I'm sitting here in my black Connemara 100 Mile Ultra hoodie. It's new, so small black fluff balls stick to my white tee shirt underneath. You get the hoodie the night before you run the 100-mile race. There were 36 hoodies handed out this year. 36 people who wanted to push themselves, either for a PB or first timers dipping their toe into the pool of Ultra. Me? I had completed the race last year and hobbled over the line in 28 hours even. You get 30 to do it. I was, at the end of the race, withdrawn from all semblance of reality and blinded by pain. By body had been pushed through so many walls. Screaming to stop. It was a special type of unimaginable pain.
Hard to replicate. But why did I go back again? Why did I wilfully sign up to put my body and entire being through that torture again? To be honest, I don't even know if I can put it into words, but I'll try. People can go entire lifetimes and never answer a certain question. They may think they have answered it. In their own mind. But chances are they haven't even scratched the surface. They haven't even dusted off the shovel to start digging. Maybe they are standing, leaning on the shovel. Their palms atop one another. Their chin resting on their knuckles. Deciding. Whether to try and answer this question: what am I capable of? That's why I do it. A 100-mile run is a peculiar animal. It is just short of four consecutive marathons.
Just short of pure insanity really. Its long. Longer than you would think. Although you might think you know that a 100-mile race would be long you don't have any idea until you have run one. And what's worse, your competitor knows you inside out. He knows how much training you've done (or not done). He knows how many times you rolled over in the bed as your morning run alarm yelped loudly in your room. He knows how many times you said you'd go to bed early. Instead you watched another two episodes of that series you're hooked on. He even knows how much you slept the night before the race. He wears the same size and style runners as you. He even has the same distain for celery you have. Your biggest competitor is staring at you in the mirror. He knows you inside out. The rest of the pack can fall off into the distance. The number of footsteps lighten. You become more aware of your laboured breath. But he's right there keeping pace with you. He's in your ear and he gives a running commentary on all things. The big question is, what is he saying?
You are against your own mind from the minute that race begins. All the doubts and fears have to be flushed from your mind and a rhythm must be found. You cannot think of the task at hand. The mammoth challenge that lay before you. It must be broken down. Dissected and analysed. People have many different ways of doing this, but I do it by checkpoints. I just concentrate on getting to each checkpoint as efficiently and quickly as I can while holding a pace I can maintain. Sounds easy right? Not really, because you're running mile 10 in a way that you think will keep you fresh for mile 84. You'll be a different person by then.
Gone will be the bright eyes and bushy tail of mile one. Like long stem roses standing upright in a vase. On the first day they are vibrant and perfumed. They stand tall and elegant with a silent pride to them. However, in five days' time they will be drying out and withering. Day one roses cannot anticipate day five. They only know how to be day one roses. So, it is a constant battle between the current you, trying to save future you from too much pain. And it starts from the first few steps all the way until you cross that line.
The Test Before The Test
Truth is, I hadn't been feeling good for about two weeks prior to the race. In fact, I could barely remember feeling worse. I had three large cold sores on my lips which was always a tell-tale sign that I was worn out. I had been getting pounding tension headaches for about two weeks. It felt like streams of blood crashing against the front of skull. Like waves breaking on jagged shoreline. As I have mentioned before, I had been diagnosed with a benign cyst in my brain two years ago and my mind began to race as to what this might be. Was I getting sick? Like, really sick? I had pictures flashing in my mind of being bald with a sullen worn look in my face.
My eyes sunken into my skull. Staring down the barrel of a serious illness. Waking up with blood patches on my white pillow from my cracked, dry tender lips and a constant tightness in my head only bolstered my convictions that I was getting sick. I told no one. I told no one that I had been thinking that maybe all this punishment to my body was finally taking its toll and it was time to pay the piper. It sounds dramatic but, in all honesty, I was scared. I have been seriously concussed three times, each time ending up in hospital. That combined with my seemingly harmless diagnosis had me fearing the worst for a few days. I was about a day away from getting my third brain scan.
Then one day a few days before the race, I ran my fingers firmly down the back of my neck and it felt strangely hard. Hardened lumps, like I was running my fingers over the knuckles of my opposite hand. It felt tense and hot. So, I began moisturising CBD cream into my neck. Forcefully rubbing my thumb up and down these lumps of tension. It was agonising, and I felt the pain shoot from my neck across my skull and into my eyes. It was pain, but in that kind of relieving way. I woke the next day and felt a bit lighter like a sheet of metal had been lifted from around my neck and head. I felt clearer and less foggy.
So, I continued with my massaging and slowly began to come around as race day approached. Even on the Friday of the race briefing I felt only 80% of my normal self. But there was nothing going to stop me from setting foot on that start line and giving it my all. I woke up on race day and I felt like I was ready, like my body had come to terms with what I was asking it to do. Or at least that's what I told myself. And I have been so honest with myself in the run up that I believed every word that came out of my mouth from that morning right through the day. The race was here whether I liked it or not, so lace up your shoes and let's get this done.
