OK I admit it – I’ve been in a slump lately and I’ve lost a bit of my mojo. It’s not that I’ve fallen out of love with running but more like running has fallen out of love with me and it’s time to do something about it.
The reasons why we runners gravitate to ultra running are manifold. It might be for the more obvious reasons – to prove something to ourselves and others, to test our fortitude, to defy the odds. It might be for more abstract, spiritual reasons – to find solitude, to find peace (I know a bit of an oxymoron for such a demanding and physical sport) or more likely a combination of the two. But whatever the reason it puts us in a club in which we are all equal, where the “Kilian’s” of this world can line up with the mere mortals – even me. Where complete strangers at aid stations and on the trail treat you with the care and tenderness as if you were family. Where the only competition is with yourself and your will power and determination – it is a unique, fantastic sport without equal.
I think you have to have a bit of an addictive personality to become an ultra runner in the first place – certainly that’s true in my case and I know of other well know runners who have struggled with their demons in the past. But it’s this same addictive personality that allows us to run mile after mile, whatever the weather or terrain, that can also lead us to our biggest challenge. Like any addict we always seek the next “high”. After I ran across the Pyrenees my first thought was not “wow what a great achievement” it was “what’s next – how am I going to beat that?” And when I ran across Italy in seven days I experienced exactly the same emotions. You return home all the time seeking something that you can’t put your finger on. A 50 miler turns into a 60 miler and this isn’t enough either and it’s a hundred miler next. All the time mile after mile in training – pitter patter, pitter patter the runners refrain beats out.
The endless miles took their toll, I was run down and picked up a virus and respiratory problem before my TP100 and inevitably I didn’t finish – my first self-retirement. I decided to cancel a race across Italy I had entered, I just wasn’t up to it. Instead I entered the Sierra Nevada Ultra, a 60km challenge across the mountains in Southern Spain. My virus had finally cleared up and I was ramping up the miles but something wasn’t right. I was starting to question why I was doing all this – at my age shouldn’t I be doing what society dictated and be putting my feet up in front of the fire, wasn’t I a laughing stock?
I arrived in Spain on one of the hottest days ever recorded, a mind blowing 48c – not ideal conditions to run an ultra in across the mountains. But Granada was stunning and despite the heat I loved the city and the people. The 100km race was due to start from the main square in Granada at midnight with my race starting at 6.00am the next morning. I had found a nice restaurant with an outside table where I was able to watch the world go by whilst I thought about the challenge ahead. And then, as I left the restaurant and joined the main street, I had a cathartic experience.
Two fit, lean runners were walking towards me heading to the start of the 100km race. Both in their gear with the obligatory reversed baseball cap and sunglasses perched on their heads. I caught the eye of one of them and in that one fleeting moment I understood why I participated in this crazy sport of ours. His eyes were fixed ahead and in them I saw every possible emotion – fear, trepidation,excitement , doubt, self-assuredness. The energy and tension was palpable as he prepared for the challenge ahead.
I returned to the UK after the race with renewed energy and purpose. I was determined to make the best of myself, to seek new challenges and adventure and not care what society dictated or others thought. I finally understood why I loved to run and I owe it all to the Spaniard with the burning eyes, walking through the streets of Granada to the start of his challenge. Thank you.