Wednesday, 14 June 2017

South Downs Way 100 - A painful wake up call.

It was 4am and the sun was beginning to rise on Housedean. Tired and with the seething pain of a migraine I was broken. Slumped in the chair I was done... No finish... No buckle... No grandslam take 2! Rewind this back 22 hours and we find ourselves on the start line of The South Downs Way 100. James Elson is going through his speech with his Debbie McGee (Nici Griffin) ably assisting. As part of the speech James announces that for some the race will not be their day and that's ok. Truth be told I was standing there thinking "never going to happen," "not me." I would not go as far as to say I assumed a finish would happen, but in my head I knew I could and convinced myself I would. I gave no sanction to the possibility of failure. Truth be told the DNF is the biggest point of this blog, more so than the review. It's a cracking race and an array of blogs will account for that.

With this DNF I have formulated a multitude of hypotheses behind the reason and each and everyone my responsibility, my fault, my DNF to own. I'm ok with that. This DNF was overdue, this DNF was a long time coming and this DNF was purposeful. Let me recount some of the race and explain why.

At the start of the race I had gravitated towards a slight complacency. I have run enough ultras now to know my mental fortitude is good. I know I can run through physical and emotional pain. Generally when I'm struggling I can find a reserve and press on. The caveat to this, sadly for me is that a need to devote myself to training and key sessions was substituted by the mind telling me I know I can finish. Talking with Zoe after the race we reflected on how at the last three 100s I've struggled. The exception to this being A100. Why??? A100 had a good training block. The rest has been inconsistent, some of this brought on by frantic workloads and advancements in my career, some and largely most of the missed runs were as a result of an inability to prioritise and to simply waste time. It could be called a loss of focus and many other things. The reality being that whatever reasoning is given, the miles were not in the legs. This was not the notorious "mojo" issue or something similar, I simply did not prepare properly and consequently asked too much of my body.

I set off on the SDW100 feeling pretty good. I was running within myself and cruised through the first couple of aid stations with no issues at all. It was getting warm and that was always going to be an issue for me. I was heating up to an uncomfortable level. I was clicking over to about 20 miles and started leaping frogging with a few runners. Dropping into Queen Elizabeth Park I was feeling ok and pace was not too far off where I wanted it to be. I got the boost of seeing my best mate, Sam Robson, doing his volunteer duties. He was there with his family who are, for all that matters, my family. A short period of time messing around with them and then topping up fluids and consuming calories and I was off. Shortly after I began to get some pain in my right hamstring. I found myself stopping and stretching repeatedly. This lasted until about mile 40. By this point it stopped hurting, everything loosened up and I was feeling really good. I ran for a bit with Jo, before pressing on. Approaching mile 50 I was very hot, but generally not too bad. I was not too far back on pace and was building a sufficient cushion on the cut offs, but my mind was leaning towards being overly comfortable with the gap I had, rather than pressing on. A call to Zoe and I could sense her frustration. She was trying to get through to the rational part of me, the part that should have been putting as much on the cut offs as absolutely possible. That woman would have been kicking my arse if she had been present and rightly so.

Out of the 54 mile aid station i was ok. There is a short sharp climb, but otherwise it's ok. Up this climb I was conscious of my weight and the fact I have still yet to crack the weight loss process. I leaned towards thoughts of "if you just left the fucking snacks alone." Something that is easier said than done. The light was starting to become strained by the time I got to mile 62. I was greeted wonderfully by Sarah Sawyer. I was feeling optimistic that things would be good from here, it would cool down and I would press on and before I knew it I would be in Eastbourne. Sarah let me know that lots of others were struggling in the heat. I had a renewed vigour that everyone was in the same position. As I climbed up the hill I was calm and measured in my approach. I was tired, but nothing beyond the norm. Then at mile 64 my world began to flip. A pounding sensation was growing in my head and the pressure behind my eyes was building. At Saddlescombe I hoped to regroup, but the desire and need to stop was growing fast. The treatment at this aid station has to be on par or above any aid station you will find at any event. I knew if I contemplated my journey here then my journey would be over, I would be too comfortable and I would not leave. I got up, thanked everyone and pressed on. A matter of 3/4 mile later I slumped on the hill and phoned Zoe. I could feel my head pounding and thought I was done. Wrestling with a possible 2nd grandslam DNF was emotionally traumatic. It took me to a dark place full of self resentment. I wanted to sob, I wanted to scream and fundamentally I wanted to blame everything else to avoid blaming me. So with that I told Zoe I was going to press on to Housedean. I hoped the headache would pass and I'd kick on from there. In truth I was turning the mirror and using this time to hope for a recovery, but also considering what needed to change if I was going to have longevity in the sport.

I am always touched by the kindness of strangers when sharing such adversity. I was pressing on up the hill and a father supported by his daughter came up from behind me. They offered to hook arms and March me up the hill. I explained that my legs were Good, but my head was shot. Within about 15 seconds the couple located some paracetamol. Now knowing I was likely to stop if the headache didn't clear I chose to take them. The placebo effect off the tablets saw me push on and for a tiny window start to feel better. The reality of the new 10mile gap to Housedean (Clayton Windmills being no more) meant in reality I was going to face 8 miles of bloody Hell and some very dark spaces with that. The placebo effect had not lasted long and I was loitering with the pain of the advancing migraine. I was caught by Jo and another gentleman she was running with. Jo was amazing and tried to distract me from the pain and I could feel her will to see me finish. Secretly she just wanted to see my children run round the track. It turns out my kids have a knack for making Jo sob during races.

