DORSET CTS ULTRA PART II – On learning to let go and overwhelming beauty
“There is a moment in every race when you finally let go. You let go of all of the fears you had going into it about fatigue and failure. You let go of keeping time and trying to maintain your position in the pack. You let go of expectations – yours and anyone else’s. You allow yourself to bask in the thrill of the present moment and realize that you have made it” – Stephanie Case
The least one can say about this course is that it goes straight to the point: within 500m of the start runners find themselves struggling up a paved path that eventually leads to proper trails. I don’t really know how or why but I started at the front, and it turned out to be a pretty good decision. Although I was far from the fastest going up that first “climb” (I’m using inverted comas here because I was to discover later what an actual real climb of this course looked like) I was keeping a decent pace and moving well. Three minutes later we reach the top and with it the first downhill. I don’t have much, but at least I have the downhills and I can go down them pretty decently. After a quick look around at the top of that first climb, I realised that I was the second female to make it. The first woman (and eventual winner) was clearly out of my lead, but as far as I was concerned hanging on to second place seemed doable and a good idea at this stage so I tried to run that first downhill at a good but reasonable pace and open a little gap.
The mind games in ultras are as much part of the race as the distance or the hills or the weather are. They are a complete integral part of the equation. When night falls people don’t turn off their headlamps off for fun: they do it because they know that it’s really hard to for the hunter to find the motivation to chase something they cannot see. You want to make a gap and be out of sight as soon as possible, for this drastically provides whoever is behind you with less incentive to hunt you like a deer, virtually.What goes up must go down, the opposite was also true on Saturday. As soon as we reach the bottom of that first downhill, the first real climb of the day starts: with a 150m elevation gain in 1km, I truly genuinely believe that is it not physically possible to run this part. As Rhiannon said, “If I had tried to run this, I’m pretty sure gravity would have done its work and I would have fallen backwards during my flight phase”.
Let’s be honest, I suck at the uphills. I’m working on it, but at the moment the very least one can say is that they are not my forte (hence my drastic efforts to kill every downhill, and make time where I can). It used to annoy me and I would make killer effort to hang out to the pack and not be dropped; but this quickly turned out to be a very poor strategy as I would generally reach the top absolutely shattered, struggling to catch my breath and unable to do well where I could.
The first hour or so of the race went smoothly, I was hanging on in second position for a while and I was feeling strong. But most importantly, I was in a good place. I wanted to be there. I mean, I still felt intimidated at the sight of each monster climb I would see in the distance, but I was enjoying myself. I was in the present moment and my heart was in the race.
Then I was running along a fairly flat part of the course that is all on grass, I started feeling the old familiar pain on the ball of my feet: blisters. Flipping blisters.
Forgot. To tape. My feet.
The realisation was a blow. How on earth could had I forgotten to tape my feet, especially when I had made the decision to run in a pair of shoes I hadn’t run in in months (after discovering a worrying hole in the heel of my A pair of shoes) was beyond me. I listened to a podcast featuring ultrarunning legend Megan Arbogast two years ago now and although I cannot remember 90% of what was said then, there is one sentence that has stuck with me ever since: “In an ultra, if you know something is going to be a problem, acknowledge it’s going to be a problem”. Blisters don’t look as dramatic as someone vomiting on the side of the road or a road rash from a tumble on the trail, but man can they hurt. There was not the shadow of a doubt this was going to become a problem, and a pretty decent one, within the next 50kms. It took me a good 3 minutes to come to terms with it but eventually I committed: I sat down to take my shoes off, put a Compeed on these already horrible looking blisters and tape them like there was no tomorrow.
As I was seating there, trying to be as efficient and fast as possible, it really crushed my soul to see at least 25 people pass me. I was trying to keep cool: “This means nothing, we’re so early in the race, let go, chill out, relax. You’ll make it back”. But when I saw two women pass me as I was still not sorted on the side of the trail, there was no amount of self-confidence talk that could ease the feeling of disappointment I felt.
I put my shoes back on. After the following downhill, I realised that they were way too tight. I stopped again, quickly fixed the problem only to realise 200m later that they were now way too loose. I was getting annoyed, primarily at myself.
Shoes sorted, I kept on moving, still very much annoyed about all the precious minutes I had virtually wasted. Around the half marathon mark, we reached a shingle beach section. The guy in front of me was moving at a good pace, I decided to hang on his heels, follow his steps and just go on automatic pilot, makes it easier to keep away the temptation to walk. Two hundred meters before the end of the beach you can take a left and get of the beach on to wooden stairs. We reached the top of the stairs, took a left from there and 300m later ended up virtually at a fork on a road, in the middle of nowhere, with not a single sign or mark to be seen. There are 3 other runners that had gotten there seconds before us. Obviously, we were not supposed to be here. I mean if you reach a fork in a well-marked race and can see no indication of whether you should go left or right, obviously something is wrong. I spoke up:
– “Hey guys, I think we might be off track.
They looked at me:
– No can’t be.
Well obviously we can…
– Well, clearly if this was right there would be a sign here to tell us whether to go left or right.
– Yeah but we’re going towards “xxx” (no idea what town name to introduce here), which is in this general direction.”
And as he said that, one of the runners vaguely waved towards the horizon, always a pretty accurate way to navigate… I knew a single woman trying to convince a group of men that they took the wrong turn was a fight lost before it started, but, in this case it couldn’t had been more obvious that we had messed up. Even the blind could have seen that.
Waisting time. Again.
– “Alright, good luck to you guys, I’ll follow my tracks back!”
I turned around and they kept on going on the roads.
