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Preparation

It was my idea.  In late April, I came back from the Old Mutual Two Oceans Ultra-Marathon (OMTOM) in Cape Town on a high, and with a new endorphin-fueled thought.  It seemed logical having completed the 56km hilly road run in South Africa with a little in the tank, to progress within Ultra Running and race further.  It was too late to enter the Comrades ultra (also in South Africa and 87km).  But I needed to go longer.

Race to the Stones, 100km of Trail Running in Southern England in July.  Ten weeks to get ready.  Perfect.

To my surprise my Ironman husband, David, said at once that he would run with me.  He was already qualified for the World Championships of his sport and had a long Summer ahead of him.  We called Max, our 24-year-old son in the UK, himself signed up for a highly demanding Ultra in Africa in September and he too jumped on it with a yes.  Mimi is a fit runner and suggested joining too, but sadly that wasn’t an option due to her work so we asked my beautiful girl to stay at home to housesit and look after the dogs.   

Confidence is a dangerous thing.  I had trained diligently for OMTOM running long weekly totals including several sets of 30km sessions back to back.  I had consulted seasoned ultra-runners and took their advice.  For that race I was specifically and completely ready.  And now the fear that drove my diligence was absent.  Dangerously so.  I was busy.  Jobs in the Lebanon, jobs in the UK, jobs in Germany and lots of work in Dubai.  Travel, jetlag and long hours meant that my training was sub-optimal.  Summer arrived in Dubai and training became more about keeping my core cool than moving forward for longer distances.  Not only the consistency of my training suffered, but the quality of the work was less good.  And time passed, quickly.  Before we knew it, it was time to fly to the UK, squeeze some work in in London and then race.  Suddenly some healthy respect for the race returned and I was slightly apprehensive.

Max had been consistent, following a plan and running up to 95kms a week in London.  David was injured and apart from one 50km practice run in our local desert, he hadn’t run for months. He used the pool to train so he was fit, but not really run fit. However, he and I have a huge endurance base developed over several years.  I used to ride a bike a lot.  And I’ve always run.  In 2016 I ran 2016 kms, in 2017 I upped that to 2500kms (that’s nearly 7kms a day for 365days) and ran the Paris Marathon.  I had trained and raced well in 2018 with 10km PBs, the Dubai marathon and lots of social miles with our local club. Now in 2019 I had already completed the Dubai Marathon for the second time and the OMTOM.  My foundation was strong.

Poor training notwithstanding, I have a healthy attitude to sleep (I aim for a minimum average of eight hours a night) that while compromised lately, was still good.  I also watch what I eat and try to base my nutrition on whole foods and intermittent fasting protocols – with a bit of weekend cheating in the world of chocolate and ice-cream.  I had committed to the race and a commitment is something that you follow through on even when the mood in which you made the commitment has passed.

The Race

We stayed locally overnight with long lost family and walked into an Oxfordshire field fresh and full of positivity at a leisurely 0700 on Saturday the 13th of July.  It seemed awfully late to start a race.  I had my favourite, comfortable On road shoes and a race belt with a phone in it.  Around us were 2500 like-minded people decked out with specialist ultrarunning back-packs, hydration systems, dust protecting shoe covers, rock and trail specific race shoes, bottles, more bottles, beards and tattoos; lots of tattoos. 

We were there as a family team and were going to run together – this may awaken the ultra-trolls concerned about muling, but we were not racing to win – Max carried a water bladder and David had a back-pack with a head-torch (it only gets dark after 10pm in the UK in July so we wouldn’t need it), half a pack of wet wipes, a thin rain sheet (the forecast said no rain) an extra pair of socks and minimal medical supplies (blister plasters and Brufen).  All in keeping with his mantra: Carry No Passengers.  Ultra minimalism!

We set off with the first wave of elite ultra-runners, all of whom were racing the full distance.  We started as early as possible so that we would be done by 10pm; Max needed to be back in London for work the next morning.  There was an option to run 50kms, camp overnight and run the next 50 the following day, but a] I don’t like camping b] I wouldn’t want to put my running shoes on again in the morning.  So that wasn’t for us.  The campers were in later waves.  David had Plantar Faciitis in his left foot and an inflamed achilles on the right.  Balanced.  We all ran with short, efficient, high-cadence paces.  The tracks were narrow, dry, often rutted, riddled with tree roots and completely unpredictable.  Our eyes were mostly down as we galloped gaily through rural Oxfordshire just as the harvest was ripe.  The odd early combine produced plumes of dust as we passed.  There were occasional country smells, crusty cowpats, and in the few villages, new mown grass.  Pure England.  We were on the 5000-year-old ancient path called the Ridgeway on a journey that would end, a planned 12-14 hours later, at the enigma of the Avebury Stone Circle.  A historic path to a historic sight.  Making memories.

