Tales from the Twilight Zone: Stour Valley Path 100

This is not so much a race report as it is my self-indulgent report on how we sometimes feel that the universe is conspiring against us, and what we do with that.

Having returned from a multiday race in Spain in early July, within hours I was suffering from a distinct lack of suffering.  Long story short, heard about the Stour Valley Path 100 km race taking place on Saturday 15 August, checked work schedule, and entered.

There were a few minor challenges from the outset…like the fact that the race started in Newmarket.  As it turned out there was horse-racing on in Newmarket that weekend.  And a Spandau Ballet concert!  Minor details…I had a tipoff from the race organisers that there was still some accommodation in Bury St. Edmunds.  I think I got the last room there.

The start of the journey

I live in the West Midlands,  The race started in Cambridgeshire, east of where I live.  My grand plan entailed staying ‘near’ the start (Bury St. Edmunds) the night before, staying near the finish the night after, and then coming home on Sunday.  My end of the bargain is that if I want to do these crazy stupid things I take care of the logistics.  So, accommodation booked, I would get the train to Bury St. Edmunds on Friday, run on Saturday, long suffering husband would meet me at the finish and then we would drive to the next accommodation.

Trains in England unfortunately go up and down, as opposed to sideways across the country.  And thus began the epic journey:

-Leamington Spa to Coventry (Leamington train was 6 minutes late, which resulted in me missing my booked train at Coventry, so had to wait 20 minutes for the next one.  Glass half full: I had time to buy coffee from Starbucks).

-Coventry to London Euston.

-London Euston to London King’s Cross via underground (surprisingly painless experience).

-London Kings Cross to Cambridge (glass is still half full: the coffee at Starbucks had generated 30 pence change exactly, which is the amount that you need to get access to the toilets at King’s Cross).

-Cambridge to Bury St. Edmunds.

I dumped my stuff at the hotel and then got on the train back to Newmarket to go and register.  At registration I discovered that you cannot actually register without having your mandatory kit there to be checked (although checking over the Facebook posts – which I don’t always follow religiously, I see that that is mentioned there, so epic fail on my part).  So, that was that.    It hadn’t actually occurred to me to bring my kit that evening, thinking it would make sense to check your kit on the day…when you will be needing it (and I have personal knowledge of someone who had their kit checked the night before, and then forgot their mobile phone on the day of the race).  At least I got to meet Mark, a fellow South African who I had met on Facebook through mutual running friends.  So, back to the train station, only to discover the next train back to Bury St. Edmunds was in 42 minutes.  The train conductor said I should probably just get on the train as it was cold and going to rain and it was the same train that will end up in Bury St. Edmunds.  So I got on, and went from Newmarket, back to Cambridge, back to Newmarket, and finally on to Bury St. Edmunds.

Race day

It was a grey start to the day.  Most dramatic and eventful moments usually have grey starts, as though the events to follow are going to colour in the grey.  And they did.

There were some key details from the briefing:  we were told to look out for a LEFT turn after checkpoint 1, on the way to Devil’s Dyke.  And there was a corn field somewhere towards the end.  We were told: just dive straight in and keep going until you get to the end.

Registered and kit finally checked, the first wave, with me in it, set off at 7 AM.  Up until checkpoint 1 ,things were ticking along nicely.  The terrain was a bit slippery from the rain over the last 2 days, but it was nice and cool and the air smelled fresh.  Checkpoint 1 was just after a field of calves who ran at us in an exuberant if not slightly scary manner, but eventually let us through unscathed.  I refuelled with food and drink and set off again (NB: for those considering running this race in future, the cuisine is excellent!).

About four of us entered a field with four ponies in.  The ponies were all huddled around the only gate, through which we had to pass.  At the gate, one pony had it’s back to the gate.  You couldn’t actually fully open the gate, as the pony’s rump was in the way and the gate had a complicated chain around it that none of us could work out how to undo.  The fence was electrified wire.  The pony was not moving; it just ignored us and chewed grass.  I opened the gate as far as it would go and squeezed through.  The others started to follow.  The next moment, an irate farmer shouted at us to open the gate properly, as he was tired of replacing it – point taken, but this was also nigh on impossible with the pony in the way.  I wondered if he knew that 160 + runners would be passing through his field over the next 2 hours, all trying to get past the pony and through the gate?

