It’s dawn, and I am sitting on a fold-up chair in a field, eating a bowl of porridge. At this moment in time, it is the best porridge I’ve ever tasted, warming my insides and replenishing my much-depleted energy stores like five-star fuel. I savour every mouthful as I watch the mist rise above the lake. Beyond it, brightly-clad runners dart in and out of the trees. There goes my teammate John, smooth and steady. Earlier, you could only make out the trail by following the bobbing beams of head torches, so coming full circle, back to daylight, feels heartening. What’s more, after a non-stop night of clocking up the miles, we’re still only a couple of minutes behind the lead team.
I’d had no real sense of what a 24-hour race would be like when I signed up for the inaugural 24-hr Ultra Trail Race as part of the Rye Runners 7-strong team. I figured it would be a bit of fun, a lot of running and very little sleep. But I had no idea what a thrilling – and bonding – experience it would be. There was to be mud sweat and tears before the finish line.
Ben reappears after a snooze in his tent, walking gingerly. His legs are so stiff he appears to have planks of wood down his tights. ‘I don’t think I can run,’ he announces. We all tried to look sympathetic. ‘You’ll be alright,’ someone says, reassuringly. ‘See how you feel after a warm-up.’ He goes on to blast out another blistering lap. It is amazing how the adrenaline kicks in as soon as you don the timing chip – and after a few steps, you throw off the stiffness and pains.
Initially, I’d been less than enamoured by the size of the lap – 2.1 miles. How tedious to run in endless circles, I’d thought. But, at least from a team perspective, it wasn’t the least bit dull. We ran it in the afternoon sunshine, the still dusk, the dead of night and the pallid dawn – and it looked and felt a little different each time. Sometimes, the hill seemed endless – other times, its crest appeared surprisingly soon out of the mist or darkness and you’d be careening down the other side before barely getting your breath back.
We got to know the gnarled tree roots underfoot, the curve of a sharp bend, the lakeside bench as intimately as our well-trodden routes close to home. We talked about our ‘favourite bits’ and the bits we dreaded, as we sat under the gazebo, scoffing energy gels, applying Compeeds, drinking sweet coffee and taking turns on the foam roller.
The small lap also lends itself well to tactics. In larger-lapped events, like Thunder Run, there’s not much leeway to do anything other than run 10km-laps, but we were able to create a rota that suited all of us and made the most of the time of day. Fresh and raring to go on Saturday afternoon, we started with 3-lap (6 mile) stints, then moved to 2-lap stints as darkness drew in and single laps come Sunday morning, when we were all tired and needed to stay engaged and able to prise ourselves out of those fold-up chairs. Ryan brought hangers on which to air and dry our t-shirts between rounds – a surprisingly ingenious idea diminished only somewhat by his habit of changing into his dressing gown when he wasn’t running. Gratifyingly, this put him in a weak position when it came to ridiculing me in my full-leg compression stockings in gleaming white – like a pervy pair of hold-ups.
Lissa and Kate have flown around their respective laps and it’s my turn again. My warm-up routine has now been reduced to a stiff-legged shuffle over to the portaloos and a jog back. But I’m holding up OK, all things considered. Everyone has been through their own personal hell at some point or other. A blister, a stomach cramp, seized muscles or sheer fatigue. But we have buoyed each other up and urged each other on.
When we had entered the event, the main attraction was that it was local and a good opportunity to get Rye Runners involved as a team. But ever since a couple of hours in, when the ‘live’ progress screen at the changeover tent showed that we were in close second place to Seaford Striders, it’s been a game of cat and mouse, with each team intermittently edging ahead. With the possibility of victory, the burden of responsibility has hung heavy on all of us – each determined not to let the team down with a lackluster performance. For Ryan, whose own inner struggle has been taking place mostly in the portaloos, this has proved a frustrating experience. But it is a good reminder that you can only do what you can do – your best, at any given moment, isn’t a fixed thing but an expression of your capabilities at that time. I believe that each of us went out and ran as hard as we could each time we wore the timing chip, regardless of whether it was our fastest lap or our slowest. And that’s why I am so proud of our team’s performance.
As the final hour approached, Ryan was back on form, running to his true potential. We had sent Jeff out for a last-ditch 2-lapper to see if we could make any headway on the Seaford Striders’ still-small lead but as the minutes slid by, it was clear that we couldn’t catch up. No matter – when Ryan took the final lap, the rest of the team spread ourselves around the route to cheer, no, ROAR him home. Then we jogged, limped and shuffled to the finish line for tearful hugs and photos.
We finished level in terms of lap numbers – 89 – or 178 miles in total – but the Striders were ahead on the clock, earning them the trophy. We may not have conquered the competition, but we still felt like winners.