I don’t gravitate towards people very often and I’m not easily impressed but EmLa is one of those people who gets right under your skin and you can’t help but be amazed by her.
Let me explain what happened.
It was about a year ago and EmLa had finished reading Ira Rainey’s excellent ultra running book ‘Fat Man to Green Man’ and I may have suggested that in her was a bonafide ultrarunner, I may have then given her a gentle prod for Country to Capital when entries came-a-calling and I may have persuaded her to rock up in the middle of Autumn to come eventing at her first (but hopefully not last) SVN run – the Ranscombe Challenge. But as EmLa says if she hadn’t wanted to do these things then nothing on earth could have motivated her to do it. However, her signing up to this was in the fury of the preparation for climbing Kilimanjaro (yes I shit you not this girl is a real adventurer) and so she was on a roll and I had no doubt she was going to become the latest member of the ultra marathon community.
And so to January 16th and about 7.35am. In the pub I bobbed down to the registration and who is there looking larger than life and a bit nervous but my partner for the day – EmLa.
We chatted for a bit, I introduced the ever awesome Totkat and we both met Ira Rainey and Mary from the excellent ahealthiermoo blog (check it out here), UltraBaby and the GingaNinja were also on hand for deflection of nerves and the creation of chaos. A near perfect race morning then!
But time was moving on, we did final kit checks, stripped down a bit to the right level of clothing and then joined the assorted runners outside. Here EmLa and I ran into the ever awesome and genuinely brilliant Naomi Newton Fisher – it seemed we were all starting at the back! Anyway, the start line began to move and EmLa and I drifted forward slowly. With the GingaNinja on the opposite of the road taking videos and photographs at least one of us took the opportunity to wave goodbye (it wasn’t me).
We headed down through Wendover and through the first bits of Tarmac until we hit the trails and EmLa held a solid pace. We chatted a bit but you could tell that focus was needed on the running. We had agreed that I’d do most of the talking and more importantly that if she started to consider the ‘RTC’ (refuse to continue) I was to give her tough love (a punch in the face was my preferred tough love). This meant sadly I had to listen to the sound of my own voice but it did mean I got to tell crap stories to someone new. Now the first section of Country to Capital has a few stiles in it and therefore rhythm can be difficult to find but this allowed both of us to find our feet and judge the terrain. Being a cold, crisp day meant that everything was a little icier than I had expected but there was still water in the ground and mud everywhere! Still this made for near perfect trail conditions and we continued to make steady progress and despite the challenges of the terrain I pushed EmLa a little harder than she had expected.
We also had the good fortune to meet lots of lovely runners between CP1 and CP2 and as the trails were eaten up under pounding of our shoes I was buoyed by how strong EmLa looked. For me it was more challenging as my hamstrings and glutes (which had been rumble rolled and stretched that morning) were already sending shooting pains up my leg, but at only 3 miles in I felt that it was best to try and shake it off.
One of the big mistakes I made at my first ultra was not eating and drinking enough and so I made sure I was eating and drinking regularly, now while I couldn’t force her, I suggested that my run buddy did much the same and so it seemed at least one of us (me) was very much banqueting their way round the course (pepperoni pizza, Mexican cheese parcels and BBQ chicken, Reece’s Cups and kinder Bon Bons!). It’s a rare thing to feel genuinely cheery at the start of an ultra, I mean yes you can feel positive and ready but genuinely cheery is a rarity (for me at least) and yet I found as I was grinding up and down the course I couldn’t help but have a bit of a spring in my step. I put this down to the fact that I needed to remain relatively upbeat for if/when EmLa had a bit of meltdown but I was perhaps also just happy to be back running after a Christmas of rest.
With very few people in sight EmLa and I had the course to ourselves and we proceeded at what I considered a sensible pace of just under 5 mph, this meant that we rolled into the checkpoint in pretty good time. I did my customary sprint down the hill into the checkpoint and gave kisses to the GingerNinja and grabbed as much of the delicious cake as I could manage. EmLa who was just behind me looked in good shape and perhaps a little shocked both at the reasonable pace we had adopted and the realisation of what she had let herself in for. We were stopped a little longer than I anticipated but with cake in our bellies we set off again – and here I made my first mistake. I started to head down Amersham Road rather than Red Lion Street … thankfully my mistake was minor and we corrected after less than 100 metres but I noticed that my running buddy seemed to have had the wind knocked out of her sails. Hmmm.
We discussed the tough love scenario before the start of the race and I’d asked if she would prefer the arm round the shoulder or the kick up the arse. Given that she said ‘kick up the arse’ that is what I went with mostly but her confession that she was finding it hard and feeling a bit sick was no great surprise. I slowed the pace down a little bit but insisted that we press on, to her credit, she did just that and without moaning about it.
This section was a 10 mile section and would probably be the most draining on the legs – the ground was in a number of places hard going and despite all our efforts this was going to be a challenge. For much of the second section it was a fight between EmLa and her mental strength – we slowed to walking for a bit so we could chat – and eat pizza. It didn’t take much to remind her why she was here, how amazing she was and what she had waiting for, it didn’t take much to get her going again and after some coaxing I had a hero back on side. By the time we crossed the flooded road (by taking the little side road) I felt as though she would be okay once we were past the next checkpoint and I was right.
We bounded up to CP2 and said hello once again to @ahealthiermoo (who looks nothing like a cow) and used this as a toilet stop as there was a delightful village pub awaiting us. I took the opportunity to dislodge the giant shit I needed and EmLa dislodged a giant fart – delightful. Waiting for us once again was UltraBaby and this time we all had cuddles and high-fives but they wouldn’t be there for CP3.
