Thankfully I’d really been looking forward to the Suunto RunWimbledon marathon as it was a chance to properly test myself after a few months out and also test the back injury that has been plaguing me since late last year.
For the first time in ages both the GingaNinja and ASK rolled up with me to the start line near the Windmill Museum and we sat on the grass in the early autumnal sunshine having some lunch and bimbling round on our balance bike (the toddler, not me). The race village was excellent and served as the hub for runners coming in and out of the event. Suunto had a significant presence as the events main sponsor but otherwise this was as low key as you like.
Prior to race start I had the good fortune to bump into @Totkat – fresh from her self supported adventuring from Lands End to John O’Groats. It seemed we were both there for a bit of Marathon tomfoolery rather than going out hard. That said when the horn went off at 2pm I found myself pushing out on to the trail and following my tried and tested method of flooring it for the first half and then dropping off or exploding for the second half.
The route was four laps of winding in and out of the trails of Wimbledon Common and there was a combination of lovely downhills to get your feet moving, a couple of minor uphills to let you have some hurt and some duller connecting trails to keep you on track – all in all not a bad route given the size of space being worked with.
I pressed on through the field, trying not to pace myself against anyone else as I knew that many of the runners were liable to be a) relay marathoners or b) just better runners than me and every time I felt myself speed up I tried to calm myself down and slowwwwww up.
About 3 miles in it became quite clear that I hadn’t had my pre-race dump but this, for a change, didn’t concern me too greatly as I knew that at about 4 and a bit miles in there were portaloos. However, when I arrived into the race village there was a significant queue and I was running pretty well so I pressed on into the second half of the lap. I think it would be fair comment that the second half of the lap was significantly less interesting than the first half but it did give some nice long stretches of path that allowed you to open the taps a little. 15 minutes I was back in camp and looking towards the loo.
Once more though my hopes were dashed and with a quarter of the marathon run in a little over 50 minutes I was keen to get going again. I stopped for water and a bottle refill but there was no time for the loo – I’ll deal with this on lap 2! I drifted around the course attempting to maintain my pace but with my already listed toilet problem this was becoming a challenge. However, an option presented itself on the lap – the Wimbledon Common cafe had a toilet that was only a couple of hundred metres off the route and if there was still a queue when I got to the halfway point then I’d try that!
Of course there was a queue! And so with the clock ticking I pressed quickly to the spare toilet a mile or so away. Needless to say I lost some time and when I came out of the facilities some 20 minutes later I knew that a good time was looking beyond me. I ran into the race village feeling much relieved in the bowel region but had now begun to notice that my groin was groaning from a distinct lack of fitness and my back was aching from what could have been the start of my injury seeking revenge. Effectively I was slowing and not even the smiling ASK and GingaNinja could lift my spirits – I was just going to have to grind this out.
The one thing the race was missing on the support table were some sweets or slices of fruit and so I was very glad I had my own reserve and took onboard some Haribo and a children’s fruit pouch. The third lap was my worst and I just couldn’t get going and no matter what my heart was saying my head was saying the opposite but as I crossed the trails and heard the sympathetic applause of several dog walkers I determined that I must make a better effort and so I stopped – massaged my groin for several minutes and lay on the ground to stretch my back. This had enough of a desired effect that as I set off on the final lap I actually felt better. Mentally I was back in the game and while my groin was pretty knackered I was running consistently! There were now very few runners out on the course – there hadn’t been that many to begin with – but I found it in myself to overtake a couple of people and get round. Even the hill overlooking the race village was mounted with relative ease and I pressed downwards to the final couple of miles. ASK was awaiting me and I had to explain I would be back shortly but she could run the last few hundred metres with me if she wanted (in training for her race the following day). We had a little cuddle and she told me she would, ‘still be awake dad, it’s getting dark but it’s not bedtime yet’.
With those words ringing in my ears I hammered home those final couple of miles and when I came up to the 200 metre marker she was waiting for me. Given that the ground was uneven i insisted she held my hand but we thundered our way to the line. ‘Faster dad, Faster’ came the familiar line as we raced across the line to the sound of cheers from the volunteers, event staff, and the remaining runners and supporters!
I think ASK was happier than I was at the conclusion of the race as she was awarded a medal for an outstanding sprint to the finish. But ultimately despite the challenges I personally faced on the day this was a damn fine event.
- Distance: Marathon
- Profile: mildly undulating
- Date: September 2017
- Location: Wimbledon Common
- Cost: £35
- Terrain: Mixed, trail, muddy trail, good paths
- Tough rating: 2/5
As I’ve already indicated the route was interesting without being spectacular, ultimately you’re in a borough of London – how exciting can you make it? but it was a very well thought out use of the space available. For me the best bits were when the trail tightened up, ran through the dirtier trails and forced you to beware but for many this would have been a lovely introduction to trail marathons. Interestingly despite being a trail event this felt like a fast event with good times perfectly possible – worth noting for the trail speed demons.
Those who put on the Suunto RunWimbledon had a good plan and stuck to it. The placement of drinks support was excellent and you passed the table twice per loop and having a race village in the loops middle actually made this a jovial affair. The volunteers were universally excellent and for the most part the organisation was perfectly invisible which allowed the runners to simply get on with the job of running.
A new Salomon neck gaiter/buff, a decent bespoke medal and drinks – you’d be hard pressed to grumble.
Value for money
£35, 4 loops of a well thought out course, excellent support and little extras like the neck gaiter – yep this one would score highly on good value.