Fundamentally though with about 4 miles to Housedean I had to let them press on. I was fully encroached by a migraine and the fatigue of this was now overwhelming. I was fairly sure the race was over for me. I went through ditchling beacon and stopped multiple times to try to regroup and to prevent the pain advancing... it didn't work. I made poor decisions, including down coffee from people's crew.

About 2 miles out from Housedean I was disorientated and for the first time in my life I began to hallucinate. I stopped dead in my tracks, absolutely convinced that a massive bull was standing in my way. I looked down and then back up. When I looked back up the bull was replaced by an overhanging bush. I swore at myself and pressed on down the hill. I was struggling emotionally. I did not want my kids to not have a buckle to take home. Zoe would later tell me, "as long as daddy is home in one piece they won't care one bit." She of course was absolutely right. Two further bouts of hallucination; one bull and a non-existent headtorch behind me and I was sure it was game over, I then fell asleep standing up and as I was jolted awake I had made my peace with it. I trundled into the Aid the station, still with over and hour on the cut off, but my race was over. I removed my race number and gave it to a member of the Aid station team. As I sat waiting for Zoe to collect me I was in a world of pain... not my legs, I had running left, but the migraine was leaving me with blindspots in my vision. My peripheral vision was limited and I knew I'd made the right call. As I sat pondering what might have been and the fact that today I would not be running onto the track, a new found resolute washed over me. I will get fitter and faster, I will come back and conquer the grandslam. I'm not sure the same resolution would have occurred if I'd finished the race. This DNF will enable me to become a better runner.

My only disappointment of the race was at Housedean. I proceeded to take out my emergency kit and get dressed. With 45 minutes until the Aid station closed I was surprised and disappointed to see it being dismantled around me. I was pretty soon left sitting on a chair, with no access to food or hot drinks and the shelter of the canopy was removed. I was invited to sit in a van to wait for my wife. I understand people were tired and wanted to get home, but i was disappointed by this action. I stood up and plonked myself by the wall and waited for Zoe. By the time Zoe arrived all aid station crew had gone.

Zoe drove me back to her parents. I was exhausted and in pain, but grateful she had come to get me. We swung by the track to collect my bag. A hug with Nici and a knowing look of disappointment from both of us. I will crack this grandslam at some point and the failed attempts will make it all the more sweet. I spoke briefly with a couple of other runners at the track and then headed home. I put my feet up and rested for a couple of hours before the kids woke up. Sure enough they ran in the room and were just happy to see me. Big hugs reminded me of what is most important. I can't top the moment my little girl wraps her arms around my neck and shouts "dadddyyyyy" it has and always outweigh the value of any medal. A large amount of the pain in my head was easing, but the overall headache remained for a few days.

So as I look back on this race I have to be honest and say that a migraine may seem like bad luck, but in truth it was deserved. I suspect it was my bodies way of expressing its physical exhaustion. I had been under trained and my sleep pattern had been shit for months. Work has been so busy that I've just lost focus. My body weight is too high and this all accumulated on race day to a DNF. You can't fake a 100 mile finish. Was I unlucky to get a migraine... possibly... did I deserve a DNF... absolutely!!!! So with that noted it's back to the drawing board. I have let training stay limited for a few weeks and to emotionally recover. Today is the 24th July 2017 and training starts in earnest for A100. What that really means and the challenges ahead, well that's for another blog. What I do know is that being honest about this DNF and the reasons behind it, will make me a better runner in the future. I figure you can hide from everyone, but yourself. Today I stand in front of the mirror and am happy that this is my starting line to my next challenge. Today I weigh 15st2lb and optimum race weight is around 12st. I'm not happy with this weight, but each day I will set goals and slowly it will come down. I will crack this battle I have with my weight. If i can succeed with this challenge then I know I can succeed at A100 and future races. Success or failure is on me. I have a great deal of runners to catch up. They have overtaken me in ability, purely through their dedication to training and all aspects of it. I admire each of these runners immensely; such commitment gets tested in various ways. So without remorse for past failings,  or jealousy for their successes, I take on board all my lessons from previous runs and am going to now strive to be the best runner i can be. Hopefully along the way that will result in me being the best version of myself.

A massive thank you to all those who said hello on the way. It meant a great deal. I was surprised by how many people recognised me and have read the blog of what is essentially a rambling over weight runner. I am touched that I have inspired some of you and I hope this blog and journey will do the same for others. My moment of the weekend was being asked if I was "The Dan Park" suitably embarrassed that runner can remain nameless :) My response still stands "Dan will do." Hope to see you all at future races and I hope the documenting of this next journey can continue to inspire others. It's not easy this keeping fit lark. I have some ambitious plans for the future and I am sure some of you will all be involved along the way.