On paper, it hasn’t been my year. I know writing this that the problems and challenges I have faced are insignificant compared to the suffering of many, and that I write this from a position of privilege. It still doesn’t make the year any feel any better, and whilst perspective is important, two ultra starts, 2 DNFs, and the inability to travel for majority of the year, feels like a real kick in the teeth. Rio Del Lago was due to be my redemption and an opportunity to put the year to bed and salvage what ended up being a total mess. Whilst that is the overall feeling, I have had a great year in many regards and for those people and experiences that have filled me with joy, thank you. Regarding things (however arbitrary) I place importance on, I’ve been challenged and tested far more this year, which in the big picture is great, but tough to swallow during the moment(s).
I received my passport back at the end of September, after an excruciating six months dealing with the UK Home office, as I applied for my indefinite leave to remain (a necessary evil as my 5 Year Ancestry visa expired in April). I was unable to travel, and missed a lot of planned events, including my own races in Europe and the US, and opportunities to help friends at big events like Western States. In return, my incredibly patient and understanding Coach got me racing a bunch of short road races. A 10 miler (6th place), an hour timed race, a 10km (12th in my first 10km), three local 5kms (win, third, win & all PRs) and even a last minute track mile as part of the European Championship Night of the 10000m PBs in the Strava Invitational Mile. I raced distances I’d never raced before and against talented club runners who specialise in the shorter stuff. I learnt a lot about racing hard, nuances with tactics, and pacing at higher speeds. I got a ton faster, pretty much PRing every time, and overall, my training got a massive boost. I was still training for ultras, but jumping into races with no tapers during solid training weeks, just developed my range. Plus, I realised it is kinda fun to race a 5km and be eating brunch within the hour. I was targeting an end of year 100 mile race, so that was originally the Bear 100, but on return of my passport, became Rio Del Lago. I’d had a great base and had been putting in big workouts, but not knowing a specific race date, we had a month to ramp up for Rio once I was travel legal. I hit some of my best workouts, and was feeling fantastic.
I flew to New York just so grateful to be travelling again. I spent a weekend running around New York, with my dear friend Giuls who is not only one of my closest friends, she also crewed me at Western States in 2017. We had a blast catching up, and whilst preparing for dinner on the Saturday, my shin was suddenly really sore. On getting home from grocery shopping, my right shin had swollen up and was wrenched tight on the Tib Anterior. This was a good six hours after my last run, of which I’d felt fine. Odd and concerning. I flew to Phoenix and arrived in Flagstaff on Monday, just shy of 2 weeks out from Rio Del Lago. My shin wasn’t great, and whilst slightly less painful, it ached and was double the size of my left leg. I was so thankful to be staying with my coach Alicia and her husband Chris, both of whom I adore as friends, mentors and people I look up to in the sport and in life. We rested it all week (note that fall in Flagstaff is some of the most beautiful, so not running was brutal), and I was lucky to have little Skylar and Cody the Pug to entertain me as I rested and enjoyed the mountain air. Spending time with Chris and Alicia was great and as always, I learnt more about running and life. A week later, I opted out of pacing Jes at Javelina Jundred, supporting in other capacities as she went to crush her 100 miler PR and another hundred mile finish. I was dying to run, and whilst the leg felt a ton better, it still was puffy and swollen, ached a little and gave me concern as to whether starting at Rio would take place. Aggressive icing, elevation, and popping ibuprofen like candy (not ideal) improved it greatly, and by the time I arrived in California on the Wednesday, I was more optimistic. I was treated to a tour of the Gu Factory in Berkley, by the wonderful Celia, a great friend and one of my favourite people in the sport. Gu looked after me product wise, and I enjoyed meeting various people and chatting nutrition and the sport of ultra running with those I met.
