St Oswalds Ultra – Life’s A Team Game

Spectacular Holy Island

Another weekend where I have once again gave the body & mind a testing, the result as always learning more about myself and the person I want to be.

My week leading up to the race hadn’t  been as easy as i’d have liked, trying to get my work on the building site completed so I could at least have an easy day on the Friday. As ever my packing and preparation are last minute. I know my reasons; I work through a million daily problems with my anxiety, as my support this weekend Jason learned. So I work through them one by one and usually get the job done.

Eventually we got on the road and due to my faffing, we were running slightly late for registration for the race. This was Jason’s first view of the real me, up close and personal. My anxiety often comes about from the idea of offending someone I meet, regardless of who they are. For me turning up to a race meeting late, that in my own mind, at its worst I had no right to enter.  For people who have known me well and for long time, they know well the reasons that make entering public spaces very difficult, it is a hurdle I work on all the time.  A last minute stop at Go Outdoors on route, to get a whistle, socks and a very comforting new hat.

I understand my anxiety very well these day’s and it was as is always the case, when you jump the cliff and go through the door, it is never as bad as your mind makes out, and in this case it left me feeling great. A warm welcome from John the race organiser & his team, then seeing Tony Holland who  looked after me at the Ultra Runner store, put me at ease. But reminds of why it is so important to have a warm and welcoming persona! You never know what a person is feeling when they enter a room, this is something I hold very dear with the kids at BCT.  A simple smile or a warm hello can leave even the most of nervous of persons feeling so much better.

After the race meeting it was off across to the hotel close to Belford for the evening. But once again I began to get restless, realising I hadn’t eaten since dinner time and it was getting later. My mind became fixated on food and I started to again get ratty with Jason. Knowing me he began to see how I really work. I break everything down into steps, seeing only the next one and my only thought now was food.  We passed through Rothbury and spotted a few pubs, but to me that would create  another set off challenges. It was to be the chippy for tea, fishcake & two bags of chips, I’m sure this would see me through. In fact I started to feel like the lines were meeting up. I used to eat chips before rugby up and till the age of 21, managing to play to a fair standard, so maybe it was meant to be!

I changed my tack once again now getting fixated on reaching the hotel, simply needing to get into my room and then, well simply BREATH. Who would believe I had just completed the toughest part of my weekend right there and then on the Friday night, well anyone else who knows Anxiety & Depression I dare say would!

I did laugh to myself when I reached the hotel, the last time I had stayed here was part of the England North Colts Rugby Squad before we played Scotland, who we beat too. This little things all help me to feel good, interpreted everything as positively as possible. Perception is as good as reality most of the time.

I ran through my gear for the race and explained my different supplements to Jason, before relaxing for a while with my guide book for the race, something that was to become a great help during the night to come.  I began to feel the calmness of dropping into a world that quite often makes me feel more comfortable than daily life. Whatever is not done needs to be forgotten or the problems it causes simply assessed and then dealt with, using the options that exist?

Arriving on Holy Island I became that excited kid once again, to be in such surroundings and to see them in the manner I was about too!  Time for one finally dose of mild anxiety as I looked at all the other runners arriving, imagining every single one as the most amazing runner that I had no right to even line up against. Still the start of the race, instantly takes that away once the legs start moving, I’m into a place that feels like home.

Almost instantly I struck up a conversation with my first running buddy of the day, Alex a great guy from Manchester. It was the simple act of talking to another positive soul, meaning that you instantly start to live in the moment, mile’s pass as you share your life’s journey. I train alone, but always know come race day, this will be another little shot in the arm, simply meeting positive people.

I began to pull myself back a little bit, remembering that I was running with 50km runner’s at this point and I was attempting 100 miles. At least I had learned about walking uphills, letting my old school rugby pride go lol. I reached Bamburgh Castle with the first 20 miles under my belt feeling positive. I did start to panic about not carrying enough hydration, picking up two hard bottles to go with my bladder (Thanks Jody for taking my soft flask for swimming haha). I knew I would have to work out my hydration plan using a mix of carbs, electrolytes and simple water as I went.

