Race date: Sunday 20th September 2020
The enjoyment of running, or indeed anything else that could be construed as physical exercise, was something that I had successfully shunned throughout my formative years. The excitement, tranquillity, reassurance, and not to mention the friendships, that can be borne out of running were riches I only realised after signing up for the Sheffield Half in 2015 as part of dare that I accepted through the fug of an alcohol-hazed evening. That moment, dense with possible futures, had taken an overweight, 30-a-day smoker and fashioned him into fine figure that you all know, love, and admire today (that’s me btw).
I had been inspired to do the Ladybower 50 last year by Sarah Storey, a formidable force in the club who has rightfully earned a place of high respect amongst those of us lucky enough to know her. Sarah has an extraordinary determination, which I expect is unparalleled in all except the most hardened of Ultra-marathoners. Her Ladybower 50 attempt was quickly followed my many horrific-sounding ultra-distances, and she is currently nearing the completion of a challenge to run every day of the year through 2020. She often dismisses these races as “easy”, and so is at least partly to blame for my all-too-common false sense of preparedness.
The seemingly perennial beauty of Ladybower makes it an enticing location for one’s first dalliance into the world of Ultramarathons. The beckoning greenery of the hills, varied panoramas, and the sheet-glass stillness of the reservoirs instil a calmness amongst its many visitors such that it is inconceivable to imagine the landscape treating one with anything but compassion. I felt assured that a 50-mile run would hurt less here than in any other part of the world.
Despite some determined training throughout last year, the die was cast against me when, a couple of weeks before the run some cruel trauma had temporarily taken away the sight in my right eye, forcing me to pull-out of the race. Alas, 2019 was not to be my year, but I looked forward (albeit without depth perception) to the bright futures promised by 2020 where I would be able to race again.
As those of you that read the papers will know, 2020 has not quite lived up to its heady expectations and subsequently presented its own challenges to training. The biggest of which for many was manifested in the recruitment of training partners to help fracture the monotony of long-distance runs. I do however have honour of keeping a few stalwart companions who are a delight to spend time with, even during the anguish of a 20-mile run. One such friend, Hannah, also had designs on running the Ladybower 50 and happily ran at the same pace as me. Hannah also possesses an infectious tenacity when it comes to running, so you would struggle to find a more ideal partner for the actual event.
The training was almost effortless, and I felt invincible. The Sisyphean task of churning out countless miles crumbled before us as we conquered each weekly long run with leisurely ease. At just over 4 weeks before the event, capricious fortune knocked me off my plinth by gifting me with an inflamed tendon in my right foot. The pain was such that I could hardly walk for over a week. Another week passed and I was still fraught with pain. I lied to myself daily that it would be alright tomorrow.
10 days to go and I finally felt healed enough to go out for a 1-mile run, but the sharp teeth of the tendon were not yet quelled. I hung-up the pretence that I would be able to do this Ultra and made peace with the fact that I had to wait another year. Time to see a physio and recuperate.
Six days before race day, and I was booked in to see the brilliant Kim Baxter, who confirmed it was an inflamed tendon and prescribed some gentle exercises to do, although most of the pain had by now abated. Apparently, if I was feeling up to it, I could try running for 1 minute, three times, towards the end of the week.
“Are you planning for any races soon?” Kim asked.
There are many times in life when you have a burning question that you never ask, because you already know that it will be met with a resounding “NO”. Whether I’d be able to run 50.9 miles in 6 days’ time was one such example. I didn’t want to hear the words said out loud for fear that they would seal my fate. “No races planned” I lied to Kim.
3 days to go, I went out for a mile. No pain.
2 days to go, I braved it and went out for 4 miles. Each tentative step met with the welcome surprise of being painless. My head was filled with jangling thoughts of being able to run much further, and then, an unwelcome visage collided with me. It was Kim Baxter the physio who crossed my path, clearly placed there by the gods to kill my daydream and remind me to pace myself. Like a schoolboy being caught playing truant, I tried to avoid her eye contact as we passed at the traffic lights.
The Saturday morning before the race came along, and my foot felt good upon waking. I flung open the bedroom windows, climbed in, and set about replying to a couple of messages from enquiring friends. “Are you running Ladybower tomorrow?” “Yes”
Hannah and I were to set off together at 07:11, having submitted our predicted times of about 10 hours. If there were no injuries or month-long hiatus from running, we were anticipating finishing in 9 hours, but this now had to be seriously scaled-back.