The Thursday before the race, I drove up to Foresthill, the famous mile 60 point of the Western States course, and a place that is incredibly special to me. A short test run went well, and it was settled. I start the race on Saturday. Saturday came and as I started running, my shin felt fine. I kept the pace moderate for the first 18 miles, running with people at a pace I considered slower than what I’d have liked, intentionally not passing people as traditionally I would. I arrived at the first crew point a good 45 mins earlier than planned, which meant my crew of Elke would not be there. Taking away some lessons from Tarawera, I grabbed a bunch of fuel, and cracked on. She didn’t make it to the next aid point, so I stopped briefly to borrow a volunteers phone, and message both Elke and her daughter via Instagram (Chloe, who kindly arranged for her mum to crew me) to tell them I was ahead of schedule and to meet me at mile 34. I cracked on, and my shin was still fine. My quads were usually sore, which did concern me. Two weeks of zero running before a big hundred is not ideal, and the body was seemingly not to happy. I was moving well despite that, and aside from a big fall which took a chunk out of me knee, I was having a blast. I kept moving. I ran with people again, using that as a way to work together and keep a moderated pace. I didn’t know at the time, but I was in the top 40 and moving up slowly. I’d no intention to push the pace early, so didn’t really care where I sat. At mile 44, I took a few minutes as Overlook aid station would send me off on a 30 mile section, with no crew access and the toughest individual section of the course. It was hot, and my quads were hurting, but I left with a smile, just grateful to be sharing miles and generally having a blast. I hit No Hands Bridge and then went out on the exposed and tough ‘Cool’ section. My legs started to really fade then, and felt broken down. A new experience for me, and whilst nothing major was painful, my quads were fast becoming mashed potatoes. I kept moving, passing some people in seriously bad shape. The heat and exposure wiped out peoples water, and that section would cause many a DNF. Including mine. By mile 55, I was only able to power hike. I was hiking like a champ, but I couldnt’ run. My gait was gone, and I was favouring my left severely. I death marched into Auburn Lake Trails, disappointed that I was feeling physically broken, but mentally strong. The last few miles were a battle of my mind, as the inevitable idea of a DNF was just so crushing. I don’t DNF. Tarawera was a one off. After everything, how can my legs just run out of steam. They have NEVER failed me before. What will I say to all the people that have supported me. There were some dark conversations in my head. I sat in a chair for a long time, whilst my buddy Mike Tooker said he wouldn’t let me quit. Mentally and emotionally I was with him. I just couldn’t run. Whatever the combination of shin injury, no running, no racing most of the year, had left me 40 miles short of a finish. I was running around 18 hour pace, a stout goal time of mine and til 55, had felt pretty confident. The course humbled me, and the 100 mile distance got one back, leaving me two starts, one finish. A year ago when I rolled into ALT at Western States, I had dropped my pacer and was rolling. This time, I death marched in, and waited for over four hours to get a lift out. Not only was Elke a diamond crewing, she was probably one of the only people who could find and access this aid station, as it was remote and blocked off to crew (and only by being a local and well known in the running community was she allowed to come in uncontested).
