The angel devil on my shoulder
This newsletter was first published on Patreon on 15 November 2021
I DON'T know whether you’d call it a guardian angel, or a mischievous devil, but something keeps popping up to ruin my plans every time I try to drop out of an ultra marathon.
If you’ve read my book The Rise of the Ultra Runners, you’ll know what I’m talking about, and this weekend it was the same old story - I just can’t seem to quit, no matter how hard I try. Of course, in the end I’m always grateful to finish, to get to that hallowed finishing straight, the blessed inflatable arch with the F-word written across the sky in block capitals. It was with a deep sense of satisfaction that I strode across the final stretch on Saturday evening, punching the air as the solitary spectator gave me a quiet “well done”.
Somehow I’d made it around 50 miles of Dartmoor trails, despite a certain DNF (did not finish) staring me in the face more than once. Let me tell you how it went …
I started off too fast. Of course I did. The thing is, it feels easy, that pace, with the adrenaline pumping and all the downhills. One guy even said “speedy” as I passed him. He sounded a little needled, so I said apologetically, “It’s just gravity.” It was an odd exchange that kept coming back to me as we passed each other a few more times over the first 20 miles. I suspect he felt pretty smug about the fact that after that he didn’t see me again.
About three miles in, sitting about 30 yards behind the leaders, I suspected my pace might be a bit too hot, so I eased back a little, letting a group of five get away from me.
It wasn’t just me being vaguely sensible - after all, I hadn’t really be training for this race and had only entered with a few weeks' notice. No, I slowed a little because my back was hurting. Really hurting. Right from the start, it was like a nerve was trapped between my ribs (I’m pretty sure that isn’t what was happening, but that’s what it felt like), which made it hard to breathe.
I kept thinking it would ease off eventually, but as we reached the first check-point about 16 miles in, it was still there, taking all the pleasure out of the early stages, making it hard to appreciate the moor in its full autumn splendour. The course meanders around the lesser-explored edges of Dartmoor, through gnarly woodland trails, little postcard villages and fairy-tale houses sitting tight over precipitous valleys.
Wow, beautiful. Ouch.
After the checkpoint I found myself running alone for a long stretch, wondering where everyone had gone. It was just me and my stabbing back, my thoughts going in the wrong direction fast: you don’t even like ultra running, you hate running up hills, you should stick to 10Ks.
Around 20 miles I took a small wrong turn, and as I back-tracked I got caught by a group of four runners, a little posse chasing me down.
Well, now they’d caught me, I joined their train. It felt good to run together as a pack for a while, but during a long, flat section, my back started getting worse and worse, and the pace of the group felt that tiny bit too fast. So I eased off and started to walk. Just for a little bit, I thought. But when I started running again, the back was agony.
I soldiered on, but it got worse and worse until I decided that at the next aid station I’d drop out. It was fine. I was injured. This wasn’t just me flaking out, giving up. This wasn’t my head. This was my body. I could barely breathe. I was calm in my resolve. Sure, I’d never dropped out of an ultra before, but this was a genuine injury. It was just one of those things.
And that was when the fairly godmother/devil sprinkled its weird magic dust over me. With less than a mile to the aid station, and the blissful relief of ending this torture - I’d run 28 miles by that point and it wasn’t just my back that was hurting, my hip-flexors too were starting to go - I suddenly realised that strangely, rather annoyingly, my back wasn’t hurting any longer. How did that work? Nothing. No pain. My breathing was fine.
I got to the aid station and blurted out my fascinating story about how I had been about to quit but how my back wasn't hurting any longer, so now I didn’t know what to do. The volunteers just smiled politely and offered me some soup.
Sure, I said. I was going to carry on, I realised. I needed soup.
It was a pleasure to run without my back ruining everything, and the next section was going well - I thought I may catch some of the guys up ahead - when my watch beeped at me: “Low battery.” This was a self-navigation race, with the route loaded onto my watch, which I was following like a sort of running Sat Nav. Without its map, I wouldn’t be able to continue, especially as the last few hours would be run in the dark.
My only hope was that the battery would last until the next aid station. Maybe they’d have a charger there? I shuffled on, up one side of the incredible Teign Gorge, a rusting world spreading out below me.
Is there a reason why autumn woodlands are so beautiful? Scientifically, I mean. Like flowers are beautiful because they’re trying to attract pollinators, but all these red, brown and golden leaves were simply in the process of dying. That could easily have been something ugly, grotesque even. But instead it was beautiful. Was that just coincidence?
Such thoughts drifted through my mind as I ran on. Partly I was loving things now. My legs were feeling surprisingly good, my back wasn't hurting, the planet was incredible, the fresh November air filled me with a sense of exhilaration, a simple joy to be alive and to be out moving strongly along this snaking trail. Partly, however, I was stressing. Would the watch last much longer? Could I catch the runners ahead of me? Would people behind me catch me? I kept glancing over my shoulder. I estimated I was still in the top 10. That would be a nice result.
I remembered some advice I got from the organisers of the Self-Transcendence 3,100 in New York. They said it was best not to see the other runners as rivals. Of course, a race is a race, but I tried it. I tried not caring whether people caught me or not. This was just a long run across the moor, a nice day out running, I told myself. I felt some pressure lift. I felt my mind becoming less active. In the quietness that followed, I realised how much I’d been driving myself mad the entire race, questioning my motives, wondering what position I was in, worrying about my watch, which was still going two hours since it first beeped its low battery beep.
I started smiling, talking to myself gently, talking to the dumb, staring cows, tipping my hat to them as I went by. Slowly I resolved the watch issue by deciding that I’d drop out at the final aid station, just before it got dark. Everything was calm. It wasn’t really a DNF. It was a technical DNF, that couldn’t be helped. I mean, no one could run through the night without a map. That was impossible.
As I ran up to the last aid station, 11 miles from the end, I felt at peace. I entered and sat down. “Would you like some pizza?” the volunteer asked. Sure, I’ll take two slices. God, that tasted good. I felt completely fine. My body felt better than when I’d started nine hours earlier. I got up, put on my back pack and headed out into the darkening evening.
What was I doing? What about the watch? But a thought had run through my head during the break. Put there by that fairy devil perhaps? If my watch died, I could just wait for the next runner and follow them. It was simple. I wasn’t racing. It didn’t matter if I had to stop and wait a few minutes. I’d come too far to quit now.
The final 11 miles in the dark were a joy - well, except for those parts where the trail was unclear and I felt myself wandering slightly aimlessly through some Blair Witch woodland, or across a rough, nettle-strew field. But apart from those moments, once I got on a solid, defined trail, a dark tunnel through the silent night, I felt the warm glow of strength flowing through me, squelching through the mud, up hills, down slopes, straight through streams. I started catching people, passing them. And the damn watch kept going. As I crossed the inflatable finishing arch, over five hours since it first beeped at me that it was dying, it was still going strong. A little like me.
The Granite 50 is organised by Pure Trail. Definitely a wonderful and recommended route. More info here: dartmoor100.com/granite50/
I managed much better with fuelling this run, thanks largely to the great Veloforte range - I used their bars, gels and chews. The unusual flavours were always just the right mix of sweet and flavoursome, and never felt sickly. Each time I felt like I had to eat, it was actually a pleasure to try a new one, though the beetroot and lemon gel remains my favourite.
Picture of the week
Jimmy Gressier won the French cross-country title at the weekend by hurdling the finishing tape. At the end of a tough race, that’s one serious mic drop.