One hundred miles. 27 laps round Samphire Hoe nature reserve. I had absolutely no idea how this race was going to turn out. I’d entered it a few weeks before in hope as much as expectation after a really crappy start to 2016. I’d injured my left shin in late 2015 and it just hadn’t gone away. I could run on it but it was gradually getting more and more painful. There was no way I would be ready for Thames Path 100, my main race in the first part of the year, so I pulled out. A few weeks later I pulled out of my back up plan, the North Downs Way 50.
By mid-March my shin had got to the point that I knew that I had to stop running for a while to let it heal. Six weeks was the usual period of rest for this type of injury so six weeks off running it was. I had two choices – mope, moan at the unfairness of the world, eat lots and get fat or, alternatively, stay positive and go to the gym and do non-impact exercise for six weeks. It was a close-run thing.
To the surprise of most people (including myself) I chose the second option. I went to the gym 3 to 4 times a week and went on the exercise bike, the elliptical trainer and also aqua jogging (which I found incredibly boring but a very good workout).
It went well. I actually enjoyed it, except the aqua jogging. That sucked. I listened to Slipknot and the sessions (and the six weeks) flew past until I was ready to start running again. I started to build up gradually but the shin still hurt when I ran on it. That wasn’t good.
I stopped running again and went back to the gym. I ended up going for an MRI to see what was actually wrong with it and whether it was bone-related (which really wouldn’t have been good). Finally, towards the end of May, I went back to the sports doctor and got the MRI results. The issue was some serious inflammation where my calf muscle attached to the bone but there was no bone damage. If there had been any, it was gone. It had been a rotten start to the year but I could run again. There might be some pain but I wouldn’t be damaging myself by running on it.
It was six and a half weeks until Samphire 100. I’d looked at this race a few times earlier in the year. My longest run all year had been 13 miles. I had done significantly more mileage on the exercise bike than I had running so far this year. I entered the race. It wasn’t the most sensible decision I’d ever made but I liked the look of it and wanted to get something out of a crappy first half to the year.
Over the next six and half weeks I had six sessions of shockwave therapy on my shin with the physio and started running again. I managed two runs of more than 13 miles (15 miles and 29 miles) but was running regularly again. The shin felt good. I felt good. Samphire started to become slightly less of a suicide mission. Five weeks of training and a week and a half of tapering and I was as ready as I would ever be.
I don’t think I have ever been as relaxed in the run up to a long race as I was for Samphire. Part of the joys of a lapped course is that logistics become much easier – if I needed something I put it in my bag, while trying not to go too overboard. My main fuel was to be gels, cake, biscuit boosts, M&S iced and spiced buns and Mountain Dew (basically rocket fuel in a luminous green bottle).
Race day arrived and my friends Alan and Teresa very kindly gave me a lift to the start. We got to Samphire and it looked glorious – nestled under the cliffs at Dover with a view of Folkestone port in one direction and Dover port in the other direction. The course itself is part trail (probably 30%) and the remainder as an out and back on the sea wall. There is one hill to speak of where you come off the trail onto the sea wall (and then going back in the other direction). Every lap you go through the aid station, get your little card punched (which tracks the number of laps you have done) and off you go again. Repeat 27 times for one hundred miles. Sounds simple. What could possibly go wrong?
Very little for the few hours, thankfully. I chugged round the course, chatting to people as I went. I felt good. It was a bit warm and humid, but I figured you had to expect that if you wanted to run a hundred miles in July on a course with absolutely zero shade. I had lathered up with factor 50 sun screen before I started so no worries there.
Throughout the day it gradually got hotter. I don’t know if it was getting more humid as well but it was pretty sweaty out there. I was drinking phenomenal amounts and still after several hours hadn’t troubled the scorers in the peeing department. Alan and Teresa had come back to watch me sweat after a morning out in Dover and they had the amazing idea of buying me a Calippo from the snack bar on site. I don’t think I have ever had a Calippo before that day and I’m pretty sure that no matter how many I have in the future I will never have another one that tasted as good as that one did. It was magical.
I completed another lap and Alan and Teresa were still there supporting. They asked if there was anything I wanted. ‘I don’t suppose I could have another Calippo?’ I asked, pleadingly. The second one was as good as the first. As was the third. And the fourth. I have very understanding and patient friends who are happy to give up their Saturday to indulge me in this nonsense and feed me Calippos. Thank you.
After the fourth lap / Calippo Alan and Teresa left to head home, complete with my undying gratitude. Soon after that point the Calippos revealed even more of their magic and I finally managed to pee for the first time all day. I know that this is hardly an achievement to be proud of most of the time, but after several hours of drinking and sweating I was glad that my body finally had a bit of excess fluid it wanted rid of.
I was going well, in good spirits and my shin was playing ball. I was moving at a reasonable pace and everything was good. I went through fifty miles in around 9 hours 20 minutes or so and swapped my first little lap card for a second one. Progress!
