In the 2020 lockdown, MrJ and I became weirdly obsessed with watching ultramarathons and extreme challenges on You Tube…
People like Courtney Dauwalter, an American ultrarunning record holder, became an inspiration. How can you not love that when the distance is long enough, women have a chance of beating the male competitors outright?
And oddly, there was something fascinating about watching people push their physical and mental limits to the absolute maximum, face their demons, and come out the other side with a smile on their faces. Always ready to sign up for the next one. What made this almost spiritual-like experience so addictive? I wanted to find out.
And what was this ‘pain cave’ that everyone talked about – a state in which you are totally consumed by the physical pain you are in at that moment; nothing else existing for you. Ahem, sounds delightful! Could I embrace this inevitable pain cave as top ultrarunners encourage you to do? I wanted to be an inspiration to my kids to show them what grit and determination (or let’s face it, a little bit of craziness…) looks like first-hand? But how mentally and physically tough was I really?
So, when in January, MrJ came up with the concept of a 100km race – completed in 4km loops every hour, starting at the top of the hour, for 25 consecutive hours – I jumped at the chance! Similar to a Backyard Ultra/Last Man Standing race, in which competitors run a set loop (although it’s normally a more challenging 4 mile-loop) every hour until there is only one man or woman remaining, but instead we ‘limited’ our distance to a mere 100km or 62.5miles (the longest distance recorded for a Backyard Ultra is 337.5 miles….).
I think the lap distance – 4km or 2.5miles – lulled me into a false sense of security. I mean how hard could it be – even at a very slow pace, I could run this distance in under 30mins (and walk it in 40mins), leaving me a clear half an hour to recover before the next one. And I’m happy plodding away slowly for super long distances, so I wasn’t worried about my legs. It was the staying up all through the night and into the next morning that worried me. Not one for power napping, I knew I’d get no sleep.
As it was, my worries were completely out of kilter. The lack of sleep did not bother me at all, but the distance was an absolute killer. That and the wet feet from running across fields. There is no worse feeling than peeling wet socks and sodden, squelching shoes back on to blistered feet and heading out into the cold dark for yet another lap…
The First Day
I’m not going to lie; the day didn’t get off to the best of starts. The stress of needing to get a good night’s sleep in preparation for the event meant that no matter how hard I tried, I could not for the life of me get to sleep. I took a sleeping tablet, did a lot of deep breathing, read, got up and paced for a while, but nothing worked. I ended up with maybe four hours of sleep. The perfect preparation for a 25-hour race…
Two other long-distance runners, Will and Ellie (Will an experienced ultrarunner) – friends of a friend – had arrived the night before to stay with us, so we chatted and got to know these lovely people over breakfast. I then distracted myself from the adrenaline coursing through my veins by making sure Bean10 was ready for his full day of cricket, to which a friend of ours was very kindly taking him. Two more friends from the village then arrived and as a team of six, with cheering from the Beans, we set out for the first loop at 10am.
Once I was running, I relaxed. Near the end of the lap, our friends and Bean10 passed us in the car, hooting, and other friends came out of their house to clap and cheer us on. The world felt good. By the third lap, my best friend had arrived with her family, and she joined us for a few laps. It was great to chat to her and distract myself from what faced me.
By the fifth lap, I realised that whilst I could enjoy listening in to the chatter around me, I needed to conserve my energy by talking less. It was still a long way to go. Back home, the families of some of the runners had joined us, enjoying picnics, with the kids happily chasing each other and playing around the garden.
As the day progressed, different friends arrived to join the now five-strong core group of runners. On one lap, the kids joined us, with Bean11 setting a nice, steady pace. After the 6pm loop (I think – it’s all a bit of a blur), Bean10 had arrived home, played some more cricket with his friend and then joined his cousin and us for the next lap. In order to keep up with his 16-year-old cousin (a very good runner), he ran a 22-minute 4km loop – clearly the cricket had just been a warm-up for him!
