3 days ago I ran my second ultramarathon and my first 100 mile race.
The Lady Anne’s Way 100 follows trails through the gorgeous Yorkshire Dales National Park in the north of England. The route, and the race, commemorate the life’s work of Lady Anne Clifford, who, because she was a woman, had to fight a 40-year battle for her right to inherit her father’s estates.
Once her fight was won, she dedicated the rest of her life to the restoration of the crumbling castles across her land.
She sounds like a legend, and as I ran her route and passed her castles, I tried my best to channel her stoic powers.
I can now successfully walk downstairs without gripping the banister for dear life, so it’s time to reflect on the madness of my first 100 mile run.
So here are 11 hard-learned takeaways from 29 and a half hours spent running.
#1: good navigation is an essential skill
And if it’s a skill that you lack, latch on to someone who knows what they are doing. And follow them for 100 miles.
I was silly enough to mess up my navigation completely.
To the best of my knowledge, I had downloaded the course file onto my GPS watch and I was planning on following the little arrow for 100 miles until I reached my final resting place. The only issue was that I had failed to check if the course had actually downloaded.The start of the race rolled around and I scrambled around on my watch only to find that the course had in fact not downloaded. Yikes.
I nestled myself into a pack of runners and stuck to them for the first 10 miles.
As we weaved left, then right, then right, then did a 180° through 10 farms an hour, I became increasingly conscious of the fact that this course was not straightforward, and that I had no chance of winging it from checkpoint to checkpoint.
I surfaced from the first checkpoint alone, spotted two guys up the hill ahead of me, ran after them, decided they were sound, and stuck by them.
Andy, Matt, and I, three strangers on Saturday morning, ended up sharing the next 30 hours side by side. They were the best. 50 miles into our little group forming, and once I felt that I had proved myself as a valuable team member, I confessed my navigational shortcomings.
#2: It’s an adventure
Unless you’re running one of those mental track or 4-mile loop ultramarathons (and if you are- more power to ya!), you’ll cover a significant chunk of land on foot.
And for me, in the north of England, this meant working my way through woodlands, up steep hillsides, across rivers, in and out of stone cottage villages, and over farmland and fences galore.
And as I followed two guys I’d never met before, and clueless to my surroundings, I felt like a hobbit on an adventure.
We saw the sun rise, set, and then rise again. Every hour brought new horizons and changes in weather. And we just kept moving on through it.
And as for the weather. Storm Malik reared his head. You know it’s a good one when they give it a name.
For us, the winds were the worst of it. Apparently, wind speed reached 100 mph! Sounds a bit unbelievable, but I did get blown to the ground multiple times, and running also felt like swimming through syrup, so it may well be true.
#3: ultrarunners are the best
Our run took us through 13 checkpoints, 5 of which served hot food and drinks, and all of which were staffed by the most amazing volunteers.
These people went out of their way to voluntarily feed, water, and cheer on bedraggled and monosyllabic runners all the way through the night. Absolute angels.
And the fellow ultrarunners you pass along the way are all great. Even if you only have the energy to exchange a few grunting noises.
I met a guy who passionately raved about his fuelling strategy of sausages and chips (fries), and another who told me a story of his running journey across the length of the UK, from Lands End to John o’ Groats.
When my stomach began to feel like it was eating itself, Andy gave me a peppermint Rennie. For that, I am eternally grateful.
It’s hard to be competitive in a sport like ultrarunning. When success is finishing, you want everyone to succeed.
#4: hard times *almost always* pass
You’re out there for so long, hard things happen and then pass.
Stomach issues, stiff legs after an aid station, a lack-of-food-induced-bonk, an emotional section… you’ve got enough time on your hands to get through it all.
Matt had a bit of a shocker out there. He was cold, shivery, mentally drained, and falling asleep on his feet. What was amazing to watch was how he just kept going. For hours and hours. Incredibly, he did eventually get through it.
#5: helping others helps you
Whilst Matt was, in his own words, “fighting some demons out there”, Andy and I tried our best to keep him awake and moving.
Aside from plying him with caffeinated sweets and coffee, I decided, at intervals, to try and keep his brain ticking over by rapidly firing easy to answer questions at him.
“What GCSE’s did you do?”, “Count down from 50 in intervals of 3”, “How many dog breeds can you name?”, “Can you name any star constellations?”… the list goes on.
What became clear to me was that, when I didn’t have the distraction of focusing my efforts on keeping Matt alive, I began to feel much worse off myself.
