I actually remember filling out the entry form for the 50-Mile Challenge, thinking it was such a good idea.
I'm in the second year of a four-year build-up to the 89km Comrades Marathon in South Africa in 2007. I thought that running the 50 would give me an idea of how my body copes with that much running on the flat - and I also wanted to be sure that I had the mental strength and willingness to complete it before I commit myself to more training for the hilly, African terrain.
Suffice to say throughout the week leading up to the race my stomach was churning and I couldn't believe what I'd got myself into. Although I tried to hide how scared I was, by Saturday I was finding this harder and harder to do.
Sunday morning, or rather Saturday night, the alarm went off...it was 4am and time to get up! My race head said, "Eat breakfast, the start is in two hours", but my body said, "food? You must be joking... go back to bed!"
I forced down two jam-filled baps down and tried to focus on what I had to do. But I was in a total spin. We got to the start and I didn't know what I was doing, I couldn't think straight at all and totally forgot about putting my number on until the last minute. I kept looking at other runners to get some clues as to what I was supposed to be doing and it felt as though there was an albatross trapped in my stomach.
All of a sudden, we were called to the start. The organiser went through the briefing and the panic gradually began to subside. Then he said, "Remember, this is not a race, it's a challenge. It's not about winning it, it's about finishing." I turned to someone stood next to me and joked, "It'd be nice to win it though, wouldn't it!"
Then he said, "Go!", so we went.
My run/walk strategy was to run no faster than 9:30 to the first mile, then walk up to 11 minutes, run the remainder of the second mile and walk to 22 minutes, and so on, maintaining 11-minute miles all the way. This would take me to the finish in 9:36, allowing me 20 minutes spare to get sub-10.
When I got to the first mile, it felt strange to stop running and start walking so soon. I watched people run off into the distance, and a few more pass me. One passing runner asked if I'd done this before. I told him I hadn't and he repied, "Well, you're doing exactly the right thing". That really helped.
The 6.55-mile course was mostly off-road, gravel, rocky, rutted track, some grassland and some concrete path. It was also mainly flat apart from one short concrete hill, which went straight up and then straight back down. The only time I ran that hill was on the first lap. Each time around it got steeper, and had actually turned into a mountain by lap eight!
My run/walk was going well and I even managed to get ahead by a minute or so, which, I would discover, would come in useful at the start/finish lap point.
RW member RichK had got to mile four with his camera before heading off to the Dartford half-marathon, and by that time I was feeling much calmer, just focusing on each mile as I went.
As I got to the end of the first lap I tried to think of what I needed at this early stage, and decided that a toilet stop was the only requirement.
Lap two started and I was right on target. It was about 7.10am and beginning to get warm, so I tried to focus on keeping my running speed down, which was difficult so early in the 'race' when my legs still felt fresh. I'd set my Garmin to beep if I was going faster than 9:20 per mile, and it was beeping constantly, although I felt as though I was barely running at all. Still, I tried to slow down because I knew it would pay off 20 or 30 miles down the road.
I think there were three water stations out on the course as well as the support station at the lap start/finish area. One of the water stations served runners in the second mile as well as runners coming up to the fifth mile in the lap. The marshals worked so hard throughout the day and were always ready with cups of water as I ran past. It was proper, glass-bottled mineral water too!
As I ran to the finish of the second lap, still ahead of target by a minute or so, I made a mental list of what I needed to do: top up sun cream, put white cap on, swap empty fist bottle for full one and pick up a couple of gels.
This became a ritual. Towards the end of every lap I would go through a list of what I needed to do when I got there. It helped me to stay focused and keep my mind on the... I hesitate to call it a race because if ever it was, it became less and less of one as each lap passed and more of an endurance test... anyway, my little ritual simply stopped me from 'losing the plot' altogether, I guess.
Lap three... on target, still fairly comfortable and I remember thinking how easy it felt to run, even though I was heading for 19 miles.
I tried not to think of how many miles I had ahead of me, because every time that thought sneaked in it would freak me out. I just tried to concentrate on the mile that I was doing and telling myself that I could walk again soon. It turned out to be a great strategy because I could walk at some point during every mile and still maintain an 11-minute mile pace. Because of this I remained comfortable and relaxed for as long as possible.
I finished lap four and that was a marathon done. I thought at that point, that's the earliest I've ever finished a marathon before: it was 10.40am!
