Sunday, April 03, 2016

Journey's End

On Saturday April 2 2016 at around eight thirty in the evening, darkness having completely fallen, I ran along the final stretch of the Union Canal towpath into Lochrin Basin in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, and stopped running, having covered 55 miles since I set off from Glasgow’s Ruchill Park eleven and half hours earlier. My wife Helen and three of our friends were there to greet me with party banners and balloons. Over four months of planning and preparation were behind me. The 2016 Glasgow to Edinburgh Ultramarathon was, for me, over. I felt, if there’s such a thing, a steady exuberance - I noticed I was being outgoing, celebratory and conversational, but there was no reserve beneath the surface. I couldn’t summon the coordination to hold my jacket, finisher’s T-shirt and medal. The job was done, moved from the future into the past, an exercise that seemed just as hard to contemplate afterwards as it had been before.
The night before saw me in a peculiar mood. I had a lot of preparation to do. This race involved more than just turning up at the start wearing the right clothes. Ultra races span changes in weather and many mealtimes, so you’re carrying more than for a marathon. I had to maximise the amount of sleep I’d get beforehand, which meant deferring breakfast and coating appropriate parts of my skin with sun lotion, vaseline and a sudocrem until I was on the train to Glasgow. I realised I was building an Apollo rocket, with fuel that would be burned up, sections that would be discarded, and even one component that would be docked with again mid-mission. Helen, wisely, stayed out of my way, while I made banana and peanut butter sandwiches, decanted illicit-looking white powder into unmarked plastic bags and checked and rechecked my bus and train connections. I’d been running through all this in my head for weeks, but there were still some decisions being made at the last minute. I tucked my earphones in my pocket, not to listen to music during the race, but in case there were intrusive conversations on the train in the morning. The Aspie vicious circle is that overstimulation makes me more anxious and that makes me more sensitive to overstimulation. It all seemed to be done eventually, and I went to bed.
The alarm prompted me at five thirty, although I was already awake. A brisk shower, kit on, and I was out of the door shortly after six. As I closed the door behind me I hoped fervently that I hadn’t forgotten anything. I was concerned that I’d chosen the wrong pair of shoes for this race. I was wearing my newish trail running shoes because they’ve caused me least pain in training, but I worrying they might not be cushioned enough. I took the bus to Haymarket because being the only passenger in a taxi makes me anxious and I can’t fabricate small talk if the driver’s chatty. Once on the train, I set to breakfasting and slathering myself with unguents. I’d taken some latex gloves for this purpose because sudocrem gets everywhere. Alas, this meant I put far too much on and had a ghostly tinge of white round my thighs for the rest of the day. Everything I was doing had this fumbling, only-just-about-good-enough quality. I wasn’t dancing through the plan in a state of flow.
At Glasgow Queen Street, another runner hailed me and asked if I’d mind sharing a taxi to the start. It turned out he was exactly the same age as me, and had moved away from Edinburgh 20 years earlier just as I was arriving, and had returned from Houston, Texas for a school reunion. We arrived a few minutes later at Ruchill Park where the race would start, and I was perversely heartened to see a fellow runner sucking down a cigarette. After a big marathon, I sometime see one smoker in a numbered vest, and as a reformed smoker myself, always feel an odd kinship.
We did all the usual admin, and deposited our drop bags that we would be reunited with 22 miles later at checkpoint two, and I was diverted from worry by tales from my companion, Iain, about the many ultras he’d run in the States. This was essential. It stopped me contemplating what I was about to undertake. The setting was much more Aspie-friendly that any other race I’d run - no crowds, no barriers, no music, no well-meaning announcer soliciting cheers over a cranked up PA. I could tell that the independent group organising this were competent, but I’m not going to sully them with the word “professional” and its implications of profit motivation.
At five to nine, the hundred and fifty of us assembled for a quick briefing from the race director. A hundred and fifty GPS watches were started up. Bang! Off we trotted out of the park and on to the canal path. It had begun.
Thirteen days earlier I had overdone it on a training run and caused a cluster of pains in and around my left ankle. I’d stopped all running four days later and seen a masseur and a physiotherapist to do whatever was needed. I was pleased that the physio had given me the green light the previous day, and for about a mile, as we headed north to the canal junction, it felt good. We were a tight pack of runners at this stage and I was finding some of the conversation between groups a bit intrusive. Pretty soon, I had a more vivid source of stimulation as my ankle erupted into discomfort. Tiny doubts started to blossom and flourish. Was I going to be able to finish this?
