This race had been on my radar for nearly a year, and having entered it around eight months prior to the start, basically all of my running, including both the London and Milton Keynes marathons, had been in preparation for it.
The journey down was shaping up to be relatively quiet. The train journey was busy, but I managed to get a seat, then onto the ferry and up to the top deck. Nice and quiet…until a group a school children destroyed my peace and swamped the place with their state of childhood frenzy!
They hold the Round the Island running race on the same weekend as the yacht race of the same name, and as the ferry ported in Cowes, it was awash with ‘yachties’, thousands of them, all in very high spirits, all drinking as though it were new year’s eve, despite the fact they all had a day of racing themselves ahead. Surely being drunk in charge of a yacht is an offence…apparently not with the amounts they were putting away.
I managed to find a quiet pub and get a hot pie and a sandwich, not an ideal pre race meal but in the circumstances, just fine. Bed for the night, along with the other one hundred and ten competitors, was in a local college hall, and as the lights went out at 10pm, if you’d have offered me four hours sleep, I’d have bitten your hand off! Despite the numerous coughs, sneezes, splutters and general sounds when that many people are sleeping close together, I did in fact get four hours sleep.
Race day. Up at 6am for a breakfast of croissants and cereal with a 9am start time. We were staying around a mile from the start itself, which was to be the chain ferry crossing. A quick, five minute ride over the river, and soon as the front of the ferry’s deck lowered, that was to be the start. This was the bit of the race I was looking forward to the most, which is slightly alarming as I’d got another thirty eight miles to cover that day. Our official warm up was the one mile run to the ferry, downhill, so not too bad and as we boarded the ferry, the mood was energetic, with everyone trying to look like the next several hours of running was just what we did at weekends!
The ferry ports, deck lowers, and with a yelp of excitement I thought everyone would give (just me then) off we go. The first several miles were mainly inland, nothing too thrilling, but it was just fine to settle into a rhythm of running that was, hopefully, going to see me through until my expected finish of around 4pm. We hit the first checkpoint at around eleven miles, having finally reached the sea front, and the long stretch of sandy white beach in a small seaside town called Sandown. A handful of pretzels, refill of my bottle and off we set, mainly now along the coastal path of the south side of the island. The stretch to the next checkpoint was to be tough, very hilly, very quiet and the part of the run where you just have to grind out the mileage. The views were still among the best you’ll see on any run, anywhere, but I just had to get my head down and knock off the miles, before finally, the checkpoint at the halfway stage on day one. More pretzels, peanut butter and jam sandwiches and cake were devoured, before a grateful wave, and off I went.
Glorious trails through the woods that hug the coast were followed by stretches of running along the beach, huge hillside staircases, where you literally had to haul yourself up by the rail, were quickly followed by running along the main promenade and weaving between the holiday makers of Ventnor, the main resort, with its’ pier and sea front cafe’s and bars. I drew a laugh and a clap as I swerved into a bar and feigned to grab a pint of lager from a gent relaxing in the sun. Not long after, checkpoint three drew upon us, and a real time ship wreck, was a nice distraction. Apparently one of the yachts had got into difficulty when its’ skipper went overboard and none of the other four crew members could sail, so it basically ran aground on the rocks. Luckily everybody was rescued, but I knew all that lager would catch up with someone! Another handful of pretzels (great for salt intake but turn your mouth to cotton wool!) some sausage rolls and water refill saw me on my way.
I made a point of celebrating the marathon distance point a short while later by popping into one of the sea front shacks and buying an ice cold can of full fat coke. I had been craving this for the previous five or six miles. Any distance from this stage meant I was an ultra marathoner and I wanted to acknowledge the achievement. It was not long after this that I made my only mistake of the whole race. Ultra marathons are nearly always off road; therefore you are given a set of instructions and a map at the start. On this route, mostly we had to follow the blue coastal path signs, which were plentiful, making the running of the course quite easy. Only I made a wrong turn which lead to me running an extra two to three miles. I was totally lost, but was too far gone to turn around as I’d just run down a very large hill to get to the sea front, as the instructions at the start said if we kept the sea on our left, we were OK. My plan was to run around the beach to pick up the path at the next cove. No beach, just massive waves crashing into the rocks. I had no choice but to backtrack up the hill. I had lost around forty minutes and the mental affect was shattering. My only consolation when I made it all the way back to where I’d gone wrong, was that I’d stopped another runner from making the same mistake, for which he was truly thankful!
