It happens at the quietest moments. When the night is dark and warm, when sleep doesn’t come easily and even the most soothing podcasts cannot distract your mind. When you find no comfort in either side of the pillow and even a distant light plays tricks on your eyes, just then, you question yourself; did I make the right decision?
The next morning, the nagging, gnawing on your walk to work, no playlist able to stop you thinking back to that Saturday night outside Brighton.
It was less hot then than it is now and my head was clear of confused thoughts. To the right hand side of a barn at the bottom of Devil’s Dyke, two-thirds into my second 100 mile race and as quietly as possible, I handed my number to one of the many kindly volunteers I had met that day.
It wasn’t a quick decision, it was something I had wanted to do for hours beforehand. Whether they knew it or not, I’d been stopped from doing so by friends and family all along on the way.
Some miles before the halfway point at Washington I decided I was done. I had ignored the golden rule of distance running and started too fast. I was so set on the goal of a sub-24 hour finish that I completely forgot that the first goal should always be to complete.
Nearly 16 hours earlier I had a started in pretty good shape. My perennial ultra-buddy Andy and I had picked up a taxi companion for the trip from our 70s relic of a hotel next to Winchester Cathedral and done all our pre-game faffing. I’m eternally suspicious of my GI system’s relationship with caffeine so declined a coffee even though it felt like the right thing to do. Instead I joined the queue for the portaloos in a slight panic about the impending start time.
Of course I needn’t have worried. Centurion Running know what they are doing and I was in plenty of time to listen to the briefing and muck around with my GoPro.
After applause for grand slammers, volunteers and the like, we set off round the football pitch to start the South Downs Way barely 20 yards from where we had originally begun.
This was the first ultra that I’d started with Andy in which I had “taken the lead”. It worried me slightly but there was always going to be plenty of time to slow down so I kept going at around 11 minutes per mile.
There was a slightly different atmosphere to the North Downs 100. I couldn’t work out whether it was because I was trying to go faster or everyone around me seemed a bit more dialled in but either way, I was very aware that they were quicker and I needed to slow down.
Slowing down is a relative term in ultrarunning. Technically all I needed to do was hit a 14:30 per mile average in order to get in under 24 hours. Slow by any other measurement but when it took into account the amount of hills, there was a reason it was a difficult task.
By this point, Andy had caught up with me so I felt comfortable that I was going at an alright pace. Then I made my biggest mistake of the day.
Coming into the first aid station, I was determined not to waste too much time. This had been one of the reasons it took me 29 hours last time and one of the sure fire ways to save some time. I’d even spent far too much time in Eastleigh looking for zip-lock bags to grab and go like a pro.
Except that my aid station foraging left me with a single quarter of a cheese sandwich and no water. I wasn’t even worried about it because I thought I had enough to keep me going but by the time I made it over the next hill, I was out of water.
By this point, the sun was already high in the sky and the Downs looked incredible. Just stunning. As much as we all loved running, everyone was in awe of the early morning conditions, stopping to take pictures at every corner. Rather than conserve my energy, I flew down the downhills, playing catchup with Andy and pushed on the uphills to keep up my pace.
My favourite part of the entire race was a ludicrous jump attempt for the official photographer which resulted in yelps of pain from two thirds of the following picture!
I don’t know at what point I started to struggle with food and water but it felt like my stomach had shrunk to the size of golf ball, cramping and painful in a slow throbbing way every time I tried to take a sip.
After the North Downs, I knew I had issues with eating. If anyone has met me in a non-running capacity, and given previous weight issues, you’d be forgiven for disbelief.
But it’s true. I’d even given instructions to my crew of Deb, Chris and Toby, to make me eat despite inevitable protestations. Yet somewhere between miles 22 and 40, I just gave up.
My stomach hurt, I was roasting hot and couldn’t drink enough water to keep me cool or hydrated. And that’s when the mind games begin.
If I was better prepared or better motivated, I would’ve fought the voices. Instead, I was tired, my feet hurt from the constant battering of the chalk/flint paths and all I could think of were the hours, and hours, and hours left to go.
I’d resigned myself to missing out on the sub-24 buckle by this point, seeing no way to recover my energy so could I make it before cut-off? The answer at that point was that I couldn’t give a damn about the finishers buckle.
Andy was still doing a brilliant job at pushing me forward, running the downhills and walking up, catching some who had similar stories to mine. Then we got to a really pretty, although flat section along a river and I just wanted to stop. I said I had to walk a bit. I don’t know whether I was actually suffering with sunstroke but I was beginning to convince myself that I was. My arms look like they’re swollen, I felt faint, my stomach felt like a fist of negativity at my very core.
At Amberly, my mum, brother and Chris were waiting with the car. I said to Andy to go on, I didn’t want to slow him down, sat down on the edge of the boot, ready to give up. As he went off, he said “don’t you quit” and I said I wouldn’t.
But then I just put my head down and cried. My eyes just welled up with a realisation that I was done. I felt bad, annoyed at myself, I felt sorry for my family for travelling so far to watch me break down in front of them. I was annoyed that every time Toby turned up to watch me run an ultra I was walking and in bits.
There is nothing quite like the positivity of ultra-volunteers or crew members. They see you at your lowest and try to pick you up again by hook or by crook. Gosia had turned up to pace me but I was in no mood to run. I just wanted to sit down. So for what seemed like an hour I did just that while I was coaxed like a moody teenager out of my strop, finally, grudgingly, strapping up my race vest again and with a well-meaning glower at the friendly Centurion crew, I walked out and turned left to continue.
The change of running buddy and the additional rest had recovered my body and mind more than I was expecting. I ran along some of the flatter parts around the Adur river and blabbered on about why I liked running, why I didn’t running ultras, why was it so hot and everything in between.
The sun was beginning to go down behind us, turning the fields golden as we headed towards the aid station before Devil’s Dyke. I’d come to peace with the fact I was not going to finish and now I was soaking up every last moment of positive from my final miles.
These were the moments I ran for. In the middle of nature’s finest, a timelessness where you don’t have to be anywhere or do anything. You can just enjoy that moment.
Before Botolph’s aid station there was a water trough which I would happily have climbed into but instead just dunked my head. I gave a feeble attempt at a smile to the lady checking runners in and ate some crisps before heading up yet another hill.
It seemed like an everlasting descent but as we trotted along the path, marked by glow sticks in the darkening twilight, I knew I was going to stop.
My feet weren’t too bad, my legs sore but good enough to keep going but I was happy. For the first moment in hours, I was at peace with myself and all the reasons I wasnt going to make it to Eastbourne.
I’d enjoyed a final few hours with a great friend, supported by my family, in the beautiful English countryside at sunset before finishing at a place I have fond memories of as a child.
I slowly unpinned my number from my shorts and handed it over, content.
Even watching the other runners come in and continue through the night, headtorches going, while I waited for a lift didn’t make me regret my decision. Sometimes it’s easy to forget among the challenge that you’re supposed to enjoy it too.
I left the South Downs Way with happy memories and 67 miles in my legs. Maybe I’ll be back but at the moment I just want to remember the good bits and remind myself, it was the right decision.