I've been putting off writing this one, as its probably the most humungous challenge I've done to date, so the full range of emotions getting past it have been a bit overwhelming.
This was the inaugural Race to the Towers event along the Cotswolds Way and similar to the Race to the Stones and Kings, I knew it was going to be tough. However, I am no geographer and had no concept of how the looped contours of the map would translate into actual hills. My reason for doing this run was more of a training exercise than a desire to hit it hard, and after 6 weeks recovering from an achilles injury, I hadn't been able to run for a while.
So unsure of how hard it would be, I was honestly planning to drive to the finish line after work on Friday night, get to a B&B then wake up at 5am, to get the shuttle bus to the start, race for two days, then drive home to London straight after. I have vastly underestimated how pooped out I am going to be at this stage.
Thank f**k my dad called me in the week and suggested I could stay with him on Friday night, get a lift to the start, then be picked up and dropped to the train station to get home again. Luckily my family understand that when I am determined to do something, possibly when my head is missing some common sense, that I may need to be reminded that its okay to have help. Thankfully they have learnt how to suggest this to me, in a way that I usually accept - ever so gratefully.
So.. Saturday morning we arrive at the start line, I'm in the 2nd wave so the really fast and keen folks shoot off just before us. I have understood at this point that I have two marathons to complete in 2 days, I'm on my own and I packed my bag really well, so even if it tips it down, I will be okay. But today the sky is clear, too early to be blue yet, but there's already a good vibe on the field.
We set off and I have already decided on a jog / run / walk method of getting around this. Vicky has given me a few tips and I had asked other ultra runners in Run Dem Crew over the week, for any tips on what to take, how to handle it. I have the all clear on my heel, so had a hug from Dad and headed off into the distance. We have 170 gates / stiles to clear over the course and 53 miles.
There's 3 pit stops before basecamp (the half way point) and my heel feels great for the first few miles, so I did a mix of run / jog for the first half marathon. I had a catch up with a nutritionist at a meeting with the Tribe team recently who recommended keeping your salt levels up and keeping hydrated for endurance events, so I have already begun to take on flat cola, peanuts and jelly babies at the first two stops.
I am also fully aware that I am going to be on my feet for hours and that to keep safe I need to keep my phone alive, so for the first time on a running event, I am free of headphones.. mindfully moving.
And the view and sounds are stunning, from the get go.. The hills are very much alive, throbbing with the sound of the birds, radiating the heat of the sun which is starting to pound on my head.
I am feeling more alive and stronger than I have for months and totally okay with all that is happening around me, until I arrive in pit stop 2 and realise that I can do what other people are doing and sit down for 5 and grab a cuppa.. this is new territory for me! I don't have to razz off at full steam I can just enjoy it.
My heel has started to twinge but otherwise I feel great. I'm doing this event over 2 days, with a night in basecamp and I am fully shocked at the steepness of the hills, but I am in my happy place. Wrapped up in the greenery, the hills, the tunnels of trees, the woods, the fields, everything just feels so good.. so I set off again and I run away from the gate as the pain shoots up my heel and around my calf.
I pushed on for a mile or so and then came to one side, beyond the pit stop for the 100mile run which was passing us on the track, heading in the opposite direction. Those guys are on another level crazy vibe, but never say never eh? Anyway - I am rooting through my Brave Soldier first aid kit and dig out some ibuprofen and it occurs to me that I have two choices. I can either continue trying to run and most likely not complete the event, wind up with an irreparable injury or be unable to complete the bike rides I have next month. Or I can lose the ego and walk it, like the 100's of other walkers doing the route too.
In fairness it was so damn hilly that there was very little flat sections I could jog / run anyway, so the amount of energy I was losing trying to stick to my run/walk plan was not helping anyone. So far I had met and talked to a few folks at gates, holding them open for people a few feet behind me and not rushing off like an asshole slamming the gate in my wake.. Yeah - I saw a few folks doing that shit - not cool and it didn't make their journeys any easier.
Then a friendly face spotted me wincing as I left another gate and asked me if I was okay. Amanda was running on team Vodaphone, was possibly around the same age as me and was moving at around the same pace. She'd done Race to the Kings last year, in one day and was keeping to her plan of taking it easy on herself this time around, just doing the first day as the route was fairly local for her.
We spent the next 4 hours walking, talking, helping each other through gates and to keep being cheerful. I got my ankles rock taped up at the 3rd pit stop and the pain just went.. completely cured. I don't know whether it was just the rock tape, or the big dose of positivity that got me through that first day, but meeting Amanda and having some good conversation on life, parenting, running / walking and the occasional joggy bits made it so much nicer.
We eventually reached basecamp after a 9 hour trek and I have never felt so painful, pooped out and utterly broken. Paris had been tough and obviously a lot hotter, faster and mentally I was in a weird place, but this time I just hurt, but felt happy, full up on the fresh air and with a single goal - go to bed. I grabbed my bag and my tent, rolled out my sleeping bag and got a shower. I booked in for my 10 minute massage and went to get some hot food while I waited to be seen.