I tripped over a root coming out of steep wooded slope into the light of a beautiful cornfield, the path cutting a black ribbon ahead of me through golden ears of barley.  It caught the toe of my unprotected road shoes and I went down hard, bruising and grazing both knees and the balls of both thumbs.  Nothing broken.  Kind runners (ultra-runners are very welcoming, inclusive and caring) picked me up and dusted me off as Max and David waited, unaware of the reason for the delay, in the early morning sunshine.  I hurt, but told myself that it would pass; I remember thinking that the jarring might cost me a toe nail.  We jogged on. 

I was gently accosted by some Instagram followers who had seen that I would be on their race.  What chance to be recognized among 2500 others?  I stopped for a photo with all the time in the world, chatted for a bit and then ran on to catch the boys.

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Despite from the new lateral stresses of negotiating winding, woodland paths, uneven riverbanks and occasional kissing gates, the early kilometers passed relatively quickly.  I concentrated on celebrating the distance passed, not contemplating the mind-boggling horizon.  At 25 kms David was struggling with the uneven ground. I encouraged him, he’s comfortable with being uncomfortable I thought.  My own discomfort was already significant but completely manageable.  Falling at any age hurts, but the older you get the more the shock of impact effects the body’s interconnecting tissues and makes you ache.  Max was confident and smooth, light on his feet, hot but happy and enjoying the day.

We ran on some rare roadway to cross the River Thames then climbed relentlessly up into the Berkshire Downs.  Smorgasbord aid stations were beautifully set up every 10 or 12kms.  We ate ravenously, hoovering through a comprehensive buffet of sugary foods, fresh fruit, crisps, marmite sandwiches and flat coke.  Max was full of confidence and tempered his pace to ours.  David, uncomplaining – we have a ‘no negative speech’ policy – stayed close to me.  After a first full Marathon (with 58kms still in front of us) we were walking more often, particularly downhill.  The negative stresses on muscles and sinew are very damaging and discomfort on declines was now proper, old-fashioned ‘pain’.  One of my bruised knees was really noticeable.  A camera team picked me up in an aid station and conducted an interview as I jogged – how surreal: “What’s it like running in the heat?”  I didn’t know what to say as we’d left behind the 50degC and 79% humidity of Dubai.  A balmy 28 degrees and a soft fresh breeze somehow did not compute as ‘heat’.

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Our pace had slowed and we came into the ‘base camp’ at 50kms in over seven hours.  Even now I was thinking I ran the 56kms in SA in 7.09 so we were doing fine.  We changed our socks and treated Max’s blisters.  We helped each other up and set off for the second half.  Only 50kms.  The home stretch!  It was a beautifully sunny early afternoon on top of some of the most beautiful flowing farmland in the world.  The ‘Downs’ are chalk grasslands and the white, naked, ancient path stretched away between fields of green and gold.  Butterflies and cow parsley.  Only farm vehicles have access to the ancient paths and this one was deeply rutted, blindingly bright, totally uneven, and really dusty.  It was the hardest of surfaces on which to run.   Occasionally there were stretches of large loose rock – think running barefoot on Lego.  There was never a voiced suggestion that we might have bitten off more than we could chew, but by now we were probably all thinking it.

Now it started to get dark.  Not day to night dark, but mentally the light dimmed.  Max was predominantly walking, but very quickly and with relentless focus and purpose.  I struggled to stay with him, my ITB (the outside of the thigh) pulling at every stride and both David and I ran/walked.  Max could have succumbed to the pain of being in unknown territory, never having run over the marathon distance (he had run Paris with me), but instead he made steady, consistent progress.  The kilometers passed and after a long, long period of endless ups and downs, of uneven camber, of no habitation, of silence interspersed by brief chats and of long communing with my inner thoughts, we finally dropped into a village.  I caught up with Max who had pulled out a 500m lead on us, and found that his blisters were now a significant problem.

