Dear Runner (and anyone who runs, even a tiny weeny bit, but daren’t call themselves runners),
How do you describe the pleasure running brings? Were you like me and struggled to articulate the joy running provides within your life beyond the simple four words “Because I like it”?
Having really thought about it, I am getting better at describing that sense of fulfilment as body and mind combine dedicated to the pursuit of one challenge, the flow of blood through my body, dialling into a seemingly inner primal rhythm and sheer escape from reality.
I find the call of the great outdoors and connection to nature is also deeply embedded; whether it’s my local haunt on the Westbury ridgeline where Saturday night inevitably involves hill reps; scaling Pen Y Fan in the swirling mist as horizontal rain whips around my legs moments before stumbling across a stag party complete in fancy dress with pirates, cavemen and a man size bottle of beer; or clambering up Snowdon against hordes of Chinese tourists on their dusky descent amid supposedly helpful cries of “You’re going the wrong way”.
I remember a question my mother posed in passing at a recent family gathering:
“Once you’ve got the UTMB out of your system will you hang up your trainers as you’re not getting any younger?”
My world paused. The world paused.
Everything slowed down as I grappled to comprehend her words. It simply didn’t make sense. What would possibly prompt me to give up on the one activity which makes me feel most alive?
To stop running would leave a gapping void in my life. I concede these intensely deep-rooted feelings and emotions lurk deep within and the border between passion and obsession is miniscule.
My descent into the world of ultra-running has been a long slippery slope as opposed to an overnight transformation. I initially dipped my toes into the long-game over thirteen years ago with the traditional rite of passage by finishing the London Marathon. On Friday 1st September 2017 at 1800 I will pass over the start line of the Ultra Trail de Mont Blanc.
Several races compete for the prestigious title of the “world’s toughest footrace” yet with 170km and over 10,000m ascent (realistically it’s the descent which destroys your legs) traversing around the highest mountain in Western Europe - Mont Blanc, and passing through France, Italy and Switzerland, all in less than 46.5 hours (without stopping – well maybe briefly for a cup of tea and avocado) – it earns its fearsome reputation.
“It’s the journey not the destination” Ralph Emerson.
Simply standing on the start line represents a massive personal achievement for a self-certified PE lesson truant who avoided all forms of collective school sports torture and tactfully planned piano lessons to miss athletics, netball and volleyball. Fast forward to 2008, where I scraped through every cut off time possible during the CCC (one of the UTMB race series covering 98km with 6,500m ascent) and gazed in wonder at the seemingly untouchable “real” athletes who tackled the full beast of the UTMB. Nine years later I’ll stand shoulder to shoulder with these “real” athletes; imposter syndrome banished through hours and hours of deliberate physical and mental training and racing amassed over the intermittent years.
I know it’ll be an emotional moment as Vangelis’ “Conquest of Paradise” echoes across the Place du Triangle de l’Amitie and I’m swept along in the surge of over 2,300 runners under the archway into Place Balmat. There’ll undoubtedly be an inner turmoil of anticipation, fear, excitement and nerves all rolled into one….
I won’t lie; with only days to push it’s like staring a wild animal in the face. You know it’s going to hurt yet there’s an alluring beauty willing you on and daring you to take a chance.
Next Friday or Saturday night spare a thought and message of support through the airwaves to any of the competitors who have travelled from across the globe to pay homage to one of the most legendary ultra-endurance events in the world.
Good luck to all my fellow ultra-runners of the PTL, UTMB, CCC, TDS, OCC (different races, but all part of the UTMB series) whether you’re at the sharp pointy end duelling with Kilian Jornet or taking a more leisurely approach, stopping to admire the scenery with a little picnic or two along the way.
Adieu & see you in the mountains.
Photo 1: Checking out the UTMB route in August 2016 when I unfortunately didn't secure a place.
Photo 2: Saturday night hill reps heading up & down Westbury ridgeline
Photo 3: The view from Pen Y Fan after several hill reps
Photo 4: Training in the Italian Alps during the Gran Trail Courmayeur ultra race in July 2017