Several months ago we were contacted by the amazing Zandra who asked us if it would be suitable to do the Camino Lea Valley 50Km as a guided run with registered blind runner Paul Watts. We were delighted to share that this is definitely the perfect course for anyone to try their first ultramarathon. The trails (Cole Green and Lea Valley) are immaculate and free from too many trip-hazards. The route is very easy to navigate. There is plenty of 'path space' for both runners and every day users.
So we wanted to find out more about Zandra and Paul and to introduce them to the Camino Community - especially as we want everyone associated with the Lea Valley 50KM in June to be able to make the experience the best possible for Paul/Zandra
Could you tell us a bit about your running background and history with ultramarathons?
Paul: I went to boarding school after I lost my sight at the age of 6 and this is when I started running. All the schools for the blind competed in an inter schools championship – you ran individually on the track and had someone calling you at the other end to help keep you on the right path. In these events you competed against those of a similar level of sight. Mine is 1%, so I really have to pay attention to those guiding me. Incredibly I won the championship which then started a life-long love of running.
Zandra: I’m afraid my start to running was the complete opposite. Like a lot of people, I didn’t really enjoy it at school and tried to avoid it as much as I could. I was much happier jumping around in an aerobics class than trying to run around the block. That all changed when a friend at work organised for us all to do a Race for Life. I diligently followed the couch to 5k and found that running was not only something I could do, but felt like a massive achievement as well.
Interestingly, one thing we have in common is that mine and Paul’s first marathons were London. Mine was in 2002, after completing the Race for Life. I figured if I could run for 5k I could probably make my way up to the 26.2 miles by following the right training plan.
Paul: Mine was a few years earlier in 1989. I had gone away to college and ended up in hospital with a broken leg. It was whilst I was there that I said to my nurse that I was going to run the London Marathon. That was in 1982, the second year of London Marathon taking place and it sounded exciting to me. Two years later I ran the Hereford Half (courtesy of the local Round Table training me) and then in 1989 I got my place in London through my running club. I ran my first marathon in 4.18.44. At the finish my guide asked if I would run another one and I immediately said yes. I was hooked.
Zandra: Whereas at the end of mine, I couldn’t think of anything worse. Mentally I just wasn’t prepared for the distance. I was also putting a whole heap of pressure on myself to do ‘a decent time’ and it all just fell apart for me.
Paul: When I started, I never thought in my wildest dreams that I’d ever get to run as many as 100 marathons – it just didn’t seem possible. And yet, the Potteries Marathon marked that occasion for me in 1998. What made it even more special, was that I ended up running the last few metres, including going across the finish, on my own!
I certainly wasn’t about to retire my trainers at that point though. A couple of months later, I ran a 35 mile race on my 35th birthday. I couldn’t think of a better birthday celebration!!
Over the years I had one big running ambition and that was to run a 24 hour race. Whilst running for that amount of time is demanding on most of us, its additional pressure on my guide who also has to remain alert to keep me upright. Happily, I’ve now managed to tick that one off my list, clocking up 88 miles in a 24 hour track race in 2019. I’m so pleased that I managed to do it before all the Covid restrictions came in.
So far I’ve run 343 marathons and 23 ultras, but there’s still plenty more miles in my legs.
Zandra: I’ve a long way to go to match Paul. My running history is very sporadic. In fact, it was 9 years before I ventured out again for that distance, when I ran at Edinburgh, although I was enjoying running half marathons and 10 milers in the meantime.
But it was in 2017 that I started to run a few more marathons, even dipping my toes in to see what a short ultra was like, once I’d discovered timed events. That year I also ran my first 50 miler in just under 10 hours, which I was thrilled by.
The last year has seen my biggest running achievements though. Sadly, I lost my mum on Christmas Eve 2020. She had cancer but was diagnosed too late and hadn’t even begun treatment before she died. So, in May 2021 I ran 100 mile race to raise money for blood cancer. In training for it, I decided to run in zone 2, which felt so ridiculously slow that walking would have been quicker. But something strange happened. I realised I was thoroughly enjoying myself. I was smiling the whole way. I could breathe, I could eat and drink without gasping for air. It was a revelation! I realised that running slow meant you could enjoy the moment and take in the views. And I really haven’t looked back since, ending the year running 10 marathons in 10 days – something I couldn’t have contemplated a year or two before.
Paul: I’ve had quite a few running highlights over the years, although there are a few special ones that really stand out for me. One is running the 3 in 3 – the Seven Sisters marathon, Snowden marathon and Dublin marathon in the last year that it was possible to run them consecutively (2006). Another is being mentioned in Helen Summer’s book – The Man inside the Machine: The Approved Biography of Steve Edwards. That man is such a formidable running force and to be included was such a privilege. Even more excitingly, I also had my own chapter in another of Helen’s books called ‘Running Crazy’. Having achieved so much in running, the real cherry on top was that I was nominated for, and subsequently carried the Olympic torch in 2012! I’ve now also been nominated to be a baton bearer for the commonwealth games but am just waiting now to find out if I have it. What an honour!
How did you hear about Camino Ultra?
Paul: I discovered Camino through a friend that I run with. He works in Welwyn Garden City at the Isobel Hospice and heard about the Lea Valley event. This year we decided to take on the challenge of running 2022km between us to raise money for the hospice and this seemed like the ideal event. How could I not take part when it starts pretty much on the doorstep of the hospice?
Is there anything that you would love to specifically share about guide running in context of helping other Caminos know more about it? How best can we support you both on race day?
Paul: It’d be great if you could tell the other runners in the event that there is a visually impaired runner taking part. That way they can be more aware if they do happen to come across us. It’s just about being a little more careful and not impeding us – trying to overtake us when there isn’t the room, is going to end up being disastrous for everyone!
All we need is a little bit of consideration and space given that me and Zandra will be running alongside each other. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t want your hellos and encouragement though – and we’re very happy to chat to other runners as we go so don’t go avoiding us either!
Zandra: Sometimes we might need you to be a little bit patient – particularly if we’re on a narrow path and have to go single file – its obviously a lot trickier if you can’t see where your feet are going. Paul has to put a lot of trust in me and I’ll be constantly on the look out for obstacles for both of us. If I miss one, we’ll both be going down. Which really is par for the course!