I’d parked the big doubt at the back of my mind weeks earlier. Before this day the furthest I had ever run was 34 miles about six weeks beforehand. That had felt like a day’s work and then some. Today I had to run about 21 miles on top of that. My last nine marathons have been about how long it will take me to finish, not whether I can finish, because that was already established. There was no such precedent here. I took some solace from the people around me. They all seemed to be in the same sort of shape as me, had the same sort of gear, and we were all running at about the same pace, slightly faster than I had planned.
These plans had included walking for 45 seconds of each fifteen minutes. I’d worked this out in training, because the arithmetic involved in running fifteen minutes then walking one becomes taxing when exhausted. But after fifteen minutes everyone else was still running, as they were after thirty minutes. I decided to build up a head of progress and run non-stop to Checkpoint One, thirteen miles ahead.
The ankle pain worsened. It started to float and dance around my left leg, afflicting every part of my ankle and foot, my knee, and my ITB. I applied what I’ve learned from mindfulness and yoga and attended to the pain rather than avoiding it. I breathed with it and accepted it, and didn’t change my gait in an effort to lessen it. It was bearable, but if I’d ever felt like this on a training run, I’d have dropped out immediately, no question. The final-week moratorium on running seemed to have made no difference.
It was a bright and crisp morning. The pack began to thin out. The landscape around the Forth and Clyde canal stimulated me. I fixed my thoughts on the first checkpoint and got on with it.
There are certain calls of nature that need to be attended to more privately than others. Running does stimulate the digestion. I had packed the necessary requisites and having paused to withdraw behind some bushes behind a fallen post-and-wire fence, made my way briskly back to the towpath, hopeful not to have been seen in my unmistakable posture. I’d forgotten about the fallen fence and the wire caught my bad ankle and sent me tumbling straight towards the canal itself. I wasn’t being conspicuously dignified beforehand but falling in would have really been the limit. What am I like? Onward.
At each checkpoint, we gave our bib numbers to the marshals, who checked us off. We could grab some sustenance and fill up our water containers. I had a bladder in my backpack, so I could get that topped up and mix in some more of the grown-up sherbet that was keeping me full of salt and sugar. The checkpoints also segmented the course and stopped it becoming overwhelming.
On, then, to the next checkpoint, and the Falkirk Wheel, that miraculous piece of millennial engineering that provides an exquisitely-balanced aqueduct lift for boats to move from one canal to another about a hundred feet higher without a laborious ladder of locks.
By now I’d been running for about four hours and my mood was starting to wobble. I’d been interacting with other runners when I overtook or was overtaken ponderously slowly, in some cases leapfrogging the same runners several times as our run/walk cycles phased. I was faking the jollity, to be honest, not really using my own voice, adopting pretend contractions to appear more matey. But it was still welcome, and I was glad of the validation. The pack had thinned out completely and I was alone for long sections. That’s my natural state, so when I suddenly arrived at the wheel, which is a visitor attraction, at lunchtime on a Saturday, I was suddenly surrounded by a lot of people, all being very gregarious. I had to locate my drop bag, decant my stuff into my vest pockets and get my bladder refilled. My pervasive jitteriness meant I fumbled getting the powder bag open and got it all over myself, sticky and distracting. This was the low point - suddenly too much to do, and too many people around me making too much noise.
I deliberately walked up the hill from the Forth and Clyde up to the Union Canal, eating my huge and infantile sweet sandwich. This was perhaps overdue, as my mood lightened and I trotted on. This was not, despite what I heard many of the others runners saying, half way, only the junction of the two canals, but it still felt good. Once I’d cleaned the sugar off my fingers, I’d texted my pal Jon from work that I was on my way. He lives a bit further on and was going to come out and meet me.
I couldn’t live with the pain from my joints which had now spread to my groin and my left testicle (I must have a dominant right one or something) so I gave in and started taking Ibuprofen, 400mg every hour. This immediately blurred the pain.
