Find out what keeps you going and go outside your comfort zone
When I’m older and look back on my running I think the events that stand out will be the ones a bit different to the others. That’s one reason I wanted to run 50 miles with my brother Jonny from Wheatfields hospice in Leeds to Bolton hospice in… Bolton.
Of course I will likely remember most of my (8 to date) marathons as the marathon always provides a unique set of challenges and are also few and far between, but opportunities to do something out of the ordinary like the 50 miler don’t come around too often.
Jonny ran 100k for charity in 2013 just after my eldest son Aaron was born. I didn’t join him on that occasion and I sometimes regret not going. Our Mum ran 15k that day about 9 months after her terminal cancer diagnosis that would claim her life about 9 months later.
In 2017, we came together to run 24in24 (24 parkruns (5ks) in 24 hours around Northern Ireland) in her memory and in aid of Action Cancer. I still mark that as one of my biggest achievements because I wasn’t as fit back then as I am now.
It showed that sometimes the mind is stronger than the body. Something can be so important that you have to find a way to get through and do it. It also shows that doing something outside your comfort zone can propel you to do more than you thought possible.
Having missed 2013 and had Jonny’s support in 2017, I wanted to make sure I helped him in his quest to run 50 miles from Leeds to Bolton and I knew it would be an achievement I will look back on in the future if we managed it.
Yes I’d run 120km (around 75 miles) in 2017 and 2019 (24in24 #2) but that was broken up into 5ks and I don’t really count that as one run. In some respects it was much harder because we were going for so much longer, but there was also some element of rest that helped too.
So the longest continuous run I’d done before was 39.3 miles in Connemara in 2017. That meant this would be my longest run to date so although we weren’t racing it, there was always a small part of me that was apprehensive about running a new distance.
However, I was also reasonably confident. My marathon training in August was around 65 miles per week and my rule of thumb is that you can probably run your weekly mileage in one go if need be. In other words I felt confident I could go up to about 100k (63 miles) if needed.
That’s not to say you can’t run longer on fewer weekly miles like I did in 2017 but you are much more heavily reliant on the mind getting you through and crossing your fingers as to whether the body will hold up.
Confidence is key to going longer distances. I’ve been very lucky that my body has generally held up well over longer distances and that hasn’t always been down to great training. Having the belief in yourself to do what you’ve set out to do is almost more important than having the physical ability.
I’m not saying you should be reckless but I do feel that it can be easy to stay in your comfort zone and not push the boundaries of what you think is possible.
Eliud Kipchoge says ‘no human is limited’. It’s a great sound bite and it cannot be literally true but I certainly agree with where he is going with the phrase. We think things aren’t possible. Until they are.
And someone has to be the first; first to climb Everest, first to walk on the Moon, first to run a sub 2 marathon. Most of the time, what you’re trying to do has already been done. Other people have run 50 miles so why couldn’t you or I? Usually there’s no reason why not.
I’m not going to run a sub 2 hour marathon but then almost nobody is. For now. But I could certainly improve if I wanted to. If I dedicated more time. We’re generally only limited by time so it depends how much you want to and can put in.
And just occasionally, you could be the first. We were the first to run 24 parkruns in 24 hours in Northern Ireland (as far as we know), probably because nobody else thought of it, or wanted to. It doesn’t mean someone couldn’t have done it before or do it in the future.
The point is that believing it is half the battle. And you need to use every tool you can to make you believe it is possible. That could be drawing on experience, or being inspired by someone who has already done it. It can be as simple as breaking a task down.
We had many sections on the 50 miler. In my mind we weren’t running 50 miles. We were running 14 miles to the edge of Bradford. Then we were running 6 miles over the moors. We then had another 6 miles on the canal followed by another 5 miles on the moors.
That took us into Lancashire where we had 11 miles to the last official stop then 6 miles until we picked up support from staff at Bolton Hospice to run the last 3 miles. When you break it down like that it seems much more doable than thinking of running 50 miles.
We started just after 8am and the first section was all on road and although admittedly it was mostly uphill as we approached the moors, it was a fairly gentle opening section.
We were naturally full of chat at this point. How were we going to approach it physically and mentally? Was it sane to try this? We also reflected on being back at Wheatfields Hospice and shared some memories.
We got surprisingly hungry which shouldn’t have really been surprising. We’d eaten at about 6:30am and we didn’t get to the first meet point till nearly 10:30am. We weren’t carrying much in the way of supplies at that point because we were all on road and it seemed straight forward.
So we were very happy to see my sister-in-law Jenni at the end of the first section to refuel and change into trail gear. We also packed our emergency kit consisting of foil blanket, whistle and more layers into our backpacks.
I was only carrying a camelbak and space was limited. If we’d been off road for much more I’m not sure I would have been comfortable running so light. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. Jonny had checked out the route from map and satellite but not in person due to illness.
Refuelled and ready for the next section we were soon out on the moors with no way for Jenni to rescue us if we got into difficulties. At the start I was a bit skeptical of Jonny’s watch keeping us on the right route and getting up onto the moors seemed a bit twisty and convoluted.
