A few weeks ago, I took part in an amazing ultrarunning event called Hope24 which was an event to raise money for a charity called Hope for Children, organised by an awesome man called Danny Slay. WOW. It was seriously the best organised and friendliest running event I’ve ever taken part in- the marshals were AMAZING, the route was clearly marked and easy to follow, the scenery was incredible, the tent area was accessible, everyone was super-friendly… Such an awesome event!! It was the most technically difficult event I’ve run so far- five miles laps with lots of steep hills (up and downhill, including one HORRIBLE incline that felt more like climbing than walk/running between miles 2 and 3!), uneven ground and the obvious darkness at night but it was so, so worth it for the scenery. Bluebells, woodland, tall trees, morning mist, sunset and sunrise, stream, sheep and lambs, horses…it was like running in a magical fairyland! AMAZING.
Before the race started, I was really, really nervous and seriously thinking about pulling out. I’ve not been feeling great recently after a friendship break up (which I’ve talked about a lot in other posts so won’t go into detail now) and not had a lot of motivation to run, so my ‘training’ had been sort of non-existent and I hadn’t run much more than a few miles in months and even that’s been a struggle so I knew that physically I wasn’t anywhere near as prepared as I should be. But I’ve already pulled out of the London marathon this year (anxiety about crowds and being in London as well as ‘can’t-be-botheredness’) and I usually love ultras, and a friend mentioned a few weeks ago that running another one might help to get back into running again so I decided to go through with it based on the reasoning that it’s an ultra, not a marathon, and there’s no pressure to run any distance at all so you can stop after one lap if you want to. So, having travelled to Devon and bought a RIDICULOUS amount of food (which brought back horrible memories of teenage binges and I nearly had a panic attack at the supermarket checkout), I didn’t really have much choice except to run…
I got there Saturday morning and set up my tent close to the start line so I wouldn’t lose it in the middle of the night (I was on my own with no support crew, so the likelihood of getting completely confused mid-ultra was pretty high) and walked around the campsite until the race briefing. Right before an ultra is always the most horrible bit- the nerves kick in, you feel sick, there are SO MANY PEOPLE (although minimal compared to a road race), everyone seems to much fitter and more prepared than you… The bitch in my head started up, reminding me that I’m lazy for not preparing, I’m way too fat to take part in any athletic events, people must think I’m delusional for even entering, I’m not good enough to be there and a million other things to make me feel even more nervous than I already did so I tried to ‘ground’ myself in the moment, counting the amount of people around, listening to voices, race announcements, cars and dogs, really focussing on smelling and tasting the coffee I was drinking for energy, squeezing marathon foot and my angel stones. It helped a bit and the pre-race nerves started to overtake feeling guilty and paranoid, and I put on a Harry Potter audiobook to distract which really helped. Then it was the (thankfully short) race briefing and, at midday, the race finally started.
The first couple of laps went surprisingly well- I felt OK physically, had my ‘mood stabiliser’ Spotify playlist on my ipod which has everything from Alanis Morissette and Disney to Pink Floyd and Green Day, the weather was nice and not too hot, and people spread out pretty quickly so there weren’t too many people running any given part of the course. The course itself was awesome- there was a bit of a long hill at the start but the views from the top of the field were incredible and a beautiful run through woodland with bluebells (bluebells remind me of my Granda Sam who loved them, and I always try to channel his enthusiasm- he was one of the most enthusiastic people I have ever met, loved dancing and kids and was just generally awesome, which definitely helped). Then there was a steep downhill through more trees towards a stream then up a mega steep hill, down briefly through more trees and up towards the field again, awesome path running through the field with sheep and horses then back down towards the campsite, out into the woods again with another, less steep uphill and along a flattish path through trees to a field leading back to the campsite again. Wow!! Some seriously incredible scenery and I found that I actually really enjoyed the first few laps which was pretty amazing because I haven’t enjoyed a run in nearly six months. So I’m definitely going to keep hold of that…
Laps four and five were pretty uneventful- I met some awesome people including a lovely man I ran/walked with for a while without actually finding out his name who gave me some really good advice about managing anxiety around crowds and several people whose life stories and jobs seem way more interesting than mine! Then, after running nearly six hours, I took a short ‘break’ to have a coffee and some peanut butter (I’d been a bit rubbish at fuelling up to then and had basically survived on Haribo) before setting off again. It was definitely getting harder by that point- my legs had started to seize up a bit and my right knee (which I’ve injured in the past) was starting to twinge so I slowed down and started to walk a lot more of the laps than I had done up to then. I switched back to Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix and tried to relax into it but it was so hard to get motivated and every part of my body wanted to stop. I’d told myself I wasn’t going to have a proper ‘break’ until 10 laps (50 miles) in, but at about 10pm I was ready to quit and getting serious urges to fall off the high paths which scared me a bit so I decided to have a break, get some porridge and try to figure out what to do.