After leaving the castle I remembered that Neil Green from Radio Tees was going to ring and looked at my phone to see missed calls. My phone was on silent so whilst I ran with a great guy, Rich from Elswick Harriers, I bumbled about in my settings to make sure I caught the next call. They said they would call me back in 45 minutes and I couldn’t believe it when the phone rang, the time and miles were simply slipping past.

I kept on running whilst chatting on the radio to Neil; I said that if I couldn’t talk and run at the same time I was running way to fast lol. I talked about my reasons for running personally and in terms of supporting the kids of my own youth group too. I never know what comes out of my mouth when I’m in the bubble, but what I do know is it is from the gut and as it comes.  After the call my new friend Rich told me It was great to listen to what I had spoken about, telling me he was a teacher, queue great conversation till the next checkpoint. I also ran with another lovely couple who names I sadly didn’t catch but again each little conversation made the day that bit easier.

I was seeing a part of the world that I had always wanted to see, how mad is it that I have walked and ran such beautiful places but never go anywhere as a tourist, my anxiety still needs work in this area. A random meeting with Jono Dixon, a cricketing pal from back in the day at Cowpen Bewley when we were both kids, love it how the world brings people together, randomly or not maybe ??? The landscape distracted me from any negative thinking and i felt so level in my mind at this point. I had vowed that I would remain positive for as much of this race as possible; using every little trick I had in the armoury and built up over the years.

Over the course of the next session I fell in with a group of guys who were to become the bedrock of my race and just as importantly the massive enjoyment taken from it. I passed a familiar face in Glen who I met during my first marathon race a few months back and it was great to see such a friendly face at this point. I also met Tricia who a twitter pal, which was great, haha those multi coloured compression socks looked awesome. I also met Louie who I would finish the race with the next day. I was blown away when he told me he was a Bob Graham Round finisher, this race through a randomly purchase of a book, the seed for my entry into ultra-running. I explained my relative newness to the sport, well this was my first formal ultra of any description and he kindly shared with some of his experience. I watched how the guys walked sessions as well as the uphills and felt like a sponge trying to take it all in.

Learning is the bedrock of any success and if I could save myself a few mistakes in that process it would be no bad thing. We reached Craster, which was the finish of the 50k race and a very kind  donation from Rich absolutely made my day. Ok I am enjoying this I thought, and let’s keep doing so as long as we can. I try to enjoy everything when times are good, knowing that when times are tough  I must simply work harder !

Top Guys

The next few hours seemed to simply fall away lost in conversation with Keith who was another top guy in the group, Glen & Louie, I was very chuffed to be around some experienced guys who were kindly sharing their experience. Keith who had made the effort to recce the route for navigation which helped not just himself but the guys around him was also at this point doing the most amazing job.   I chipped in with the odd closing of a gate and hopefully being equally positive as we continued to clock up the miles. I learned a great deal about what’s required to complete races, especially the self-discipline at checkpoints when the urge to rest for a little longer than is helpful takes real effort.

The crews at all the checkpoints had a warmth and sincerity that I’m sure made every single runner feel lifted each time they arrived on top of the lovely soup and coffee. Such a simple thing but boy did it taste special.  I’ve learned over the years that you have to big up small things when you’re on the road for extended periods; a simple brew becomes another mini prize worth working harder to reach.

I was also amazingly blessed to have my pal Jason Watkin with me doing a cracking job. Like me another guy who has battled addiction and on the right side of the tracks these day’s. When i finally got my act together during my last period of relapsing back to drink Jase was one of the guys who helped me most and fittingly i met him for the first time when i ran my 24 hr Charity run last year. This guy did such an understatedly brilliant job keeping me calm and sorted each checkpoint.

As the light dropped it was time for the headlamps to come out and it would begin to get a little tougher with the added task of navigation in the dark. I realised I had made a schoolboy error of not putting new batteries in my headlamp so light was a bit dim, luckily I was with a great group of guys, meaning it wasn’t a problem but it won’t happen again. Cutting inland now we passed some amazing little places that seemed tucked away, arriving at them as we did following the trail.