The Suunto RunWimbledon Marathon is an excellent trail running marathon that is well organised and well supported – with the addition of the half marathoners and 10km runners the field felt quite nicely full but never so much as to feel crowded. I’d say that if you were looking for an early autumn marathon near London then this one would have to rate highly in your choices. The question I often ask myself when I review races is ‘would I do this again?’ and in this case the answer is yes.
- Running poles making ascents and descents easier
- GPS to making navigation a doddle
- Compression kit to reduce muscle fatigue
What do all these things have in common? These are all aids many of us use to help complete long distance endurance events.
I use running poles when allowed, I almost always use a GPS device even if a map isn’t loaded on to it and before I realised compression kit was causing all sorts of injury problems I would often be found in ridiculously tight fitting attire.
There are two aid types though that I wonder about, the first I don’t use, the second I do (when I can convince the GingaNinja to rock up to a race registration).
Pacers and Crews: The aid I don’t use that I’m referring to are pacers and it was after seeing some amazing finishes at hundred milers and the like that got me wondering if using a pacer increases the likelihood of a finish and whether by using them are runners on a level playing field?
The other aid are crews – which I do, on occasion, use and I believe that in the early days of my ultra marathoning I really wouldn’t have gotten very far without a crew and the support they offer. But do they give me and others who use them an edge on race day?
Reading lots of recent race reports and talking to runners it’s clear that there is an appetite for the use of both pacers and crews but does it take away something of the challenge? Increasingly my view is becoming that yes, these things are taking away from something that, at its best, in my opinion, is a solo sport.
Perhaps if they’re going to be in play there should be greater scrutiny about how a crew and pacers can be used as I’ve witnessed some things during recent races that has made me wonder if too much crew access and too much pacing is creating an unfortunate imbalance in ultra marathons.
I met a Spanish runner at about 30 miles into an unsupported race recently and we ran together for maybe 12 miles. I enjoyed his company very much but the curious thing was that his crew met him at five different points along the route during the time we were together. Each time he would stop, chat, change kit, have a nibble, check his route, have a sit in the warm vehicle etc. It felt like the spirit of the race was not being adhered to and there were others too during this particular event that had cars literally following them down the roads – with family members joining in for a few miles as pacers – picking up food at McDonalds, etc. I’ve met people who’ve run past their homes or near enough to detour and been witness to them going indoors, changing wet or filthy kit, filling up food and then simply popping back on the route – all I should point out, within the rules of the race. I don’t begrudge this level of support – hell, if I could get it my DNF percentage wouldn’t be so high! However, though I’m far from a purist in running terms I do feel this takes some of the shine off the effort required.
The pacer question is very much a personal choice and are often subject to specific race rules but for me these are an aid that detract from one of the most important aspects of a race – the mental challenge. I could pluck an arbitrary percentage out of the air but I’d suggest that most endurance races are won and lost in the mind and not in the body. The pacer therefore can have a real, tangible effect on a racers performance and we are back to the point about imbalance.
All this said though I’ve been known to buddy up with runners on a route in order to ensure a finish although always with the agreement that if the pacing didn’t match we’d say goodbye and good journey. That changed a little bit when on the South Wales 50 when myself and two other runners joined up on the course then formalised our pacing/team running strategy to ensure that we all finished. It was perhaps this more than anything that got me wondering about just how much of a difference a pacer can make. Now to be fair Ryan, Pete and myself were all pretty ruined by the time we’d hooked up and it was as much about surviving the night as it was pacing but it gave me an insight to what a fresh pair of legs or a fresh attitude can do for a very tired ultra runner.
These days I’m much more a social ultra runner rather than a competitive one and I tend not to think too much about my position in the field, preferring to concentrate on taking in my surroundings and having a lovely time. However, this has got me wondering just how much better I might be if I had a team right next to me pushing me forward?
The purity argument: The reason I suppose I don’t do that and put together a team to get me through these things is simply because of my belief in the solo element. I probably would be a better runner if there was someone in my ear for the final 50 miles pushing me that little bit harder or if I had a crew with lots of kit ready and waiting. However, for me ultra running is being out there, facing myself and a trail and although I can very much respect other people’s decisions for using pacers and crews it’s less and less suited to me. Perhaps evidence of this was that the last time the GingaNinja crewed for me was the Thames Path 100 in 2015 – here she met me several times armed with chocolate milk, kit options and a regular stern talking to but since then she’s mainly been at starts and finishes if there at all and in truth I prefer this. Although it’s scary to think you’re on your own it really does heighten the elation (for me) upon completion.
All this said I’ll still be using poles (periodically) and GPS – I’m not giving those up anytime soon, I mean I’m not completely stupid! Therefore am I a hypocrite for suggesting pacers and crews detract from a level race but I’m perfectly content to gain an edge by using kit that some call ‘cheat sticks’ or by buddying up inside an event? I suppose it’s an individuals view and more importantly a race directors view and if you (or perhaps I) don’t like it well then I don’t have to sign up to that race.
And so… I’m curious about your views on pacers and crews, do you feel they offer you a better chance of finishing well? Do you think they give some runners an advantage that others don’t have? Would you consider them a hindrance? Or are they simply part of your ultra running armoury?
To begin I’ll draw attention to one of my top 10 list of ‘pieces of running advice’ I’ve collected over the years and at number 8 is ‘never trust a fart‘.
Damn fine advice if you ask me.
The expulsion of wind for a runner can lead to stopper being popped and the ‘trail runners supernova’ erupting all over our finest scenery.