I find the start of an ultra to be a strange experience. Your mind makes a mental scan of your body to make sure that all is working in correct order. It also troubleshoots problems and presents "injuries" and "niggles" you've never experienced before. It's fucking with you. Anyone who has competed in sport can relate. You train hard. You feel great in training. Everything is falling into place. And then the day comes for you to perform and every doubt and hidden knock or injury rears its ugly head. It's normal. Personally, I feel it's my minds fear of failure manifesting itself in physical form. It wants to create an excuse for why I didn't perform to the best of my ability. Do you know what I tell my body when it does this? "Fuck off and try that shit with someone who gives a fuck." You'll have to excuse my even more colourful language than normal. Because that's exactly what I say. That is my inner dialogue. If my body wants to try that shit, I'm going to tell it where to go. And you should too. Trust yourself. Trust in your preparations.
Trust in your convictions and be brave. After the "introductory" first 50 miles are done (queue We've Only Just Begun by The Carpenters.) you get into the business end of the race. I left checkpoint two at the 55-mile mark feeling like I was only just getting into a rhythm. I had found my pace. The best way I describe my "zone" or "flow" is when I'm running, and it would actually take more effort to stand still. I'm almost falling into each step.
The road is hungrily feeding itself up into my footsteps as I eat more and more of it away. In my hurried steps there's a certain stillness. Not in my feet or legs, but in me. Inside. From the very first step of the race I am talking to myself. In my life and in my daily interactions I try to practice humility and temperance. I don't brag or try to make myself out to be anything that I am not. That approach doesn't work when you are trying to push the body past its physical limitations. You must constantly remind yourself of how capable and tremendous you are. How immense and borderline Herculean you are. You must create a convincing argument that you are the best fucking thing since the sliced pan. And I do. I tell myself that with every step I take, the ground beneath me is rebounding energy back into my legs. With every pace I am getting stronger and falling deeper into my flow. I am a machine. My bones and tissues have been replaced with gears and levers and a monstrous power is welling up inside of me and will be expelled upon the road.
However, being proficient at self-talk isn't just about what you say to yourself or about being cocky. If that was the case Kid Rock would be an expert. With a song entitled "You Never Met A Motherfucker Quite Like Me" on an album entitled "Cocky" he'd be the fucking Dalai Lama of self-talk. It's not about how good you can big yourself up. Its about how much of your inner talk to you believe. As if it is a foregone fact. That you can convince yourself fish can fly, and birds can study engineering.
Well, you know what I mean. The only way that I could get myself to believe my self-talk was by being honest with myself and others in every facet of life. Real honesty. About myself and who I was and who I am. And with everyone I interact with during the day. Being honest with yourself gives you enormous power and can fill you with belief. That's a powerful skill, and you're going to need it. When the light drains from the sky and the darkness creeps into the lonely damp roadways, self-talk becomes paramount for me. Something changes in the air. People become different in the grip of night. It can harvest peoples wills and souls. They become weaker and begin to wilt. Mile 78. I see him. A most traitorous and nefarious figure. He stands there in the distance with a quiet confidence. A cocky swagger about him. He stands there in the darkness hooded and cloaked. Creeping. Sometimes disappearing from sight. Only to rise up and reappear closer and more dominant. His cold breath seeping down my neck into the core of me.
I have met him so many times in my life but each time he takes a different form. A cramping foot. A swelling blister. A clicking knee. Perhaps for you he is an upcoming exam or job interview. A big game. Or a date with someone you've liked for quite a while. He is doubt. He can climb into your mind if you let him. He can take the reins and control you. For too long he has dictated how I thought. Not anymore. I stand bravely and face him down. In the cold hours of the night I say, "Fuck you!" you don't control this man anymore. And watch him. Watch him fade and slither into nothingness. Shrinking and dwindling. He retreats. He is powerless and has no purpose.
He cannot hurt an impregnable mind. A mind forged from hardship and suffering. One forged outside of the comfort zone. I've been here before. I've felt this pain. You aren't showing me anything new. Now piss off like a good little boy.
The weather for the race was not exactly what you would call ideal. Lashing at times. Windy at times. Sunny at times. It was hard to dress for. One-minute thick sheets of rain were falling, the next the sun would come out and dry out the road like a familiar nursey rhyme. It was good conversation fodder and topic for discussion. But for me, the real storm is the one that wages in the mind. Calm that and it doesn't matter what the outside looks like. You're ready for it all. Not just in a race but in life. I'm not sitting here saying I have it all figured out. Because I don't. But what I can say is, I welcome the new challenges that life brings.
Life is hard and suffering is part of it. Each day isn't going to be highlight reel stuff. It's just not. You have to live with that. The object of life isn't to be happy all the time. If that was the case, we'd be doing a fairly crappy job of it. Life is going to have its rainy days. Lord knows I've had mine and I know you've had yours. We all have. From rich to poor. Young to old. Black to white. Gay to straight. Male to female.
We're all in this together. We must build our own umbrellas for these rainy days. We must reinforce the flood plains. Hardenour minds. This takes effort. And you won't always be comfortable. In fact, you're going to have to rise up from the comfort zone and seek out unknown waters to grow and be stronger. Challenge yourself. Be brave and trust in yourself. If you're reading this right now, I want you to know that life is out there. It's out there to be lived. To be risked. To be failed. To be dusted off and get back up. To fight another day and move forward. Get out of your comfort zone and see what you're capable of. You are you. You are worthwhile. Show yourself that.