“Begin at the beginning,” the King said, very gravely,
“and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”
– Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
Last week was my first break from posting since I started Up & Down Runner in April. I’m in my final training push for the Mont Blanc Marathon, which is now 14 days away, so every minute counts. After today it will all be rest, recovery and avoiding anyone that looks like they have even a little sniffle. Seriously, if you are going to come near me, make sure you’ve used some hand gel.
And what a final push it has been. I went over 20 miles for the first time in more than a year, met one the greatest ultra-runners in history, spent a lot of time in the Altitude Centre, and, dear readers, finally managed to run up and down a mountain.
As The King of Hearts suggests, I will begin at the beginning. Week 8 involved lots of road miles, and what I thought was a hilly long run up and down One Tree Hill and the roads around Forest Hill, followed by flatter sections around Dulwich and Brockwell Parks and Wandsworth and Clapham Common. It’s only by running that you realise how close everything really is in London, and how many beautiful open spaces there are. I have now also realised that London is not very hilly.
Week 9 was the big one. On Tuesday I went to an event held by Like the Wind Magazine (if you have not checked it out yet, do http://www.likethewindmagazine.com – It’s Not How To Run, It’s Why We Run); a talk by, and Q&A session with, Lizzy Hawker.
Lizzy Hawker is unquestionably one of the greatest ultra runners in history. Among many other achievements she is five time winner of the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, current 24 hour road-running record holder, first female outright winner of the 153 mile Spartathlon and record holder for the 320km route from Everest Base Camp to Kathmandu. Her new book, called Runner – A Short Story About a Long Run, is an inspirational read, whether you are interested in running or not.
Among her many other talents (she has a PhD in oceanography from Cambridge), she is able to encapsulate why something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other means so much to so many, and, much like Frankl (Mind Control I: The Last Human Freedom), to show that most, if not all, people underestimate their capabilities and potential.
In the first chapter of Runner, Lizzy (we’re on first name terms now) explains how she whole-heartedly took the King’s advice for her first UTMB – she started running and just kept going until she stopped, which happened to be at the finish line, before any other woman. As you may have already noticed, particularly if you’ve met me, I have a tendency to over-think things and assume that any new challenge is beyond me.
As a case in point, before Tuesday I’d been very worked-up about the planned trip that weekend to Snowdonia, my first ever mountain run. After the talk, I asked Lizzy for a tip, and all she said was “enjoy the mountains”. So, for possibly the first time in my life, I ignored my natural instincts and just went with it.
And enjoy the mountains I did. I went with my friend, cousin and all-round Bear Grylls*, James, to Snowdonia National Park. Starting in Capel Curig, up 650m to the top of a very windy Moel Saibod, back down then up another 600m or so the top of Castell-Y-Gwynt, then a loop round back to Capel Curig. The toughest, but most fun 16.5 miles I have ever run. Much like my illness, the first up was tough but manageable, but the down was petrifying. Trying to keep up with a human mountain goat, look where I was going and avoid peat bogs, holes and sharp rocks was almost too much for me to cope with.
However, at the top of Castell-Y-Gwynt, after some sage advice from James, I remembered the words of Lizzy Hawker, and possibly the greatest philosopher of our times, Master Yoda – “Do. Or do not. There is no try”. So I cleared my mind and just did it. Not only was it so much easier, but I also bloody loved it. Granted I was still not able to keep up with James, but I did look more goat than Bambi.
Although maybe that was wishful thinking, particularly after a fell runner who ran past me said “thanks love” as I let him past. I may have been wearing tights and a headband, but I would have thought that the beard would have cleared up any ambiguity about my gender. There is an obvious joke here, but I have two beautiful friends from North Wales, so I won’t make it.
The start of week 10 mainly consisted of resting my poor quads and knees, but by the middle of the week I was feeling great, and have managed to get in some good miles. In her brilliant article in the equally brilliant Standard Issue Magazine (standardissuemagazine.com/living-with-bipolar/), my wife questioned whether I was just repeating all of the mistakes I made in the lead up to the Royal Parks Ultra in 2013 (more on which next week). However, rather than feeling scared and stressed, focusing on all of the training days that I have missed, I feel ready to stand on the start line. I don’t know whether I will make it to the finish line, but I no longer care, the fact that I have got to the beginning is enough. After that I will just keep on running until I stop.
*To be honest, anyone that has ever put up a tent is Bear Grylls compared to me.