This weekend was the London 2 Brighton Challenge, my first ever attempt at an ultra-distance event.
When I signed up for this as a ‘jogger’ nine weeks ago, the truth is that I really didn’t have a clue about what to expect. I had originally thought that I would be able to complete the course pretty quickly with a good mix of running and walking, but as the weeks went on and the distances became greater, I realised that I would probably end up doing very little, if any, running at all. And, on Saturday morning, when I woke up to the sound of rain beating down on my tent, I realised that my goal of finishing in around 20 hours was not going to come to fruition after all.
The main problem was my shoes. I had bought a pair of trail shoes for the event and took a chance by opting for breathe-ability over waterproofing. Not a great decision as it turned out. Even with changing my socks at every other rest stop, my feet were going to get pretty wet so I decided to wear sandwich bags over my socks to keep my feet a bit drier. Not ideal, I know, but I figured sweaty feet would be better than rain soaked feet. The only problem with this was that my feet slid around my shoes a bit too much, making running a little bit tricky at first.
Still, despite the weather, I was very excited about the whole thing and after a quick breakfast at the camp site, took the shuttle bus to the start line at Richmond Old Deer Park. Registration was was pretty straight forward. We were given our race packs and then directed to the bag drop where I deposited my overnight bag and camping gear in exchange for a very flimsy paper ticket, which I photographed on my phone in case I lost it later. I then filled my camel back, added a Zero tablet to my water bottle and headed to the start line to soak up the atmosphere (and rain) at the pre-start zumba warm up.
At 7:00, we set off on the first leg of our journey to Brighton. I adopted a good steady walking pace for the first few kilometres in the drizzle while I got used to the feeling of my feet sliding around in their sandwich bags. After a while though, I got bored with just walking and, as this part of the route was fairly flat, I decided to get some short jogs in every five minutes or so, reaching the first rest point in around two hours. I didn’t hang around for too long. Just enough time for a quick coffee, some food and a quick check of the old feet, which were fine, although I was surprised by the amount of steam coming from them when I took my shoes off!
The second leg was fairly uneventful. I walked and jogged and chatted to a few people as I passed them or as they passed me, and it was nice to see some local people out supporting us from their driveways. I chatted to a few of them but didn’t stop for too long as I wanted to make good time for this first stage as I knew that it would get tougher as the day went on.
At 11:30, I reached the 25K mark at Oaks Park, where I took a longer rest break for lunch and a bit of foot care. Luckily I didn’t have any blisters, so a quick sprinkling of talcum powder and a change of socks were all that was needed.
By the time I left Oaks Park, the rain had stopped and I was starting to wish that I had taken the opportunity to change out of my waterproofs. Luckily though, I didn’t stop to change as at around 34 kilometres the heavens opened, this time bringing much heavier rain than before. Still, my spirits were good as I was looking forward to a nice hot coffee at 37 kilometres.
Unfortunately though, there wasn’t another rest stop until 41 kilometres. I had been going by last year’s route and hadn’t thought to check for changes, which made this section of the route a bit of a struggle. Still, I kept myself going by jogging where I could and, as the rain stopped and the sun came out again, my spirits soon lifted and I was able to enjoy walking through the beautiful countryside that led up to the rest stop.
After another decent break, we headed out to meet our first real hill of the challenge on the North Downs. My legs were starting to feel pretty tired by this point so I decided to use the walking pole that I had borrowed from a friend. I hadn’t really planned on using it until the steep hill at the end of the course, but at this point it gave me the boost that I needed. I knew that I wasn’t going to do any more running or jogging but using the pole helped me keep a good rhythm and stopped my pace from dropping too much.
By the time I reached the half-way point at Tulley’s Farm (56 kilometres – a bit more than half-way!), I was feeling pretty low. This was a big meal stop where they were serving all sorts of hot food from hot dogs to Thai curry. Although I was feeling cold, tired and hungry, I had to force myself to eat a hot dog before taking myself off to a quiet corner to sort my feet out.
I must have looked pretty awful sitting there wrapped in the foil blanket that I had brought with me, because one of the Action Challenge team came over to chat to me. It turned out that she was an actress and had been hired for the day to simply chat to people at the rest stop. Crazy as it sounds, this gave me another much needed lift and after a nice hot coffee I was soon feeling much more like myself again and ready to take on the rest of the course.
