This is an incredibly hard post to write although it's not because I failed; it's because I feel quite numb and somehow my brain won't let me remember. It's not quite the write-up I want, but it's the best I can do for now.
I've documented my training over the last 11 months and I think I've made it clear how hard it has been at times. It has felt like having a second job: the constant focus on sticking to my plan, all the early morning sessions, the evenings doing a second training session, the focus on nutrition and recovery, the planning and preparation... It took over my life. It had to take over if I was ever to be worthy of standing on the starting line.
But finally, at silly o'clock on Saturday 26th November, I was at Mickleham village hall, sick with nerves and my stomach tied into knots. Registration was quick and efficient, with all my mandatory kit checked. Then it was just waiting around until 8am. It was lovely to see some friends again including Eros and his guide Sarah, who I met for the first time at Two Towers; and Andy from Ultra Magazine who I've not seen for a few years. I already can't remember who else I talked to- I was so nervous!
We had the pre-race briefing, went outside and apparently there was a countdown to the race start but somehow I didn't hear it. And then everyone was off.
It was a beautiful day for a race; mild for November, and sunny at times. I felt calm, and a quiet confidence that I had it in me to finish. My goals (other than finishing) were to keep on top of nutrition and hydration- getting that right at least for the first half of the race would stand me in good stead for later miles- and to keep my head in the right place, accepting whatever happened but not dwelling on it.
My right leg felt a little tight on the first loop but I assumed it was just because I'd thoroughly tapered leading up to the race so it was just a little protest about running again; it would ease off after a while and was nothing to worry about. I ate everything I planned to and drank all my energy drink, as I proudly announced to Mike when I saw him manning the road-crossing at the foot of Satan's Staircase. Up those steps for the first time taking care to pace myself, a smile and wave to Lenny who was race photographer, and then safely down Goodnight Sweetheart into the main CP. End of loop 1.
A quick turnaround to dump rubbish, grab the next food bag and refill my bottle, then out onto Loop 2. From here onwards I have very few clear memories, just the odd moment, and even then I mostly can't say which point in the race I was at. The weather remained good during the day, there were lovely views from the Box Hill trig point. I remember seeing Lenny there too, and explained to him that I couldn't touch the trig point until my last loop (I always have to run to the trig and give it a hug or a pat, but there really wasn't time to do that every loop).
By this point something was wrong. I had a blind panic when I picked up my nutrition bag for the loop because there was no Mountain Fuel drink powder in it. How was that possible? I had meticulously packed and checked each bag. It wasn't until later I realised I simply hadn't recognised the packaging-most of the powder had been measured into clear plastic bags but there were a few Veloforte energy drinks thrown in for variety. Not a good sign if my brain was uncooperative already. In addition to this, the niggle in my hip flexor hadn't settled. It had got worse. I was scared now, it brought back memories of my horrendous time on Autumn 100 in 2019 (read about that here) when the same thing happened in the same leg, and by 60 miles I couldn't lift my leg enough to even walk. But I knew the worst thing would be to dwell on that, so I kept telling myself "It'll be ok, it'll all be ok" and repeating Rev Bem's mantra:
My pain belongs to the Divine. It is like air, it is like water.
Passers by must have thought I was very odd, muttering to myself all the time, but I had to keep focussed on finishing the race. Paying attention to what was going wrong would spell disaster for sure. Anyway, pain is literally in the mind- distract the neurons and those pain messages won't reach the brain.
Although I'd never done a dark loop in training, I wasn't too worried when the sun set and darkness fell. I wasn't even worried that I'd mostly been completely on my own, actually it was helpful not to feel pressured to keep up with another runner. Anyway, I knew I'd probably see a few people on the Box Hill Steps section where you come out halfway down, go down to the river, do a little loopback and then climb up all the way to the top. I really did enjoy that section, seeing people and exchanging a smile and encouraging words.
As I headed up to the Box Hill trig I could see lights and hear the boom of music. Climbing to the road crossing there I could see cars, motorbikes and some guys standing around. A man had parked right across the gap for crossing the road and this unsettled me; he sat in his car staring at me. I was rattled enough to take the wrong line across Donkey Field not helped by the fact that the arrow with reflective markings on the far side had been stolen (missing markers became a theme overnight). I found myself at the edge of a carpark where a man was standing by his car, staring and waiting. By this point I was feeling scared- why were all these guys hanging around in the dark? Where the heck was the trail I was supposed to be on? I got out my phone and opened up OS maps to try to figure out how far off the trail I'd gone and eventually reoriented myself to get across the field and onto the hugely mis-named Happy Valley Trail. I arrived back at the main CP like a startled rabbit, saying I was too scared to go back out on my own.
