Conquering the Jedburgh 3-Peaks Ultramarathon
Our resident blogger and all round helper Paul, talks you through one of the biggest challenges of his life! Read on to hear if he succeeded……
Part 4: The Event
The Jedburgh 3-Peaks Ultramarathon: 38 miles and three big big hills. Did I manage it? I’ll tell you this much, nothing is certain when you’re training for an event as gruelling as this. My body seemed to be trying its best to ensure I didn’t.
If you’ve read my previous blogs, you’ll have heard me whining on about a calf injury and a load of other things and I rated my chances of finishing at 70/30 against. A trip to the physio, more hours of stretching than I care to remember and some pretty gruelling training in the last few weeks set me up to at least start the Ultra, and that, in the grand scheme of things, felt like a massive achievement.
So I duly assembled at the start line, with all the other crazies, early on a crisp, dark, late-October morning, making sure I was well to the back, in order to (miss the YMCA-themed warm-up dance and) ensure I’d be able to set off slowly and not get caught up in a frenzied dash.
And they’re off
The first few miles were easy enough, with many people around me chatting and laughing as we went. I had only ever trained alone, so this was all very new and exciting. As we progressed towards the first checkpoint at Maxton, the sun even made an appearance and I think we all took the time to enjoy the absolutely stunning autumn scenery. Some even stopped to take photos; I wish I had. The Scottish Borders really is a beautiful area, even when you’re pounding through it, with more miles still to run than you have ever run in your life.
Ah well, onwards and – very much – upwards.
At about mile 7, the terrain became rather tricky: a very narrow path of short grass, with long grass on either side through a sea of bumps, holes and gnarly tree roots and, almost inevitably, I hurt something – my knee. It was painful, but I could ignore it and just kept going. At least my calf was holding up strongly. All was well-ish.
The now familiar concrete legs duly arrived: where you lose the last remaining spring in your step and you feel, from then on, like you’re dragging your legs along, rather than them carrying you. It happened a good bit sooner than I’d hoped and expected, but hey-ho.
Meanwhile, the Eildon Hills would slide tantalizingly into view occasionally, before promptly disappearing again, behind trees, hills, etc., and they were a haunting presence – our ultimate destination and the dreadful interlude to our hours of trotting along the many miles of undulating terrain that come before and after them. I must admit, I obsessed quite a bit about our impending ascent of those towering hulks and, worryingly, they didn’t seem to be getting any closer. I simultaneously wished they’d hurry up and arrive and dreaded ever reaching them.
There were people along the way, cheering us all on and adding to the atmosphere. It was all very much appreciated, as were the beaming smiles, professional attitudes and shouts of encouragement emanating from the marshals and volunteers at all the checkpoints. I thank them all.
We all jogged on in good spirits and I was doing just fine, until checkpoint 2 at the Rhymer’s Stone, at 17 miles. With the Eildons finally upon us, I stopped to pick up my food-bag and grab a drink, only to discover, as I set off again, that I couldn’t run – couldn’t even walk. My twisted knee had suddenly and inexplicably transformed itself from a dull ache to an impossible-to-ignore excruciating pain.
The next 200 yards or so were downhill, but it took me almost ten minutes to limp/hop them. I was then directed to the left by friendly marshals and lo-and-behold, we were in the foothills of the Eildons.
By this time, I was also getting weary and, just like everyone around me, walked up the first hill. (I heard from other runners that the elite athletes run up these monsters, but I saw none of that, and, having now done it, wonder if it’s even possible).
My knee pain was not so bad going uphill, thankfully, so we trudged up in a long line for what seemed like hours. At one point, I slipped and staggered backwards, I wasn’t in any proper danger, but was saved from bruising various body parts by a kindly fellow-entrant, who caught my arm and pushed me back up the way. It’s that kind of event – we were one big Ultra family and it was wonderful to be a part of it.
We did, however still have our own personal battles to fight and we got our heads down and inched on. What a relief to reach the top. Amazing views and a lovely big descent to enjoy.
I discovered at that point that my twisted knee had not, in fact, fixed itself, but was lying in wait and was at its horrific worst when descending. I made my way downhill at a snail’s pace and dozens of runners passed me (I had no idea there were that many behind me), until there was no one left in sight at my back and I became convinced that I was dead-last.
And I still had two more Eildons to conquer.
So on I went – the uphills were hard because, well, uphills are hard, but the downhills were much worse. By this time, I had figured out the pattern and was looking forward to getting back onto the flat, in the hope that it would sort itself out.
I must say that there wasn’t a single runner who passed me as I limped along, who didn’t ask me, with genuine concern, if I was okay. This event is really something special.
But I wasn’t, not really, even when it did flatten out. Quite a few very loud swearies escaped me (apologies to all those within earshot) and I was almost in tears of disappointment by the time I reached a road, where an ambulance and two friendly medical volunteers were standing. They offered me a lift to the next checkpoint, but that would have been the end of my Ultra and I still wasn’t prepared to give up. My prospects of finishing were bleak and getting bleaker, but I had worked so hard to get to this point, so I politely declined.
How low can you go?
