“Winning isn’t about finishing in first place. It isn’t about beating the others. It is about overcoming yourself. Overcoming your body, your limitations, and your fears. Winning means surpassing yourself and turning your dreams into reality.”
– Kilian Jornet, Run or Die
AN EARLY START
It was at 6:20 am the morning after boxing day that I found myself stumbling into the front seat of a taxi wearing a pair of running shorts, hoodie, some trail shoes and just to top it off, a Santa hat.
“Where we goin’ to?” the driver said fiddling with his sat nav.
“The Meon Hall over in Meonstoke?” I said, not entirely convinced it was a real place and still anxious I may have gotten the details wrong somewhere along the line.
“Ah yes. I know it. Just up from Wickham.”
“Wickham… Yes. Near there,” I exclaimed, trying to act is if I knew what was going on.
In all truth, I was hardly awake. I had clambered out of bed at half five to get my stuff sorted. You see, today was the day of my second ever Ultra. 45 miles spread across four out and back legs to create Second Wind Running’s Winter Cross Ultra.
Having ran in a few of Second Wind Running’s races already this year, I knew they put on well organised and friendly events. Their Midnight Marathon had been one of my favourite runs this year, and was brilliantly marshalled by numerous smiling faces despite the event taking place throughout the night.
Beyond this, Second Wind Running create some of the nicest post race bling I have ever seen! If the thought of running 45 miles on a cold winter’s day didn’t excite you, the medal surely would.
So, far from happy about my last attempt at an ultra distance race, I decided to take part.
It is this that lead to me stood bleary eyed in my kitchen at 6:00 am mixing a beautiful concoction of Tail Wind running fuel and water to keep me going for the long day ahead, I checked my running pack. Checked it again and a third time just to be safe. Good.
Everything was there and it looked like I was ready in time to grab some toast before my taxi arrived. Result.
“Whfd Yuo diong pu yb Whihfg?”
“Pardon?” too busy considering the task ahead, I missed what the taxi driver had said.
“What you doing up by Wickham?” he repeated.
“Oh, I’ve got a race.”
“A race? What’s that, a marathon? After eating all that Christmas dinner you runnin’ a marathon?” At this stage I wished I was running a marathon. I had been neglecting my long runs for the past few months and was growing increasingly anxious I may not be able to last the distance.
“Like a marathon. It’s an ultra.”
“What’s that?” he said behind raised eyebrows.
“Well, anything longer than a marathon. This one is 45 miles.”
It is at this stage he pulled into the car park outside of the hall where the race started. Turning around he glanced at the numerous other runners emerging from their vehicles into the cold dark outside before looking back at me.
“You know what?” he muttered.
“You’re fucking crackers!”
I couldn’t help but agree…
AM I READY FOR THIS?
My running pack thrown across my back, I strolled nervously into the hall that would act as the central hub and checkpoint for the race. I was about forty minutes early but the hall was a hive of activity. Multiple competitors buzzing to and fro filling water bladders and adjusting what they would carrying with them.
Some were laughing, reunited with friends from the local running community, others were silently nodding to themselves focusing exclusively on the task ahead.
Looking around I couldn’t help but feel taken back by how much readier the other runners looked than me. Lots were sat in hoodies and shirts from past races, most of which were plastered in distances I could never match. One couple sat beside me were wearing matching tops from a 100 mile race they had completed out in America.
Well… I recently ran my local park run in the rain… BEAT THAT!
To say I felt outclassed would have been an understatement. I felt like I was an intruder. An outsider invading upon their rituals in which I had no part. This is not an attack on the ultra running community believe me!
There are few bunches of people as friendly and welcoming. This is more a statement of my own perceived shortcomings. They seemed to know what they were doing. Me… I was floundering!
I turned to see Julia from my running club. She was taking part in the 50k race and was waving from amongst a group of friends she was running with. It was nice to see somebody I knew and helped ease me into the situation. Yeah! Maybe I did belong here?
Before long the other runners were all gathered together for the safety brief. Whilst half listening, I began debating whether a coat and head torch was necessary. It looked dark out and most were wearing more layers. Concluding that the first leg wasn’t too long, I decided to commit to the extra layers and that I could always adjust when I arrived back at the hall.
The safety brief over, me and the other runners were soon gathered out in the cold and dark waiting to go.
This was it. Just 45 miles to go.
Fuck my life…
DON’T BE A DICK! DON’T BE A DICK!
We have a saying when I race cross country. It’s “Don’t be a dick!”
This isn’t directed at the fact I am in fact an utter dick in almost every conceivable situation. No. It is more based around my almost pathological inability to pace myself. I have a terrible habit of zooming off as fast as humanly possible, only to finish the race clinging on for survival.
