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A 205km Ultra Marathon around Kent in England
In June of 2015 I took part in several long distance running events ranging from a 24 hour, 120 mile effort on a circular trail course to a 17 hour, 110km course over the Lake District mountains. Many times during these races I struggled with the whole idea of competing in organised events. Maybe it was the fatigue but the whole idea of competition regularly troubled me; the timing chips, the medals, and perhaps mostly my own response to the situation, which was always to run as hard as I could.
"Us runners are always trying to knock a few seconds, or minutes, off our times," I thought. "Personal bests are always chased and we're always trying to get through this beautiful countryside at the fastest possible pace. Is this right? I know that keeping track of how fast you go is just one way of measuring your personal progress, but couldn't I be doing this trail running thing a little better, by just running for the fun of it, rather than the time? I can't really tell but it really does feel like I'm missing something here, like I'm in a situation where so much can happen yet so relatively little actually does."
Of course, some would say, just don't go fast then. Take part in the event and cruise round, like so many others do, the back markers who take in the scenery on the way and finish smiling. Ok, I could try, but it seems every time a start gun goes off I loose my head and try to give it all I've got. I'm just no good at taking it easy in race situations.
So I decided to plan a fun run. There'd be no timing chip, no crowds, no feed stations and no medal at the end. It'd be just me, just running. But where? Near home, I thought, so I could discover more of where I lived. And on pathways that were waymarked already, so I wouldn't have to carry a map. The obvious choice was the North Downs Way, a National Trail that runs near to my home. I looked over a map; Ok, that path could take me to Dover, but then where? Another pathway led north, up the coast. It was the Saxon Shore Way. I traced a line over it, following it back west, and then, yes, that would work, it could leave me in Medway, just a few miles from home, and it'd be one huge loop. Great!
It may seem odd saying that I came to the conclusion that since I find it hard to ease up during a 100 mile race then the easier thing to do would be to run a similar distance in a non race situation, but that's how it seems it is with me right now, and you got to work with what you got, right? Sometimes doing nothing is the right thing to do in life but in this case I had the fitness, I had the time and I had the will, so why not go for it and try something new...
I logged onto 'Map My Run'. Perhaps not the most sophisticated online route mapping tool but it's one I know how to use. I started to measure out the route but then thought, mmm, if I start at midday, as I plan to, and head east on the North Downs Way I'm going to be running away from sunset, and I don't want to do that as I like looking at the sunset, but if I start on the Saxon Shore Way it turns north for a while near Whitstable, and it's famous for it's sunsets there, so perhaps I should take this route clockwise and aim to hit Whitstable at sundown...
I set out from home at 12:15 on Thursday afternoon. My aim was to make it back for Friday afternoon. I didn't know what time exactly, I was going to try to take this run easy. I'd done 120 miles/196km in 24 hours recently, so this might take me 3 or 4 hours more than that.
I was totally wrong there. I'm not sure what caused it but in the end I stumbled home at 1:20am on Saturday morning, 37 hours after I'd started. Maybe it was the relaxed nature of a non-race situation, maybe the fact that I lost the route several times as the paths weren't signposted consistently, perhaps I wasn't on form (I certainly started the run with a slight hamstring pull, as well as stomach pains and dizzy spells although I put the latter down to nervousness), or fatigued from the previous month's 3 ultras. Who knows. It didn't matter that much, I wasn't watching the clock.
I'll keep the description of the run to a minumum here, you have the film I made, below, to give you an idea of how the terrain is. I'll just try to include what I consider is vital information. If you need to ask any questions, please go ahead via email .
I wore On Running shoes. I find I can run long distances in these with no issues. Indeed, at the end of this run, my feet were sore but I had no blisters.
My clothes were by Gore (compression socks, shorts and top), Helly Hansen (lightweight rain jacket) and X-Bionic (compression top). Gore and Helly are brands I know and trust to get me through such a run. X-Bionic are new to me but the top seemed a good one, and so it turned out to be.
I took 3 litres of Salba Chia Fresca in my hydration pack, 12 Push energy gels, 4 Vega bars and a couple of peanut butter and banana wraps. I also took £10 with me, which was just enough to buy more supplies when needed but not enough to catch a train home when the inevitable negative feelings began to kick in.
There were many shops en route - the ones I used were in Faversham and Dover - and here I bought 7 litres of water, 12 brown bread rolls, a pot of humous and a bag of salad to supplement my supplies.
The paths were excellently marked in places and appallingly marked in others. The North Downs Way coming out of Folkestone is particularly bad, as is the Saxon Shore Way between Gillingham and Whitstable. If you want to run this route and be sure of finding the way, take a map.
Here's my film of the run.
Overall it was a worthwhile run. It felt odd at times to be running so far without that lure of medal, time or placing, I'm just not used to it, and the effort hurt very much, especially as so much of it turned out to be on tarmac (probably about 40km in all) which is always hard on the feet. But a seed has been sown, and this is the direction I think I want to go in. It's a direction that has to be followed carefully. With a race situation things are relatively simple and whilst with ultra running there is always a strong mental effort needed as well as a physical one, I've learned now that when you're running an ultra outside of a race situation it becomes something different. Your efforts have the power to either add to your ego or strip it away and whilst most of us would want to strip our ego away, if one doesn't take care the act of running 205kms can do exactly the opposite.
I think it's the hurting that helps, for me; when I'm as exhausted as I am after running so far, I really do feel I'm the best I can be. It's not just the physical tiredness that I'm referring to, and not even the mental tiredness that comes from willing yourself forward long after your body has given up. There's something else, a complete submission and handing over of control, although it never feels like I thought submission would do because there is never any doubt that handing over control is the only course of action to take. Not because of the exhaustion, no, but because of a great inner peace and satisfaction and perhaps because I understand at this time that I never really had any great amount of control in the first place so it's rather silly to keep grasping at trying to cling onto it, when the alternative seems so much more real.
Or it seems like that anyhow. Then again, that could be my ego talking. I'm not trying to be witty or cute here, but I believe that some of our blindfolds are so tightly wound on, who knows if we'll ever get rid of them.