I was at my lowest ebb as I winced and cursed my way through the next wooded section and had decided, with profound regret, that there was nothing else for it but to give up. I was travelling so slowly that, realistically, it would be well after midnight before I finished. I was fervently wishing that I had brought some painkillers with me; just something – anything – to dull the pain enough to get running again.
I don’t believe in miracles and I’m not in any sense religious, but what happened next was either the most amazing coincidence of all time, or a higher being was looking out for me.
As I reached the end of the woods, a lady in a red coat was standing in the field beyond and she asked me if I’d like a couple of paracetamols. In my confusion and gratitude, I blurted out something along the lines of ‘thanks, thanks so much, thanks a million’.
I knew this was wrong. Not the consumption of the pills – that’s okay, according to the race rules, but it’s supposed to be an unsupported run and I had broken the rules by taking them from someone else, even if it was a red-coated angel from heaven. I never take painkillers, ever, so it had never occurred to me to bring some and at that moment, my choice was stark – take the pills and carry on, or give up.
The paracetamol were starting to kick in when I reached the next checkpoint, and I was back running again, so on I went. I even managed a smile as I was funnelled over the children’s climbing equipment and down a slide in the playpark. I love everything about this event (although I believe my exact words at the time were ‘why do they hate us?’).
The remainder of the day was hard – very hard – but just in your bog-standard Ultra-running way. I ran most of the remaining 16 miles, interspersed with walking rests that got longer and longer and my legs felt like they weighed about a ton each. Starting to run again after a break became more and more difficult until towards the end, it felt nigh-on impossible – launching myself forward and hoping, quite genuinely, that I wouldn’t just fall flat on my face.
It was only when I was crossing the newly-rebuilt bridge around 2 miles from the finish that I first started to entertain the thought that I might actually finish. Those last two miles should have been a celebration, a victory parade, but they seemed to last forever and I was physically and mentally exhausted. I think I was in a bit of a trance and I’d gotten so wrapped up in the mindset of just keeping going and banishing all thoughts about finishing, that it was difficult to envisage not doing this any more.
The finish line was a fabulous sight however. I had rehearsed my victory dance in my head, but the small, cheering crowd was mercifully denied that particular piece of choreography. I tried, I really did, but more-or-less just staggered across the line – I think I did manage to raise my arms though.
9 hours and 6 minutes of intense pain and extreme discomfort for this? Totally worth it.
The remaining volunteers and supporters must have been tired, cold and bored, but you would never know it and they mustered so much noise and enthusiasm, that I felt like I was first to finish, rather than almost last. Amazing people.
And that was that
…. apart from being crippled and very tired for days afterwards. The next day, I felt like I was walking on stilts, as my knees wouldn’t bend. Ordinary tasks, such as crossing a road were suddenly hazardous and I was grateful for the kindness and patience of oncoming motorists as I hobbled my way across, waving my embarrassed apologies and thanks.
And my face was doing weird things – smiling at inopportune moments and gazing wistfully at the Eildons.
I’m really quite hard on myself though: the driven, motivating part of my psyche that drove me on to success, also berated me for not finishing faster, for walking as much as I did, for not just running through the pain when I hurt my knee, for letting other injuries interrupt my training etc etc etc. When I stop and think about it however, I’m immensely proud of what I achieved. It was much harder than I thought it would be and I finished it anyway. I finished a 38 mile Ultramarathon!
And when I think back on it, it’s something of a wonder. When I entered, I’d done very little exercise for over 10 years and there were only 6 months left for training, then I got an injury, which cut my training to about 3 months, not to mention a multitude of non-running events and mishaps, like trips, slips and stubbed toes, any of which could have ended my dream (I kept thinking about Olympian Steve Ovett, whose career was ended when he hit his knee on a fence while walking along the road) so it’s something of a miracle that I made it to the start.
I started this to get myself off my backside and get out there, to overcome a massive challenge, to defeat my sedentary lifestyle and get fit. Success on all counts for sure and I’m an Ultra-runner now! (okay I walked about a quarter of it but give me a break?).
I knew it’d be hard, but I had no idea just how hard. The training was – well – character-building. It was great fun at first, and overall I enjoyed it, but as the distances increased, it naturally got more difficult. I was pushing my body to its limits, week after week and I also struggled to find the time and the motivation towards the end. The little devil on my shoulder, trying every dirty trick in the book to get me to give up came close to victory on a few occasions.
I have, however rediscovered the joys of running and cycling and I’m really looking forward to getting back out there in spring.
And I only had to get rescued once during all that training. The sight of my wife coming along the road in our van on a mission of mercy after my legs gave out about 5 miles from home, leaving me stranded on a freezing, wet country road will stay with me forever.
Will I be doing it next year? Nope, non, nada, nein, no blinking way. My wife is under strict instructions to whack me with something big and jaggy if I go anywhere near the Ultra application page (although I will be marshalling; I’d hate to play no part in something so amazing).
Incredibly glad I did it though.
And did I mention that I’m now an Ultra-runner?
If the organisers ever read this, I hope they can see fit to turn a blind eye to my minor indiscretion. Please please please don’t take my beautiful, shiny medal away. I absolutely earned it.