My mind was made up. I was withdrawing at the next checkpoint and pulling out of that day’s racing. It was the only way I could carry on until mile thirty one, and the last checkpoint. I was happy with the decision, as I could run again tomorrow and complete almost the entire race, and besides, I had already run thirty four miles at that stage. As soon as I arrived the marshals were full of support, as was every marshal throughout the weekend. Totalling encouraging, and had said my time up until that point was excellent for a first time ultra. So with more coke (a marshal had been and bought bottles of the stuff) I decided I was too ashamed to tell them I was quitting, got up and started on the last six miles for the day. The trouble with the last six miles, we could see where the finish was, all that distance away. It never seemed to get any closer, but finally some eight and three quarter hours after starting, forty miles instead of the scheduled thirty seven, I crossed the finish line for the day. Halfway!
Thankfully there was a swimming pool and a massage on hand at the holiday camp we were staying at for the night. I refuelled with evening dinner and settled into my chalet I was sharing with two French guys in the race. A 6am alarm was set (it went off at 5am due to their phone still being on central European time) and breakfast of porridge with honey and toast was devoured before we were off at 8am.
I was pleasantly surprised that my legs were feeling quit fresh. The dip in the pool and massage had done their work, and we all headed along the cliff edge, and the first checkpoint of the thirty two mile route. The checkpoints, by the way, are an absolute godsend. It’s a chance to refuel, without having to grapple with your back pack, just eat something that is close to proper food and not just the energy gels and flapjacks I was carrying, plus a chance to sit down for two to three minutes, before a nagging voice in your head says, ‘’erm, you’re in a race here, get a move on’’
The first ten miles on day two, we were told had the toughest terrain of the whole island. We were told correctly! Close to two hours to run those ten miles, meant that by this stage of the race, my initial plan at the start of the weekend, to walk any uphill’s and run on the flat and downhill sections was being tested severely. I hated anything flat, as it meant I had to run (although this was, at best a shuffle) Downhill sections were horrible, as the pressure on your knee and hip joints was terrible. Walking wasn’t an easy option by this stage either, as pretty much most of area below my waist was now in pain. When I reached the halfway checkpoint for the day, there was a young girl coming in just as I was leaving, who was in a state of high distress. Crying uncontrollably, I think from the relief of making it that far. She was put into the medical vehicle, and I assume out of the race. The rest of the competitors around me understood completely what she was going through. At least she could rest up now.
The next section of the route took us through some great coastal trails, across fields and country lanes, over shanty wooden bridges and through quaint villages, until we hit the penultimate checkpoint. Just eight small miles to go. Now, eight miles, in the grand scheme of a seventy mile race, isn’t a lot, but the reality was, I was looking at another two hours of running. To put that into perspective, I normally run at over eight miles an hour, when I train. I was still running, but only covering around half of that, so another two hours on the road meant I didn’t share the marshal’s enthusiasm as they waved us off with a ‘’not far to go’’
We had one more, brief checkpoint that had been put in place at the last minute, with four miles to go. We were told this was to only supply water, but once again, the marshal’s had been out and supplied coke, sugary sweets and pretzels, legends! This was now just about salvation. I knew I’d be done in less than an hour, so whatever I had left, I would give. I knew my wife and two girls were waiting for me at the finish so I ran virtually every inch of those four miles. There was a sting in the tail though, as we had to make our way up the steepest flight of steps on the whole island, the sort that would leave you grasping for breath without the previous sixty nine miles in your legs. The seventieth, and last mile, was the quickest I’d ran all weekend. I can’t explain where these surges come from. They always happen in every marathon I do, and I always look down at my legs and wonder where the hell they have been for the previous ten miles!
I turned the final road and could see the finish. I could also make out Denise and the girls, and as I drew closer, I took my girls in each hand and we crossed the line together. I had been close to tears at various stages around the course at this very thought (that’s what running for seven hours does to you!) but now it was just relief it was over. I had achieved something very few will ever attempt and celebrated with a cheese sandwich and a beer. I swore right there I’d never do another race like this, as I will never forget the pain it inflicts on you, but then again, I’ve said a lot of stuff I’ve gone back on.
This race is incredible, the comradeship you have with the other competitors lives with you. You never ask their names, you don’t need to. You are all sharing the same goal. You are all here for the same reasons, to test yourself beyond what you think is your limit, only to find that your limits have moved just a little further.
Oh, and the young girl completed the race. Sums it up really.