Many of us, as trail runners, will have been caught short out on a deserted trail and will have squatted behind the nearest bush to evacuate our insides. As regular readers will know I’ve been caught short a few times, in fact quite a lot of times and therefore feel quite well informed about what causes these problems, the types of problem and the resolution.
However, I’m not all knowing and so in the last two years I’ve been doing a little research and quizzing runners about their terrible poo related tales, you guys are so willing to share! So in the interest of sharing aha furthering knowledge I bring the 10 most popular poo types on the trails.
In the interest of privacy no names (other than my own moniker) will be used.
As a sidebar to this post I’m curious which of the ten you may have encountered yourself, if you recognise up to and including 3 poo types you’re probably still an amateur, 4-6 would suggest you’ve been around a bit and are quite a competent trail pooper and anything beyond this suggests you’ve got rotten guts and may need to seek medical attention.
It was one of my first ultra marathons – Rat Races The Wall that I first encountered the notion that ultra runners shit in the woods. The gentleman I’d be running with for a little while (I say running, we were both hobbling by this point) advised he needed to stop and relieve himself. He told me to go on but we both knew that neither would make it as we were clearly using one another as a crutch to make it to the finish. So he nodded an agreement and headed off into the bushes alongside a quiet road for what I thought was a jimmy riddle.
The next thing I heard was what I believed to be the sound of a car back firing. Sadly no, it was my companion the back fire was followed by a noise that could only be described as ‘fountain like’ and something I wouldn’t encounter again until my 1 year old daughter projectile shat all over the GingaNinja.
Within a few minutes it was all over, I heard the groans of a man wiping himself on dried leaves and hoping his finger didn’t break the brittle natural loo roll. He returned and mumbled an apology to which I replied something along the lines of, ‘better out than in’.
While I didn’t see the offending release, I did note that his lower back carried the hallmarks of poo splatter that had not been there previously and he was clearly in some distress as it shouldn’t be that yellow.
Just remember if you’re going to squirt – don’t get too close to anything – you do not want bounce back.
I’ve recalled, in my race report, the moment on the Mouth to Mouth where I simply had to stop, spiking my arse on the only bush for miles in the process. I’d run several kilometres knowing that I couldn’t squeeze my arse cheeks tightly or there would be messy consequences and there is no feeling worse than having your guts be tumbling around as you’re in desperate need of a quiet spot and yet still trying to race. I ran Mouth to Mouth really quite well but this unfortunate stop cost me a decent time but when you’ve been torpedoed by your own lack of bowel control what can you do?
The Lightning Strike
In the distance I can hear the sound of Brian May playing some awesome guitar solo from Flash Gordon but the lightning attack is when you get an urgent need and an immediate stop is required followed by a single lightning quick unloading of your bowels. If the process from shorts down to concluding your business takes more than 30 seconds chances are this isn’t a Lightning Strike
The Double Ender
I lay baking in the midday sun, around a metre in front of me was a spray of chunky vomit and behind me – about the same distance away was a ‘Dr Octopus’ putrid green and stinking, liquid diahorrea. I genuinely thought I was going to die and was to die having experienced what has been called the double ender. During the experience I had bodily fluids pouring out of every orifice and all at the same time – my muscles didn’t know how to react to the need to lurch one way and then the next.
I should have DNF’d that day but I picked myself up, carefully avoiding the vile radioactive anal and oral offerings and make a decision that I wasn’t going to quit this one!
There are number of lessons you need to learn from my experience, the first is ‘be careful of the water you drink from in Scottish Highland streams’ and secondly ‘remove enough of your clothing that you don’t get them covered in either ends of your distress’. Had I got so much as one iota of nastiness on my race clothing I would have DNF’d there and then.
And the rock cried out, no hiding place
It was during my fail at Haria Extreme that I had a disturbing thought – I need a dump but I knew that the checkpoint was only five minutes away and this section of the course was heavily marshalled – just to guide you through the vineyard and into the loving arms of the volunteers. ‘Is there a toilet?’ I asked hopefully. The volunteers looked at me in a ‘we don’t speak English’ kind of a way – thankfully a young boy at the back piped up and said, ‘next place, 20km’. This made no sense as the next CP was at 25km and there was no checkpoint 20km from this point. I thanked them and set off
My toilet need wasn’t super urgent but it would become that way if I didn’t resolve it. By the time I reached the next checkpoint it had become the main issue and I once again asked if they had toilets but it was another negative response. Bugger.
In the distance I could see large swathes of open landscape and no cover. Bugger. However, with a ridge in the distance I could use that as cover and indeed I did find a small cave that I could perch over the opening. Phew. I positioned myself carefully and despite needing to keep myself upright using all my upper body strength I managed to begin my business. It was just as the first droppings landed that below me I could hear the scurrying of something alive. Bugger.
I felt my face go red in the middle of the movement and my natural survival instinct kicked in and I fired out a rather difficult ‘lightning strike’ and leapt up with my shorts around my ankles. Clear of the pit I peered back and could see the scurrying of some animal(s) I had disturbed.
To add insult to injury I was now half naked in the middle of Lanzarote, balls out and above me, on the ridge, several runners ran past. Regardless of my own predicament I’m sure the sight of my nudey form did nothing to enhance their experience.
Lesson? Check the hole you’re about to deposit in – especially when it might be an animals home.
Meconium is the tough first, very dark poo your child does and when racing I had cause to stop during my first ultra and learn a very valuable lesson. Thankfully this happened at a checkpoint, on a toilet, in a village hall on the White Cliffs 50.
