At the beginning of 2013, I set myself three physical challenges. 1. To run the Zermatt Marathon in July. 2. To complete my first Half Ironman in August and 3. To tackle a 12-hr cycling time trial in September.
Last weekend saw the successful completion of the final one, the Kent Cycling Association 12hr TT, which led me to reflect on how the year panned out.
Not part of the original bucket list, I got the chance in March to do The Grizzly, the long-standing 20-mile trail race in East Devon that’s probably just as difficult to secure a place in as the London Marathon. Muddy, hilly and technical off-road running isn’t one of my natural strengths but by lowering my expectations (aiming simply to complete, rather than compete) I was able not only to finish but to enjoy the experience.
One of the nicest aspects of the Grizzly is the regular strategically-placed motivational signs around the route. One said: ‘attitude is a little thing that makes a big difference.’ And that perfectly sums up my inaugural multi-terrain adventure. Admittedly, I found it frustrating when we had to wade through sea water within the first half hour and endure sodden feet for the rest of the race, and I still tutted when I had to pick my way across mud-logged fields that could rival a Somme battlefield, and sighed loudly when I hit gridlock on a narrow path when I wanted to get past, but I kept reminding myself that this was a different ball game – the seconds ticking by on the watch weren’t really the point. There wasn’t even chip timing – let alone medals. Seventeen miles in, a marshal called ‘Still smiling, well done!’ as I passed by. I was as surprised as she was to realize I had a smile on my face.
Given that I’d run 20 miles – and in pretty tough conditions – by early March, I couldn’t resist the invitation to be a pacer in the London Marathon the following month. OK, I wasn’t up to full marathon fitness, but I would be running significantly slower than my usual pace, in order to bring the runners home under 4 hours 30 minutes, so it shouldn’t be too much of a stretch.
It turned out to be my most enjoyable London Marathon ever. OK, so I crossed the line 1 hour 6 minutes shy of my PB, but I’m every bit as proud of my achievement, because it showed, or reminded, me that solitary pursuit as it is, running can be a selfless act too.
So, as Zermatt approached, three months later, I already had one marathon in the bag for 2013. And perhaps that helped me make the sensible decision of bowing out when I was, in truth, underprepared and had injuries bubbling under. I still made the trip to Zermatt, because my husband Jeff was running, but I chose to run just to the halfway mark (not least because our apartment was just around the corner!)
I’ve described my first ‘DNF’ as more of a Mo than a Paula, in that I knew from the outset that I was going to drop out at halfway – but nevertheless it was a strange, unsatisfying experience to stop running without the fanfare of a last-gasp sprint under the finish line clock.
But knowing that I had a half Ironman to get fit for 4 weeks later didn’t allow me much time for self pity! I focused on swimming and cycling while my injuries resolved and toed the line of a race where the question of whether I was capable of finishing or not was a genuine unknown.
It’s a gruelling event, the half Ironman – a physical and mental challenge with lots of ‘what ifs?’ What if I get bashed in the swim? What if I get a puncture? What if I go wrong on the bike route? What if my foot hurts on the run? And your stomach has to play ball, too. Nine gels went down my throat over the course of the 5 hours 58 minutes I took to cross the finish line. And goodness knows how much sports drink. But all went swimmingly and I’m already keen to improve on my debut performance next year…
And so to the strange and uncommon challenge of the 12hr time trial. Again, it fell 4 weeks after my last challenge, and again I wasn’t at all confident that I would succeed in completing it. The route is divided up into laps, ranging from 10-36 miles in length – marshals around the course tell you when to move on to the next lap, based on how fast you are riding. I’d been widely advised to cycle at ‘long training ride’ pace. It was hard to keep the faith though, when people in TT helmets riding super light bikes were overtaking me left, right and centre. ‘Cycling isn’t your main sport,’ I kept reassuring myself. ‘Let them go!’ I stuck to my planned pace of 16mph for the most part and took just 1 or 2 breaks from the saddle in the first half. But by the afternoon, everything was hurting: my hands, my neck, my lower back – and I found that regular short breaks were the way forward (along with the odd neck or back massage and handfuls of pretzels!) I have to be honest, it was sheer relief when the clock reached 6.09pm and I could finally stop riding. I felt completely and utterly spent – totally incapable of celebrating – but the following day I was already on the road to recovery and feeling very proud of the 185 miles I clocked.
The long duration – and mental challenge – of these last two events has finally convinced me to set my sights on an Ultra next year. I’m going to go for a 50 miler. So watch this space!