It was dark by this point which really didn’t help and it was getting cold so I put on some extra layers and ate the porridge which helped a bit. I was a bit scared about running in the dark but there were people crossing the start line at regular intervals so I kept reminding myself that there would be people all around the route. I really, really wanted to just quit and go to sleep and the bitch in my head was yelling at me that I was simultaneously too rubbish to complete the run and that I was lazy for wanting to quit so my head was like a whirling mess of confusion, so I put Harry Potter back on and forced myself to go back out. The next couple of laps were- I hate running in the dark anyway and was scared of falling so I kept slowing to a walk but just after midnight, the ultrarunning paranoia and hallucinations kicked in (which is pretty usual for me mid-ultra) and I was convinced I could see Death Eaters hiding behind trees and that someone was going to kill me. I got really freaked out and ran more than I probably should have but every time someone came up behind me with a head torch which added extra shadows, it was so scary and a lot of the time I was sure I could see someone next to me although logically I knew it was just my shadow from the headtorch. Not nice! And looking back, I don’t think listening to the end of OotP was a good idea running through woods in the middle of the night which is creepy enough anyway so I put on some Disney instead and tried to channel that.
But then my ipod cut out so I had a couple of laps in complete silence which really wasn’t ideal. I did some stargazing which was pretty awesome- I couldn’t find Orion which panicked me more than it should have (especially since, thinking about it rationally, it’s nearly summer and Orion is a winter constellation so it’s much more likely it’s not visible in May rather than I’ve really annoyed God somehow and that’s why I can’t see Orion which is definitely mid-ultra paranoia!), but I saw the Plough, Cassiopeia and the Pole Star which did help to ground me a bit. I love looking at the stars because wherever you are, the stars are always constant and that feels safe. Orion’s my favourite because he was the first constellation I ever learned to recognise and I used to talk to him when I was little, and I still feel safe whenever I can see him in the sky. Running through an open field under a clear sky of stars with minimal light pollution is pretty incredible and I turned off my headtorch so I feel like I was running through space.
Once I’d got back into the trees, I started to feel bit creeped out again and without music or audiobooks to distract, I decided to try Occlumency again (sensory grounding really didn’t seem like the best idea given that it was the environment I was in that was freaking me out). I’d been running close to 14 hours by this point and my brain was a bit fuzzy which weirdly helped with trying to detach from emotion and stop the bitch in my head from being able to access my thoughts and feelings. It felt very surreal but genuinely did help, and I think that the concept of Legilimency/Occlumency (the idea of someone trying to penetrate and alter your thoughts and emotions) is really, really powerful and can be relevant to so many mental health issues. I started to think of the bitch in my head as Voldemort trying to alter Harry’s thoughts and emotions, and that was really helpful because in the Potterverse, there’s an actual technique you can use to manage that AND IT SORT OF HELPS! That was one of the main things I realised during the run and, for me, it’s so important. Definitely going to keep up practising Occlumency and I’m going to explore the link between that and the bitch in my head a lot more because I found it really, really helpful.
I finally got back to the campsite around 3am and decided to take another break. I was FREEZING by that point- the temperature had dropped massively thanks to the clear skies and there was condensation inside my tent, so I wrapped up in my sleeping bag and fleecy blanket and tried to stop shivering. It didn’t work so I put on three more long-sleeved tops and two pairs of gloves (four of my fingers were white and so were my feet), and curled up as small as I could to try to get some body heat. It was SO COLD; my whole body was shaking and my teeth were chattering audibly. My chest hurt and I could feel my heart painfully with every beat, and it felt like my bones were made of ice. I genuinely thought I was going to die of hypothermia (more mid-ultra overreaction!) and it was so, so hard to motivate myself to actually going back out there. Even though I was freezing in the tent, it was even colder outside and I was scared I’d collapse or die but I forced myself (literally- it was like forcing every muscle to move individually) to get moving and back out on the course. I wore five tops, a puffa jacket and both pairs of gloves, and told myself I could walk the next lap because I felt too cold to move. So, so hard to get going again but probably the best idea- staying in the tent would have been dangerous cold-wise, and moving did help to get my circulation moving at least a little bit.