I had clearly not been drinking enough, was hugely dehydrated and when I needed to visit the little boys room but everything was super difficult to deliver, small, tough, dark and poisonous smelling. It didn’t impact my racing that day but it did remind me of the value of food and drink as I race.
The Galloping Trots
The trots are very different from the ‘Lightning Strike’ and ‘The Gift That Keeps on Giving’ in that you’re completely immobile for quite a significant period of time and there is a small tonne of it. I suppose the lesson to learn from the trots is that you need to give your stomach what it needs rather than what it wants and in the run up to CCC I’d been more socially active than normal and had spent the week eating out and eating lovely, sometimes quite rich food.
I wasn’t running very well at the CCC as I’d fallen quite badly coming off the first descent and this was made all the worse but the revenge of my week long holiday food choices. It was somewhere between CP1 and CP2 that I pulled up to tend my wounds properly and also to deal with my groaning, moaning stomach. I journeyed a little way off the route and into deep bushes – taking my pack off and moving all my kit to higher ground. I could feel the grumbling inside myself and it was pure agony as a stream of solid, then less solid, then liquid materials streamed out of me.
Coming in waves as these things invariably do I would think I was finished only to move and hear my stomach turn again. I was lucky that I was elevated from the ground between two big tree branches and therefore protected from splatter but 20 miles of too hot running, a bit of dehydration and a week of holiday eating had not made my bowels a scent sensation you’d enjoy.
I crept away, as you do, having defiled this sacred trail running ground. Feeling so rough I managed another 30km before the inevitable DNF and believe me my stomach felt every metre.
The Gift that Keeps on Giving
The first time I ever needed to stop on a race was during the South Downs Way 50. I remember I’d been struggling for about 2 miles and had to slow down enough that I felt like I was really losing ground. I was running with a buddy in a very casual way, in that we would hurl abuse at each other as we went by one another but at about 10 miles I needed to find a quiet place.
Thankfully a location rocked up quickly and I disposed of the offending item discreetly and set off again but less than 3 miles later I was pain again. I dug a small hole and delivered again but it still wasn’t enough – in a little over 15 miles I needed 5 stops, each worse than the last and my concern about the amount of toilet tissue I was carrying was growing.
At my first stop I’d been quite generous with my loo roll but as the stops became more frequent I had to ration it and as the releases became less solid I felt I needed more paper – this was a no win situation.
My solution was that I stopped eating before the halfway point and I took very small amounts of water fearing that I might end up in a situation where I’d have to use my much loved buff to wipe. I didn’t, I finished and the Buff survived.
Sugar Loaf Mountain
This is a very specific moment in my running career and there will be people who read this and know the incident I’m talking about. It was 2014 and my first time at Country to Capital – in the gents there are two cubicles. It’s fair to say both were incredibly busy but it’s equally fair to say that only one of them was flushing. Upon reaching the front of the queue I was offered the right hand side cubicle – I headed in and looked down, though not far down as the peak of the poo mountain was creeping over the rim. I stepped back, choking slightly on my own vomit and offered the opportunity to the man behind me and risking the other cubicle.
I’m not sure what disgusted me more – the sight of so much poo or the fact that so many runners were happy to give this a go. Nasty.
I was running in a 45 mile race when I met a lovely lady who offered some insight into what I’ve dubbed ‘the heaver’. The lady in question who told me about this was in the middle of a mountain marathon and had gotten caught a little short, ‘I know what it’s like,’ as I was discussing my concerns about needing a toilet break as we raced.
She had decided to stop at a small clump of bushes and then fell into distress – she says she was pushing and pushing with only the smallest of results but knowing that there was a real need to deal with this . I’ll quote her directly as this has never left me, ‘I heaved and I heaved but the house just wouldn’t blow down’.
After some 20 minutes (according to her Garmin) she had managed to fire off a small pile of rabbit like pebbles – which to her seemed inconsistent with the trouble her bowels had been giving her. Still she did complete her mountain marathon but said I shouldn’t worry if I ever need a noisy poo as she was sure every runner who went past her probably heard her trying to push that one out.
Ah the honesty of ultra runners.
There’s no magic wand for issues like this, if it happens you simply need to deal with it but my pre-race preparation now at least offers me a chance of getting it all out of the way before I set off.
The Flat White coffee seems to be the trigger for helping me pass the contents of my innards before a race start. It’s not a perfect solution, it doesn’t always work and if I get the timings wrong then it can cause more problems than it solves but since trying this method I’ve had a greater deal of control out on a route – because undoubtedly I suffer from a really shitty problem (sometimes)!
You’ll all have your own magic treatments and pre-race routines and I’d love to hear them because I’ve seen and been involved in some pretty horrendous states and anything we can all do together to reduce this can only be a good thing.
So please feel free to share…
- Watch for back splash
- Always carry enough toilet paper/tissues
- Deal with it quickly, don’t wait until it is a serious issue
- Beware small furry animals
- Ensure you use the facilities before your run/race
- Ensure you are suitably secluded if you need to use the trail
- Don’t overburden your stomach pre-race
- Never trust a fart
- Make sure you are finished
- Try not to care what other people think
I hope this post hasn’t distressed or disturbed you all too much and I hope that what you take from this is, ‘be prepared’ and ‘it’s not just bears that shit in the woods’
*Thanks to GCJ for suggesting the scoring system
Life, the universe and then? Sometimes you can guide your life in such a way to make you believe that you have control and other times life simply asserts its dominance over you and gives you a bloody good kicking. I think I’ve had a charmed life, certainly over the past 10 years or so. I’ve been very fortunate that it’s morphed into something I consider very happy but it wasn’t always like that.
