Today I want to throwback to running my first ultramarathon.
I managed to dig out my old emails with the Might Contain Nuts family (unfortunately their site is now defunct)
It was August 2012, and I’d grown somewhat bored with running marathons, so I was looking for a new challenge.
Running an ultramarathon sounded like it would be a good idea.
Much like writing this letter – I didn’t know anyone who’d run so far before and had no real sense of how long it would take me.
All that I knew was the challenge sounded fun, and I was prepared to give it a go.
As it turned out it was going to be slightly longer than their normal events and with more incline as well.
I’d later discover we were doing some of the same sections that were run regularly by the British Special Forces.
At this time it meant nothing to me, however.
This was a couple of years before making my military application or really even having any sense of what the army was.
The furthest I’d run before this was 26 miles! And I’d now be running 42.
I asked the event organiser Matt several questions in order to start my preparation:
At this time I was living in Northolt at my cousin’s house with Daniela.
I was still trying to work on Gobsmackers the tutoring agency whilst working at Indoor Media and we were still struggling with our own problems as well as the problems of not having any money.
The exact sequence of many of these events is something of a blur. In time, I’ll go back through these pieces and start sorting through the proper timeline later.
But what was eminently clear at that time was that I had no sense of how to prepare for such a run.
Outside our house where we lived we had the lovely Northala Hills:
They don’t look too bad in these pictures.
But living in Northolt was a pretty miserable existence.
We were living in a residential area filled with housing estates and had absolutely nothing in the way of shops around us.
Getting to the main road to get to the bus stop was a 7-minute walk from where you could either wait for the bus to get to the nearest tube station.
Or walk there:
Walking was a 21-minute slog and involved going through the underpass in which my cousins had been mugged in.
Living with Daniela meant I’d never let her walk there alone. I’m still slapping myself for even taking Daniela there.
C’est la vie.
To make matters worse – the Northala Hills are right next to Rectory Park Estate:
Here’s the kind of stuff we’d actually walk (and I would run) past:
At night, it’s pretty grim, and it’s of little surprise that muggings, robbing and drugs were typical in this area.
My friend Kye Cole (a metropolitan police officer) told me all the above was pretty common in Northolt and that ‘Makepeace Road’ where I was living with Daniela was actually ‘known’ to local law enforcement.
They’d make regular visits.
So; to return to my 65k race then…
It’s fitting that the Northala Hills, which became a pseudo-training ground in the final weeks leading up to the ultra, actually had this background:
I’d wake up on cold winter mornings (it always felt like winter in Northolt) and go for long 2-4 hour runs.
As much as I’d very briefly read up on advice online – I’d decided upon a training plan which I would stick to – which was just head out of the door and run.
The route you’ve just seen above heading to the station – I’d keep on it and eventually make my way to Uxbridge Road and just see how far I could get in 2 hours. I’d then turn around and come home.
Running and exercising (as per my therapist’s recommendations) in the context of this grim existence was my escape.
I’d even try going out a few times with Daniela to go running down Church Road which was the walk to the station.
Daniela absolutely hated running – got a blister quite quickly and still happily hates running to this day.
I’d later buy us bikes which we’d use to cycle around Northolt which we managed a few times before we stopped doing that as well.
Our relationship was in freefall.
And so as I’d discovered I’d need to buy trail running shoes, a whistle, a compass, and a pack to carry my own food and water supplies – I transitioned into a completely new type of run.
That’s exactly what I thought as I lined up at the start in Wales after I’d got the train there.
I still suffered many issues with my own sense of self-worth, and I’d been crushed somewhat when Daniela didn’t want to come and support me as she had during my first few marathons.
It was a feeling of support I’d never really known before and as had Luc supported me with some texts through the events I’d had over the years – as did Daniela with her presence.
So it was just my own wit, and the runner’s high I had to rely upon.
And as I looked up into the Brecon mountains at 5 am on that cold December mountain alongside other runners and some of their dogs…..
I wondered what lay in store for me.
The longest run I’d been out for had been a 6-hour flat road run.
Matt had told me those good runners complete the 40-mile train in under 9 hours. I guess with the additional 2 miles plus new hills it might be around the 9-hour mark.
I was certainly not a good runner (I have never been actually).
Running simply gave me a sense of freedom of expression and power that has helped me significantly in life.
Much like my 430am start this morning:
The training runs were a challenge mainly because of the boredom.
Beyond a certain point, my active mind would simply ‘have enough’ of running and be more concerned with getting on with some kind of work.
And 6 hours once was enough for me.
I’d later go on to do 6-hour runs regularly when I found an ultramarathon I’d run almost double the length of this one – but that’s a story for another day.
Plodding for 6 hours actually isn’t too tough once you build up to it.
There are two distinct elements to it.
The psychology of staying motivated over a 6-hour period and running for that period of time is really tough.
It’s not just the one-run itself – it’s the monotony of the continual series of runs you’ll go on.
Your mind will play games with you during the run.
There’ll be moments when I’m not tired but I’m bored.
When I’m not bored but I’m tired.
When I’m tired AND I’m bored and several times during training I have stopped.
When I’m fed up with running so much and question myself
When I’m so tired that my legs feel like lead; the cartilage in my knees feels like it’s disappeared and food isn’t working and time seems to just slow down.
When I’m sleepy, tired and bored as it’s 5 am-7 am in the morning and I’ve just set out for a run.
I could continue but I’m sure by now you get the idea.
It was a pretty lonely journey for me at this time – but one I was happy to take.
In spite of all of those difficulties – ultimately running made me feel free and beat away at my own insecurities.
When I was running I felt powerful and strong and the problems of my life were behind me and all I needed to focus on was what was in front of me.
This was something Ragni and I had decided made sense for me to continue during my therapy sessions – and this is what I’ll go on to talk about in the next letter.
One of the main reasons I started on my ultramarathon journey was because of cognitive behaviour therapy.
It’s been the one thing that’s changed my life more than anything else.