Thankfully around 5am, it was getting light enough not to need a headtorch and that really, really helped. There’s something about running through the night and the sun coming up which makes you feel surreal and connected with the world around you in a way I’ve never experienced any other time, and suddenly you realise that you’ve done the hardest part of the run and all that’s left is to just finish. My ipod and phone were both dead by this point which was frustrating because I wanted to take photos of the sunrise, and the AMAZING marshall at the first hill (the awesome guy with the pink/purple beard called Kevin) was chatting to me when I passed and offered to charge my phone for me so I could take photos- SO NICE of him! He was seriously awesome throughout the whole event and deserves a million thank yous for how enthusiastic, nice and just generally amazing he was. I walked most of that lap, partly because I was still freezing and shivering and partly because I was totally bloody knackered by then, and I met an amazing woman called Vicky who I walked a lot of that lap with. She was so nice and friendly, and was the lead woman at that point which was pretty amazing! Was so nice to meet and chat to her, and really helped my motivation to not just quit after 50ish miles.
After that lap, I started running a bit again and picked up my now-charged phone from Kevin, and took lots of photos of the sunrise which was pretty incredible. The light was amazing, it was starting to warm up and I was feeling a lot more real and alive than I had done over the previous 6-8 hours, and I started to realise that I might actually make it to midday without collapsing or quitting which felt almost achievable. I put Harry Potter back on and thankfully the battle at the Ministry was almost over and I had the really emotional scene between Harry and Dumbledore at the end to listen to for the next couple of laps. It’s a pretty emotional bit anyway but I was crying by the end of the book, partly because of Harry’s guilt and loss, partly from Dumbledore’s amazing strength given his own family history which he didn’t tell Harry and his real affection for Harry himself, and partly because the lambs had woken up and were leaping around in the sunlight, and the horrible realisation of why I’m vegetarian suddenly hit me in an intense wave of guilt. Ultrarunning over-emotion!
At about 9am, I took a quick break to have some more coffee and porridge before starting up again. I was getting really tired and sore by this point, and the hill from hell really felt like it was killing my legs every time I attempted it so I took it really slowly and tried to enjoy the course. I was chatting to a few more amazing people over the next couple of hours, some of whom had managed a mind-blowing amount of miles, and there was another amazing marshall near the bottom of the bluebell trail who put on rock music and was awesome and encouraging. All the marshals and organisers were so nice!! Made such a massive difference to the run.
The last couple of laps were HARD. The sun had come up properly and it was getting hot which made it really hard to run, especially when all your muscles are so sore already. I realised that I’d already covered 70 miles which was way more than I thought I would so slowed right down, took lots of photos and tried to enjoy the last lap. It was painful, especially the horrible hill from hell, but worth it to finish on 78 miles which is weirdly only two miles less than the 24 hour run I took part in last year and which was much, much easier terrain. Crossing the finish line at just gone 12.30pm was pretty amazing and everyone was so enthusiastic and encouraging even though most people had been awake and/or running for over a full day and night by then. WOW. Seriously amazing atmosphere!!
I was pretty zoned out afterwards and didn’t really process it properly until later, but WOW. It was an incredible event and thank you so much to everyone who organised and helped with it- you are all amazing people!!! I found out afterwards that I’d somehow come 6th out of 76 female solo runners and I seriously have no idea how that happened but felt amazing, especially considering how hard I found the run and how unprepared I was. But I learned so, so much over the course of the 24 hours which I’ve been trying to distil into some sort of coherent thoughts…
- The human body is amazing. Seriously, it’s incredible what your body is capable of. I don’t have the healthiest diet or lifestyle in any way whatsoever and I definitely haven’t looked after my body as much as I should have in the past, but it’s still capable of running 78 miles of hills without *touch wood* any major consequences. Yes, I’m sore and tired and my ankle’s bruised and swollen, but that’s sort of expected after an ultra. It’s AMAZING how resilient and strong your body actually is.
- Following on from #1, in some ways I’m glad my body isn’t smaller any more. I don’t really know how to phrase this and what I just wrote isn’t technically true (I would LOVE to be a much smaller size but I know it’s not healthy or practical), but what I’m trying to say is that there are aspects of being a higher weight that mean that I can do things that wouldn’t be possible at a lower weight and ultrarunning is definitely one of them. When I was underweight, I couldn’t run more than a few minutes at a time without going really dizzy or passing out and now I can run 24 hours. That’s a really big achievement for me and definitely something I want to keep reminding myself of.
- People are incredible. Having met some seriously amazing people during Hope24, runners, marshals and supporters, I know that there are so many incredible, encouraging and NICE people in the world and you just need to talk to people to find them. And you can learn so much from people just by listening to them.
