Challenge Ultra London to Brighton on the 28th of May was a long-awaited 100km event that I had signed up to do in 2020 and then, of course, became another race from my list of deferred or cancelled races. It had been the focus of my dreams and my training for months. It was my first post lockdown race. It seemed so long ago that I'd run Endurance life Sussex Ultra on a blustery March day in 2020, the weekend before we went into Lockdown. Now, Standing in Richmond park at 6.30 am on what was going to be a hot day, it became clear that this race day was, metaphorically speaking, an enjoyable detour on the route of a very much longer journey that had started many years before.
The moment I stepped over the finish line of the London Virgin Marathon in 2019, having had achieved that long-held marathon goal, I knew that I wanted to run further and that ultras were calling for me like the song of a Siren! So there began the journey to understand what it would take for me to run further. The essential requirement for a journey is that you move forward at least a little every day. Some days sprinting, the other days crawling depending upon the terrain you find yourself on and the body you find yourself in. So I moved forward like a kid in a sweet shop of Ultra events, a couple of 50km, out and backs, muddy winter 50 miles all on an AI training plan that was most chaotic crawling. I then realised that I wanted a coach; ultra-running is a multi-disciplined event where many other skills become as important as your running fitness (hydration. nutrition. navigation, kit, mindset) and to have the support of an experienced coach is quite something. I was lucky enough to be introduced to David and Darren, who became my coaches and more who have become wonderful friends and mentors. So many training achievements that seem impossible as a busy working mum of 2 became possible through my coaching with them! And by the summer of 2020, I was running 50 miles a week, which seemed nothing short of miraculous and with consistency, direction, and dedication in my training that I had never been able to achieve before.
But sometimes it seems that you've run out of road. It did for me in October 2020 when, just as my training was going well, I felt strong, a horrible popping noise from my knee, which my running companions heard loud and clear despite the noise from the torrential rain that was falling. The report from the MRI scan that followed was a series of unpronounceable words for hidden parts of my knee like infrapatellar fat pad syndrome, insertation popliteus tendinitis, anserine bursitis, ACL insufficiency, Torn MCL. The reality was no running and a lot of pain.
So like any dedicated runner, I set about getting back to running as soon as I could! I had been given some solid strengthen exercises by my physio which I plugged away at, but they are not what I would call enjoyable. But I found joy and rehabilitation in Feldenkrais. I was first introduced to this method by Jae Grunke in her balanced runner course. Although I was injured, I was still able to continue developing movement skills through Feldenkrais, which would stand me in good stead for when I was back on the trails.
So, what is Feldenkrais, and how does it help your running? That would require a blog of its own to highlight all its depth. But in practical terms, it consists of lessons that focus on particular sequences of movements done with awareness. In these lessons, you explore yourself to create a map of your body and its movement capability at that moment, much in the same way a cartographer explores and maps new terrain. Initially, your map might be monochrome with just a few contour lines and some simple routes; however, over time, you can create a beautifully detailed map that shows an intricate topography in vivid colours and fine detail. With awareness, you might find you don't need to be told how to improve your form or look at other people who run fast, but you can feel yourself what to you is easy, comfortable and coordinated movement. Then you might find your natural ability to move that way; after all, it's how we are designed to move, it's in our DNA.
This practice also really helped me accept my injury and all the time I had away from running. Injury can seem so devastating, and you feel like your running life is passing you by. But by keeping focused and having a regular practice, it kept me motivated and moving towards my running goals. I think the journey to recovery can be a learning opportunity, so if you find yourself take there, take it!
There was no running for 3 months, but in January 2021, I started working with David and Darren to build back up my training plan slowly. Pushing around at the edges of my current abilities to see what was the possible week to week, ensuring enough rest time between runs, so my knee wasn't painful, seeing what felt right, being mindful of maintaining the healing of the previous 3 months but seeking improvements, seeking more miles! Some races had to be deferred again (Watch out TP100 2022, I'm coming to get you), but London to Brighton was a realistic goal. Lots of questions come up with training plans. What kind of weekly millage do you need to run 100km? What the ideal distance for the longest run? But these are more difficult to answer when you are coming back from injury, so the focus needed to be on the here and now and building up at the pace my knee could handle.
Once I started running again, I felt very aware that I had gained some resilience from having recovered from my injury, and I knew that I need this for the 100km, which gave me a real boost. When I'm experiencing a challenge during training runs, I imagine I'm experiencing this in a race situation. I take myself to that race and visualise the steps I'm going to take to overcome the particular sensation of difficulty I'm experiencing. In doing this, I find I feel more prepared for the many things that may crop up during an Ultra. This kind of training is just as valuable as physical training, especially when you're new to running and building up your real like experience, but often easy to overlook.
With my last long run of 36km in the bag, a rather enjoyable FKT with David where the hours passed talking about life, the universe and everything, and hatching running plans, I knew that I was ready for L2B.
So there I was in the start line at last. I soon fell in beside a fellow chatty runner; there's nothing more I like than finding a runner who's also looking to run at a conversational pace too. A good tactic so I don't go off too fast, and I settle into my running! As we pounded the suburban streets of greater London, the time flew by, but after a few hours, a tactical sock change from me into thinner socks meant we went our separate ways. From then on in, I made my way through the field of runners chatting here and there but passing by eventually. I started in the second waves, so there were people ahead, which I found very motivating. I had been warned about the village size aid stations with sit down meals on offer that you could get lost in, so I tried to skip through them. A review of my race stats on Strava showed that those aid stations were a bit of time wrap! I wasn't as quick through them as I thought I'd been! After about 30km, the route ran out of the suburbs and into the fields and island of woodland and into the prettier section of the race.
My legs felt great, and I kept myself entertained on the walks uphill by posting some vlog updates to my virtual Camino crew via Whatsapp. Having a virtual crew added extra accountability for me, and I wanted to deliver them reports to the end, so it spurred me on when I needed it. It was a sweltering day, and I was grateful for Suzie, a fellow COffee Runner, to meet me at 85km with some ice and ice lolly just in time for the biggest hill of the course at mile 90km. The news that I was 5th lady at that point was welcome, and I wanted to hold onto the spot and pushed on. The effort of hills is almost always rewarded with views that outway at the effort, and the was no exception. The final hills rolled by, and soon I could see the sea, and the finish line was within sight. There's nothing like the feeling of crossing the finish line of a race, no matter what place you come, you've made it. The finish was all the sweeter for knowing my best friend would be there to meet me, and the table in the pub for a celebratory burger and beer was already booked!
So this, for me, is the joy of running. The adventure of taking myself from one place to another using nothing but my own body and volition. Fuelled by a ton of gels and a couple of peanut butter and jam sandwiches. Being able to connect with other runners with a common goal. To feel a part of the different environment I'm running through and the nourishment that gives me. To experience the deep satisfaction of achieving a dream and pushing myself outside my comfort zone. To have the opportunity to learn new things about myself and learn new skills I can develop back in the real world. To set an example to my children, be a role model to them, and show them that adventures are there for the taking — this why you'll see me smiling when I run.
This article was written by Coach Paula - If you have considered running your first ultramarathon or are wanting to improve your running for an even greater endurance event then message firstname.lastname@example.org