There was a very positive, upbeat atmosphere throughout the day. The only difficult aspect was nutrition – I made the fatal mistake of drinking some orange-based smoothie drink early on, which caused serious acid-burn. Normally, eating lots is my superpower, but it was becoming increasingly difficult to get anything down between runs. I felt like I was forcing food down to try and replace the huge number of calories I was burning. For the first time in my life, eating was not a pleasant experience.
After the 8pm loop and 44km/27.3miles of running, our friend Jon stopped. He’d only planned to run a few loops as he has a knee injury but ended up doing more than a marathon! Now I ran a marathon back in Jan and I can vouch for the fact that it is a LOT easier to run 26.2 miles straight than to do it in 2.5-mile loops with breaks. The stop-starting aspect makes it so much tougher for some reason.
I found his leaving mentally challenging. Knowing that he was going home to a hot bath and bed was almost too much to bear, given that the remaining four of us had another marathon plus 8 miles still to go! After the 9pm loop, we put the kids to bed. My brother and sister-in-law and their children had kindly agreed to stay and look after the children overnight, and by this point everyone else had gone home. After the 10pm lap, everyone but the four of us were in bed. We were into the night stretch.
Despite the exhaustion, there was something serene and calming about the night section. We had all been dreading it, but once it arrived, it wasn’t as bad as we thought. At some point, Ellie and I made a pact to transition to a power walk with the odd little jog (odd being the operative word here). At the start of the night, we were totally blasé, saying things like, “I’ll be fine if I can walk it, I can walk for hours.” As the hours wore on, we came to regret those words as just the action of putting one step in front of the other became like some sort of torture. The conversation reduced with each lap. But we were together, side by side, even if we said little, the mutual support of having a friend next to me going through the same experience was enough. We were both well and truly in that pain cave and boy did it hurt. At times, I found myself swaying along the path, probably caused by a calorie deficit, and there were a few silent tears shed, but we were doing it, step by agonising step.
The downside of the power walking as opposed to running like the men was that we had a very short break between laps. Parts of the course involved running through muddy fields and tall grass which, given the rain through the night, meant sodden feet by the end of each loop. I HATE running with wet feet, so after each lap, I rotated between my three pairs of running shoes, making use of old pairs where the sole had worn down. Each time, I hobbled up the stairs, positioned my wet shoes on the towel rail, pulled an only slightly less wet pair from the rack and headed down for a quick drink/snack before setting out again. By about 4am I realised I’d developed quite a few new blisters. Pulling on those wet socks and shoes and dragging myself out for another lap was without doubt the hardest part of the race. If I were to do another one, I would make sure to carefully choose a very dry route!!
I’d heard that with longer ultraruns, 100miles plus, competitors can go temporarily blind as their brains shut down any organs not needed to keep you moving forwards. Luckily none of us experienced this phenomenon, but my brain did stop being able to do basic maths, see this video!
The support from so many people, both verbally and through messages, was a huge part of what kept me going. I’m so thankful to each and every one of them. At midnight, three ladies came out of their house and shouted, “We have no idea what you’re doing, but keep going, you’re doing really well!!” It made us all smile and move that little bit faster. At about 5am, an old man laughed and said, “Early morning run or have you been out all night?” The shock on his face when we replied that yes, we had been running all night was priceless!
I knew the Americans would still be awake given the time difference, so I sent an update to my Introverted Mom group friends and received more words of encouragement. Exactly what my heart needed. My best friend even sent a message at 2am telling me to keep going. I grinned and did just that. At 6am the early risers of my friends, send inspiring texts. I couldn’t let them down.
But possibly even more than that I couldn’t let my sponsors down. MrJ and I raised money for Love146, an amazing charity which works to prevent child trafficking and exploitation. If I share the story behind its name, you will understand the importance of their work:
“In 2002, the co-founders of Love146 travelled to Southeast Asia on an exploratory trip to determine how they could serve in the fight against child sex trafficking. In one experience, a couple of our co-founders were taken undercover with investigators to a brothel where they witnessed children being sold for sex.”
“We found ourselves standing shoulder to shoulder with predators in a small room, looking at young girls through a pane of glass. All of the girls wore red dresses with a number pinned to their dress for identification.