Mud was sticking liking like cement to my shoes and weighing me down.  I tried to stamp my feet to shake it off, and had no sooner dislodged a few clumps when the next lot started to stick.  It was quite frustrating and looking around at the other men running beside, I wondered why they weren’t having the same problem.  Thankfully, the grassy field and muddy tracks ended and we headed through wheat fields where the ground was a bit more compacted.  Heading towards a busy road after crossing one of many wheat fields, another runner was heading back towards us.  The route markings had disappeared and he though we had gone too far.  It seemed we had all missed the imortant LEFT turn, mentioned at the race briefing.  Nevertheless we steadfastly continued along the road – perhaps just to check for ourselves that we had gone wrong?  Another group of about four runners caught up to us and led us back over a bridge to another parallel road, which would apparently meet up again with the official route.  I consulted the map app on my phone.  I started to obsess about distance, wondering if this alternative route counted as a short cut.  I followed the group.  And then stopped.  And turned around.  I felt certain I was doing the right thing by turning around.  It felt like this was a life-affirming moment, and I felt good about it.  Back at the road I met another two runners called Chris and Melissa.  They had been having a similar debate about route and distance.  After a brief conference, we all agreed that with the to-ing and fro-ing we had probably actually done slightly more mileage.  My conscience was appeased, and we went back onto the alternative route.

Finally back on the official race route, I met up again with Mark, the South African I had met the night before.  We got to check point 2, refueled, found toilets (always a bonus) and then Melissa and I trotted off, swapping war stories.  After some time of running down a busy road, we both had the realisation that perhaps…we had gone wrong again.  Doh!  We turned back and retraced our steps, wondering if perhaps we should just cut to the chase and make this a 100 miler.  Between us had enough food, mobile phone battery life, head torches and warm clothes to take us through the night.  We met up with Mark a second time, as well as a few other people we had passed earlier.

The day had now warmed up, the grey had disappeared and the sky was blue.  Bright orange flowers winked at us through the tall grass as we skirted around more fields and along the path that cut through the middle of some.  Exiting another field, we turned left onto the road, ran for bit and then Melissa and I both stopped as it became apparent there were no route markers anywhere on the road.  Ourselves and another two guys retraced our steps, clutching paper maps and mobile phones with apps on, and in the distance caught sight of some other runners who had been behind us, exiting the same field from a different point, to join the official route across the road.  I caught up to Mark and the other now familiar faces a third time.  Melissa and I were starting to feel quite sheepish.  Clearly we were not the ones to follow!  We proceeded with caution and deep suspicion – determined to find every yellow spray painted arrow and dragonfly symbol that kept us on the right path.

En route to checkpoint 3, I found out the world is a small place.  It turns out Melissa is good friends with Charlie Sharpe, who I met doing the Al Andalus trail in Spain in July.  I encouraged her to enter the race next year.

Checkpoint 3 was next to a cricket pitch.  There was a game on and we had to run alongside the oval.  I could see a table and brightly coloured umbrellas in the distance and wondered if someone was having a birthday party at the cricket pitch.  People started clapping as we approached and I realised it was checkpoint 3!

Melissa and I were both still feeling okay.  My right knee had been a little niggly, but it hadn’t developed into anything too dreadful.  We passed a spray painted sign on the road saying ’60 km’.  Yay, just under a marathon to go!  It was a real boost to morale to know we were well passed halfway.  The route towards checkpoint 4 had a few uphills which gave us a well earned walking break, with some nice downhills to follow.  In no time we were at checkpoint 4.  I had to go to the toilet again.  Melissa and I found one in a pub.  The door was locked and inside we could hear a mother and her child having an altercation about flushing the toilet.  For the love of God…we gave them another 60 seconds and thankfully they came out, having decided against flushing (!).