Falkirk to Linlithgow is a long haul. My pace decayed quite noticeably here. For all that my sole intention was to finish, I seemed to be driven to do so at about the time I’d given to Helen. I’d slipped from ten minute miles to eleven. The averaging algorithm on my new GPS watch seemed to never let my average pace increase, even when I started up again from a walk or a checkpoint. I reached 26.2 miles and mentally logged that I was now running my longest ever competitive distance. With one marathon under my belt I still had another to run, and then a 5K for good measure. That perspective didn’t seem to demolish me the way I’d feared. I passed what I took to be Polomont where Jon lived and assumed that I’d missed him, my pace have slipped to make the time estimate I’d given him wrong. But no, there he was. Tellingly, before I’d even one hundred percent identified him, I risked a wave and he waved back. What a glorious sight. He’s a big-hearted, supportive man, and there are few people I’d rather have seen at this point. I’d deliberately not taken my previous scheduled walk break so I could walk a few minutes with him, and he worked on my morale and we agreed between us that I was definitely going to finish. That was the turning point. I think I believed it from then on.
I was definitely helped by both the segments delimited by the checkpoints and the rhythms I imposed on myself. Every fifteen minutes the chance for a 45 second walk if I chose to take it. Every half hour something to eat (forbidden cereal and dried-fruit bars, a terrible contrast to my usual protein and fat regime), every hour 400mg of Ibuprofen. It divided it all up, stopped it being a too-big-to-move monolith.
I had nothing in my ears apart from birdsong and the steady rustles, splashes and creaks coming from my running vest. I didn’t crave music or speech at all. My thoughts were quite ordered at first, either tuning in to my sensations or drifting off down memory lane, but became more disorganised as I went on. I thought about sex. A lot. Really an awful lot. This seems surprising at first, but I am a man, and we supposedly think about it every eight seconds. So that’s over five thousand saucy thoughts in the course of the race.
The numbers on my GPS watch assumed a surreal magnitude. They said I’d been running for over eight hours, that I’d covered forty miles. These aren’t normal numbers.
A lot of the course had been tarmac covered in the last year, and there was even a gang at work on the day. I love running on tarmac. It’s the closed highways of our towns and cities that I run my marathons on. The sections that weren’t tarmac were irregular stones and sometimes mud. This was what really differentiated parts of the course. It was tough to run on, degraded my pace and hurt my ankles and knees. My heart didn’t quite sink every time the tarmac ran out, but I was thankful whenever it resumed.
At last, Linlithgow, heralded by the towers of the palace. On this very linear, very flat course, there were few visual cues about what was coming up so the few that were there made a big impact, as did the aqueducts over river valleys.
Next, a dog-leg, and the main explanation of why this route is so much longer than the straight line between the two cities. The light rain had set in. I’d taken my waterproof jacket off at the first checkpoint but put it back on later. I seemed to be wearing fewer layers than all the other runners and put this down to my slight cold and fever. I kept my glasses on. This was the first competitive race I’ve worn them for, because I now just can’t read my watch without them. I could distinctly feel each Ibuprofen tablet wearing off so I upped the frequency to one every half hour. This would be madness on a normal day, but I was eating every half hour as well and passing fluid though me continuously. Don’t try this at home, kids. Rounding the dog-leg I came into Broxburn for the penultimate checkpoint having drunk my backpack bladder dry. This was my favourite checkpoint of all - the marshals were extra friendly and I wanted them to be my aunties. I dumped my powder in the bladder and had it topped up. Off I set. I took an overdue draw from the tube and realised to my alarm that the powder had all congealed at the bottom and clogged it up rather than mixing. In my single moment of ingenuity of the entire day, I blew into the tube, cleared the clog, and shook the pack until it had mixed better. All this while running!
There was just a half marathon to go now. I’d joked with another runner that we could do that in an hour and a half. That was funny because that is a respectable half marathon time, but this discipline operates on cosmically different times and paces. An ultra run is really not that much faster than a brisk walk.
The penultimate section was where I started to switch back on and feel in control. I had an absolute belief I’d finish. I was on home turf. These sections are where I do my distance training. As I ran under the M8 shortly after Broxburn towards the Almond aqueduct I felt at home. The section approaching Ratho exemplified what I liked best about the course - lots of trees to soften the open sky, the opposite side of the canal banked up, daffodils cementing the time of year and the scent of wild garlic everywhere.