The magical side effect of helping others is that you help yourself too.
#6: nighttime is when it gets real
When the sun goes down, you enter, as Andy described it, “a tunnel of your own torchlight.” We buckled in for a good 14 and a half hours in the tunnel.
It was in there where I second-guessed my decision to sign up for a winter 100 miler.
But it wasn’t the lack of things to look at that was the hardest part, it was the lack of sleep.
At a certain point during the night, my blinks became slightly too extended.
There’s a fine line between daydreaming and real dreaming, and during those extended blinks, I caught myself having increasingly intense daydreams.
I popped another caffeinated sweet and got back to my role as the group’s chief entertainer.
#7: your brain gets scrambled: Hallucinations and blurred memories
I’ve heard legends of ultramarathon hallucinations, but I’d never experienced them myself. Until this run.
It may sound silly, but wanting to hallucinate from running was actually quite a big motivator for me to keep at it. I really wanted to push my brain to its limits, whatever that meant.
And I kind of got what I wanted?
I can’t say I full-on saw things that weren’t there. No pixies hopping around the woods, or conversations with people I had invented.
Instead, I saw animals in everything. Every leaf, rock, puddle and branch took on the form of a distinct and specific animal. I knew that a leaf was a leaf, but I could also very clearly see that it was the exact same shape as a mouse, with mouselike features and all.
I saw dogs, birds, seals, all sorts. But just animals. Not sure why.
These ‘hallucinations’ lasted for a few hours after I had finished too, up until I closed my eyes for a well-needed nap. And I enjoyed every one of them.
But it’s not just the hallucinations that are evidence of a scrambled brain. On the second day of running, after the sun rose, memories of the night that had just passed were as blurry as if I had been blackout drunk.
I couldn’t piece together which aid station had come before which, and the route that we had just taken came back to me in muddled up snapshots.
Brain = Scrambled
#8: Doing anything that isn’t running verges on impossible
It’s crazy how much you procrastinate when you’re running 100 miles. Even when it comes to putting off things that you definitely should be doing; eating, applying vaseline, drinking, taking an electrolyte tablet, going for a pee…
I found myself, in dire need of one of the above situations, telling myself that I would deal with it at the next checkpoint. What’re another 7 miles without food anyway?
The truth is, I felt that I was too busy moving towards that finish line. Doing anything that wasn’t directly that felt low priority. I don’t recommend this strategy.
#9: two parts of yourself are in constant battle
However headstrong I felt I was, even at the best of times, there was still a little piece of my brain that sympathised with the idea of calling it a day and stopping at the next checkpoint.
If you manage to stay on the right side of this battle, it is interesting to watch it play out in your own head. Although I wonder just how close I was to the switch being flipped.
The temptation is always there. You can technically just stop.
It’s at times when the desire to stop becomes a little too strong that you have to remind yourself why you’re doing it.
As the sun set I asked Matt and Andy why they ran ultramarathons. We spoke for a while about our ‘whys’. And I used them as a mental anchor throughout the night.
#10: Sunrise Changes the game
As you trudge through the darkness, it’s hard not to count back the hours until the sun rises again.
And for good reason. As when the sun finally did peek over the horizon I felt like all was going to be ok. I felt so emotional that, if I had the energy to spare, I would have sobbed.
Our circadian rhythm is a powerful thing. And counterintuitively, although I’d been awake for longer and running for longer, 11 am was far, far easier than 4 am.
#11: it’s difficult to remember just how hard it was
I’ve never given birth, but I’ve been told by those who have that you quickly forget how painful the whole ordeal was, otherwise there’s no chance you’d go through with it again.
I feel like running 100 miles is similar to childbirth in that way.
Whilst I was running, I’m not sure I enjoyed much of it.
There was the daytime part where it wasn’t too hard and I felt as if I was waiting for it to get hard. Then the nighttime came and it was hard. Then the sun rose and I was less tired but so done with running and so keen to get into a bed.
I didn’t even feel much of a rush crossing the finish line, just relief that it was over.
During the night, remember thinking about how ridiculous running 100 miles is when you could just do a day event, or a marathon, or even a multi-stage event where you have a bed waiting for you come the evening. 100 miles in one go is just silly.
All of this being said, I regret nothing apart from my lack of photo-taking. It was such an extraordinary adventure and I’m sure, before long, I’ll be cooking up my next big silly plan.
Why did I run 100 miles in the first place?
Check out this article to find out!