I had a relatively long stop at the lap start/finish and without going into detail, my stomach had been cramping throughout lap four; but I started lap five feeling much more comfortable, had also soaked my hat in water and took some time to drink a bit more.
Another inspired bit of organisation from the 50-Mile Challenge team was a car constantly cruising the course handing out cups of ice. I found that sucking ice cubes gave me a new lease of life and refreshed parts that gels couldn't seem to reach.
Anyway, I told myself that I was now past half-way and despite the long stop was miraculously still on target by mile 27.
My memory of lap five, which was roughly marathon point to about 33 miles, is a little hazy. The day was really heating up and I was so focused on getting through each mile on target. I was acutely aware that I hadn't run further than a half-marathon for six weeks, and although I had run back to back half-marathons on one weekend, I still didn't feel that I had done enough.
My head latched onto these negative messages, so to distract myself I concentrated more on my run/walk splits.
Lap six is where the pain started, but I managed to cling to my target times until the 39th mile, when a minute slipped away from me. I told myself that was okay, because I still had 20 spare. This is where I put my MP3 player on, to drown out the voices in my head telling me how much this was hurting. But even though I was hurting now, the thought of pulling out didn't enter my head. I just told myself that the next lap was my penultimate lap, and then it'd be my last lap.
At mile 40 I was four minutes behind schedule; at 41 I was seven minutes behind; that gap remained until mile 45 when I slipped to eight minutes behind. Despite dropping behind schedule, I was comforted by the fact that my Garmin was still beeping at me when I ran, meaning that even at this stage my easy running speed was still at least a fraction faster than 9:20-minute-miling!
My walk breaks became a little more extended during this lap, but I told myself that if need be I would power walk to stop myself getting slower and slower. Apart from anything, I wanted to finish as soon as I could to get out of the heat.
When I got to the end of lap seven I decided to let go of my sub-10 target and open it out to a more realistic sub-10:30. RichK had returned with his camera and he and Jelly Bean were there ready to provide me with whatever I needed before heading out onto the final lap... but what I really needed was a new pair of legs.
I went through mile 46 in 8:37, mile 47 in 8:53; I had a very brief run during mile 48 and went through in 9:03. From there on, my legs decided enough was enough and power walking was the fastest they were prepared to carry me.
I kept the speed to sub-14 minutes per mile, and constantly recalculated my estimated finishing time in my head. I had to keep reassuring myself that sub-10:30 was still very much on.
As I got closer and closer to the finish I seemed to get springier. I also started to talk (out loud) to myself - nothing that meant very much, just nonsense really. Luckily there was hardly anyone around me by this stage otherwise they may have got the men in white coats out onto the course looking for me.
At last I was inside the last mile and I knew I was smiling in a kind of insane way, but I didn't care.
I turned off the last bit of uneven track onto the last bit of nice flat even road. I started to make little targets. I told myself that when I got to the mile-six marker I'd take off my white T-shirt (I'd put it on at the end of lap six to protect myself from the sun, but it was also covering my number and club top which I wanted to be in full view when I finished.)
When I got past that point I decided to start running, and I was determined to run to the finish. As I picked my legs up I felt like I was flying. I ran past a couple who were walking and one of them said well done... I said, "I've finished!" and almost started to cry.
Then I heard a cheer and looked ahead to see a welcoming committee, including RichK, Jelly Bean, MetroGnome and laneo (I think) waiting for me.
I turned the corner and everyone who was sat outside the pub clapped as I ran past to finish, I was practically crying from the relief of finally finishing and knowing that I'd actually completed the Challenge that I'd set myself 10 hours and 15 minutes ago.
I'd barely stood still for a minute when RichK turned to me and said something about being first. Then the organiser approached me and told me that I was the first lady to finish the full distance! It all happened so fast... they gave me my medal and certificate and then showed me the large shield which would have my name engraved on one of the plates, saying that they would send me a smaller one to keep.
So I finished the event in a similar way to how I'd started it...in a spin!
It was a totally amazing day. I met loads of great people and we were all out there testing our bodies to the limits. For some the conditions became too much, the heat was intense with very little shade at all on the course.
I was concerned for myself during lap six and felt sunstroke was a distinct possibility, but carefully monitored my condition the whole time. Everyone gave it their all and some of us were lucky enough to make the full distance.
So now I know I can cope with the distance - that's another step taken on my journey to Comrades.