by Vicky Luffrum
As usual, and for most participants of any event, it all begins in earnest the moment I leave the house to travel to the venue. Public transport from Cardiff to Plympton is amazingly straightforward with one train change at Bristol to continue the journey south. It is no surprise to many of those who know me that my sense of direction and observational skills leave something to be desired but “south” is obvious enough. Isn’t it?!
I hugged my huge red hold-all close to me in my reserved seat on the train – this is no “girlie” bag; a peek inside would reveal an ultra runner’s survival kit and more, weighing in at about a third of my body weight. Big, thick and cumbersome to handle!
“The train shortly departing from platform 4 is the 12.30 pm express from Cardiff to Dundee”.
In seconds my brain had reasoned that Dundee was north…and certainly not south… in a scene not unlike that in the film “Clockwise” I had mere seconds to disembark. Using my big red bag as a battering ram to push aside the hoards of Scots travelling north to celebrate their nation’s SNP victory in the General Election the day before, I was still able to spill enough choice words to startle those who hitherto would have been my traveling companions!
By the time I had fled the train I was as breathless as if I had done an interval session around the fields adjoining the Aspire Gym!
If ever there was a case for using alcohol as a relaxant this could well have been the day. I arrived at my B&B four hours later to view a mass of scaffolding around the building and several burly men drilling the rendering from the walls..but “Thank God It’s Friday” chorused in my head as their 5pm finish heralded a downing of tools, the evening was to be quietly mine with thoughts and strategies for the weekend to eventually lull me off into a restless pre-event sleep.
Hardly any need for an alarm clock then, the dawn chorus was barely at the end of its first verse when I looked out at what was a rainy start to the day. Let’s face it, it is seldom “just perfect”- being either too hot, too cold, too windy, too wet, too humid but as the next few hours past by a much better day emerged. Arriving at Race HQ the atmosphere was buzzing with general excitement: music, competitors, supporters (loads of them!) and tents pitched randomly as if waiting for the main act on a Saturday night at Glastonbury. “Hope 24” already had the makings of an event to be celebrated.
I didn’t know though whether to laugh or cry when a novice looking competitor asked me how long I thought it was going to take me to do 24 miles! He surely was in the real Hope category! Luckily I was able to drift off into the throng as Danny Slay (the Race Director) began his race briefing; he informed us all that in order to spice things up this year the five mile laps were to be run in reverse. Hmm..in my mind I knew that it was still going to involve two steep hills! Who cares in what direction we go? (er…no comments about me at this point please!).
For those who are unfamiliar with the principles of such events the aim is to complete as many laps of the course within the twenty four hour period; at any point a competitor can chose to call it a day..or a night..or even stop to sleep or eat! The chipped times and distances recorded included data from solo runners like myself as well as teams (varying from 2-8 members) doing their laps in relays. The obvious conclusion to draw from this is that yes, there were team runners relatively sprinting along and passing many solo runners who had to ensure a discipline so as not to crash out having exceeded their long distance pace ability. After a 12 noon start reaching the end of the first lap in 51 minutes proved not to have been at all bad, my self talk of “not bad Vicks” a purposeful attempt at self hypnosis and a denial of the impact of the hills climbed just the once! The impact though of the 600 ft elevations, lap after lap soon resulted in them feeling like the climb up Pen y Fan (for those geographically disinclined…yes…a deliberate pun… this is the highest mountain in South Wales). We walked them!
I came to the event carrying an injury which emanated from my glute muscle and causing piriformis syndrome. However, having tested it out before race day and having had some physio work carried out it seemed likely that I would be able to perform reasonably well– I felt sure that I could more than survive without using up my whole prescription of pain – killers. Pain after all is part and parcel of ultra running (what a strange delight!). It wasn’t long before the discomfort reared its ugly head, I hadn’t anticipated or planned for this happening quite so soon it was going to be a long period of… well…acceptance.
I ran the event as a non crewed solo runner, running as planned with Ernie – the aim was that we would support each other for the duration of the event. We discovered that we wasted a lot of time queuing for drinks, water and food at the “food bus” and where we ended up in line with supporters and friends queuing up as well. As positive as one can be in such situations we used these periods as “rest times” before starting the laps again and again.