In shorter races I can kind of get away with this. Yes it hurts, but it’s only in the short term. The issue comes in longer races where I would have to live with the consequences for far longer.
It is for this reason I started the easiest northbound leg muttering to myself,
“Don’t be a dick. Don’t be a dick.”
It became a mantra. The leg followed Wickham Rail line up north and was incredibly flat. I could have easily sped off at an excessive pace but kept reminding myself,
“Don’t be a dick. Don’t be a dick.”
As a result I managed to keep a pretty steady pace of around 8 minutes per mile. If I looked at my watch and saw myself speeding up I forced myself to pull back, even as other runners overtook me.
Urgh… It went against every fibre of my being, but still,
“Don’t be a dick. Don’t be a dick.”
Keeping a steady rhythm, it didn’t take long for me to find myself back at the central checkpoint. The first leg down I lost my coat and head torch before setting out to the east.
BE A DICK! BE DICK!
I headed out east along the roads before joining onto the South Downs Way. I knew this route well. It led out to old Winchester Hill with the turnaround just at the top. I had ran this leg during the South Downs Way relay and knew the hills well, and beyond this, I was extremely confident in my ability to run down them.
This is where operation “Be a Dick” took root.
I just had to take it steady until I reached the top of Old Winchester Hill and the turnaround. I could then let myself go on the downhill without losing much energy whilst making up for lost time.
So that’s what I did. Slowing to a hike up the steepest part of the hill I kept my gaze focused upwards. Soon… Very soon.
Halfway up I saw the first place runner heading back down. A massive smile across his face, his arms outstretched for balance he shot by me hurtling towards the bottom. I let out a laugh. Soon… Very soon.
A few people went by me running up the hill. They never got out of my view however and I knew well enough I would catch up soon enough. I just needed to reach the top.
Then it happened. I ignored the checkpoint and turned straight around. I had made sure to eat on my way up whilst hiking to save time. I didn’t want to lose a moment. This was my chance to pick up some ground.
The path down Old Winchester Hill is very long, thin and straight. The ground is extremely rough and quite chalky causing you to have to run carefully or risk injury. Or at least that’s what it wants you to think!
In my experience the best way down is to lean into it and just go. Let gravity take you. Don’t let your feet stay grounded for too long at any one moment and keep your turnover as fast you can. Not only is this the most efficient way down, it’s also super fun!
As I reached the beginning of the decline I thought to myself,
“This is it. Be a dick. You’ve earned it!”
Keeping my gaze focused ahead I felt my pace picking up. Before long I could feel the air pushing back against me as I bounced between the jagged pieces of earth that made up the track. The trees flanking the trail fell in and out of my vision as I continued to descend at a faster and faster pace.
“Coming on the left!” I called out as I saw a group of runners heading up hill. As quickly as I had noticed them, they seemed to disappear further up the path behind me. I skirted the chalky edge of the trail in an attempt to weave past some more runners, my heart skipping a beat as my cadence quickened in an attempt to maintain a stable footing.
Eventually the descent levelled out as I turned left off the trail back towards the road. Easing back to gentler jog I caught my breath. I had managed to overtake quite a few runners on the descent and knew there was still one more to go this leg.
Coming out of the trails I came onto a larger concrete path descending towards the long flat of the roads below. The path was dotted with figures ascending towards me. Looking out I could see for miles. Greens, folding upon greens in a collage of hills and fields vying for dominance over your senses.
With one last breath I shifted my attention to the road below, once more a smile creeping upon my face.
Be a dick. Be a dick.
A LONG ASCENT AND OLD FACES
About 20 miles into the race I finished the second leg arriving back at the central checkpoint. Stopping for a quick rest, I refilled my water bladder and took stock of the situation.
Still got two legs… Check.
I was good to go.
The third leg was one we had been warned about during the safety briefing. The organiser had advised we save our energy for this stage as the route out to the west begins with a long two miles of ascent.
They weren’t lying.
What started as gentle flats skirting the edges of some smaller fields soon opened up into a long, straight road ascending off into the distance. Knowing how much long ascents can take their toll and remembering the earlier warnings I took to power hiking. After the incline this leg would be mainly flat until the descent back into the checkpoint at the end. I could afford to save my legs by slowing for a bit and hopefully it would pay dividends in the future.
Making my way up the hill I looked back to see a runner I’d met earlier in the race. We chatted for a bit until the top of the road where we turned off onto trail. At this point he began to jog whilst I maintained a steady hike realising the top was in view.
