1. a person who journeys, especially a long distance, to some sacred place as an act of religious devotion
2. a traveler or wanderer, especially in a foreign place.
3. An idiot who looks like they just got off the boat and haven’t a clue as to where they are. (Urban Dictionary)
Barcelona Marathon is now only a few days away, and my training has been erratic at best. My regime that is yet to go viral in Hollywood, consists of 10ks here and there, mostly to the office; the occasional jog during a kids’ party; cross-training (a plunge into the pool during the daughter’s swimming lesson); and a 110k trail run.
The latter took place a few weeks ago in early February, as if that made a difference in the era of climate change. The Pilgrim Challenge was my first ever ultra race (that I finished. I’m still writing about the other one), and I had spent more time thinking through childcare logistics than systematic training. Still, I was less nervous than at the start line of a Saturday park run. Pace would be irrelevant on this historic route through South Downs – all I had to do to was to put one foot in front of another, and I have over thirty years of demonstrable experience in this. It is a skill that has only ever been compromised after three consecutive pisco sours, or at 4,500 metres altitude (the ultra I didn’t finish). Surrey is about 134 metres above the sea level and as here I can’t even find Gatorade, except the cherry flavoured one (yuk), my Camelpack carried just plain water.
I’ve been asked many times in the past few weeks by people at work, what is an ultra. I say it’s basically the only sporting event where you see some people finishing off their fags while others pack their backpacks with Snickers bars before setting off for a run that is still going on when you leave the office. So far, I haven’t convinced anyone to sign up.
But everyone should! It’s a completely unique feeling to check your watch at 17km and know that you’ve barely started. The distance between each well-staffed check point is what most people would consider a full race. And the check points themselves are what most people would consider a kids’ birthday party before kids started to drink green smoothies – loaded with sugar in its various glorious forms.
My arrogance for having ran in the Andes was quickly taken care of by the muddy hills of Surrey. Who knew there were hills in Southern England? Luckily, I have no healthy survival instinct running downhill – the right playlist will turn me into a human avalanche on steroids counting aloud the number of black and yellow backpacks passed. The people carrying them were most likely to be training for MDS (Marathon de Sables), the real shit among many ultra-runners. And there I was – there I was among seasoned pilgrims, elite runners and people with a goal to qualify for Rio Olympics – and not feeling completely out of place.
The Pilgrim Challenge is a ‘multi-day’ event, which means spending a night on a floor of a school hall and having the opportunity to bond with other runners over the dinner, shower queues and breakfast. Obviously, there’s no drinking or staying up late. To add to the Christian summer camp feel, we had an evening of listening to speakers. After a sports massage (another great perk), I crawled into my sleeping bag thinking about the women’s MDS 2015 winner, Elizabeth Barnes and what she said about work life balance. There isn’t one. There are work life choices, and you make them. She certainly did, as she cut her management consulting job down to three days a week to be able to train professionally before she became an elite athlete. I wonder if we could have her speak at our next work away day.
I’ve heard lots of motivational speakers, but none of them have told me that life is too short for spending it in an office. First you’re too young. And one day you’ll be too old. Now I’m in that in-between part when you do a lot of admin and don’t have ANY time. Reading my old diary entries to my daughter have made me realise how big a part sports and running in particular has been in forming my sense of identity, but time after time I have turned down opportunities to make any serious commitment in favour of something more sensible.
Arguably there are some things – like getting a cash ISA or having a pension – that fall into the category of ‘more sensible than getting up at 6 am to have a cold shower and then run 33 miles, having just run 33 miles the day before’. Some of them are also less ache-causing. I’m still recovering from an inflamed tendon that was probably caused by changing into my road runners for no better reason than that I thought my trail shoes were a bit muddy. Since then, I’ve consistently gone against the physiotherapist’s advice to cut down the mileage. I’m hoping this won’t slow me down in Barcelona as my focus returns to pace.
But the Pilgrim Challenge, on the other hand, wasn’t a race. It was a runway.