At Ratho I phoned Helen and gave her my revised ETA. A phone is mandatory equipment and has to be left on. But when I took it out to talk to her, I felt too connected with alerts from my social media apps and even the message that my Scrabble friends missed me. Give me a break for one day, eh, Scrabble friends? My pace was holding up quite well now rather than slipping off more and more steeply as I’d feared. The checkpoint staff were adept in helping me get restocked with water and seemed to know the intricacies of my gear better than I did.
I’d feared that the last leg would be hellish. The last five percent of a marathon is often unbearable. But I knew it was all tarmac from here, and that soon I’d been on path that I used to run during lunch hours when I worked in Sighthill. Crossing the Scott Russell Aqueduct high above Edinburgh’s City Bypass I felt within my home town again. My morale took two more boosts around here - 50 miles covered, and then 52.4. Two marathons. Double my furthest ever competitive distance.
Night drew in. Wester Hailes did not look its best, and I say that as a defender of its modern towers and filled-in and later re-cut canal section. Perhaps I was seeing it through eyes that had taken in a lot of sunlight and natural beauty earlier in the day.
Just a few miles to go now. I’d been running for over ten hours. I’d been mercifully free of ear-worms for most of the day, but Steven Wilson’s “Routine” and “Perfect Life” had taken residence on my internal jukebox. That was OK, because they’re both superb songs. And tellingly, heart-wreckingly emotional ones. (Oh dear. I’m starting to well up a bit as I type now.) The canal took me to Craiglockhart, where Helen and I live. It literally passes the end of our road. The dusk was encroaching and I was nearing the end of a long day, and there was our home. The refrain of “Perfect Life” took over. I sang it a bit, to let it out. I had a sudden realisation that here, now, was a time of my life that I’ll always look back on with importance, the day I took a stand against decrepitude. And I thought of Helen, in our house.
Three minutes later, I realised she wasn’t in our house. There she was, in the gloom standing on the next bridge under an umbrella. We waved, she took a photo of we waving and running. I called out that I loved her, and my voice cracked. Right here, now, after this stretched-out adventure was the most important person in my world.
I ran on, away from our house, the last couple of miles to the finish line. It wasn’t an agonising last stretch at all. My pace increased. I was flying along. It was going to be over soon. I suspect that I was experiencing rising dopamine levels. No more checkpoints. No more walk breaks. No more food. No more painkillers. Just running. Pure and joyful.
On Saturday April 2 2016 at around eight thirty in the evening, darkness having completely fallen, I ran along the final stretch of the Union Canal towpath into Lochrin Basin in Fountainbridge, Edinburgh, and stopped running, having covered 55 miles since I set off from Glasgow’s Ruchill Park eleven and half hours earlier.
A medal and T-shirt were pressed into my hands and I had my photo taken. I saw my buddy from the morning come in about ten minutes after me and congratulated him. Back with Helen and our friends, I told a few stories, and we collectively decided that the best place for me was home.
The Dave-ettes
L-R Claire, Alex, me, Susan
I wasn’t in too bad shape. My feet were a bit bruised and bloody in places and I was starting to walk like C3PO. Having been eating all day, I felt like nothing else and the forbidden treats I’d been promising myself seemed no more than passing fantasies. I had my first coffee in three days and declared my finish on Facebook and Twitter. Before going to bed I was rewarded with a tidal wave of online congratulations that will take some beating in my lifetime. And I’d reached the stretch goal in fundraising of £100 for each mile run. I am overjoyed that this exercise has raised a substantial sum to help run Autism Initiatives' Number 6 service, which I feel intimately connected with.
I never sleep well after a race. Those Steven Wilson ear-worms returned and I was up again at four to read and flush some water through myself. I took some Tryptophan which promotes Seratonoin and caught another couple of hours.
It’s only through writing this down a day later that it’s started to sink in that I did it. It was impossible to imagine running this distance beforehand and it’s quite hard to believe it afterwards. I’m not going to attempt it again in the foreseeable future. The training regime took too much out of me, depriving me of much of the joy of running, and other than building up my endurance, has been damaging to my health and fitness. I’m going to take a few weeks off until my ankle and other joints have settled down, and catch up with all other other things I’ve had to pause for this. And when my appetite’s returned I’m going to start running again.
I’m fifty later this month. During my forties I’ve brought my marathon time down from four hours nine minutes to three hours nineteen. Before I get too old, I am determined, no doubt after a series of heartbreaking near-misses, to run a sub-three-hour marathon.
Just watch me.