Unfortunately, Hannah had also suffered an injury to her hamstring a few weeks before so had reined in her training and subjected herself to physio. I knew the injury wouldn’t stop her and even had reservations that I may hold her back given the extent of my own calamity.
I awoke at 4:30am that day to get some decent food eaten, cover my feet in emollient, and delete my internet history in preparation for the impending self-flagellation.
We hatched a hastily revised plan together to not run faster than 10-minute miles, walk up all the hills, and to unceremoniously ditch each other if either one has to drop out due to injury. I had no expectations of being able to run the full race. My inflamed tendon could reappear to tread my dreams into the dirt paths at any given moment of the race.
If I even completed one lap, I would look upon the day as a success.
If by some miracle I could run the full 50.9 miles irrespective of time, I’d be elated. Hannah on the other hand, was determined to do the whole thing, and I didn’t want her to feel like she had to stay with me if I was limping after 5 miles. We swore to honour that pact to dump each other.
The Ladybower 50 Series plays host to a 50-mile, 35-mile and 20-mile event all on the same day from the same starting point. As with many ultra-events, it was attended by only a small number of entrants, less than 30 of which were doing the rather awkward race distance of 50.9 miles. For the foreseeable future, these small events are likely to be the only refuge of the race-addict, as they lend themselves so well to the current COVID requirements. Wide open spaces, no crowds, hand sanitiser at drink stations. Every box was ticked.
Each entrant was emailed a different start time, so as to promote distancing, and we were instructed to remain in our cars until 5 minutes before the race. Registration was efficient and followed by a concise list of rules and instructions delivered by the cordial marshals whilst the clock silently edged closer towards the next runner’s start time.
Here we go….
What on earth is it that attracts people towards ultramarathons? The mere thought of a Half Marathon inspired dread in me not long ago. At the end of my first 13.1 in Sheffield, I clattered over the finish line with all the grace of Pug on a newly polished laminate floor, vowing to myself to never enter another race again. But I soon forgot the pain and started replacing more nights out with long runs in my diary, in the constant preparation for more races. 18 months later saw me crossing the line of my first marathon, another step towards the next concentric circle in Dante’s description of Hell. Again, one’s body adapts to the trauma and the next marathon becomes less of an ordeal, and so one seeks out something harder still.
Are some of us bound to seek out pain, or is it more a realisation that was captured in Discourses by Epictetus, the Greek slave and philosopher? That the struggles of life show a person’s true character, especially when they are overwhelmed by such difficulties. It is in these trials that how we choose to react is at its most significant. Will we embrace the toil and use it to hone our strengths and resilience, or will we choose to gripe? Or perhaps even step-down to find a less taxing hobby, one that will make us feel good instead of challenged?
Despite our agreement to run slower than 10-minute miles, we were soon to look at our watches to find ourselves doing less than 8-minute miles shortly after starting. Evidently the adrenaline and distractions of the scenery were drowning out all logic. All injuries were silent, and the weather was generous. The warmth of the sun pierced the cool, oppressive stillness of the morning air with a perfect harmony, and the reservoirs were as always, a wonderous beauty to behold.
Between us we’d managed to regain some sense and had started to reduce the pace, mainly by walking all the inclines. The small 5-mile loop was soon complete, leaving the 3 larger loops of 15 miles to contend with.
Other participants were refreshingly warm and engaging as we briefly exchanged training stories whilst they slowly overtook us. One gent regaled us with an account of the 35-mile run that he’d done last week, followed by another 40-mile run the day afterwards, in preparation for an upcoming 135-mile race between Leeds and Liverpool. I felt suitably embarrassed, if not a little worried. “I’ve run 6 miles over the last month” I confessed. “That’s a hell of a taper. Well done”
At around mile 7, Hannah started to get the familiar discomfort of the hamstring injury, but carried on as I expected she would do, hoping that it wouldn’t turn vicious as more miles were left in our wake. The mood was still upbeat as we finished the first big loop, marking 20 miles so far at the next check-in point. There was water and ample food available, although it was a far cry from the salmagundi that I had envisaged, being as it was a very limited variety of plain crisps, and Love Heart sweets.