But it worked like a dream and for the most part the paths were discernible and in some places half decent.
One thing I got told on my first mountain race was to jump in the first puddle you find. You’re going to get wet so there’s no point wasting energy trying to avoid it. It was pretty boggy in places so I didn’t need to make much effort to get wet.
My trail shoes are also pretty clapped out. I’m fairly good at replacing other shoes in a relatively timely fashion but these have holes in them and not just the big one you put your foot into.
Halfway through the section we passed a house which used to be the Withens pub, the highest pub in West Yorkshire. We used to go there with our parents when we were kids and I remember some wet and windy walks around there followed by a 20p kids cocktail!
From there, we had a slightly demoralising steep descent before climbing again to get over another ‘hump’ before descending sharply again into Hebden Bridge. At least on the climb we had steps to help us and we’d agreed early on that even gentle inclines would be walked.
This was definitely a point to regroup and Jonny told me of the Brownlee brothers’ tip that if you’re not trying to get ahead and push on then you should be trying to refuel. That’s probably more aimed at racing triathlons but I would say equally useful for ultras too.
In Hebden Bridge we were briefly back on road with a really nasty steep descent on cobbles with a handrail to hold us up before hitting the canal towpath. I’ve no doubt that these steep downhills coupled with my inability to tie my laces tight resulted in my first ever black toenails.
I enjoyed the canal part because it’s a real chance to switch off with no road crossings or difficult trail lines to pick out. I found out later that Jonny wasn’t enjoying it much at that point and on reflection you do get quite a few undulations despite the general flatness.
Walking those uphills makes sense because you’re trying to conserve energy but it does break your rhythm up. We were also having difficulty knowing how many layers we should be wearing. It had been cold and wet on top but now the going was a bit faster and the sun was threatening despite never being convincing.
As we approached the marathon and 5 hour mark, I was starting to think this section was really too long not to be broken up. We weren’t due to see Jenni again until mile 30 after another trail section and we were starting to get hungry again.
Miraculously, she appeared in Todmorden near the end of the canal stretch. It was a massive boost just to see a friendly face again but even more so when we realised we were running right past the car and could get some of the food like sandwiches that we couldn’t fit into our bags.
My nutritional approach for ultras is completely different to a marathon. My marathon nutrition is very strict based on gels and bars taken on a time schedule. In a marathon I’m working at a level that means I need fast acting carbohydrates that I can consume with the minimum of fuss.
In the first 24in24 in 2017 I thought I would replicate something like that over a longer period. But I very soon got sick of sports drinks, gels and bars and craved ‘proper’ food.
The big differences are that the intensity of work is much lower and the time is much longer so your body is able to operate a bit more normally than in a high intensity effort where its sole focus is supplying energy to the working muscles.
Having not raced an ultra flat out, it’s hard to know what my approach would be for racing but I do think that once the intensity drops to a certain level and the time goes up, I really need proper food for interest as much as anything else.
I also usually find it easier to eat more normally earlier on and if you start being unable to consume anything, that’s when the problems are likely to hit. So I would save more of the easier to consume calories for later when things start to get tougher.
Reinvigorated from this unexpected stop, we set off on the second trail section which ended up being 5 miles. Not too far on from our stop it seemed like we were really out in the wilderness. We passed the odd house or farm and I could not imagine living somewhere that remote.
With about 2 miles to our next stop, the ‘path’ seemed to run out and we were picking our way through huge tussocks and deep bog. We made a beeline in the direction the path should have been but it was certainly slow going.
Eventually, we got over and down the other side and towards a farm. The problem was, when we got to the bottom, we were supposed to take a right turn through the farm and there was no indication that we were allowed to do so.
Faced with the choice of going back up, across and back down where there was no guaranteed access or taking a left down the road and adding a mile on, we opted for the latter. Partly this was because we had anticipated the route might be slightly short of 50 miles and adding a mile on here seemed much more preferable to running around the hospice car park at the end.
But it also made sense. An extra mile on road would cost us little more than 10 minutes, a small amount of physical exertion and no mental fatigue. The other way could have been shorter but the chances are, we were going to face another problem and potentially have to come back to where we were anyway.
By the time we got to the next scheduled meet point at Britannia where Louise and the boys had joined up with Jenni, it was another 90 minutes on from Todmorden and we were even more glad of the previous stop.
I am very lucky to have such a supportive family and I can imagine that hanging around in car parks and driving between them is not the most exciting day out. Hopefully, seeing Jonny and I made it worthwhile and it was certainly a massive boost to both of us.
Jenni should get special mention. She was up with us at 6am to drive us over to Leeds then met us throughout the day with encouraging words and all our supplies. It’s great to hear ‘you’re looking really fresh’ than something like ‘you’re looking like a drowned rat’ which I’m sure I did.
She also had to put up with a few silly requests. Being a supported ultra runner turns me a little divaish. I think it’s a glimpse into my former life where I was a tour manager for a band and would sometimes have to wait on them hand and foot.