However, getting past CP2 and back onto the trail was seemingly enough to give EmLa the boost she needed to get into the required headspace. We picked up the pace again to alleviate some of the loss we had incurred during the last section and I knew that we soon be on the canal path and once there we were home and dry – you don’t DNF on the canal path (unless you’re badly injured). As we came to the canal I stopped briefly and turned around and shouted back – ‘we’ve made it’ because we had.
The journey was now about halfway complete and it seemed appropriate that we could talk about targets for the day, catching the runners in front of us and staying ahead of the clock. EmLa was in a much revitalised mood and therefore I decided we would go live and we hit the ‘Periscope’ button for Twitter. As I’m sure you’re aware I very rarely appear on my own Twitter feed (or even in this blog until quite recently when I added the gallery feature), but it seemed like an appropriate time to introduce myself and my running partner and keep Twitter up-to-date with our rather handsome progress.
We broke down the canal path bit by bit and our progress was steady – each of the bridges we bounced over and now all that remained was to stay consistent. As I watched the clock for a little while I realised that it was very possible that we could come in under 10 hours if we pushed a little harder.
Checkpoint 3 though was our next stop and in the distance on our approach I could see lots of runners congregated – this was our chance to claw back a few places. We stopped and launched into the collection of food (the only, very welcome savoury food stop) and soon after I insisted that we left. However, there was time for one little bit of fun. On the bridge past CP3 there was a couple having their wedding photography taken and EmLa and I asked if we could join in.
The newlyweds eagerly agreed and we passed on our congratulations. 9 years and 2 children that poor girl had waited for her man to lead her down the aisle – but she made a very nice bride and a good sport for playing along.
For a while we pushed on with a walk-run strategy that was a bit haphazard but it had the benefit of letting EmLa and I chat some more and chew the fat on topics that covered most of the regular chat topics. We should probably have run out of things to say but that never really happened and because we weren’t in each others pockets for the race and respected each others space we could enjoy (at least from my perspective) each others company.
As we turned on the canal to the final stretch and CP4, 5 and the finish it became apparent even to EmLa that she was going to make it and you could sense the elation in the knowledge that friends were waiting for her only a few miles away (probably with coke, crisps and pizza) but this section of the canal was probably our slowest of the entire race – it felt heavy and leaden. My glutes were now on fire and the lack of vaseline in my arse crack was now ripping the skin from inside me – it was going to a painful last 12 miles.
However, we arrived to CP4 and I raced ahead so that I could advise Patrick, Sam and Lucy that she was nearly there and quell any fears that EmLa was anything other than doing brilliantly. It was a strange experience that the supporters who had come out for my partner greeted me so warmly, I was (and I should apologise to them) in my own focused world of trying to get to the finish. The nuisance here was that we lost a little bit of momentum in that we stayed too long at CP4 but the benefit was that the few minutes respite meant that we launched ourselves with new found energy along the route to CP5.
I organised our run-walk into something more sensible rather than the haphazard running it had been and I’d advised the cheering crew to get to the next CP quickly as I expected swift progress -and it was. Armed with head torches and a few Cadbury’s Roses we thundered along, catching up to a few more of the runners who thought they had long seen the last of us. We had the bit between our teeth now and I knew EmLa was giving it everything despite pain in her hips – the title of ‘ultrarunner’ was not going to be earned easily.
We powered into the final checkpoint, looking round for friendly faces and were greeted at the canal with more kisses and cuddles than one man can handle. With the finish in sight though I insisted we push on – I had 10 hours in sight and EmLa was giving it everything. For the final 5 miles or so she really did give everything she had, even when we came to the slopes for the bridges she pushed harder than she had for several hours. From a few metres ahead I ushered her on, words of stern encouragement – reminding her that her parents awaited her at the finish line. It was now a race against the clock to beat the 10 hours.
Bridge after bridge we ran under and I could feel the minutes seeping away from us. EmLa was now slowing, the last 12 miles had been grueling and despite her calls to send me on to the finish there was no way I was going to do anything other than finish this as we had started it – together. In her voice for the first time I heard tears – it was strange because she had been so incredibly strong throughout the day but the finish line in front of her incredibly proud parents was a thought, I suspect, she had kept at bay for 42 miles. On the flip side I was having a great time as I pressed home for a lovely finish to a delighted ‘crowd’. On the bridge above the finish I could see EmLa’s mum crying out to her and it was a sight to behold – it reminded me of my first finish when the GingaNinja ran over and walked the final few feet to the finish line.
One last push and ‘BOOM’ EmLa became an ULTRARUNNER. (just over 10hrs)
Country to Capital remains a well organised classic, as a year starter there are surely few better. You know its a good race when James Elson of Centurion Running rocks up (and wins) at your event. Its friendly, its fun, its hard and its a mental challenger. There is nothing I would change about this race its perfect as it is and my one gripe about the 2013 year – toilet A in the mens shitter (if you were there then you know what I mean) was not an issue. I’ll run Country to Capital again because of the reasons above, but also because it has brilliant marshals, because it has a nice medal and because this year the long sleeved shirt they gave away was really ace.
As for EmLa?
I owe her a giant thank you for putting up with me and letting me be part of her first ultra marathon, it was a true honour to be part of her journey and something that I will never, ever forget. She may not realise it but there is a very natural ultrarunner in EmLa and I’m hoping she has unleashed it.
Well done Emma – you did brilliantly and we all await details of your next challenge.