I had more daylight than anticipated on this loop- I made excellent progress so far and was feeling strong other than that nagging hip pain. Nutrition wasn't going quite so well as my usual not-being-able-to-face-eating-anything had started, but I had the Mountain Fuel drinks and I'd promised myself that if necessary I'd have a longer interloopal pause after 40 miles to eat some hot food if I needed to. Satay noodles should do the trick.
Writing about this now it seems like a huge overreaction, but I'm not used to encountering that kind of thing when running in the dark. Given that some nasty things have happened to lone female runners in the recent past, perhaps it's not an unreasonable reaction. Anyway, Mike found a lovely guy called Danny to run with me for at least the next loop so I didn't get scared. As an aside, Canary Trail Events support SheRaces and endeavour to buddy up anyone who is nervous about running in the dark on their own. In fact I've volunteered to be a buddy for their Steeplechase event next summer.
I felt a little awkward at first running with a complete stranger and was worried about being too slow. By this point I was beginning to experience waves of nausea and some knee pain too, and running for extended periods was not something my legs were happy about. Danny was quick running the downhills whereas my usual overly-cautious pace had now become something more akin to old lady tottering. I felt really bad that he had to stop and wait for me so many times. We got chatting as we ran through the woods before the Box Hill check point; that helped to take my mind off the bits of me that were starting to hurt a lot and it was oddly comforting to find that we had quite a few unusual things in common.
Was it on this loop or loop 6 that my new headtorch failed after an hour? Either way it was another incident that reignited the fear that I was in for a repeat of my 2019 Autumn 100 experience. It took a great deal of strength to try to refocus my mind and not waste energy worrying about the past repeating itself. By now I knew the hip pain was here to stay but I fervently hoped that my knee wouldn't give up as it did at that race 3 years ago. Another disaster like that was simply not an option.
Anyway, the scary people at Box Hill had gone and Danny got me through loop 5 for which I am extremely grateful. I got back to the CP a bit quicker than the 50 miles I ran on the course back in July (mostly due to efficient turnarounds) so it was still very much game on. Maybe even a sub-30 hours finish.
My pain belongs to the Divine. It is like air, it is like water. My pain belongs to the Divine. It is like air, it is like water. My pain belongs to the Divine...
The night is mostly a confusion of pain and rain, mud and fog, interspersed with waves of nausea and dizziness. Rain had set in once it was dark and it didn't really stop, just got a bit lighter or heavier turning parts of the trails into treacherous skating rinks of that special mud you get on top of chalk and flint. It was all I could do to stay on my feet in some places, and even if my hip and knee had been fine there would not have been much running going on. Fog had suddenly settled around Box Hill Village reducing visibility to just a metre or two. That initial stretch of the NDW after the checkpoint was awful- not only was it incredibly difficult to stay upright in the mud, but it was almost impossible to see the trail too.
On one loop I missed a turn in the woods on the edge of Headley Heath and wasted time and energy retracing my steps and having a panic. It was stupid, I know the trail so well that I could tell I'd gone wrong just by how the ground felt under my feet, but I didn't stop to check until I'd gone maybe a quarter of a mile. It's odd what fatigue does to you- you make poor judgements and talk yourself out of things you know to be true.
On the subject of fatigue I think it was loop 7 or 8 when the hallucinations and sleep monsters struck. I've never had the sleep monsters before, or at least not so that I was falling asleep on my feet. I remember fighting the urge to lie down in the cold and wet on the trail and close my eyes- there was enough sense in me to realise that was the beginning of pre-hypothermia. I'd planned not to stop at the halfway checkpoint at all as it was only a water stop and it would waste precious minutes, but at this point I realised I was a danger to myself and knew I had to get into the warm and dry so that I could put on an extra layer and close my eyes for a few minutes. After getting too cold, hallucinating blue sea dragons at Lakes in a Day back in 2016 (?), and not being allowed to continue the race, I'm much more aware of what being cold and tired does to me and despite the pain and my inability to run by this stage, I was still determined to finish. In fact I never at any point thought about giving up, even when it all felt pointless.
