It's time to embrace the mud and grow my beard. After 8 years of road running and city marathons, I’ve decided to commit to trail and ultra running in 2020 and see how it goes.
Since starting to run competitively in 2012, like most runners I’ve followed the familiar cycle of spring half and full marathons, summer 10k and 5k races, and into autumn marathon training for as long as my body has held up to the miles. It has been one expensive hobby, taking me to big city races across the world, funded largely by student loans! Sorry UCAS.
As an anxious, competitive person, I've increasingly found the pressure and stress of PBs, splits, sessions, and the inevitable comparisons with other runners exhausting. In a sport where success and failure is black and white, I’ve found myself craving grey.
To elaborate further, in December 2018 I ran 2:39 at the Valencia Marathon which came as a huge surprise to me after an injury ravaged 18 months, culminating in ankle surgery in late 2017.
Rather than enjoy the return to form, particularly having been diagnosed with depression and severe anxiety during the darkest period of my crocked status, immediately I set about running faster at the London Marathon and hired a coach (less said about that the better). And then another coach, the amazing Tom Craggs to clean up the mess!
Training became simply a stressful means to achieving my all or nothing target. I began to dread my long runs and intervals, knowing a “bad” session would ruin my week. Excitement was replaced with heightened stress and anxiety.
Unsurprisingly, on the day I faltered under the spotlight and expectation in the latter miles, running 2:42. A fantastic time in the world's most famous race, yet I was crestfallen and my ego wounded. In my eyes it was four months wasted and I had failed.
Before I was even physically able to get down the stairs unaided, I had already frantically signed up to the next marathon I could find, which happened to be in Edinburgh four weeks later. I had to get my sub 2:39. That was all that mattered.
On a damp May morning along the streets of the Scottish capital I made the most of a favourable early tailwind on the way out, then some stubborn determination on the way back to cross the line in 2:36. I had bounced back and exceed my pre-race expectations. Surely I was elated? Time to celebrate? Outwardedly I had a smile on my face, but inside my sole emotion was relief.
This was the point where I felt I had reached the end of the road (pun intended) and it was time to have an extended break from the outcome-focused, quantifiable world of road running.
As someone who has always trained on trails where possible, and dabbled with the odd off-road race (Man v Horse), running my first (and only) ultra in July at Race to the Stones was incredibly exciting and I looked forward to it more than I have for any other race in several years.
What happened on the day was well-documented at the time, and two months on, not a week goes by without someone making a joke about my navigational skills! Not sure I’ll ever live that one down…
You could say my one ultra experience so far was both a huge success and total utter disaster. Crossing the line first at Race to the Stones showed me I’m physically capable of running for 100km without dying, and being competitive, but the subsequent disqualification for going off-course showed I have, errr, work to do!
But either way, I had well and truly caught the ultra bug, seduced by the pressure-free environment, the glorious scenery, the camaraderie, the physical challenge and a step into the unknown.
After some soul-searching with my coach Tom, we decided that between now and April 2020, I would fully embrace everything trail and ultra running related.
I’m an impulsive, all-in type of person, so I’ve bought my extortionately expensive backpack, finally invested in a waterproof jacket, updated my trail shoes, stocked up on trucker hats, and listened to just about every ultra running podcast on the internet.
Ironically, since turning my focus to the longer off-road events and taking a step-back from the more intense training, my performances in the road events I had already committed to have reached new levels!
In the past week alone I ran a new 5k PB of 15:41, and followed it up three days later with a new personal best of 1:11:05 in the half marathon. Those PBs were seven and five years old respectively!
Now rather than regretting a hasty, premature decision, to me this further demonstrates I’ve already made the right decision.
I have always ran my best races when free from the pressure of outcome goals, pre-race stress, and expectation, either at low-key races abroad out of the spotlight, or off-road events like Man v Horse and Race to the Stones.
Added to that my sometimes fragile body and often overactive mind both prefer a four-hour easy long run to 16 x 400m reps or a 5k smash-fest, I’ve never been more sure that ultra trail running is where my future lies. I have two more road races left, the Ealing Half Marathon and then the Frankfurt Marathon, and then I'll be all set for the trails.
There are so many inspirational ultra runners out there like Damian Hall, Jasmin Paris, and Beth Pascall who have all forged successful careers in ultra running at more “mature” ages. At the age of 31, I feel like I still have at least a decade of running ahead of me in which to learn the skills (yes, navigation is on the list!) required and find my feet in unfamiliar surroundings.
My provisional 2020 race plan consists of:
April - Highland Fling, 53 miles (ballot permitting)
May - North Downs Way 50 miles
July - Wendover Woods Night 50k (entry permitting)
August - Stour Valley Path 100k
September - Chiltern Wonderland 50 miles (entry permitting)
October - Autumn 100 miles
The plan is basically to try to run in some really big well-respected single-day races over varying distances and terrains to see what I’m best-suited to and how I can do.
Unlike road running where you can stalk Power of 10 finding out everyone's PBs, with ultras it's hard to work out exactly what it takes to be competitive, especially when there are so many other skills involved like navigation, mastering equipment, nutrition, and technical elements. I might finish 10th or 587th, but there's only one way to find out.
Clearly there's a very realistic possibility I could get lost, fall over, wet myself and spend the rest of my days walking aimlessly around the North Downs or the Scottish Highlands searching for water or energy gels, but I could also do okay. Either way, it’s bloody exciting!
Living in flat west London, I'll be venturing out south and west in order to find company and lumpy places, and each month I'll document my progress. I have no doubt I'll get lost again (lots), but I’m genuinely excited to forget about PBs and daydream about the adventures ahead.
Thanks for reading.