Sunday, 16 August 2015

The Plague: Still infected

The Plague: Still infected!

Oh, I'm going to be sick. " Bleugh" . Bugger, stomach turning inside out, but nothing coming out. I'm tired, sick, hungry and thirsty; and it's only mile 20. It's going to be a long night. Maybe I really am infected! My demise at the Plague was swift. Everything unravelled with breathtaking speed. Unfortunately, everything didn't turn out in the long run. In fact my long run - my first attempt at a 100km - didn't last more than 36miles. How did everything go so wrong, so quickly?

I have had a whole day to reflect and analyse on everything that could have contributed to my demise, and the list is long. Maybe they all contributed, maybe none did. Maybe it just wasn't my day or maybe I just wasn't good enough.

Anyway,  let me go back to beginning. As far back as last year. My place this year was deferred, as last year I had an undiagnosed sharp,intense, shooting pain, along the base of my right foot whenever I went above 20ish miles. GP's, X-ray, ultra sound, podiatrists all failed to pin point the exact problem. The best guess by a podiatrist was an inflammation in soft tissue between 3rd and 4th Metatarsal. Advice: rest for 6weeks and roll your foot on an iced bottle of water or tin. Which I have done post run ever since, and no pain since. There is permanently a frozen tin of soup in the freezer! That's that problem solved.

So, that meant I have waited a year to do The Plague. For those of you not in the South West of England, The Plague is a 100km of Cornish Coast Path, organised by Mudcrew. Their tag line is "we don't do easy".  No shit, Batman. You start at Porthpean, St Austell, at 5mins past midnight, run 32 miles through the night to St Anthony Head, turn round and run back. Simples.

My training had gone well. I was confident. I had mixed it up, adding cycling, circuit training and yoga to my routine, in addition to my long back-back runs. I completed the Ham to Lyme 50km. I felt strong. Until about 3wks before the event. I had a disastrous training run. It was one of my last scheduled long runs and I ran out of energy. It knocked my confidence. I rested then and only ran once before the Plague. The days before I was nervous as hell.  My guts were in turmoil. I packed, unpacked, packed again. Checked the kit list again. And again. And again. Calm down dear, it's only a race.

Maybe the writing was on the wall when, on the morning of the race I was doing the last bits of washing up before leaving home, when I sliced my finger on a shard of broken glass. Omen? So, we get to Porthpean by 17.00hrs on Friday {'We', being my friend, training partner and fellow runner, Rachel}, put the tent up, ate  and chilled. The weather was good and the vibe around the site even better. Mudcrew run exceptionally well organised events and this was no different. Once the tent was up and last minute food and hydration was taken care of, I felt a sense of zen like calm. There was a surprising lack of nerves or even excitement. Just zen. Or maybe it was denial of the pain ahead, I'm not sure. Whatever the feeling was, this was it. Nothing left to do but run.

Time for safety briefing: watch out for badger holes. Stay safe. We are there to look after you and get you through. Miss the cut offs and you will be pulled off the course. Be nice to the marshalls, they are there for you. Look after yourselves and have fun.

Things went wrong from the start. Lost a good few minutes at the first kissing gate, only a few hundred metres in, which caused a bottle neck. Didn't start near enough at the front. Rookie error. Ten minutes gone within first few metres. The cut off times are fairly tight. Porthpean to CP2 at Gorran Haven is a total of 11miles with cut off at 02.45hrs. A running time of 2hrs 40mns. Not as easy as it sounds, on the coast path, in the dark. Dodging the badger holes, I was slowly getting in my running vibe, but Rachel wasn't feeling too good. But we made it OK, grabbed some food and water, and left. Now, Rachel completed the SDW100 recently, so knows what she is doing; she was meant to be getting me round this. So what happened next was not in our race plan. Not able to shake her stomach pains, we were losing time. Many times she told me go, she would be alright she said. I wouldn't. She would get through this, run it off. It would pass. I tried my best motivational pep talks . I think that even made her feel worse, but I was trying.

Eventually, I had to make a choice. Stay with Rachel and be timed out at CP3, or leave her. She knew this and was getting increasingly frustrated with me for not going on. But how could I?  Now, the S.W. Coast path is not easy terrain, but it is not remote. It was a balmy summers evening and she wasn't seriously ill or injured, just not feeling the love for this event right now. She was still moving, just not very fast! There were also sweepers not too far behind. I realised I had to make that choice. It was 04.00hrs and we had only done 14miles.  There were 6miles to CP4 at Portloe and that had to be reached by 05.15hrs. Mudcrew are lovely people- but they are strict with their cut offs. And for very good reason. I gave Rachel  a big hug and legged it. I had just over an hour on the coast path to cover 6miles. It was a very stressful hour. My race plan was in shreds, I was against the clock, alone, in the dark, and feeling incredibly guilty about leaving my friend and race buddy. My mind began, ever so slowly, to turn against me.

I made it. Just. The volunteers were great, helped me fill water and a flask, took some electrolytes - but all I remember was the cute little dog asleep in amongst the chaos! Got some supplies and went. Then my race really went pear shaped. Minutes out of Portloe  I started to retch badly. Dehydrated, I was unable to eat or drink. I was in bits. I had 8miles to Portscatho. It was a long, long, long 8 miles. I have read many tales of the dark places you go in Ultra's, how Ultra's are in large part a mental challenge and how you have to be ready for it when it happens. Well it was happening. And I was not ready. My mind was turning against me. It was not my friend any more. I had barely done a marathon at this point and knowing that made me feel worse. I was unable to cope. I was not ready. I mentally quite at that point. As I shuffled towards Portscatho, I started to mentally compose my Ultra running obituary; he tried, but he failed.