Once reaching the top I went back to my steady pace and went about chipping away at the rest of this leg. Eventually I overtook my friend from the hill and bumped into another old face.
“Shaun! Shaun! How are you doing?”
At first I couldn’t recognise the voice, but when I looked up I recognised the face. It was a runner I had met at the midnight marathon earlier this year and had been following on Strava since. He runs for a relatively local Isle of Wight club. We ran alongside one another for a few miles. Apparently he was running the 50k, but taking it easier as he was recovering from a winter bug.
Wishing each other the best we parted ways as I picked up the pace towards the turnaround. Upon arriving I stopped for some quick food and a chance to evaluate my situation. I had the return journey of this leg, then it would be the final stretch: about 12 miles of flat path out and back across the Wickham rail line.
My legs and spirits felt good, but I knew this part would test me. Physically it would be the easiest of the last three legs, psychologically however, it would be torture.
Bearing this in mind I eased into my return journey before speeding down the final two miles of descent and seeming to glide past the last few fields.
50k down. It was time for the final push.
JUST KEEP MOVING
“Listen to your body. Do not be a blind and deaf tenant.”
– George Sheehan
50k down I came back to the central point. Catching my breath I asked one of the organisers how many had come through ahead of me.
“I’ve only seen one. Looks like you’re second. GET MOVING!”
That’s all I needed to hear. I was off. Maintaining my pace I headed south towards the final turnaround. Having started the morning doubting I’d even manage to finish, I couldn’t believe I was anywhere near a podium position. But if that was the case, I couldn’t throw that away. I had to keep moving.
At about two miles into the final leg, with roughly ten miles to go I felt it. A stinging on the sole of my right foot. Not wanting to lose any ground I chose to ignore it. In case any of you are wondering, this is not the best idea.
About 10k into the leg as I reached the final turnaround my gait had been reduced to a near limp. With each step something sharp dug further into my foot. I had seen three runners heading back so knew with absolute certainty I was currently sat in fourth position. I couldn’t believe it.
But now that was at risk. Slowing now could lose me so much time. Trying to limp forward I realised I had no choice. Stopping at the side of the trail I undid and removed my shoe. I had to pull a pointed stone out from the sole of my foot. It had dug in and left a gash down the length of my foot from the miles it had been left.
Lesson learnt. Don’t be a dick. Take care of your feet.
As I was tending to my foot another runner went by. Shit. Fifth place and I could only see things getting worse from here. Taking a deep breath I thought back to the start. I hadn’t thought I belonged alongside all the other runners. Now was my chance to prove myself wrong. Whether I lost places or not was irrelevant. I had to just keep moving.
I WOULD FINISH!
I shifted between a painful jog and a slightly less painful walk. The path all looked the same and I had lost all sense of how far I had left to go. It had been 10k at the turnaround but I had no idea how far back that had been. People were slowly coming towards me in the other direction and seemed to be moving faster.
Great! Soon they’ll all be overtaking me. That was until…
“Hey!” a strained voice called out.
Turning to my right I saw the runner from the long uphill earlier in the day. His face was drawn down and he was pushing ahead at a steady pace. With a nod I kept up alongside him.
Forgetting about time I just kept going, one painful foot in front of the other. As much as I had wanted to slow, my companion served as an important reminder. If I were to slow, I would lose my position. If I kept going, I could prove to myself I was worthy of running alongside him and the other runners.
After what seemed like forever I saw it. A flash of yellow in the distance. It was the sign pointing off the trail up towards the finish!
“This is it!” I nodded to my companion. Time to bring it in.
Overcome by fresh adrenaline I picked up the pace. Turning the bend I bounded up the steps towards the road above. Once up I could see the final corner just ahead.
Just keep moving.
Accelerating I became a man possessed.
Just keep moving.
I had almost done it. 45 miles!
Just keep moving.
I could see the finish line!
Just keep moving.
Crossing the line I dropped to my knees. My friend from the hill just behind me. We’d done it.
Checking with the organiser, we learnt that we’d come in 5th and 6th respectively. Turning, I saw my parents coming towards me.
Stumbling, I took my medal and edged towards them. Looking about I couldn’t help but wonder…
What race should I enter next?
Just keep moving.
THANKS TO THE ORGANISERS!
The entire race had been well marked and the marshals and other organisers involved were all fantastic. I would definitely recommend the Winter Cross to those either looking into doing a first ultra, or those looking for a nice run over the holiday period.
Thanks to everyone – including the other runners – for making it such an enjoyable event!
6 hours 54 minutes
Finished in 5th position
I was running this race for the charity Mind. This is a really great cause and does so much to help so many. I would be hugely grateful for any donations made to help this incredible cause.