation that works towards ending a pernicious disease that will affect most of us either directly or indirectly in our lives, and one which I’ve seen the damage close up, the holes punched out of someone’s personality until there’s barely a tatter of it left and it breaks your heart to see. Like any good capitalist, I set myself a target, achieved it, and so raised the target. A tenner spent here instead of on a couple of lunches will almost certainly make you a better, healthier and happier person. Even if it doesn’t, at least you’ll have tried. Think of me on the 26th August. Then laugh, turn over in bed and go back to sleep. Damn you.
Drew will be running the South Coast Challenge on 26th August. Please sponsor him here if you can.