Happy not to be wrecked
This newsletter was originally published on Patreon on 31 May 2021
This week I ran a race, I watched some athletics on TV, I did some dot watching as my old mucker Damian Hall did another FKT thing, and I started to get my head around running a very, very long way.
I’ll take them in that order.
The race was a nifty little event called Race The Tide. Run on a beautiful day (for sunbathing!), it races up one side of the sumptuous Erme estuary in south Devon, along shaded woodland tracks winding through a private estate, then back down the other side before passing right across the mouth of the estuary, running over sand and through the river at the point where it meets the sea. The concept is to get to the crossing before the tide comes in too far and cuts off the way.
Of course, really it’s only the very back-markers who are actually racing the tide. The rest of us have ample time to get there, but it’s still great fun to do a race that runs across a beach and straight through a wide (though thankfully shallow) river.
I opted for the “long” half marathon race - just shy of 16 miles - and I was very happy not to be doing the 28-mile “long marathon” option on a day when the sun was vice-like in its intensity. In the second half I began passing the marathon runners, who had started earlier, and they all looked completely shattered. One of them was my friend Taz (who is a subscriber to this newsletter. Hi Taz!). I was quite excited to see him and may have been a little insensitive as I raced by and patted him on the back. It was only afterwards, as I hit the next hilly coastal path section, where there was no shade from the scorching heat, that I registered his words. “I’m broken,” was all he had said as I’d passed him. Ouch. With eight miles of hills and sun still to go, that wasn’t a great way to be feeling.
Of course, I’ve been there, and I’ve often talked up the profound emotions that are experienced in the depths of that struggle, but this time I wasn’t envious at all. I was enjoying the lighter, bouncier option of the shorter race. Sure it was still tough, but it wasn’t that kind of profound tough, where you start to question your will to go on. Where each step feels like you're fighting an invisible dragon.
In his first ever marathon of any kind, Taz rallied enough to finish in a good position, but afterwards he looked and sounded like a man who wouldn’t be doing that again for some time. “That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done,” he said, gazing off into the distance like a man who had seen terrible things. But of course, I’ve heard that before. Give it a few days, I thought. And sure enough, this morning he messaged me saying he had just noticed that his race had earned him two UTMB points. The wheels in his mind were churning. Hmmm.
Stars of Track and Field
The athletics I watched - the Diamond League meeting in Gateshead - was actually just over a week ago. Despite the wet and blustery conditions - and with very few Kenyans there because of the Covid travel ban to the UK - there was still some great racing. I won’t attempt to review it all, but the highlight for me was Spain’s Mohamed Katir - who I had never heard of before - trading epic surges with one of the top Kenyans, Nicholas Kimeli, in the 5000m, before grabbing the win in 13.08 with a fierce last lap. His ecstatic celebration was the photo used in all the reports on the meeting. As he crossed the line he looked down the camera and said: “Te quiero, mama”. It means “I love you, mum”. Aahh.
I know ultra running fans love to watch dots on screens as runners attempt to break FKTs on long trails, but generally I duck out of that one to spend a bit more time with my family, do some work or, you know, just generally get on with other stuff. But as Damian Hall neared the end of his Wainwrights Coast to Coast FKT attempt, I was glued. He’d set off on the 185-mile trail from the east coast to the west coast of northern England at a blistering pace, quickly building up a lead of over two hours on the record. At that point I assumed it was going to be easy and went off to do that "other stuff". But the next day, as he neared the end, I started seeing reports that his lead over the record was shrinking rapidly. In the last few miles it was “squeaky bum time” - to borrow a phrase from Sir Alex Ferguson. I saw footage of him near the finish, barely able to run, strangely tilting to one side like a comedy drunk, his face twisted and drained. I’d rarely seen anyone look so wrecked. He finally touched his foot on the sand - just about managing not to fall over - on the beach in Robin Hood’s Bay just 18 minutes ahead of the record. It clearly took everything he had, and I found myself once again doffing my hat to the brilliance of that bimbling bloke from Box. If you haven’t yet listened to my recent podcast chat with him, you can find him in a more jocular, cheery mood here: thewayoftherunner.com/podcast
One more painful step to go
It’s a long road, there’s no turning back
As most of you now know, I’ve decided to write my next book about running the longest race in the world. If I thought the UTMB was far at 105 miles, I’m going to need to shift my entire perception of distance and time, because next year I’m hoping to run the Self-Transcendence 3100 … which is, as the name suggests, a 3,100-mile race. Oh, and all around one block in New York City. I have a year to try to get my head around it. As I started tiring near the end of my 16-mile race on Saturday, I began to envisage I was midway through that race, exhausted but needing to stay in the moment, needing to block out any thoughts of how far I had gone or how far I still had to go. I began to envisage I was in a tunnel, and that this was not a temporary pain that would soon be over, but that this ache in my body, this need to keep moving, was now my life. It wasn’t easy, of course. But, early days. Early days.