I did feel a bit better as I set off to complete the loop, but I was still hallucinating. Just hang on for the morning- seeing the light creep into the sky will help. It always does.
On loop 8 I remember seeing Drew Sheffield just before Box Hill Steps. He was looking so fresh and strong on his last loop. We had a conversation about how nasty parts of the North Downs Way had got, and how good it was to see the darkness lifting- it somehow makes you feel lighter- and then he was off. He went on the smash the course record with a sub-24 hour time!
Daylight brought no relief.
By now all I knew was pain. My knee hurt so much and I could feel how inflamed all the tendons were; I had to go sideways down all the steps and descents in order to keep the pain vaguely bearable. It was miserably slow going.
My pain belong to the Divine. It is like air, it is like water. My pain belongs to the Divine. It is like air, it is like water. My pain belongs to the Divine... Pain...
Yet even though I was consumed by the pain it never occurred to me to quit. There was no doubt in my mind- there was never any doubt. I had to keep going. I'd turned into a robot- a miserable one at that- and moving forward had become automatic, it was the only thing I was programmed to do.
The hallucinations were now relentless. There were faces and strange markings on every single stone, the mud was covered in writing that was half-familiar and it pulled my head down as I felt compelled to try to decipher it. I saw a huge yellow honey bear sitting on a fallen tree, and a 7 foot tall Pippi Longstocking with green legs. A grey-green Stormtrooper stared up at me from the ground and I recall thinking that was a much more sensible colour for a Stormtrooper than white. The woods were full of witches waving flags at me, and I saw lots of tiny, hooded hi-viz jackets hung on posts along the side of the trails.
Something on loop 9 that I know was real: on Headley Heath a huge dog bounded up to me and seized my left arm in its jaws. The dog's head was as high as my chest and I was terrified. The owner said the dog was fine, I should just stand still, but I was crying and trying to explain that I was in a race and had run over 80 miles. Probably I didn't make any sense. The situation left me with enough adrenaline that I was able to run for a few minutes to put some distance between me and Cerberus. I think that was the last bit of running I did.
It was either loop 9 or the last loop that I began to feel the faces in the stones closing in on me, my head was filled with the sight of them and their silent noise, and I think it was on the final loop that I stumbled through the gate leaving the heath crying, talking out loud, pleading with an invisible person to make the hallucinations stop. I can't explain how much this scared me- it was truly frightening to feel so invaded by the weirdness my brain was inventing. I was utterly overwhelmed, drowning in a sea of madness.
But the strangest thing of all throughout these last two loops, is that at no point did I feel elated knowing that I was actually going to finish. I had imagined that on loop 10 I would be filled with emotion, that heady mixture of joy and relief when you know you're going to achieve your goal and finish. I'd imagined feeling pride in finishing the most brutal race I'd ever run, satisfaction in getting it done in spite of having a truly horrible time of it. But I felt nothing. Perhaps the battle of having to deal with the physical and mental pain for so much of the race left me detached from myself. Perhaps it was simply fatigue from having run the furthest I'd ever run, and been running for longer than I'd ever run before. I don't know. But that numbness fills me even now, a week on from when the race began.
On loop 10 Mike met me at the top of Satan's; he'd been given permission to run me in to the finish. I don't remember any of that last stretch other than the pain in my knee. I walked across the finish line feeling utterly empty. No joy, no pride, not even any tears. It wasn't how I thought it would be.
I felt nothing.
Allan, the RD, presented me with the trophy for second lady. He said he'd never doubted that I would finish. I think he was delighted that not only did the race see the first ever female finisher, it also saw the second AND the third! Out of the 32 runners who started the 100 mile race, just 7 people finished. And out of those 7 finishers, 3 were women.
After receiving my trophy I just sat. I had nothing left. Barely the energy to drink a mug of tea. Is this what it's supposed to feel like? The biggest achievement of my life and all I can do is sit and feel nothing? Maybe that's what passing through the ten circles of Copthorne is supposed to feel like.
6,616m of elevation
31 hours and 4 minutes
2nd female to finish the Copthorne 100