Finding happiness? One of the big pieces in the happiness puzzle was running, but unlike others who may have been Olympically or middle-age inspired, I came to running because I was going through the darkest period of my life.
I’ve said before that I started running in late 2011 but that’s not strictly true – I’ve always run.
At school I ran the 100m, 200m and 400m, I was a decent cross-country runner and I enjoyed it much more than football, cricket or rugby. I was then an intermittent/lazy runner until around 2003 when I took a 3 month stay in sunny Scarborough because I needed to recover from what was effectively breaking down.
I suppose the truth of the matter is that I really arrived at a life filled with running because of this serious lapse in my mental health. I’d been in a relationship with a woman that had turned sour a year earlier and despite an a acrimonious break-up when she came calling, with serious issues of her own, I stupidly returned to try and help her.
This act of affection broke me into a million pieces, the problem I had was that I wasn’t qualified to help with her problems and she dragged me down beyond the point of being able to see clearly enough to prevent myself from drowning. I’m sure I’m not alone in such situations but at the time I felt at my lowest ebb and unable to see anything ahead of me – it felt a lot like I imagine the end of a wasted life would feel.
Though I don’t have a definitive recollection of everything that happened I do recall considering ending my own life, although I had framed it in thoughts such as, ‘what would happen if I wasn’t here?’ ‘Who would care?’ and ‘could a train ever not kill a human being in a direct hit situation?’
However, in reality, suicide wasn’t really on the cards as an option but it lurked as a concept.
Thankfully I didn’t do that and I made a desperate decision that plays a huge role in influencing my life to this day…
I’d called my uncle.
He and his family lived in North Yorkshire and they kindly offered a place to stay and support. Little did I know his help would manifest itself best in reviving my love of running.
My uncle in his younger days had been a decent runner but as age, life and pies get to you then you let yourself go a bit and he had. It seemed we both benefitted from the fresh Scarborough coast line as we ran daily. The hilly roads and hillier cliff trails of North Yorkshire providing ample respite from my own stupidity. I even saw Jimmy Saville running up and down my hill a few times in the days when he was still ‘Saint Jim’.
My uncle was (and assume is) a pragmatic man and his approach of seaside air combined with exercise might seem a bit Victorian but actually I hadn’t gone so far down the rabbit hole that I couldn’t be reached and his solution was the right remedy for me.
We didn’t really talk in any detail about what went on, (stereotypically) men don’t, northern men don’t and we didn’t – other than a brief chat on a late night stroll up the hill to his home. I think this left us both a little uncomfortable and neither of us ever really returned to the topic other than in one heated argument (the point at which I knew I was recovering and knew it was time to leave).
But with limited exchanges over my mental wellness I felt the need to balance the support provided by my uncle and his wife by adding in talking therapy as a way of exploring what had brought me to my knees. Unfortunately I found a therapist determined to focus on my parents as the root of the issues I had rather than the slightly more obvious ex-girlfriend fucking around in my head. Thankfully I found the therapist and I got on very well and the conversations quite stimulating which in turn opened up my own ability for assessment with a renewed clarity.
In the weeks that followed I was able to reconnect with myself and through my newly acquired active lifestyle I began to feel physically and mentally stronger.
I started to set out some basic life rules* that (mostly) to this day I live by, but at the heart of that was a promise to myself that I would be active – this would form the cornerstone of ‘me’. I also came to understand that my life rules must be fluid and flexible because it was my own dogma that had made me fragile and vulnerable. However, in my dealings with the ex-girlfriend I had compromised myself and no amount of flexibility should allow that to happen again.
And so armed with words to live by I did just that and the past 15 years have been (mostly) the best of my life. And in all that time only once have I had a scare that it might all come tumbling down and that was last year during my very public retirement from running.
The Risk of Return? With the GingaNinja disagreeing about how much running I do I found myself in something of a quandary. After many successful years of both good mental health and running I found myself in a position where I was being asked to curtail some of my active exploits.
The danger of this was an immediate downward spiral back towards being less mentally happy which would ultimately (I believe) have endangered my relationship.
I tried to explain this without the context of my experiences in the early 2000s and feel that withholding this information made the problem worse than it needed to be. Thankfully a solution was achieved where I neither compromised the security of my health or my relationship. No easy feat but it was the right outcome.
Times and people change. In the years since I first encountered a mental health problem I’ve become a very different person, so much so that my near 40 year old self would barely recognise the younger me. And even though I’m still a reasonably anxious person it now fails to overwhelm me, I’ve come to the conclusion that, ‘everything will just keep happening so I’ll just get on with my bit’ and this is just fine, but it felt like it was a very long road to get to this stage.
Concluding. I never thought I was a candidate to struggle with mental health and I never believed it would take nearly 15 years for me to talk about it in a public way but perhaps I simply no longer care what anyone else thinks. Maybe it’s that I’ve seen lots of blogs and forums on the topic and feel that my experience may be of use to someone or maybe I just like talking about myself.
However, having discussed other peoples challenges and resolutions in search of greater understanding I’ve come to realise that no two issues or answers are the same. I’m a big advocate for an adventurous, running lifestyle to give yourself breathing space and time to think but I am very aware this isn’t for everyone and need only look to my ex-girlfriend who helped bring my own problems to the fore. Running was not the solution for her but it was for me.