It was around this time that it hit me, in the same way it has done in each of the hundred mile races I have done so far (this was number 3). A hundred miles is a bloody long way. It sounds stupid when you say it as it is pretty obvious, especially as a hundred mile race is exactly what I signed up for. The thing is though that it doesn’t really register with me in the early stages of a race. I feel pretty fresh at the start and the first hours aren’t too bad, but there always comes a point in a hundred when my brain finally realises that this is an awful long way and it is going to take a long time to finish.
Although the first fifty miles had gone pretty well, I was starting to get tired and had been walking for a little while. This is really hard, my brain was telling me. You’re only halfway through – you still have fifty miles to go – another 13 and a half laps. I didn’t trust my training at all and I figured that it would be a long old slog from here.
I began to doubt whether I had the stomach for it. Did I really want to slog out another fifty miles? It wasn’t my first hundred. I had completed a couple before. I’d managed fifty miles off the back of some pretty light training. I had other races planned for later in the year. Why not call it a day? I could get a lift home and be in my own bed tonight, rather than spending the night trudging round Samphire Hoe nature reserve.
I phoned Natasha and told her where I was at. She encouraged me to think about it for a little while before making a decision. I mentioned to Rachel (who organised the event with Traviss) that I was thinking of calling it a day. She did her best to talk me out of it, reminding me that these things are supposed to be hard and also that there would be a beautiful sunset and sunrise to look forward to.
My head still wasn’t in the game but I kept trudging round the course. I had another chat with Natasha and promised to make a decision one way or the other. I thought about it some more and then I finally realised what should have been obvious from the start – I had no good reason to quit. I had signed up for a hundred mile race and just because I was finding it hard going was no reason at all to stop. There was nothing wrong with me. My shin was fine. I was fine. I just needed to keep going, believe in myself, get my head straight and push on. I could absolutely do this and there was no reason that it needed to turn into a complete death march. I phoned Natasha and told her what I was doing. She told me that if I was going to keep going then I should get this done and get it done well. No more feeling sorry for myself. That’s the unsweary version of what she said anyway.
That was it. I never thought about quitting again. I had no doubt that I would finish. It wasn’t going to be easy but I was going to get this done. The whole process of thinking about quitting must have taken an hour and a half or so and I had come so close to calling it a day. I should never have got to that place and it was entirely my fault. I really need to learn from this. There are always going to be bad patches in any long race but they always get better – I’d completely lost sight of this. On the positive side, I’d come through it and I was still going so there was no point beating myself up about it. Just get it done.
Thankfully by now it had finally got a bit cooler and I was much more comfortable. I ran a bit and walked a bit and the laps remaining were starting to gradually decrease. I got to single figures, which gave me a real boost. It was a beautiful, warm night with an incredible moon and the sight and sound of the sea in the background as I went backwards and forwards along the never ending sea wall was fantastic. You could see head lamps moving round the course in a slow procession – it was strangely mesmerising.
The laps remaining were continuing to come down – each hole punch in my little card bringing me closer to the end. Run, walk, hole punch, drink coke, eat cake / snickers / iced bun. Repeat.
It started to get light, so the head lamps moving along the sea wall gradually became people again as dawn broke. The people and the camaraderie were the thing I loved most about this event, which was incredibly well organised by Rachel and Traviss. Alongside the hundred were various other timed races so you never went very far without seeing someone (or their head lamp). People were really encouraging with smiles, waves, a few words and high fives as you crossed paths. It was great to chat to people at different points throughout the run and there was a real sense that we were in this together. Thank you to David, Rob, Fiona, Kat, Jools and everyone else out there – the support made a massive difference.
Finally, there was one lap to go. Only 3.71 miles until the finish. At this stage you were given a little flag to carry on your last lap so that everyone knew that you had nearly finished. I congratulated several flag buddies on my last lap as I trotted along with my little flag looking like a taller, balder, less funny version of Eddie Izzard.
My relaxed glory lap got a bit livelier than expected towards the end as the chap behind could obviously smell a place that was there for the taking. As he speeded up so did I as my competitive instincts (such as they are) kicked in. I really hadn’t bargained for this on the last lap, but my legs kept going and I figured that this would at least get me to the finish quicker. He kept accelerating so I had to keep accelerating. It was stupid, but having come this far I was determined to stay ahead and keep whatever position I was in at that stage. Along the trail section, up the little hill, across the car park and finally across the finish line for my last hole punch on the card. The last kilometre had been one of the fastest of my race as I crossed the line in 21 hours and 46 minutes.
I received a finisher’s shirt that was about as subtle as the one I had worn during the race (unfortunately without the parrots) and an obscenely large, heavy and impressive belt buckle. I was knackered but delighted. Somehow I had managed a PB by 8 minutes, my shin had been absolutely fine throughout and I had got it done, despite coming so close to quitting earlier in the race. I finally remembered why I both love and hate hundred mile races in equal measure.