I’m back on the shingle beach to discover a line of people going in the right direction and getting off not where we did, but at the very end of the beach. Crushed me. I jump in the line and get back into the race. Within 5km, I catch one of the women (who will eventually came in third). We have a friendly chat, and then I try to take off. For the next 20 minutes, I decide to push the pace a little and create a gap. I try to damage control the uphills (which she’s pretty good at), keeping it decent on the flat and make as much ground as I can on the downhill. Don’t turn around, just keep on moving.After 20 minutes, we reach a rather flat open landscape and for the first time in a few kilometres I decide to look over my shoulder to assess the situation. She’s right there, 50m behind me. I couldn’t believe it. Aware that I wouldn’t be able to keep playing leap frog like that for another 7 hours, I decided to do what one should always do during an ultra and race my own race. Finally, I let go.
I let go of the feeling of disappointment I felt in myself for not taping my feet and not being able to put shoes back on properly, I let go of the frustration of having made the wrong turn, I let go of trying to calculate how far back I was now etc… A race like this is hard enough as it it, to make it, you have to stay in the present moment. It’s really hard to explain but just there and then I finally decided to do what I should have done hours prior and “bask in the thrill of the present moment”.
From there on I had nothing but a blast. I mean it was still bloody hard, but man was it beautiful. This guy passed me at some point; we made eye contact and he asked me with a smile: “In all honesty is there anything that you rather do instead of being here on a Saturday morning?”. There is always a point in these events where I feel deeply thankful to the universe that I’m able to do this. Nothing: the answer is there is nothing I’d rather been doing.
The ultra course is made up of 3 loops: first you do the marathon loop, then a 12 mile loop and then the 10km loop, you hence run through the race HQ two times. Now, I’m not gonna lie: it can be quite soul destroying to have a run a tough marathon, climbed more than 1700m, gone back to base to see people with medals around their neck and beers in their hand (the half marathon and 10km were well finished by then) and know that you’re just passing through and that you still have 30kms to go. I quickly stopped by the drop bag area, filled my water bottles, reached for the bag of food (a rice burrito, two gels and a cliff bar) I had prepared, put it in my pack, stuffed a muesli bar down and got going again.
I think this was one of my best races nutrition wise. Yet another race with zero appetite, but at least, I managed to force the calories in. Probably not near enough to what I should have eaten, but with a grand total of: 3 gels, 4 glasses of Coke, 1.5 rice burrito, ½ a banana and a Cliff Bar, I think I did okay. At least I did not completely fall apart, trying to run on virtually nothing like I’ve done in the past.
Back to the race, the 12mi loop was hard, not the shadow of a doubt, but again, the astonishing beauty of the surrounding landscapes would make anyone forget about their misery, even if temporally. I was hurting but running with a smile as I could feel the breeze on my face.
Within 60kms into the race, things were starting to take a toll physically. As I was running alone through a forest section, I became aware of my degrading, broken and ugly gate. Remembering that I was able to properly run the last kilometre of the VT100 when I saw a head torch behind me despite being absolutely convinced that I had nothing left, I knew that I could run better than this and decided to put some proper effort into trying to keep on “running” for as long as possible, “to be alone with the motion, the movement” as once wrote Jenn Shelton. To be like rocks over water.
Last journey through the HQ, last 10kms, the path I know like the back of my hand. I find myself leaving HQ with a tall lean older man. We have a quick chat as we make our way up the top of a climb and exchange bouts of experience about the different ultras we’ve run. I tell him about Vermont and about how incredible and soul feeding it was to have someone you know and you love waiting and cheering for you at every main aid stations. He tells me that his wife and his two kids usually always come to races with him but that this one was the first time they hadn’t been able to make it. He tells me of how his ultras were a family adventure. It was so painfully obvious that he was missing them. Maybe it was the fatigue, the hours spent running, the sun setting on the sea, the incredible landscape… I don’t know what it was, but his words really touched me. They reminded me of the words James Shapiro used when trying to describe the importance of human interactions in such a lonely sport: “Your state of mind, in all its changes from steady workaday sobriety through depression and nastiness is shared, as is that hug you need when you think you just can’t go without a human embrace because your joints are on fire”
I was hoping that I wouldn’t have to pull out the headlamp on that one but I did. The moment I was dreading the most actually ended up being one of the ones I most enjoyed. There was something magical about running in the pitch black on a cliff, hearing the sea moving and feeling the cold of the night slowly setting in. There was a full moon too, a beautiful giant full moon.
I reach the last aid station and a volunteer informs me that I have 3 miles to go. She could have said “Fire!”, I wouldn’t have taken off more quickly. I was going home and I couldn’t wait. I really really loved those last miles. It was a beautiful night, I had had a grand day out, I had done what I truly wasn’t sure I could do and now I was going home.
I crossed the finish line 9hrs40min, 73.5km and 2500m of elevation gain after having taken off earlier that morning. I ended up 6/14 female and 44/112 finishers and /165 starters. As I was hugging John at the finish, he whispered in my ear “How f***ing hard was this?”. It was so good too to hear about everyone’s experience; how Ben and his wife and a grand day out, how Rhi had been amazing, how Duana and Joe discovered at the breefing that their half marathon would actually be 16mi but still killed it and how John added yet another top 10 finish to his running résumé.
Yep, it was hard and yep the struggle was real. Yep, it did cross my mind at the marathon landmark that I could just end it there and no, I don’t know how I kept on going other that I never really gave myself a choice. Finally, yes, I did wonder a few times for how many flipping into the night I was going to be at it.
But I would do it again, in a heartbeat.