As the sun came up, I tried to gain some solace from the spectacular beauty of the universe. I was, at least in my line of vision, alone on the coast path and the scenery was quite spectacular. The sea was calm and the rhythmic sounds of the waves a soothing soundscape to the vibrant orange sunrise. A new day dawns. I even ran for a bit. It didn't last. Failure. You are not going to do this. Failure. What will everyone say?. Failure. I wanted to cry. SHUT UP HEAD. Twentyish miles? What has gone wrong? I can easily do 50km. Problems weren't meant to start until the return leg. Bumping into a friend and another fellow Plague sufferer, Ken, helped for a bit. But not much. We chatted and shuffled. Then even he was gone! FAILURE.

My new master plan was to get to Portscatho, just past the cut off at 07.45hrs. I would be timed out. I would be pulled off the course and it wouldn't be my decision to quit. But the bastards wouldn't let me stop. The conversation with aid station volunteers and medics went something like this {although I may have imagined some of it!}

Anything physically wrong with you?
Not really. Stomach issues. Probably dehydrated. Just not my day. My head's fucked. Can I curl up in the corner please.
Why not?
You don't really want to stop.
Oh, but I do.
If you drink this magic potion {said the medic, I think}, and leave with these people here, you can make it to half way.
But I don't want to. Please let me stop.
I drank the water with the fizzy tablet in.
Get up, put your pack on and go. Or else.
I don't want to. I want a pint of Proper Job. {CP4 was in a pub, I could see the bar!}
I was too tired to argue further, got up and went. Bastards, wouldn't even let me quit.

Leaving Portscatho, it was only 4miles to the half way point. I wasn't alone now, with Andrea and Steve, fellow strugglers, who actually seemed in a more positive frame of mind. It started to rub off on me {thank you!}I felt better. Then came the tsunami of Black Runners {RAT also had Black 32milers / Red 20miles / White 11milers starting at different points on Saturday}. So about 08.45hrs we were suddenly running into a few hundred fresh faced and eager runners, all, and I mean ALL, shouting encouragement and clapping as they swarmed around us. They knew how far we had come, but I also knew how far they had to run. Poor bastards. You will suffer. But thank you for your support. For the second time that day I nearly cried- but I was too dehydrated! Quite emotional this running lark. The support from fellow runners really did mean a huge amount.

Newly enthused, the 'last' 2 miles were quite pleasant. St Anthony's Head. Half way. YIPPEEEEEEEEEEE.
I was, for the first time in about 4hrs, feeling positive again. The sun was out, the day was hotting up, and I was feeling hungry again. About time! But my legs were not responding to my new positivity. Shuffle, shuffle, shuffle. One foot in front of the other.

Mudcrew did all they could to get us to at least the half way point, but on the return leg, they needed to make a decision. They even came out onto the route to check on us. But I was done. So were Steve and Andrea. We were also after the cut off {10.10hrs}. Decision made for us. Stop. Relief. But more importantly for me at least, was that I was in a much better frame of mind. Yes, my race was over, but at 36miles, and not 28miles. Psychologically,  that made a huge difference. I had gone through a dark place, and still made it over halfway. With a bit of time to spare, if I could have stopped for some real food, I know I could have carried on. But I was already chasing cut offs, time was not something I had on the day. However, I ended happy, and mentally in a significantly better place than just a few hours previously. Today was just not my day. I did not have the experience, or the strength, to continue. I know that now. But I am also happy with that knowledge now. If I had been allowed to quite at 28miles, I would still be in that dark place. As it is, I'm raring to go again. Thank you Mudcrew and medic.

Back at Porthpean, I met up with Rachel again, and she was OK. Dehydration apparently. We chatted, debriefed and the very nice Dan made me a cup of tea. Rachel was sorry she held me up. Don't be silly. Running with friends is a pleasure. Did my race unravel due to Rachel? NO. I know not what happened to my race, but it wasn't anyone else's fault, that I do know. I would stay with her {or any other friend or ill runner} again. My only regret is that I didn't stay with her- my suffering would have been over sooner then as well  :-)

After food and fluid, I was a new man. Ready for pizza and beer! Meeting other friends and watching runners come in from completing various distances was uplifting and inspiring. I was well pleased for all of them. Their kind words and support for me also made me feel less and less like a failure. I started to feel vaguely normal again, almost wanting to do it again. BATs are a pretty amazing lot. Rachel, Dan, Mel, Emma, Fran {both of you!}, Sarah, Sam, Martin, Hilary, Mathew, Sam, Andrew. I salute you!

I still don't really know why everything unravelled so very, very quickly. It was scary actually. I know the coast path is brutal, but after 20miles. Really? I know I can do at least 32miles. Maybe that's what completely threw me into a tail spin. Knowing I could do more, but unable to. Maybe I need to do some more reflection. But what I do know is- I WILL BE BACK.

So what have I learned? Well:

  • Dark times do not last for ever; they will pass. 
  • Other runners are awesome. I know we all know that, but the support from all the 32milers made me feel like a champion- even though I was last.
  • My friends and fellow club runners are awesome. You may not know that. I do!
  • Constant eating / grazing / fluid intake IS REALLY IMPORTANT. However you feel, eat and drink. However bad you feel, not eating and drinking will make you feel worse.
  • Marshalls and check point volunteers are nice people. Even if they wont let you stop.
  • If you feel like quiring? DON'T!! Not at first anyway. I did another 8 more miles; it gave me the confidence to know that next year, I can, and will, complete the Plague. 
  • Oh, and Mudcrew, you know how to put on an event!


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