What I would urge anyone who finds themselves in a difficult position, anxious, depressed, sad or some other form of mental illness is to seek support (support information from Mind, click here). There are options and most of all there are ways to navigate around or away from difficultied but your journey will be as unique as you are and recovery takes effort and nothing in life is guaranteed.
But ultimately stay happy and as Bill and Ted said, ‘Be excellent to each other’.
While you’re here below are a few facts from mentalhealth.org.uk
- It is estimated that 1 in 6 people in the past week experienced a common mental health problem.
- In 2014, 19.7% of people in the UK aged 16 and over showed symptoms of anxiety or depression – a 1.5% increase from 2013. This percentage was higher among females (22.5%) than males (16.8%).
- Mental health problems are one of the main causes of the overall disease burden worldwide
- Mental health and behavioural problems (e.g. depression, anxiety and drug use) are reported to be the primary drivers of disability worldwide, causing over 40 million years of disability in 20 to 29-year-olds.
- Depression is the predominant mental health problem worldwide, followed by anxiety, schizophrenia and bipolar disorder.
And these numbers from Mind make sad reading (the full survey and information can be read here);
- Generalised anxiety disorder 5.9 in 100 people
- Depression 3.3 in 100 people
- Phobias 2.4 in 100 people
- OCD 1.3 in 100 people
- Panic disorder 0.6 in 100 people
- Post traumatic stress disorder 4.4 in 100 people
- Mixed anxiety and depression 7.8 in 100 people
*For those interested and still reading I earlier mentioned the ‘Life Rules’ I established nearly 15 years ago. Having found the original list I wrote I have down exactly as was in my sketchbook. It was a good list then and it’s a good list now.
- Be curious
- Keep moving
- Look up
- Never compromise yourself
- Work hard, earn everything
- Stand up for your beliefs
- Learn from mistakes
- Give people what they need not what they want
- Have faith in people
- Live the life fantastic
No matter how prepared you are you can never tell what will happen on the day and I’ve had some epic failures in running. Off the back of my most recent failure I wanted to revisit some of them to try and better understand how I’ve achieved responsibility and hopefully get myself back in the right headspace for MIUT.
Perhaps also in light of the awesomeness of John Kelly and Gary Robbins last weekend I think it’s ever more important to understand that ‘I’m responsible for me, nobody else’.
With that in mind this is what I’ve learnt…
What: No training, still injured
Race: Winter 100
Distance: 45/100 miles
It’s one of the few races I’ve never reviewed in full because this one still rankles nearly 3 years later. I’d been running injured for months and months prior to the start line – making the hip injuries I had ever worse and my physiotherapist made me promise that if she could get me to the start line that I’d have a few months off after this.
It didn’t help that UltraBaby arrived 6 weeks before the race and so I turned up to the start line having not done any training for around 8 months, having completed, badly, a handful of ultra events in that period and having had a very busy time as a first time parent in the run up to the start line. I managed to run the first 25 miles reasonably well but the second leg was nothing but agony and at around 45 miles the pain in my hips was so severe that I had to quit.
I recall sitting quietly in the village hall as the volunteers discussed their upcoming races and I found myself filled with rage that I wouldn’t be able to join them on any of these exciting adventures. I remember seeing Susie Chan coming through the door at the main central aid station and greeting me, sympathy being poured upon me, but I just wanted to leave and get away. It wasn’t that I was ungrateful I just knew that I was responsible for the mess I was in, I alone had caused this and I alone could fix it – but not here and not while I was so filled with rage at myself.
The Winter 100 caused me to understand that running while seriously injured has long term implications and it took a long time to return to being able to to run even halfway well again (and I’ll never recover properly it seems). Intensive physiotherapy and lots of rest allowed me to return to running only six months later and I’ve been much better at seeing the signs ever since but these and this race are mistakes I do regret.
What: Titting about
Race: National Ultra
Six months prior to the W100, having flown in from Budapest less than a dozen hours earlier I rolled up to the National 100km, in the early days of my hip injury and on a third of four ultras in 42 days.
I was tired when I heard the bell sound at the start and I decided as it was a cycle track I’d take it relatively easy. By about 20km I was bored and started messing about, joking with the spectators and basically being a bellend. In hindsight it comes as no surprise then that at about 27km I slipped off the track and twisted my knee in a bizarre and ridiculous accident.
Expletives rang out around the track but this was own stupid fault and so rather unwilling I dropped down a distance and cried off at 50km having hobbled slowly the 23km to the finish. The GingaNinja had no sympathy for me when I relayed my sorry tale of woe to her and quite rightly she let me stew on my own juices.
2014 was a year of massive mistakes and huge learning but it wouldn’t be until 2016 that I’d learned to mostly cut out the self inflicted mistakes.
What: 12 inches? No just a foot
Race: White Cliffs 50
Distance: 54 miles (and about 6 extra miles)
This remains my favourite ultra marathon story – probably one that has been embellished over the years but is very much based in truth.
- I did roll my foot at mile 14
- I was titting about for the cameraman
- I did break my toes
- I did hobble 2 miles to the checkpoint
- I did change into Vibram FiveFingers
- I did then manage to finish the race
The incident here would set an unfortunate precedent that no Ultra would occur without incident, injury or plain old poor fortune. I probably should just have retired here – become a ‘one and done’ but I didn’t and when I reflect like this it drives me mad at the level of stupidity and lack of respect I’ve shown to the races I’ve attempted. It’s only in more recent times that I’ve found myself turning up to events and showing the required level of dedication and mostly this is being rewarded with better running and better results, although still with a huge chunk of improvement to be made.