Thirty miles and six laps completed , hot food beckoned. Who would imagine that you could enjoy spicy potatoes and curry before jogging (jogging?!!) off into the evening sunshine? The smell of veggie burgers wafted through the air and even though fancying one we had to make our way onward into the evening, the ten minute wait was just too long to take out. I carried the thought for another five miles or more while thinking about cheesey jacket potatoes, soup..who says you can’t eat when you run?! The intake of calories on ultra runs is a priority, even though gels and electrolytes reach some necessary spaces they simply don’t cut it when day turns to evening turns to night.
Somewhere around midnight my body was indicating that it was not a happy chappy; some parts were beginning to complain. Ernie, my running mate as well as being a physiotherapist and trainer taped my nagging calf before elbowing firmly the glute, the site of my injury, while I sat uncomfortably on a rock. Imagine the scene and what it looked like to passing runners, “It’s just a piriformis” shouted Ernie. Hmm!!
The goal of the race was to complete 45 miles in the first twelve hours and to have achieved this in just eleven hours indicated that the overall goal of eighty miles was well within grasp. I felt that I was really in my element despite the earlier discomforts, I always say that I feel at my best when I am running well. At this stage the calls of the resident peacocks had ceased while they settled down with the pea-hens for the night. Head-torches had been lighting up the route for about two hours, bobbing lights and beams behind and in front of us, my favourite time had arrived, running through the night.
Despite increasing physical discomfort the atmosphere carried me along as each lap was ticked off. As well as the darkness a fairly dense fog had fallen on the course and surrounding countryside but which was lit with coloured lighting at every five mile mark, flashing across the grass raising everyone’s spirits in such a small but in the event, a meaningful way.
The hours awake have never particularly bothered me in ultra races, sleep deprivation being something I have been well able to handle–the only difficulty comes in trying to calculate miles done, laps completed and so on when the faithful Garmin has ultimately and inevitably run out of gas quicker than a runner! On this occasion at 3am, fifteen hours into the run, things took a turn for the worse when I began to feel nauseous and began to wobble uncontrollably as if I was intoxicated. Knowledge has taught me it’s important to act upon such situations sooner rather than later…. (heck..I hope I’m selling Ultras to you here!) Ernie was suffering from extreme tiredness too, leading us to the decision to take a tent rest..spiders or no spiders! (Yes, I just don’t like them!). Lying down proved to be the most painful thing for my injury and I couldn’t relax so, while Ernie literally hit the sack, sleeping for an hour, I sucked and chewed on ten wine gums until we were off once again.
The downhills that had previously been a blessing now became something of curse. It had been possible to fairly sprint down them making up precious time during the early miles, but no more, the up hills and the chance to walk to what seemed like a summit at this stage almost…almost..became something to relish.
Mentally I continued to be up for the challenge and doing what I feel I do best. Until a few weeks before the event I had been struggling with low energy, mood and motivation yet now I was again at a high point and felt that my training and involvements in races had come full circle. Happy Days!
Other competitor’s crews and race organisers were phenomenal in cheering us on as we continued to surge onward, best foot forward into the dawn again. I have no recollection of what time I reached the sixty mile mark but all I know was that I was moving (rather than running!) and it certainly didn’t look pretty.
God Bless the Mobile Phone! I was able to call Steve, my partner and George from Aspire Gym in Cardiff during my 70th mile lap to discuss the options for the remainder of the event..I like to think and it has been affirmed (!) that I sounded upbeat and focused. I was mulling over the logistics of the distance left to be covered in relation to the time left available and having to travel home by public transport. It felt good that I knew that I was easily able to complete 75 miles…..
…and so it was that at 10.20am after 22 hours and twenty minutes I decided to call it a day. I felt more than content with my achievement having felt in control and fully able to walk away before the actual finish time, mentally and emotionally intact albeit with some physical soreness. I was easily able to walk the mile odd to the Gym and back the following day! Although I know that I could have reached the original goal of eighty miles (which Ernie DID achieve), on the day I did not feel as though I needed to; in the past I would have berated myself but now see a major change in my approaches and attitudes, I have definitely changed as a person.
I have to say a big thanks to everyone who gave me support in the approach to and during the event; my family, the staff of The Aspire Gym in Cardiff, Ernie Jewson and the Hope 24 organisers. I will be back to do it again!