This week, things get tough for Team RW's Marathon des Sables challenger as he hits the Devon trails.
This weekend marked my first attempt at an ultra. I thought I’d chosen wisely - a coastal trail series in Devon sounds idyllic, and I had pictured waves crashing against rock faces as I bounded over 35 miles of beautiful trails in the mild February sun. How wrong (and unprepared) I was.
The weekend didn’t start well. Sharing a room with a man suffering from chronic snoring left me with 3 hours' sleep going into the longest race of my life. Needless to say I felt far from ready lining up at 8:15am on Saturday, the horn sounded for the start and after only 300 metres it hit me - how tough these long, winding vertical hills would be. I wasn’t ready for this - not just hills but brutal mountains. "What comes up must come down"? Rubbish! I found myself walking behind the other ‘runners’ trudging up the steep rock faces only to be greeted by more hills. It’s important to really emphasise - these were big hills!
Finally came a short downhill just after mile 6. I could actually run! "Make the most of this Fricker," I thought, "stretch the legs out, open the motor..." I got over-excited and took a comedy tumble that wouldn’t have looked out of place in a Charlie Chaplin movie – quick assessment: no damage done, just a little dent in my pride. I picked myself up and carried on up another hill, after scaling this and several more like it I arrived at the first check point. I had a quick mental check of where everything is and how I felt. The conclusion was good: I was a third of the way there and the jolly marshals assured me there were only a couple of other ‘tricky’ hills to contemplate – brilliant! – I’d done over 12 miles and I felt good, could I be a natural ultra runner?
It would appear not. I’m not pinning the blame of my demise on one man but lying... it’s not something you would particularly associate with running. He lied - and he killed all trust I had for marshals going forward. The first third of the race was brutal but manageable, the second third killed me (almost. I am writing this, after all). I made the decision around mile 17 (when it started raining as I was half-way up another hill) that I would do the marathon course and not the ultra course - which is an extra 7 miles (not the advertised 10K) after checking in at the finish of the marathon. My thought process was as follows – I’m no longer having fun, I had made a schoolboy error of not training on hills, the hard work I put into doing the uphill sections were rewarded with downhill sections so steep I had to bum shuffle down them. I was constantly running at a deficit, my speed slowed as I walked up most of the hills and didn’t improve on the very short sharp descents. Soul destroying.
Crossing the line left of the marathon, rather than going right for the ultra, left me with very mixed feelings. I was happy to complete the hardest and slowest marathon of my life (5:15), disappointed I didn’t go back out to complete the ultra distance but above all the weekend taught me that I need to toughen up both mentally and physically to cope with the demands of the Sahara. It's not a lesson I wanted to learn with only 6 weeks' training left - but I'm more determined than ever to right the wrongs of Devon in the desert.