As we reached Rothbury it felt good to fall in behind Keith who had been an amazing support with his navigational efforts that took additional hard work of his own to recce the course. It gave me and I am sure the boys a lift to give him a massive clap as he completed his own 100km race and was met by his family.  Our own prize would be some amazing pea & ham soup and real coffee from the lovely people at Tomlinsons Café. Again the urge to hang around too long became even stronger and I knew it this time. We were about to enter the really testing part of the race and for me personally the part I’d worried about most, sleep deprivation!!!

Leaving Rothbury the guide book I’d purchased at registration came out and began to prove itself a very important part of the night, with detailed descriptions and pictures of the route. We were heading up onto the moors, then into dense woodland for the next stretch and been warned it would be very testing. The night began to get colder as we got onto the more exposed sections, so the jacket came out and after some lateral thinking from Louie my spare socks became gloves. Gloves that id later place eyes on so they could be finger puppets to talk to during the night haha. We did pause at the top and turned off our headlamps for a few moments to enjoy the stars up in the sky, without any noise or light pollution. A simple moment that to me is as good as it gets these days.

Great stop at Tomlinsons Cafe - Rothbury

We were working well as a team all spotting markers and spray paint on the road, to follow the route. I have to admit I was thinking we are doing rather well in these woods and seemed to be making good time through this stretch, till one missed marker. In the dark and obviously tired we strayed off the track and ended up in deep bracken, that was close to head height in parts & as this story turns to urban myth, I’m sure it will grow ever higher,as it should in any good tale LOL Glen drove ahead making a great start in trampling down the ground in front but we could see next to nothing. By chance we hit a large log and only by standing on it, could we make out a marker in the distance. The problem would be losing any site of it once back on lower ground, so we had the almost comical site of me shouting directions to Glen , whilst he ploughed through the undergrowth to get closer to it, till he could also see it. Between us we eventually reached the marker and got back on track. We were all now wet and I have to admit, it dawned on me whilst in the bracken how it could go wrong in a tough race like this, with one simple navigational mistake. I know this is an area of training I must work on if I’m to compete again at this distance.

It was a subdued march to the next checkpoint, the conversation dropping away as people went into their own place. That place we all have when things get tough, I call it climbing in my box, imagining myself tucked safely up in my head, and trying to disengage from the body parts that ain’t feeling the best. I was however pleased that I was positive and actually proud with how we had recovered from a mistake that in the past would have had me ffffing and a blinding like a madman. The next aid station came up and we got a lift from the crew at most lonely feeling of the checkpoints. It was great to get a slurp of brew and a wrap off Jason who was doing the most amazing crew job, now helping what had become the strongest of teams, to my mind. However it certainly wasn’t a place to hang about as it was now cold and we were all wet from our unexpected adventure.

The next section shouldn’t have caused as much difficulty but again a simple missed marker lead us the wrong way. I had the guide book and my compass, but hadn’t been following our position. I was pissed off at myself at this point after all my years of navigating. I led us towards a position I thought was correct but as we weren’t in the place I thought we were, it was wrong. This was again when making decisions becomes important and whilst I dwelled Louie back tracked and found the last marker, it was another learning curve to be taken. Back on track again this was now becoming the test I knew it would be, time to dig in and see what you’re really made off, I told myself. All this said we all only ever spoke positively when we did and supported each other at all times. We finally made it to Kirkwhelpington and the joy of the village hall, where I made another bad call. I got my wet kit off and changed into fresh kit, but decided to take off my knee supports which were chafing my legs quite badly. I ruptured my medial ligament in my left and had a quite a bad strain in the right over the years playing rugby, so why I decided to do so is beyond me. I again enjoyed soup and even better a pasta Bolognese camp meal from Jase and again was politely told to get up again, ready for what would be by far my own most testing section.