- The bitch in my head is bloody stubborn but sometimes she can be useful. This was the first ultra she hasn’t shut up during and that was really hard at first, especially when she was yelling totally contradictory things about being too rubbish to carry on but that I’d be selfish or lazy to give up. In the end, I learned to filter what she was saying without even realising it and used her skewed encouragement to keep going without getting affected by what she was actually saying. That was HARD and it only really happened because I was practising Occlumency and thinking of her as Voldemort but it was probably the main reason I didn’t quit during the night. And again that’s a skill I’m going to try to keep practising and hopefully it’ll work again even if it’s not mid-ultra…
- God is all around even if it doesn’t feel like it. One of the things I love most about ultrarunning is the feeling of connecting with God, in the sunlight and stars, through the trees and wildlife, and in the stillness of woodland air. It didn’t happen as much as it usually does this time but there were a few moments when I could genuinely feel that I was breathing God in and that I was connected with Them through photosynthesis and respiration. I have a slightly spiritual concept of God in that I believe that They are in everything as energy (energy can’t be created or destroyed, energy pre-existed the Big Bang, energy is a life force) and whether that’s actually divine or just a created concept, I can FEEL it and that’s what matters. To quote Dumbledore (who is also an aspect of God to me), “Of course this is happening inside your head, but why on earth should that mean that it is not real?” and that’s how I see my concept of God- whether it’s objectively real or not, it’s real to me and I can feel it and connect to it which helps me to feel safe, and that’s what’s important for me.
- Food is essential and when you’ve been running long enough, you NEED it whatever the bitch in your head says. It’s amazing how good even food you’d never usually eat tastes 14 hours into a run- I was eating Haribo and peanut butter (together) at 2am which felt like the most amazing thing I’d ever tasted and the tuna salad I had after I finished was like magic angel food. There were several times during the run where I felt dizzy, dissociated and nauseous and food was the last thing I wanted but after forcing myself to eat a banana or a cereal bar, it was like someone had fed me a reviving potion and suddenly I felt real again. It’s like magic.
- You are capable of so much more than you think. I didn’t think I’d even manage two laps let alone fifteen, and there is no way I thought I would have run 78 miles. It still doesn’t seem possible. But if you break it down and think of one lap at a time, focus on the present moment and don’t think about possible challenges or difficulties- just deal with whatever’s happening at the time, you’ll achieve so much without even realising it.
- Ultrarunning is a mental sport. I don’t mean that in the (annoying) way a lot of people have said to me over the last couple of days (“are you mental?”, “you’re crazy”, “that’s insane” etc) which really, really gets to me because I don’t like the ‘normal v insane’ definitions because everyone’s different and mental health is a spectrum of illness and wellness anyway; I mean mental as in it’s more to do with your thinking and attitude than your physical strength. Obviously you need to be relatively fit and healthy to run long distances but post-marathon, it’s more about attitude than fitness. Your physical training stops around 30ish miles for most people and more than that’s about endurance and mental attitude. If you can run 30 miles, you can run 100. ANYTHING is possible. I hadn’t run more than six miles at a time in about six months but I still managed to complete 24 hours relatively comfortably.
- Use challenges to your advantage. I mean both physical and mental by this- use hills as a chance to walk for a bit and let your legs recover, and use negative thoughts or derogatory voices as motivation. The second part is definitely easier mid-ultra when your brain’s fuzzy anyway and nothing really makes sense, but it’s a really useful skill I’m going to try to get my head around. It fits with my attempts to make friends with the bitch in my head and it’s definitely something I need to keep working on…
- Connect with nature/higher power. Yes, this is a DBT skill (which amazingly I’ve managed to avoid mentioning so far in this post!) and it’s a really, really useful one. The idea behind it in DBT is that by connecting with something greater than yourself, it can promote a feeling of safety or calm and it’s a bit of a controversial skill because a lot of people don’t like the idea of God/religion. It doesn’t have to be a deity though and for me, one of the most effective forms is looking at the stars. I find it really hard to put into words but it really did help during the nighttime part of the ultra when I turned my headtorch off any really connected with the stars. A few years ago, I wrote it as part of a story and I’ll finish with because I think I’ve probably bored anyone who’s read the whole post with enough…
I love the stars. There’s something amazing about looking at an endless expanse of everything and nothing, something impossible to fully comprehend. It alters your perspective somehow, fear mixed with awe in equal amounts and suddenly everything fits. It’s the rush of infinity, the realization of your insignificance and contingence in the shifting universe around you. A sense of vertigo in nature as the sky stretches endlessly into the vacuum of space and the vast ocean depths echo below. It’s strange how sometimes the more alone you are, the less lonely you feel. Floating in the ocean with the stars for company, there’s a sense of cosmic belonging, a sort of oneness.
Published by Alex Anderson