I've never been so well looked after at an event before. The marshals, the organisation, everything was spot on at all points on my journey. I had looked at this event earlier in the year and didn't really understand why they were so expensive. As a Mind runner, I had already secured over £700 this year for the charity, so had been lucky to get a charity place, but I would definitely recommend this event next year. Everything was covered and everyone was really helpful.
My 10 minute massage was the most excruciating pummelling my calves have ever known and the guy who helped me, put fresh rock tape on both legs, ready for the next day. I don't know what magic he performed but despite being really frickin painful, it got rid of all the lactic acid and I was ready to hit my bed, after a can of IPA. The benefit of having a beer company sponsoring your running event - a can of alcohol free lager when you arrived at the middle of your run and a bar for your pre bedtime pint - I was impressed, but 100% ready to crash out and knew more than a pint would be bad.
Paranoid about snoring all night, I tried desperately to sleep on my side and probably got about 3 - 4 hours broken sleep, which is about normal for me. I woke up and decided that I wouldn't stand up until I absolutely had to, so I dressed and packed while sat down in my tent and managed to get up and out in one move. Weirdly the legs felt okay, so the game was back on and I headed to the main tent for breakfast and to catch up on a couple of messages before the 6.30am start of day 2.
I know when people do events, you can sometimes assume that they'll be too busy getting ready / while running to answer your text, or reply to your email, but honestly every single one makes a huge difference when I'm out there on my own. It's a good boost and reminds me that I'm okay, people care what you're doing and have faith that you will get through it. It's a massive help.
So I headed out on day 2 and there was no attempt to run at all in the beginning - I was only going to get to the end if I just kept up a good walking pace and stuck to my plan of completion. The route got wilder, hillier and weirder as the day went on, but walking through fields of cattle, ponies, tunnels of trees and beautiful blue sunny skies was fantastic.
There were a few couples around the same pace as me and we had our faster bits, slower bits, passed each other regularly but I was mostly on my own for the 2nd day and really cool with that. I set down at the 6th pitstop and spoke to Pop and phoned a good friend before heading off again. I needed a slice of normality and the sound of a friendly smile to keep me going. Vicky and Caz kept messaging me through the afternoon too. They'd both done Race to the Stones last year and obviously understood where my head would be at by early afternoon - somewhere between 'blissfully ok with being in good surroundings' and 'oh my days when the f*ck is this going to end'.
A couple of weird things happened too.. which spun me out a bit. My dad lives about an hour or so from the finish line and I was due to give him a call when I reached the final pitstop, so I needed to keep in touch. Around an hour before this I came to a small hamlet which had an MG car club owners meeting going on. As my dad used to race MG's and Sprites I took a wander into the field and took a couple of photos for him, before carrying on. Shortly after this, I found myself going over a long ridge and started to feel stronger and the route levelled off a bit, so I had a little jog to help change the muscles being used for a while.. Going up the hills wasn't too bad, but my thighs and ankles were getting destroyed on the descents each time, so I needed to do something a little different
After the last pit stop the route levelled out a bit more and there were a few kilometres on what I assume is an old flood plain. The further I travelled on day 2 the more I wondered how the folks that carried on through the night had coped with it all. There were loads of really skinny passes and tiny public footpaths to get through and it must have been a nightmare to do this in the dark. I really think that the speed which you would travel at night would be loads less fun that doing this in the light too, as the main benefit of doing this over 2 days is being able to actually see and enjoy the countryside.
I came to a point when I had been hearing a steam train all afternoon, but I'd not seen where it had come from. I now knew as I was faced with a crossing - over the railway tracks. This totally span me out for a couple of reasons.. My anxiety is screaming at me, about how dangerous this is, was I meant to go across or was this one of the sections which the guys had warned me about, where navigation arrows has been moved.
I really struggle with depression and bad thoughts on a regular basis, so being this close to a train track made me really uncomfortable. Once I persuaded myself it was okay to cross, I got over it and ran along the next 2 fields and out into the road. Out of nowhere, my Dad suddenly appears.. A big smile and a hug made everything okay again and helped me complete the last 6 miles. It felt like I had crossed the tracks and made some decisions and the outcome was reuniting with my family and feeling whole again - settled.
A lot of the final section was flat until we reached Broadway and I could see the tower in the distance. It's one hell of a hill at the top there but there was only one way to the finish so I shuffled up the hill and made it to the end of the route, super pleased to see Dad and Kathy waiting for me with dusty eyes and a quick getaway car, so I could sit the f**k down for a little while.
Its a tough course but I would definitely recommend it for anyone who fancies the challenge and needs an escape from the city for a while.. I may be back next year xx