Action Challenge had organised some Trek Leaders for the night stages of the course, so I joined the next group at 8:45 pm armed with glow sticks and a head torch. I was surprised to find my tent neighbour from the camp site the night before was in the same group as me. He had run most of the first 56K but had stopped for food, blister care and a massage as he waited for his friends to catch up. There was plenty of chat and banter from the group and before we knew it we were at the next rest stop.
Again, I took a decent break to fuel up and recharge, and chatted with some of the people in my group before heading out again. We had completed more than two thirds of the course and the next stop would be 80 kilometres, so I was starting to feel like I was on my way home. Unfortunately, however, this next part of the course proved to be much tougher than anything I could have prepared myself for.
Despite the afternoon sunshine, most of the trails we encountered in the wooded areas had become very boggy to say the least and by midnight the mud was so churned up that it became impossible not to get soaked. Unlike earlier on the route, there was very little solid ground so I decided that the only way to do it was to walk straight through the puddles, using my pole to stop myself from sliding around too much. It was tough going and the pace had really slowed down so in the end I decided to leave my group behind and try to pick up my pace by following a couple of guys who had passed us.
By the end of the third stage, I was feeling remarkably good. Despite the mud and sludge, I managed to reach 80 kilometres just before 3:00 am. I decided to change my socks again but had to opt for a pair of regular cotton socks as I had used up my last pair of running socks. Still, I had ditched the sandwich bags by this point, so with fresh zinc oxide tape and plenty of talc, I figured I would be ok. I only had another 20 kilometres to go, so I knew I couldn’t do too much damage.
It was starting to get light again as I headed out for the final stage, a short 7 kilometre walk to Plumpton College before the 13 kilometres trek across the South Downs and into Brighton. It was a lovely morning and I was feeling pretty good so I chatted to a couple of people along the way and again at the rest stop. But when it came to eating, I just couldn’t face it. My stomach suddenly decided that it had had enough so, after a trip to the porta loo, I decided to stick with water. I still had some snacks in my pockets and in my bag, so I knew that I would be able to eat something later if I felt like it.
In my mind, I had imagined that this final leg was going to be easy compared to what I had been through already. But I was wrong. Although quite steep, the climb up the hill to the top of the South Downs wasn’t too bad and the views were amazing, but after about 4 kilometres I just needed to stop. I’m not sure why, but I just needed a moment. I sat down by the side of the path and took my shoes off for no more than a few minutes before getting up and heading off again. I wasn’t feeling great, but it did help.
Another couple of kilometres down the road, I was surprised to find small aid station so I stopped for another few minutes and decided to try to freshen up a bit. I chatted with a couple of people who had had a pretty tough night with blisters and fatigue, and I realised that I’d been pretty lucky so far. The next few kilometres were going to be tough, but we could do it.
It was hard work putting one foot in front of the other and my feet were not happy. There was something going on with the nail on my big toe, but I wasn’t going to stop and look. I had to press on. One foot in front of the other. That was all I had to do. And then, eventually, just after 9:00 am, there it was. The finish line!
As we approached, there were people cheering and clapping. Complete strangers shouting words of encouragement. I could have cried. And I did. But not before getting a hug from the announcer, collecting my medal and other goodies, and collapsing on the grass with a glass of champagne.
I don’t know how I made it to the end. I don’t know how any of us did. It was a tough course, but the support, camaraderie and sheer bloody mindedness got us through. I know there were a lot of people who had to retire at 56 and 80 kilometres, and I don’t blame them. The conditions underfoot were extremely tough and I was very lucky that I didn’t get any blisters until that final stretch. Having a walking pole also made a huge difference to me, but no amount of training could have prepared me for that. It was hell at times, but it was an amazing experience and I don’t regret a second of it.
Thank you to those of you who sponsored me for this event. I haven’t quite reached my fundraising target yet but the page will be up for another month, so if you have a couple of quid to spare, please visit my JustGiving page for The British Heart Foundation. Many thanks. xx
Photographs courtesy of 2014 – The Year of 100 kms Everywhere.