“Pain is the body’s way of ridding itself of weakness.”
― Ultramarathon Man: Confessions of an All-Night Runner
“It’s now 5pm on this freak hot sunny day on the Isle Of Wight. This would be a lovely holiday, IF we hadn’t started running over eleven hours ago. I’m injured and half limping partially jogging. Some miles away our friend Shawn who is hiking the challenge is helping another competitor who has had a seizure from exertion, and probably the heat.”
Ultra-marathon. Cool word huh?A normal marathon now that’s pretty hard going, but an ultra-marathon is another level. . The very meaning of ‘ultra marathon’…..Ultra is Latin for ‘beyond’, in this case beyond a running race of twenty-six miles. Unsurprisingly ‘ultra’ is a prefix often used to describe the extreme. And the Isle Of Wight Challenge definitely was.
How did we get here? Well,
The whole 105km course of the IOW Challenge works it’s way around the coast of the island starting , and finishing at Chale recreation ground. You can walk it jog it or run it, we signed up as joggers with more of an intention of running and jogging as a mix.
Arriving in the evening on the Isle of Wight we carried on carb loading (this is not much fun and essentially involves you stuffing yourself with a large amount of fruit, crackers, porridge, bread and so for DAYS ) in my case this makes me fat, tired and super tetchy. Meeting our very friendly and helpful owner of the place we are staying we grab some food out after a short walk over the cliffs get back and settle down. Before we get off to sleep, the weather forecast comes in that its going to be pretty hot the next day and at the time we had no idea how hot it would be….
We all get no sleep. It is difficult sleeping before something like this, it’s a total unknown and people do die on races like this. It’s not that often but the hell you put your body through is something else!
Our accommodation host turns out to be a total legend and a runner. He drops us at the start line at 6am, and with the sun beating down and a nice cool breeze we take a deep breath and slowly jog off. Which really was a nice relaxing start to the roller coaster of pain and emotion that would unfold. Running along the sea cliffs with our fellow runners we all take a sigh of relief our training has been so on point we can comfortably run and chat almost normally without running out of breath.
The start of the race is really gentle and gives far few clues about how this is going to go. Everyone’s really enjoying themselves which is great, for now at least…..Bouncing along the sea cliffs towards the needles life becomes slightly harder going. Luckily me and Andy trained by running through the Welsh mountains in super grim weather so in comparison this bit is quite nice. Then again most things are better than being soaked in high wind and pretty much zero visibility.
After running through a holiday camp full of huge bikers ,we hit our first section of calf deep hot wet clay mud. This is impossible to run through and the feeling of it seeping into my trail runners is enough to make me grit my teeth. We can hear the groans of the other runners in front as they slip and slide all over the place like something out of a 90’s kids TV show obstacle course.
We don’t stop long at checkpoints, we keep quickly filling up on water, handfuls of sweets and cereal bars. This already is more of an eating competition than a race. Small children and families hand us sweets as we run past and cheer us on. One little girl has set up a lemonade stand which is so cool I cant help but smile even though at this point I already feel like my shins are going to splinter into a thousand pieces. We try and keep at our training speed which is 10 minutes a mile and stop as little as we can.
We run past pubs, getting cheered on by the locals. I have to fight back the urge to grab a cold pint and run with it and I suspect I’m not the only one who is imagining jumping headfirst into a swimming pool full of cold beer. Everyone seems to be suffering from the heat and myself and Andy have taken to soaking our race buffs ( a kinda headscarf thing) in cold water before heading off from each checkpoint. It’s so hot running at times my vision turns green and I get weird chills up my spine. On the way through the villages people hand us Haribo as we run past them, which is a deal I could get used to.
It’s now 5pm on this freak hot sunny day on the Isle Of Wight. This would be a lovely holiday, IF we hadn’t started running over eleven hours ago. I’m injured and half limping partially jogging. Some miles away our friend Shawn who is hiking the challenge is helping another competitor who has had a seizure from exertion, and probably the heat. Not too far back I got a huge shooting pain through my right leg and since then my leg has got more and more painful, to a point I can’t break into a full run.
About 30 miles in we stop to get our half way bag and eat some food at the checkpoint, change clothes into something less sweaty and get our headtorches and night gear on. Even though we have painkillers handy I don’t take them through fear they will give me stomach issues and an embarrassing DNF.
Getting through the night at one of these races is one of the more difficult parts of the challenge. It is still pretty hot but your mind wanders a lot more in the night. At this point we are just hiking quite fast as the run has gone out of both of us. I cant help thinking Andy could keep running if he wasn’t sticking with me. I’m in a lot of pain at this point and it will be a few hours until I get to see the medic. Making our way down Culver Parade we have pedestrians stop and ask us what we are doing, and we try unsuccessfully to explain ‘why’ until we mention that it’s for charity. Tipsy islanders clap and cheer us from balconies…people call us crazy and they might have a point. We must all be thinking about how nice it would be to be relaxing on this warm evening by the sea.
At about mile 45 we all get lost. One pair of runners sits on a bench looking dejected talking to control trying to find out where the checkpoint is. As miserable as we are all getting the notion of not getting a cup of tea anytime soon seems to be more devastating than running / hiking 45 miles non-stop. Which is about as stereo-typically English as you can get at this moment. After being checked in by phone we later find out nobody missed the checkpoint, just tiredness and confusion got the better of all of us and we freaked out. This kind of race is all about the head-game though and the slightest negative thought dwelt on too long can bring down the whole house of cards in your head. On the bright side all the physical pain has become ‘one’ pain and it’s slightly easier to keep check on it, it won’t get any better it will only get worse.
Close to three quarters of the way round we finally roll up at a rest stop that has medics. They check our positioning and find we are in the top 125, but this isn’t a place we will keep. They can’t give me anything for my leg and ask if I’m going to keep going. Well of course I am, I have to because I’m doing this at the suggestion of my mate Leon who has had a ongoing legal battle to see his children. The money I’m raising was meant to go to help him but instead he wanted the cash to go to CALM and NSPCC. So no I can’t give up, my leg will heal up and some point.
I hit many hours of dark moments as we run along deserted coastal paths, with the sound of waves crashing below. The conversation runs low which shows how bad things were, me and my mate never run out of stuff to talk about. This is where the real race begins – you against yourself. The only thing keeping me going is pure stubbornness and not wanting to let down my mate, the sponsors or Leon and the kids. I can tell I’m low because I love being by the sea, even the sound usually puts me in a good mood. Even the slightly nasty smell of rotting seaweed works for me. Not right now though, I’m in a big dark hole of the mind.
I finally cave to the painkillers just as we hit the stretch between Shanklin and St Lawrence, I’m finding it hard to even move my right leg now. Fifteen minutes later I’m moving at quite a pace, kicking myself that I didn’t take these earlier. It still hurts like hell but I can manage it. I feel annoyed with myself that we could have been moving quicker all along, but there’s nothing I can do about it now.
Hours later we see the sun coming up over the sea cliffs and spot the finish line from way above and the view of the coast with the sun rising is beautiful. We high five and can’t believe we are going to pull off our first ultra marathon. I feel like every heavy night out I’ve every had has combined into one and I’m feeling it all at once.
Finally we stagger across the finish line and collect our medals. The feeling is kind of hard to describe, I’m proud we did this. I feel like death, I’d quite like to be unconscious right now, but I can smell breakfast so time for a bacon roll…..