I don’t know whether running in old Nikes I should have ditched 200 miles ago inflamed my shin. Whether running hard on cement on the concrete streets of NYC with tired shoes, flared up my shin causing tendinitis. Did the two weeks of zero running soften my body to the point that a 100 mile effort was to much to ask. Did six months of close to zero trail and mountain running take the edge off. Was it all a combination of factors that led me to failure, or was it something else or nothing at all. I am haunted by my second DNF. Not devastated, as I was clear that finishing for the sake of it and at my bodies expense was just stupid. There is merit in a finish, I absolutely believe that. There is also merit in preservation, longevity and being ale to fight again. I’ve said many times before that quitting becomes a habit. I sit at two for two this year. I had challenges I never expected, and you can be sure as heck that I learned a ton. I’ve thought about this close to every second of every day, and what I keep coming back to is that I am far from done. I got humbled by the distance. I was given opportunities to grow and to be a better runner and person. I am hungrier than ever to return to racing and performing at levels I know I am capable of. I know the statistics from my training and I know both my coach and I are barely touching my potential as an ultra runner. Ultra running takes time, and riding that line of failure especially at the 100 mile distance, is a very fine line. I know many of the greatest runners and people have failed multiple times, on their way to success. It still stings, because our own failures are that, ours. They carry more weight, and they drown out our successes if we let them. I know I am far from done, far from capacity, and far hungrier than I was two weeks ago. I chose to fail forward, and identify this as a necessary step on my journey to greatness, however my greatness looks. Above all, I know that I had a blast for 50 miles, and even sitting in the medical tent at ALT waiting to get a ride out, I was smiling and cheering other runners. I got up the next day eager to go watch the finish, and cheer on the Golden Hour runners. I saw my friend and Western States crew/pacer Esther finish, surrounded by her family. My highlight of the weekend, as it was her first hundred mile finish. I am smiling in all my photos from the race, and really did enjoy running 55 of those 60 miles. If this year has taught me anything, it is that whilst our personal pursuits do matter, they matter far less than the people we meet, the impact we have and how we engage with the world. This trip has shown me how kind, strong, powerful, inspiring and beautiful so many people are. From seeing Jes and Charli run with strength and spirit at Javelina, to Esther’s debut 100 finish, to the kindness and wisdom of ‘Grandpa’ in Tempe and so much more. This is why I run, and this is why I’ll be back every single time.
Thank You, to the following people.
Alicia: You’re patience and understanding this year has been remarkable, and I’d be a totally different person without you as my friend ,mentor and of course, coach. Thank you (and Chris and Skylar) for being gracious and kind hosts in Flag, and for everything that you have done.
Bob and Marcy: Bob, your wisdom, spirit, and love for the sport (and life) is unreal, and I learn so much from hearing you talk about your experiences and perspectives. I thank both Marcy and yourself for being absolutely first class hosts in California, and for everything you did for both Donna and I as your guests. You are a fine example of why I love this sport, and I do hope I can repay you in kind at TDG 2019.
Elke (and Chloe): Chloe, your mum is incredible so thank you for encouraging her to crew me. Elke, you are one of the most beautiful humans I’ve met, and I can’t thank you enough for everything you did for me. You have given so much to this sport, particularly at Western States and in the N Cal community. It was an honour and a privilege to spend time with you, and I am forever better having met you. I look forward to seeing you again soon.
Celia and Gu: Celia, what can I say. You’re a bundle of joy and I love hanging out with you. Thanks for putting me up, the Gu tour, and taking me Trick or Treating in the Gu Factory. Result aside, this was by far the best I’ve fulled at a race. See you in Cinque Terre friend.
Tara (and Altra): Tara, you are so kind and generous, and I appreciate you getting me a pair of Altra’s to race in. Altra is lucky to have you, and I hope to see you in Logan soon.
Giuls: For being one of my closest friends, and for the amazing time in NYC (and the free accommodation). Always supportive, and I look forward to running with you again soon.
Becs aka Balanced Osteo: Thanks for keeping me in shape year round, the online panic consult from Arizona, and for only rolling your eyes and showing partial disdain when I come in beat up and imbalanced. And for getting me a edible present when I didn’t earn it.
To OHL UK: For allowing me to have extended time off and work remotely whilst I pursue my goals of being a competitive ultra runner. Little things like this make a big difference. Thank you for understanding.
To all those people who have shown support, love and faith in me particularly this year, in what has been in many ways, a shit show. To those certain individuals (who know who they are) who have given me light and hope during the challenges, I am grateful for your presence in my life. I appreciate all those that have sent me a message, or reached out in any way. Thank you, and watch out 2019.
Shoes: Altra Lone Peak 4.0
Socks: Drymax Irunfar (no blisters, no feet issues at all between the socks and shoes)
Shorts/Singlet: Patagonia (first time running in shorts with decent pockets).
Nutrition: Gu Roctane Drink (Summit Tea), Gu Chews, Gu Gels and Peets Iced coffee
Hydration: Ultimate Direction Jurek hand held bottles
Headlamp: Petzl Reactiv