What: Shoes too small
Race: The Wall
Distance: 69 miles
The Wall was a bit like ‘I know best’. I didn’t need fitting for shoes, I didn’t need help sourcing kit, reading routes, I didn’t need any help at all. Well the truth of the matter is that having done one ultra marathon when The Wall came up I was in no way prepared to take on a jump of nearly 20 miles in distance.
And when I rode in at mile 47 to be greeted by the GingaNinja I knew that my feet were in a bad way – we removed my shoes Adidas XT4 (or something) and inside, screaming out in agony, were two feet with more than 25 blisters adorning them in every possible place. It turns out I was wearing shoes that were 2 sizes too small and about 6 inches too narrow. My arrogance and self belief ensured that the final 22 miles of The Wall were simply the most painful I’ve ever faced. It’s fair to say I probably deserved those 22 miles.
The lesson was learnt – being assured is one thing but over confidence will chew you out!
What: Slip sliding away
12 miles in and I was confident that after I had conquered the first major ascents that the race down to CP1 would be fast and carefree. Sadly the race to CP1 was fast but it wasn’t so much carefree as ‘loose’. I lost my footing once, then twice and then with control out of the window my legs buckled under me and I flew down the descent on my back, arse, head. I rolled and slid far enough for the runners around me to stop and check I was okay and while the immediate agony was my ego I knew I’d hurt myself. I stumbled along for another 25 miles before calling it a day but once more my over confidence had been my downfall.
What: Blisters, Blood, Vomit, Poo
Skye Trail Ultra
Distance: 75 miles (and a few extra)
I don’t want to paint a picture of a tortured ultra runner in this post, I’ll ultimately take responsibility for my own failures and hopefully find strength from the times I overcame adversity.
Skye is my ultimate triumph of overcoming that adversity. Even if you take out the hideous travel sickness I had on my 18hr journey up to the island and my efforts to recover from that with just 12hrs before the race started and only focus on what happened in the race – then my finish at Skye is still one of my greatest achievements.
However, it all looked likely to unravel when at 25 miles in I stopped running, I simply couldn’t continue – bent double in pain. My stomach had become what Obi-Wan might describe as a ‘wretched hive of villainy’. I made the assault of the final climb (or so I thought) of the ridge and I lay dying in the sunshine. I puked up the contents of my stomach and a few feet in the other direction my arse exploded a putrid green and neon yellow Jackson Pollock. I used the last of my water to clear my mouth out and simply lay back waiting for the DNF to take me.
Thankfully that fateful moment never came and I proceeded to spend nearly two hours lost looking for checkpoint one, but having survived the nightmare of my own body rebelling against me – I ploughed on with a determination to finish.
And I did… finish that is, I was finally starting to understand what it would take to be an ultrarunner.
What: Burning Balls
Race: Ridgeway 86
Distance: 54/86 miles
My infamous bollocks of fire where an issue at the Ridgeway and is second only to the even more infamous burning bullet hole of ultras when we are taking about running pains. Stood on the trail in the dark with my shorts round my ankles attempting to Vaseline them up and place a buff around my red raw testicles is something I’ll never forget.
I plan on returning to the Ridgeway to complete this event as I enjoyed it a lot, was well organised and genuinely scenic event – I simply made some poor kit choices and that’s easily remedied.
What: Turd Emergency
Race: Mouth to Mouth
Distance: 28 miles
The need for a poo on the trail is something that has dogged me for a while, so much so that a decent amount of toilet tissue always joins me for a race.
When possible I use the ‘Pre-race Flat White Coffee’ solution, as for some reason this delicious hot beverage has the ability to offer the clean as a whistle requirement my bowels like pre-race.
The lack of cover at the M2M meant I needed to run several kilometres before nature overtook me and I had an urgent rush to the worlds smallest spikiest bush and created a mountain on the South Downs!
In subsequent races when I’ve felt the urge I have resolved that little problem more quickly and found that doing that has incurred better running – lesson learnt.
What: Head torch failure
I was running really well at the UTBCN, strong, relaxed and, while unlikely to win anything, I would go home with a medal I could be proud of and a feeling that I was on the right road to my ultimate running aims.
The debacle with my head torch failing at the start line is an annoyance and, while I was angry with Petzl, ultimately it’s my fault for not carrying sufficient spares (I did have a spare head torch – it just wasn’t powerful enough). I let myself down by and while the kit fail shouldn’t ever have happened – it did.
The solution has been to buy new head torches and they will be fully tested before they go into battle and more importantly there’s two of them, both over 200 lumens, both adequate to see me through most ultra marathons.
By accepting responsibility for my actions I’m hoping that I can go to MIUT and beyond, giving my all as I run. I’m trying to drive myself to accept that I can do The harder races, the real challenges and that if I fail then I simply need to pick myself up, find the useful parts of whatever happens and continue my running journey.
I’ve found this post quite therapeutic, reminding myself about failure and the lessons I’ve taken from them (and indeed the successes). I’m hoping that information I’m gathering is influencing my performance and enhancing the recent progress I’ve been making in distance, endurance, speed and attitude.
So, with the disappointment of the UTBCN all I can say is, ‘come on MIUT – let’s see what you’re made of’.
Sometimes as ultra runners we are required to prove that we are fit to race, sometimes it’s enough to highlight your experience over a specified distance or terrain and sometimes it’s to prove that you have no health issues that might affect you on the course. I don’t have any trouble confirming that I can run distance and ice covered most of the available terrains now but there is a medical problem and has been since my idiot brother died about 6 years ago.