Time passed and we got to checkpoint 5.  I felt like I had been eating all day and despite being hungry, couldn’t face anymore food.  One of the aid crew told us: 7 miles until checkpoint 6, then 5 miles until the finish.  We set off to lots of encouraging clapping and cheering.  I had been steadfastly ignoring my intestines up until this point.  They had been poking me from the inside, asking to get their blood supply back in return for digesting all the crap I had been eating.  I had ignored them, there being very little I could about it, apart from eat less crap, which was not an option as I was hungry all the time.  They poked me a bit harder.  I ignored them some more.  Then they started hacking me with a machete from the inside.  They had my attention now.  This low point also coincided with me getting an irate text message from my husband, saying he had arrived at the accommodation I had allegedly booked…only to find it had been cancelled 20 minutes after on the day I had booked it.  I had been telling Melissa about my train and registration woes; we now both concurred that I was jinxed.  I put accommodation thoughts out of my mind and focussed on putting one foot in front of the other.  By now we were looking for any excuse to walk.

‘Does that look like a hill?’

‘Yes.’

‘Good, let’s walk.’

‘Great idea’.

This turned out to be the longest 7 miles I have ever run. Having clawed our way through the infamous corn field, we finally staggered into checkpoint 6, and I staggered off to the toilet.  I crawled back, ate a sausage roll by accident (I am vegetarian) and off we set again.

The crew member at checkpoint 5 had said it was 5 miles until the finish.  I had written down the mileage on my phone and according to that it was 4.5 miles to the finish.  For some reason I became fixated on whether or not it was 5 miles or 4.5 miles still to go.  It all seemed to hinge on that half a mile difference:

0.5 miles = 800 metres.

800 metres = 2 laps of an athletics track.

For some reason I couldn’t let it go and I was almost reduced to tears obsessing over 800 metres, not believing I had it in me to do 8 metres more, with the intestinal war raging inside me.  Melissa was great company throughout; she kindly walked with me at this point when I just couldn’t run and also said she’d had a low couple of days and that I had made her run that day a much more enjoyable experience.  Trying to keep body and soul together, a mirage appeared.  It looked like one of the race organisers, surrounded by a golden light.  It meant us no harm and spoke kindly to us, saying, ‘The finish is just 5 minutes down that road’.

We looked at each other.  And ran.  Seeing the field and the finish, we sped up and crossed the finish line, hand in hand.

Everything happens for a reason and I am a great believer in signs.  At the finish when I got my drop bag, it still had my race number on it from the Al Andalus trail in Spain.  It was number 14.  Melissa’s running number that day was 14.  Did I get lost so that we would meet up and get each other through the day?  On the subject of being jinxed, to add to the growing pile of low moments on this weekend, the preceding week, I had had my first bad fall on my face, while running.  I had also had what turned out to be two punctures and had to replace two car tyres at great expense.  I have been reading ‘The Art of Living’ by Epictetus, a philosopher born into slavery during the time of the Roman Empire.  He has a chapter in the book entitled ‘Events are impersonal and Indifferent’:

When considering the future, remember that all situations unfold as they do regardless of how we feel about them.  Our hopes and fears sway us, not events themselves…

…In any events, however seemingly dire, there is nothing to prevent us for searching for its hidden opportunity.  It is failure of the imagination not to do so.  But to seek out the opportunity in situations requires a great deal of courage, for most people around you will persist in interpreting events in grossest terms: success or failure, good or bad, right or wrong.  These simplistic, polarized categories obscure more creative – and useful – interpretations of events that are far more advantageous and interesting!…

What is a ‘good’ event?  What is a ‘bad’ event?  There is no such thing!  What is a good person?  The one who achieves tranquility by having formed the habit of asking on every occasion, ‘What is the right thing to do now?’

Ultra-running, the events leading up to the day, the events on the day, teach us to put into practice what Epictetus is talking about above.  I would add to that the words of Orin:

Detach from needing to have a thing work out a certain way.  The universe is perfect and there are no failures.  Give yourself the gift of detaching from your worries and trust that everything is happening perfectly.

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