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We stopped briefly to see that at both his heals and across the whole of the front of his feet he had loose fluid-filled bags of skin to walk on.  Horrible.  He settled into a silent, painfilled space a bit behind us.  And we continued.  The next aid station was well off the path and we left him on the route to go in and collect fuel and water.  I was worried about my boy, but David was, at least on the surface, full of ‘he’ll be OK, let’s push on’.  Now over 80kms into the run, the path took a steep long uneven downturn.  Max was wobbly.  I was cold, really cold; teeth-chattering, batteries-flat cold.  At the bottom, in the Wiltshire village of Ogbourne St. George, Max made the courageous decision to call it a day.  It was an Oates moment: he didn’t want to compromise the team.  84kms done.  Two marathons back to back.  16kms left.  And out of the race.  Like Captain Lawrence Oates he could barely walk, unlike that gentleman hero he had a phone and a friend who would find him with a car.  It still felt like I was leaving my wounded cub to fend for himself.  I pushed on, now hand in hand with David.  I uttered a little moan at each exhale, breathing out the pain of every step.  It got nighttime dark.  Our borrowed headtorch, never meant to be used (remember; we had confidently predicted a daylight finish!), was dim.  Around us other runners came and went with their searchlights piercing the gloom and highlighting the corrugated path in front – some we overtook, most passed us.  We didn’t run. 

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In a cruel twist the ruts in the track became deeper as we finally struggled into the last five kms.  Half-camouflaged by long summer grasses, the deep troughs were narrow, uneven and sheer sided; it was impossible to put one foot in front of the other without inspecting the ground first.  With one headtorch and four feet this took time.  I grunted in pain at every unexpected drop and trip, my tired body almost unable to prevent catastrophic crash – and if I had gone down at this point I’m not sure that I would have got up.  I hung on to David, he hung on to me.  Finally, we dropped down out of the farmland and onto a road.  We walked up to the floodlit Stones unelated and a photographer took our picture for proof, and there were still two kms left to the finish! 

We finished.  And there at the end, Max and his dutiful friend Phoebe welcomed us with a big sign that said ‘Team Labouchere!’.  It was soon after 2am.  We had taken nearly four hours longer than expected.  But we’d done it.  More painful than childbirth! 

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Afterword

In only a week ‘never again’, has become ‘what next?’.  It is remarkable how time, even the few days that have now passed, heals.  I was briefly stiff, went upstairs on my bottom and couldn’t even make the step up into the King’s Road Starbucks, but within hours I could walk almost normally.  I had to as the day after the race, with only three hours sleep, I was working in London.  Max went off to The Championships at Wimbledon to work as a ‘runner’ for the VIPs.  English irony.  Reportedly he did a lot of pointing and not too much accompanying/hobbling.  David headed to Norfolk for family duty – and to be spoilt by his Mum.

In September Max will run 250kms ‘For Rangers’ and ‘Save the Rhino’ in Kenya.  He has proved to the world and himself that he can do much more than will be necessary in one day, but it’s a multi-stage ultra race so he will have to run 45-65kms daily for five days, on African trails, self-supported.  For him, Race to the Stones was just a training session that proves his trajectory is good. 

I would love it if any of you who have done me the honour of reading thus far could contribute to https://www.justgiving.com/teams/labouchere.  Anything you give will go to the charities: #forrangers and #savetherhinos.  Max is running for them and we are supporting him. 

Top tips, based on my experience.  Train and train well.  Each race requires respect and a specific approach, else it gets very uncomfortable.  And select your kit/shoes for the environment, but don’t try new on race day.  In the final analysis my Ons proved a success and were well up to the task.  Comfort and fit are the most important things; loose to allow for swelling but not so loose that they rub.  Vaseline and sock changes can prevent blisters but I’m about to lose two toenails.  I’m not sure that heavier trail shoes would have prevented this, nor would I have stayed on my feet any more than I did.  Run light; I’m sure that our minimalism was a net positive but a warm hat might have kept the cold at bay when my internal thermostat shut down due to fatigue. 

Now, I’m back in my routine.  I’m happily running with friends but I’ll keep the intensity and distance down for now.  I have lots of work and little time to consider the next challenge.  The Comrades is still in my bucket, and as a road ultra, that seems very attractive.  But I’ve done SA and there are so many great adventures out there…

Caroline Labouchere

July, 2019

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