They sat, blankly watching cartoons on TV. They were vacant, shells of what a child should be. There was no light in their eyes, no life left. Their light had been taken from them. These children…raped each night… seven, ten, fifteen times every night. They were so young. Thirteen, eleven… it was hard to tell. Sorrow covered their faces with nothingness.
Except one girl. One girl who wouldn’t watch the cartoons. Her number was 146. She was looking beyond the glass. She was staring out at us with a piercing gaze. There was still fight left in her eyes. There was still life left in this girl…
All of these emotions begin to wreck you. Break you. It is agony. It is aching. It is grief. It is sorrow.
The reaction is intuitive, instinctive. It is visceral. It releases a wailing cry inside of you. It elicits gut-level indignation. It is unbearable. I remember wanting to break through the glass. To take her away from that place. To scoop up as many of them as I could into my arms. To take all of them away. I wanted to break through the glass to tell her to keep fighting. To not give up. To tell her that we were coming for her….
Because we went in as part of an ongoing, undercover investigation on this particular brothel, we were unable to immediately respond. Evidence had to be collected in order to bring about a raid — and, eventually, justice — on those running the brothel. It is an immensely difficult problem when an immediate response cannot address an emergency. Some time later, there was a raid on this brothel, but the children we saw, including the girl who wore #146, was no longer there. We do not know what happened to her, but we will never forget her. She changed the course of all of our lives.”
– Rob Morris
President and Co-founder
So far, we’ve raised nearly £2,000 for the charity. I’m so very grateful to everyone who has sponsored us so far, but the more the better for this important cause, so if you’d like to donate to this amazing charity, here is the Just Giving link.
By 5am, buoyed on by a couple of fried eggs covered in a thick layer of salt (weird what food I craved) and the fact it was now fully light, I mentally turned a corner and managed a mix of power walking/slow jogging. Throughout the night, we’d each reached rock bottom at different points, which meant there was always someone upbeat to push you on. In terms of sleep, Will and I got none (there really wasn’t time for me), MrJ managed to record 4mins on his watch, in between one of the laps, and we found Ellie fast asleep on the cold stone floor of our kitchen during another break. She’d been stretching/talking and then just suddenly fell fast asleep. We gave her about 6 minutes before we had to wake her for the next lap… By the time we returned from the 6am run, people were up and about in the house. We’d made it through the night and were onto day two. Only four hours to go and ten miles – a mere walk in the park!
The Second Day
In all honesty, the 7am and 8am loops were a complete blur, but for the 9am run, more friends had turned up again, for which we were extremely appreciative. MrJ had a second wind and, possibly playing to the crowd, ran it quickly in a time of 24 minutes. I, on the other hand, hobbled around the penultimate loop, following my kind brother-in-law, who patiently talked with me and encouraged me on. Afterwards, he said to me, “Yeah, I did notice that whenever I moved to a different side of the path, you followed me exactly.” Yep, I’d literally lost all power of independent thought by this stage and could only follow with my head down…
On the last lap, we were joined by a big group of our friends. Adults and children alike walked that last 4km together, and for the last section of the lap, the four of us who’d done the full course, jogged it home together. 100km, 62.5 miles, over 125,000 steps, through happy times and dark moments, through intense pain and hysterical laughter, we’d pushed on beyond our pain caves to complete our crazy goal. I was so proud of us all.
And all I wanted to do now was to have a soak in a hot bath, followed by a good old sleep! And then eat a lot of food!
For the first few days, I couldn’t even think about running at all – to be honest movement in general was proving tough – but by Thursday I found myself considering my next ultramarathon. Honestly! And MrJ is ready to book himself into a 36-miler in September. This sport is super addictive – quite literally, through the endorphins, serotonin and other ‘feel-good’ chemicals released by the brain. But it’s also not super good for the body to run these types of distances, so I think a bit of balance is required (with my sensible mummy head on here!). So maybe just one crazy shebang a year then!
Thank you so much to everyone who supported us, virtually, in person and through your sponsorship. We definitely couldn’t have done it without you.
And a HUGE thank you to Will and Ellie for taking on this crazy adventure with us – looking forward to running that next one with you!!