Going long at Race to the King

Going long at Race to the King

You may remember me from such irresponsible challenges as ‘How Far Can You Run in 12 Hours?’ (bit.ly/29a39tk). That was a full year ago, but I can still recall the searing pain in my joints and the overwhelming need to just… stop… moving. You can imagine my surprise, then, when I found myself agreeing to do it all over again.

Worse than that, I had agreed to run 53.5 miles along the South Downs Way. Out with the pancake-flat route along the Thames, in with rolling hills, hard chalk trail and a competitive element that would, inevitably, compel me to ignore the don’t-go-for-a-time naysayers. “Ever run an ultra?” “Nope.” “Running much?” “Nope.” “Got a time in mind?” “10 to 11 hours, easy.”

Fast-forward several 15-miles-or-less weeks, the London Marathon having drained me of all m running mojo, and I’m stood in a field on the outskirts of Arundel, West Sussex, rubbing an inordinate amount of vaseline onto fearful nipples (mine), wondering what on earth I’ve got myself into.

The single-day masochists are called to the start line (sane runners have the option of completing the event at a leisurely pace over two days, staying the night at a halfway base camp). A heady aroma of Deep Heat and sun cream fills the air. The race announcer goes through the safety briefing. A cow moos. And we’re off! Hundreds of compression-clad runners trotting into the unknown.

I settle into a leisurely plod. If last year’s 12-hour challenge has taught me anything, it’s that a pace normally reserved for geriatric snails can feel back-breakingly difficult 30 miles down the line.

At once, I’m hit with sensory overload. The trail follows public footpaths through fields of freshly cut maize and grazing livestock. A brief climb takes us to a section of woodland glistening under the early-morning sun and, as I round a corner, it occurs to me that I’m in the midst of the rarest of running moments: the enjoyment of a race during a race. This could be the one: my distance, my calling. Isaac Williams, ultrarunner. I glance at my watch. Fifteen minutes gone.

One half marathon and several hands-on-knees hills later, and early-race optimism has been replaced by world-caving-in doom. The unforgiving, hard chalk terrain of the South Downs is already taking its toll on my joints and the pleasant sun of paragraphs gone by is now beating down without mercy. Slight cramp in my quads soon becomes an unbearable spasm. Luckily, a Good Samaritan runner sees I’m in a spot of bother (dropping to my knees and screaming to the heavens may have been a giveaway), offers up some salted biltong, and I’m forced to break the golden rule of ultrarunning: never accept cured meat from a stranger.

The next few miles are a struggle, mentally and physically. The cramp refuses to relent, coinciding with both the midday heat and what seems like a particularly undulating section of the course. Worse still, I’m battling the demons reminding me that I still have a marathon and a bit to go.

Then something unexpected and magical happens: it absolutely pisses down. Almost instantly, the cramp subsides and something like a spring returns to my shuffling step. I laugh at the insanity of the situation, treat myself to a wee and a Jelly Baby, and march on. I’d heard about the highs and lows of ultrarunning; I just didn’t expect them to be so weather-dependent.

The halfway aid station comes and goes – with gleeful two-day runners retreating to the comfort of the beer tent and the rest of us carrying our beaten-up bodies off for another five-plus hours of rain-soaked running. Remarkably, though, that’s a prospect I’m now quite happy about.  

For the next 27 miles (a phrase I never thought I’d write), I run, jog, trudge and hike in a state of giddy deliriousness. The rain continues to pour, the hills continue to lie in wait, and I keep expecting to come crashing back down to earth. But even the particularly gruelling ascent of Butser Hill – one of the highest points in Hampshire – can’t dampen my spirits.

Each well-stocked aid station brings with it a variation of the same strangely morale-boosting conversation. Cheery volunteer: “Only [insert comically large amount of miles] to go now, mate!” Delirious Me: “Haha, easy!"

The brilliantly marked route runs through overflowing rivers, Tolkeinesque woodland, nature reserves and the sort of sleepy, rural villages dreamed up by the writers of Midsummer Murders. And before I know it, I’m no longer running on muddy trail but tarmacked road. Signs of civilisation begin to pop into view: cars, buildings, smartly dressed people fleeing to escape the miasma of mud, sweat and soggy clothing descending on their town. I round a corner and there, towering above the finish, is Winchester Cathedral. My time of 10 hours 56 minutes (77th out of 632 runners) is just within my pre-race target, but this is a race – and a distance – that has gone way beyond expectations.

The King is dead good; long live the King.

This article was first published in the September 2016 issue of Men's Running
Photo credit: Threshold Sports

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