I totally get it though. The job of the band is to perform and they employ people around them so they can concentrate fully on that role. I’ve said before on 24in24 that running is the easy part because of the support around you. That’s all we had to focus on because other things are taken care of. It’s all planned out in advance and your support is there waiting for you.
At Britannia, I asked Jenni to flatten some coke for me. Flat coke has been a staple for me on ultras as it’s got calories, caffeine and easy on the stomach. It also tastes great. I’d meant for her to do it sometime before the next stop so we could have it later.
She did it there and then. But when she opened it, it sprayed all over Jonny who was standing next to her. I really felt bad. There’s no reason I couldn’t have done it myself! But it will be one of those moments that we all remember looking back.
With all the excitement of the stop, I forgot to change out of my trail shoes and into my long run shoes. Usually, I wouldn’t bother changing shoes but given the different terrains it was wise. I figured the trail shoes were worn down anyway so wearing them out more on road wouldn’t be a big problem.
But I probably should have changed them. There isn’t much cushioning in them and my ankles got sore later on in the day. Whether that was because I wore the trail shoes for an extra 11 miles on road, I’ll never really know.
About 5 miles into this stretch, my watch started to die. I was annoyed because I’d left the power pack to charge it in the car. Knowing we had well over an hour left, I wasn’t confident it would survive. I also didn’t know if we’d lose what had been recorded if it died.
Jonny had been using his watch solely for navigation so we didn’t have any other record of the 36 miles we’d just done. I had to stop the activity and start a new one. At the same time, Jonny started recording from the same point on his phone in case my watch went completely.
It didn’t, but it really annoyed me for at least a couple of miles. I wanted a single complete file and didn’t know if we would get it (in the end I was able to splice the two runs together). This is an example of something silly that can happen in an ultra that throws you off mentally.
I found this section strange. The first half of it seemed to be downhill all the way and I felt we could pick the pace up here a little to try and get us back towards our target. We’d lost quite a bit of time on the moors, through the detour and stopping longer than we’d intended.
It didn’t matter too much except that we had people waiting at the end for us. We didn’t want them waiting longer than they needed. However, any time made up seemed to ebb away over the second part of the section with long gradual hills that seemed to go on forever.
As we approached the final meet point just past Ramsbottom, there was a hint of dusk approaching. At this point I did change my shoes and also added the Bolton hospice vest over my t-shirt along with lights and packed my head torch. As we got going for the last 8 miles, I felt I should have added more layers as we’d got quite cold at the stop.
At this point I think we knew we were going to make it, it was just a matter of how long this last section was going to take. I’ll be honest and say it felt like it took forever even though our pace never really slowed significantly.
8 miles run easy in training would take me around an hour but I knew here it was going to take more like an hour and 45 which is still the length of a long run for me. The darkness closed in very quickly but most of the route was well lit and we were always on pavement so head torches were never required.
I felt like we’d exhausted the chat which we probably hadn’t, but I knew that we were probably both thinking the same thing; we just want this to be done now.
It’s funny how you set your mind up to tackle the distance you’re going for. Physically, we could probably have gone on for another 10 miles if we’d needed but mentally we were ready for the end because we knew we were close.
That’s why miles 20-23 can be so tough in a marathon. You’ve come so far but you’re not quite there yet.
It was great that we had staff from Bolton hospice (Helen, Mary, Prem and Varsha) to run with us for the last 5k. They’d probably been waiting an hour for us but we were so grateful. At that point, the chat started again and it felt like a victory lap into Bolton.
We had supporters waiting for us at the end and we were less than an hour later than we’d said we would be. I think that’s pretty good over that period of time on a route we really knew quite little about.
I said earlier about how breaking a big task down into smaller chunks makes it seem easier, but at the point you finish, all your mental and physical energy is spent. It feels like a blur and it once again seems like an enormous challenge you have just overcome.
Physically, I felt I’d got off quite lightly. I was able to walk around and drive with no issues the next day but in the few days after, I did feel the toll it had taken. Apart from the blackened toenails, I did need a few naps over the next few days and I’ve felt lethargic getting back into normal training ever since.
It takes a toll mentally too. The more you gear up for something, the more there is a potential dip that follows. I felt like I hadn’t invested a lot of mental energy in the preparation – Jonny did most of that. But I’d probably used it to refocus my effort after Berlin marathon.
So I probably ended up with a compounded dip on the other side. I have a marathon booked in spring which is my next focus but it’s far enough off to not be too concerned about. I feel like I’ve lost all my speed so racing something short soon is not that appealing.
However, I’ll never regret doing this. Obviously, the most important thing was to raise funds and awareness for the two hospices. But more than that, it will be something that we look back on and talk about for years to come.
And it’s more experience to put away for challenges in the future. The positives far outweigh the negatives and would never have been possible if I’d stuck to what are the ‘safe’ and ‘correct’ things to do.
What will you do to push the boundaries of what you think you are capable of? Our ‘limits’ are different for everybody but they are all self imposed. We can spend our lives not knowing what we’re able to do but if you are wondering then what’s stopping you from trying?