It was now the early hours of the morning as we again tramped across the farm fields of Northumbria, I knew it would at some point get testing and it was not from pain, but from the simple act of trying to keep my eye open. As we walked I could feel my eyelids sagging and I would wake up having fallen behind the group a little bit. This led me to get a shuffle on to catch back up before repeating again. I would be awoken in quite a fashion very soon though lol. We must have missed yet another turn and my own confidence holding the book was taking a battering. We arrived by a farmhouse to hear the screams from an awakened farmer “Get off my f**king land” style words and at least he confirmed our position. We didn’t dare go back past so skirted around his house trying to pick up the marker. This was when whilst looking for a crossing I decided to place my hands on an electric fence and for at least the next few minutes, boy was I awake haha. These are the moments that I reckon build any success, the ones where it requires resilience, which helps in any situation we find ourselves in. Back on the move I knew that this was to be my testing ground for the race and accepted it. My thinking in this situation is to look at everything as moments or clouds, they may linger but eventually they will pass, and I can’t do anything about when that will be, only to acknowledge them and keep working on what needed doing, mainly fighting to keep the eye lids open and legs moving.

I could see on the horizon that light was deciding to peak through, I know that sunrise brings a lift to the body and it would get easier. So I made the decision that next time I awoke behind once again I would simply run through the boys. My thinking was that at least I would be in front for a period as lagging a little wasn’t good for my confidence. I kept working and was joined by Glen, who is a proper top bloke and his positivity in this hour or so, was simply immense. We kept going and before long were working over the top of another peak, clearing the low lying fog and enjoying sunrise. We came back together as a group at this point and to my mind a big hurdle was out of the way. We ran the last mile into the checkpoint, which was the final one before the finish, with Jase rearming me with my knee supports, for my seriously creaking joints. Jase also gave me a great look of encouragement that I bought into; I dumped the hard bottles and took two double espresso cans of coffee I had bought for this moment. I had imagined all race these would be my  popeye style spinach to send me to the finish.  We headed off with yet more fantastic encouragement from the race crew and worked for home.

I began to play little games to break the distance down in my mind as I always do, the last 12 mile can be overlooked after so far, it needs to be done and focus still absolute. I would check off points on the guide book and watch as we neared the final maps of the guide book , turning each page, giving another boost. My right knee was in bits by now and I remember having to come down a couple of descents backwards to save it. But the boy’s waited for me and I felt the need to not slow them down . At this point Louie told Glen to run for the finish, having looked amazing all the way round and it was great watching him head off down the track. As we all started to look to our own goals for the race. With around 3 miles to go, Louie asked if I had any running left and I knew that I’d just recite that old rugby saying to myself “Leave nothing on the pitch”. I shuffled and groaned resisting the urge to swear, no negativity this time Paul I told myself, before laughing about my predicament.

Enjoying a few moments :)

As we reached what was to be the final large descent on the road I went flying past my mate, I simply could no longer prevent gravity and really did laugh in the sickest way as I hurtled down the bank out of control. I focused on my running form wanting to finish looking something like a runner. As silly as it sounds I reckon I’ve just earned the right to call myself a Ultra Runner J

Met by Jase at the finish, I wondered what emotions I would feel, whether it would build up in me. No, I simply felt the most amazing sense of calm and serenity as I took a seat in the hotel lobby, home to the crew guys and enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my face. What prize could beat peace within, even if for only a few minutes?

The final part of this amazing adventure was to wait to see another runner come in, who we heard was not far away, a lady  who’s fundraising story had been passed onto me by Jason. I was overwhelmed myself on seeing the amazing tenacity she displayed out on the course and It made me realise that as mad as ultra-running may sound, as well people assuming it’s the most individual of pursuits I had just seen some of the greatest camaraderie and team work of my life, that after 25 years playing nothing but team sport. That’s exactly how i see life these day’s and whoever we are we need that team around us, where pack animals after all. I had also shared sacred moments with so many great people that will mean when you bump into them again you share that smile of people who have experienced something together!!!

BIG LOVE TO ALL INVOLVED – I reckon I may recce those woods before next year


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