At about 28 miles in, I was starting to feel the energy drain from me as fatigue crept in, and I’m embarrassed to admit I was almost delighted at the prospect of a rest on hearing that Hannah’s injury was now getting worse. Mercifully for her, the pain was at its most acute when walking and eased when starting to run again. This of course meant that I was dragged along through the throbbing aches in my legs. In abject silence, we ploughed on through our own pains for another few miles before Hannah thankfully had to rest again.
Up until that moment, I knew she’d do the full race. Now she seemed despondent and I accepted that this was the denouement for her. She couldn’t carry on without causing some serious damage, and she would have been reckless to ignore the ringing pain.
Still, we walked/ran to the 35-mile mark, the second of the larger loops done, and I was now to carry on alone, leaving Hannah like an abandoned puppy in the car park with a rather pitiful wooden medal.
I put on my headphones and, after checking that I wasn’t passing blood, took step after step down the path to the last loop.
I can’t express how stark the difference is between having company and being alone when you’re 35 miles into a 50-mile race. Whilst my foot was still surprisingly fine, virtually every other body part was now in turmoil, and I had no-one to spur me on or offer a distraction.
Possibly as a result of eating too much food at the last checkpoint, I started to feel rather bilious, so padded slowly along the trails for the next few miles waiting for some feeling of normality to resume. Whilst there were still plenty of daylight hours left, the sky grew weary and a dreamy languor settled amongst the cool shelter of the tree-lined paths.
I started to pick up a little pace again as pangs of nausea waxed and waned, distracting me momentarily from the bruised throbbing in my legs. At the 40-mile mark, there is the last water station. This is the final point at which you can safely give up. Where the battle between the two voices in your brain will unfold. To give up or to succeed.
After the realisation eventually dawned that that there would be no way that I could take a short-cut without being noticed, I carried on. I felt each muscle cry-out in protest as I hobbled up the hill to begin the last 10 miles, my feet barely lifting from the ground.
I had no concerns about finishing in a good time. I worked out that I could travel at a rather slow 3 miles an hour and still get back in time to beat the cut-off. Finishing was the only important thing.
The primary centres of pain were my quads. Many of you will be familiar bedfellows of muscle fatigue, but this had progressed well beyond that. It felt as if the muscles had been torn from my femurs, and every forward movement accentuated it further, whilst a mixture of Lucozade and Pain au Chocolat sloshed gently in my stomach, seemingly vacillating about whether to carry on being digested, or make an early break for freedom.
I bounded quickly in short bursts before the pain became unbearable again each time. Sod it! Walking in this ill state was still easily tolerable, even more so amidst the cooling scarf of the evening air.
Being as I was a nauseatingly precocious child, I was temporarily fixated with the oil painting by Caspar David Fredrich, Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog. I spent many evenings daydreaming of being the man in the painting with his back to the viewer, who I determined to be the last man on earth. Memories of these fantasies came flooding back to me as I trudged on through this perfect isolation with only a few miles left ahead of me. All the visitors of Ladybower had long since gone, and I was left in a curious bliss, listening to the chorus of nature and the weak lapping of the ripples of the reservoir, interrupted only by the sounds of my own breathing and the gentle pulse drumming inside my head. Just for a few hours, all the troubles of the world had stopped existing, as if drowned beneath Fredrich’s Sea of Fog in the aforementioned painting.
Despite all the setbacks, agony, discomfort, and sickness, I was happy in the knowledge that I’d get to the finish. Would I feel any different on completing the full 50.9 miles? I didn’t anticipate that I would.
The finishing line is up a steep hill, the last sting in the tail. Many of you might think that you would run the last bit just to finish in a moment of emotion-fuelled glory. I refrained from such a show of extravagance and continued over the finish line at the same walking pace that I’d maintained for the last 5 miles. My quads would have collapsed underneath me had I attempted to show-off in such a way
Pleasantries were exchanged with the kind marshals, who offered me the pick of the uninspiring wooden medals, before I excused myself back to my car and home.
The next day I had my follow-up call booked with Kim Baxter the Physio. “Did you manage to do a little run this week?” I struggled to say “Yes Kim” without grinning stupidly. “I did 1 mile on Thursday, 4 on Friday, and a slightly longer run yesterday” “Good. Shall we work on a plan to get you back up to around a 10k?” “Thanks Kim. That would be nice.”
The full results are here and the Strider results: