When I read Cheryl Strayed's book "Wild" (now also a film with Reese Witherspoon), I was very much inspired by her story of walking the Pacific Crest Trail, up the west coast of the USA. The sheer scale of the endeavour, with most of her time spent on her own just walking with one foot in front of the other, was mind blowing. I'm not sure it made me want to walk hundreds of solitary miles, but it did make me wonder what was possible and what I'm capable of doing.
Fast forward a couple of years, following an amazing trip to Australia and New Zealand (which looked like this):
Then illness, an operation, injury and a bit of exercise apathy. I needed a new challenge, something to distract me and something to get me fit again (lots of holiday cake to be exercised away).
I've started playing netball again - go Team Knights - which has helped me with my fitness and has been brilliantly sociable. I've been making hundreds of cards for Rosedawn Designs - now on sale in my sister's new shop - A Day to Remember. But running wise, I was still a little bit lost. Cue Julie H, with a bit of extra emotional blackmail from her daughter Millie ("please don't let my mummy run alone"), and the enticement of the Millenium Way Ultra - 41 miles across Staffordshire with about 6 months to prepare.
Was it possible? Could I do it? Am I brave enough to try?
So with Cheryl Strayed's new book "Brave Enough" for extra inspiration, my training has begun.
I've had much-needed advice from ultra-marathon running friends and I'm gradually building up my miles again, with great company from Liz especially. I raced a metric marathon at Chester - 26.2 undulating kilometres on a sunny day in October - and my Christmas pudding outfit got another outing at the Cheddleton 10k - I was a very soggy pudding by the end of it!
And now it's all systems go for my ultra marathon goal.
There are a lot of things to like about ultra-marathon training... walk breaks are actively encouraged (it's all about time on my feet), snack breaks are pretty much built into every run, the increased volume of training means I get to eat lots and not worry too much and the slower pace of most of my training runs means almost every run is a chatty run, my very favourite kind of run.
I'm learning about running on tired legs and back to back training runs. I'm getting used to running with my backpack and carrying extra water. I've been to the gym and embarked on some cross training, playing netball as well for a bit of speed work. And I'm rediscovering what a long slow run actually feels like.
Last Sunday, Julie and I headed out to test out long-run strategies on the first 10.5 miles of the Millenium Way route, from Newport to the M6 just before Stafford and back. At 21 miles, this was my longest run since the London Marathon in April 2014. We were testing our navigation skills, although the first part of the route is almost a straight line (we just need to remember to go left at the bin after 6 miles).
We were working out our race pace, trying to average about 5 miles an hour including stops. We were experimenting with the best forms of mid-run fuel: bananas and Mars bars get a resounding yes, but I don't think we'll be trying sweet potatoes again! We were finding out what we can do when the run gets tough - Julie counted steps in her head, allowing herself 100 steps of walking every now and then. I looked for landmarks... I'll run to the next bridge, I'll walk when we cross the road and climb the hill.
We encouraged each other and kept going, even when the rain came down and the wind was in our faces. There weren't too many times when we were both struggling and silent, which will hopefully be the case on race day. We even remembered to look at the view.
At the end of our long run, we were tired and hungry, but "quietly" pleased with our efforts. We can do this... There are many more miles of training to do before we're ready for race day in March, but we are most definitely brave enough.
Happy long slow running
PS We did it! On 6th March 2016, Julie and I completed the 41 miles from Newport to Burton in 10 hours and 1 minute, just as darkness fell. It was a battle of mind over matter, especially the last five miles as fatigue began to make every part of my body ache, but we discovered we were indeed brave enough. We did the best that we could do on the day. We are ultra marathon runners, already looking for our next challenge!
All quotes from Brave Enough by Cheryl Strayed (kindle edition). Thanks to Cheryl for her kind permission to reproduce them here.