Let’s not bother with the sympathy about my brother, we did not get along, hadn’t spoken in years and when he died I really wasn’t moved by it at all. Why am I telling you this? Well because from the grave my brother haunts my running and this is how.
It was early 2015 and I needed to get my medical certificate signed for the CCC – I was just returning from a stint on the sidelines it’s some glute problems but this seemed to be working its way into the background. I went along to the doctor and asked if she would sign my mandatory form.
‘I see that your brother died of “heart complications” at the age of 29’ she said. It was here that I knew I was going to have some trouble, ‘and your father has some heart conditions?’
I confirmed that both of these were true but that my brother died because he lived on frozen pizza, beer and a range of unhealthy activities that ultimately lead to him dying young. My multiple marathon running father I explained had developed relatively minor heart problems in his early 60s but was still hiking and running to a reasonable level and had even completed large swathes of a 96 mile walk less than a year previously.
‘You’ll need tests,’ she said and with that sent me on my way.
I assume I’m going to die pretty hideously, a bus smashing into me, falling off a cliff edge, one of the nastier cancers and I’ve always been okay with that because I’ve not waited for life to find me – I’ve gone out and found life. I’ve fought to have my life and in my opinion I’ve earned it but I’ve always said that when my time comes then my time will have come and I don’t need any forewarning.
This doctor wanted me to have forewarning of any health problems I may have, what she failed to realise is that death doesn’t scare me, I’m into making positive life choices that aren’t determined by the boundaries set out for you.
However, she wouldn’t sign the form without the tests and so they ran a decent set of tests and told me to give it 10 days. Turns out, despite abusing my body for years doing all the things I’ve done, I was fine.
Signature, medical certificate and stamp acquired.
With those I disappeared off to the CCC. This same certificate covered me for the SainteLyon as well but had run out by the next time I needed one.
I assumed that it would be a fairly simple process to get a second one signed. Roll up, pay the fee, get the certificate, run. This was not the case. I was told that not signing my medical certificate was not about me, but about the doctor – he didn’t want to be held responsible for approving someone with a heart condition to race.
I don’t have a heart condition
He cited Fabrice Muamba as the reason why – the footballer who collapsed in a game between Tottenham and Bolton. I explained that the echocardiogram he was insisting I have would be no were near the levels of medical care that a professional footballer received, therefore surely we should consider the other more relevant evidence. He stood firm that he wouldn’t risk his career on a man whose family have heart problems.
My immediate thought was to go out the car park and take my fists and the rocks liberally littered around the place to his Mercedes but instead I settled for shouting abuse at him from outside the surgery ‘useless cockbag’ and ‘cunty features’ were certainly issued. The truth is that had he looked at me at all he would have been able to see that I was in no way up to running. I had limed into the surgery as I’d injured my calf pretty badly the week or two previously and I’d put on weight after my retirement. Both of those alone should have been enough to disqualify me from running but no he used the ‘family heart problem’.
I went home and resolved the issue. I signed my own certificate and produced my own stamp – the benefit of being a graphic designer – then I submitted it.
About three weeks before the race start I received my echocardiogram date and of course I went because otherwise I would struggle to get a medical certificate anywhere. They prodded and probed my like I was a lab rat and I lay there angry that I was going to be given information I really didn’t want either way. I’d also missed the cut off for submitting another less fraudulent medical certfiicate and so I was feeling a little down when I left the hospital.
The hospital told me to call my doctor in a day or two. I did so and I did so for a further 12 days until the receptionist said, ‘I’m afraid I can’t discuss this with you, the doctor will need to see you’. By now I was the kind of fucked off that I reserve for those times in my life that I’ve actually had to hit someone and I responded rather curtly, ‘that is unacceptable’. Little Hitler told me the doctor would call me, I said that would be ‘acceptable’.
I don’t sleep well at the best of times but I really didn’t sleep well that night and spent much of it wondering if I would get to see UltraBaby run her first ultra or even her first 10km. I could hear the sound of my heart, I was listening for anomalies and I was replaying in my head over and over the letter of complaint I was preparing.
At 9.07am the doctor called, ‘You’re heart is as strong as an Ox’.
I assumed that was a good thing.
And so in theory I should be clear to have my medical certificate signed for the Madeira Island Ultra Trail and I know that the doctor was only doing his job, attempting to give me peace of mind while at e same time sating his own appetite for security that he was sending me to my doom in the best possible health. The problem for me comes in that I didn’t want to know whether my heart was healthy or not, part of me likes that idea that one day on a trail or a mountain somewhere I’m just going out drop dead and yes that possibility still very much exists but not so much from my heart failing me.
Ultra running and my health are deeply connected but I like to face them as an unknown – too much knowledge really can stifle you and in my case at a time where I am trying to up the ante this medical drama seemed pointless, I don’t feel better for the information that my heart is strong, I feel like something has been taken from me.
I know that the response to this I will receive is that the doctor was simply doing his job and I can accept this but his rationale was way off, he didn’t appear to adequately take into account my experience, training or my own lack of health issues. When I pressed him about the 40+ other marathons or ultras that I didn’t need a medical certificate for he seemed disappointingly nonplussed, he admitted he was covering his own arse and that says a lot about the way the world is these days.
Perhaps we should all be able to take a little bit more responsibility for ourselves and then I/we won’t run into a chain of red tape that was more about filling out forms, crossing ‘t’s’, dotting ‘i’s’ and avoiding legal action than it was about my health. Humph.